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A trip down Fifth Avenue

1986 Chrysler Fifth Avenue packs a luxurious punch
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On a bright, sunny spring afternoon, I was working in my home office when the doorbell rang. I answered it and opened the door to my neighbor, Scott, saying excitedly, “Hey, come on out! You’ve got to see this!”

He pointed across the corner to a white 1986 Chrysler Fifth Avenue parked in the driveway. My first thought was, “Wow! My old car has found its way back home!”

Having sold another car and needing something rather in a hurry, I had found and purchased a 1986 Chrysler Fifth Avenue from a used car lot. It was white with blue leather upholstery, fully equipped and everything worked well. The front suspension parts were about worn out, so I had them replaced and bought new tires. From there on, the car was mostly trouble-free, comfortable and dependable, but gas mileage with the 318-cid V-8 and two-barrel was terrible. What impressed me most was that in the seven years I owned it, the air conditioning system always blew cold air and never needed recharging.

Comfort took a front seat in the  Fifth Avenue.

Comfort took a front seat in the Fifth Avenue.

So, when I walked across the street, I knew pretty well what I was looking at. It was well maintained, the same white finish was shiny as were the optional wire wheel covers, white vinyl landau roof and red pinstripes along the beltline. But as I drew close I knew it wasn’t mine. The interior was red with regal-looking red button-tufted velour upholstery.

About that time, the owner came out of the house and Scott introduced me to Fred Auman. He was doing some carpentry work inside and had actually brought all his tools and supplies in the trunk of the Chrysler. (He said his van had broken down on the way to the job and since it was a nice day, his backup vehicle was filling in.) As Fred began to relate the car’s history, his first statement told volumes: “It belonged to Bob Devaney when it was new.”

A sporting life

This is Lincoln, Neb., home of the University of Nebraska. Football is king, and Bob Devaney had been the head coach, a position more revered than the governor of the state. Devaney was hired in 1962 and immediately turned the program from a loser to a winner. After the team had won three, lost six and tied one in the 1961 season, Devaney got the Cornhuskers on the right track in 1962, winning eight while losing only two in the regular season and adding a ninth win over Miami in the Gotham Bowl. He would go on to 10 more winning seasons and two NCAA championships before giving up the head coaching position and becoming the Nebraska Athletic Director.

His position and success with it brought many perks, one of which was a new car to drive every year. That courtesy was provided by DeBrown Auto Sales, the Chrysler-Dodge dealer in Lincoln. I’ve never known exactly how that was handled, but I imagine the cars were leased, with someone other than Bob Devaney paying the lease.

Plush and posh in the back seat.

Plush and posh in the back seat.

In 1965, I knew of a school teacher who owned a 1959 De Soto convertible, and I just happened to find out the day she was going to trade it in at DeBrown’s for the 1964 Dodge Custom 880 convertible Devaney had just exchanged for a new 1965 model. I went down a couple days later and bought the De Soto.

The story Fred Auman told me was that Devaney didn’t care much for the Fifth Avenue he had in 1986. Possibly it was not large enough compared to the previous 20-foot-long New Yorkers or Royal Monacos to which he was accustomed. It could hardly be that it wasn’t plush and comfortable enough inside!

Downsizing the Fifth Avenue

By the mid 1970s, downsizing was spreading through the Motor City. As the result of the oil crisis a few short years earlier and gas prices of $4 per gallon or more, manufacturers had cut way back on high-performance engines and were trimming down the size of their vehicles and developing smaller, more fuel-efficient engines. Chrysler axed the 2.5-ton, 20-foot-long Imperial after the 1975 model year and although the New Yorker continued to be huge for the next few years, the company headed in a smaller, more efficient direction in 1977. The new mid-size LeBaron line had a wheelbase a foot shorter and overall length two feet shorter than the ’75 Imperial. The downsizing would continue for the next dozen years, along with a shuffling of models and names.

Special Fifth Avenue Edition emblems adorn the vinyl-clad C pillars.

Special Fifth Avenue Edition emblems adorn the vinyl-clad C pillars.

What had been the 1975 Imperial became the New Yorker Brougham and, along with the Newport series, would continue through 1978 on the same 124-in. wheelbase. Then, in 1979 through 1981, the New Yorkers and Newports came only as “pillared hardtops” with their wheelbase reduced to 118.5 in. The big-bodied Chryslers were gone in 1982, but the New Yorker name continued as a four-door sedan on a 112-in. wheelbase and was essentially the same car as the previous year’s LeBaron. Along with the Cordoba and Imperial (reintroduced the year before as a personal luxury coupe), the New Yorkers were the only remaining rear-wheel-drive models in the line-up.

The St. Regis name was revived from earlier Chrysler and Dodge models to designate the luxury option package for the 1977 New Yorker Brougham. The following year, the same package including special metallic paint, vinyl roof and road wheels was called the Salon. Finally, for 1979 and beyond, the Fifth Avenue Edition designated the top trim level New Yorker with special paint, wire wheel covers, vinyl landau roof, leather upholstery and a list of power and interior trim extras.

In 1983 the New Yorker series was downsized again, this time to a 103.3-in. wheelbase, front-wheel-drive platform, but the Fifth Avenue would continue with little change except to drop the New Yorker name. For this year only, the base engine was Chrysler’s venerable 225-cid. inline six. The 318 V-8 was an option but would become the base engine in following years.

Fifth Avenue displayed proudly out back.

Fifth Avenue displayed proudly out back.

Fred Auman’s white sedan and all other 1986 Fifth Avenues came with TorqueFlite automatic transmission, power steering and brakes and air conditioning as standard equipment, along with 205/75R15 steel-belted radial whitewalls. Inside, red velvet covers the 60/40 power front and rear bench seat. The deluxe AM/FM stereo system, tilt steering and wire wheel covers were options added to the base price of $14,910.

Production for 1986 was 104,744, down from the Fifth Avenue’s best sales year in 1985 of 109,971 units.

Whatever wasn’t up to par for Bob Devaney in 1986, this Fifth Avenue ended up in the garage of his neighbor, an elderly lady who didn’t inflict much wear and tear on it over the next two decades or so. When she passed away, Fred Auman’s uncle, Clyde Verhoef, was there to take over the caretaking of this modern classic. He had been responsible for any servicing and maintenance the previous owner required. Clyde garaged and pampered the car for a number of years. When it came time for him to start downsizing, he sold it to Fred, who is glad to continue caring for it, avoiding rain, snow and gravel roads on the rare times he takes it out for a joy ride — or an occasional job when his van breaks down.

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