Car Culture & Entertainment

The Dodge Aspen: Our Favorite Tree-Named Musclecar

Despite a relatively short production run, the Aspen enjoys a second life on dragstrips across the country. Here, Jon Irving gets Dodge Top Finisher honors driving his 1980 Aspen in Super Stock Eliminator during the 2017 NHRA Finals. (Image/Stellantis)

OK, so maybe Dodge picked the name Aspen because of the town in Colorado and not the species of deciduous trees, but being inspired by Arbor Day, we wanted to take a look at this oft-forgotten chapter in Mopar musclecar history.

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Introducing the 1976 Dodge Aspen

Designed to replace the aging Dodge Dart, the Aspen was introduced in 1976 as a more slimmed down, compact car from Dodge. And like a lot of Mopar models, it had some twins: the Chrysler LeBaron and the Plymouth <Sergio Franchi Voice> Volare </Sergio Franchi Voice>.

Boasting an impressive options sheet, the Aspen was a chance for Dodge to evolve its lineup with an all-new, modern vehicle. The Aspen in the 1976 press photo above is a “Special Edition Coupe” with spoked hubcaps and a carriage-top landau roof. Fancy. (Image/Stellantis)

It’s also worth noting that, even with the Aspen on showroom floors, Dodge Dart production continued in 1976 for a one-year overlap of the two models.

The Aspen was Dodge’s attempt to lure customers with a new, modern car, boasting both an improved ride quality and better fuel economy than the A-Body Mopars it replaced. You could get the Aspen in several configurations, including a coupe, sedan, and a four-door wagon.

Bringing some friends to your Mopar party? The Aspen’s got a wagon for that. (Image/Riley, Creative Commons)

Problem was, it suffered from some quality control issues and the Dodge Aspen never enjoyed much mainstream popularity. Fortunately for Chrysler, the far more successful K-Cars arrived on the scene in the early 1980s, pushing both the Aspen and Volare into 1970s obscurity.

The Aspen’s Performance Potential

But despite only being on the market for a few years, the Aspen had its own performance variant: the Aspen R/T.

You could get an Aspen with Chrysler’s venerable 225 Slant Six or 318 LA small block. But stepping up to the Aspen R/T meant you could also opt for the 170 hp 360 Chrysler LA V8. (Image/Greg Gjerdingen, Creative Commons)

Now, granted this was the 1970s, where power was down across the board, but you could still get your R/T with Chrysler’s 360 small block. Publications at the time recorded sub 18-second quarter-mile ETs with this configuration, which put the Aspen R/T on par with a V8-equipped Camaro from the same era.

On paper though, the recipe for better performance was there: long hood, short deck, front engine, and rear-wheel drive with a solid axle.

1978-Dodge-Aspen-RT-Front-driver-side
This murdered-out 1978 Aspen is wearing the R/T’s signature decklid spoiler and wicked-rad window louvers. You can see more pics of this particular car in this Lot Shots feature. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

That meant that Aspens became a common sight on dragstrips all over the nation, where simple bolt-on modifications like cylinder heads, exhaust headers, and stickier tires made Aspens potent performers. And they could be made durable too, with stronger axles, upgrades to the Chrysler TorqueFlite 3-speed automatic, and stiffer springs.

Aspen In Pursuit, Repeat, Aspen in Pursuit!

If you’re binge-watching old cop shows from the 1970s, you may spy one of the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare Police Pursuit vehicles.

You wouldn’t want to see one of these in your rearview mirror. (Image/Stellantis)

These Police-only models could be optioned with the 360 LA small block too. The cop car also got heavy duty suspension bits, like sway bars front and rear, along with beefier shocks and springs. And of course, it got cop brakes that featured semi-metallic front brake pads and a unique proportioning valve to ensure proper brake balance.

A lot of these heavy duty upgrades found their way onto fleet service and taxi vehicles, where the Dodge Aspen was a popular choice as well.

Turbine Power

It’s absolutely worth mentioning that Chrysler shoved a turbine engine under the hood of a few Aspens, to further the company’s experimentation with turbine powerplants. Chrysler’s fascination with turbine power started back in the early 1960s, and culminated in dozens of turbine cars being built.

Here’s a turbine engine squeezed into a 1976 Dodge Aspen. Imagine popping your hood and seeing…this. (Image/Creative Commons)

While the program launched with hand built customs, it eventually transitioned to stuffing engines into modified Chrysler’s production vehicles. Subpar gas mileage and poor emissions ultimately shuttered the program in the late 1970s, but not before a few Dodge Aspens got outfitted with turbine propulsion.

Wait, There was a Chrysler Aspen Too?

Here’s a 2007 Chrysler Aspen, basically a rebadged Dodge Durango from the same era. (Image/Stellantis)

Yep, starting in 2007, the Aspen name was applied to a Chrysler SUV. The Chrysler Aspen was essentially an upscale version of the Dodge Durango, and gave the Chrysler lineup its only SUV at the time. But it didn’t really sell very well, lasting only two model years until being discontinued in 2009.

And while a lot of Mopar purists took umbrage over the thought of a Chrysler-branded Aspen, it’s still a clever name considering both Aspen and Durango are cities in Colorado. Pretty meta there, Chrysler.

So How’d it Get the Name Aspen in the First Place?

Well it may not have the mystique of a Chevelle or a Fox Body, the trusty Aspen/Volare/LeBaron triplets got a lot of soon-to-be gearheads started in the wrenching hobby. (Image/Stellantis)

Perhaps we should close our Aspen homage the way we started.

The name is derived from the city in Colorado, because Dodge marketers thought it would make a nice, outdoorsy sounding name for a car. Dodge advertising folks even lined-up sponsorships with several high profile ski events in the area to cement that sentiment.

So, not a tree. A city.

But we thought you’d find a Dodge Aspen story a tad more interesting than one about the Sequoia—no offense, Toyota.

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One Comment

  1. Daniel Hawn says:

    Super Cool

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