Generally, most car companies keep a pretty tight hold over their production tooling and related equipment. However, decades after the K-Car helped save Chrysler, someone found what appears to be an original engineering pattern of a K-Car grille.
The piece in question appears to be a model or engineering pattern for a front grille, crafted in wood. In particular, it’s what you would have seen on the 1985-1989 Dodge Aries when it got a refresh with the new crosshair grille design. The piece was discovered by one Robert Schoenlein, who purchased the item at a flea market in northern Michigan a couple of weeks ago, before posting it to Facebook.
Schoenlein notes that it’s all crafted out of wood, and quite heavy. While he described it as a “designer’s model” of the K-car grille, others suggested it could instead be a piece of production tooling. Some suggested it was a “positive” pattern that could be used for sand casting an aluminum copy. The item does bear some resemblance to sand casting patterns, particularly due to visible alignment features between its various segments.
However, it bears noting that K-cars didn’t ship with solid aluminum grilles, instead using typical plastic grilles with a chrome trim. Nor would sand casting be a typical production method for an automotive grille in the 1980s, given the time and labor involved in the process. Sand casting also wouldn’t be a viable way to produce a mold for a plastic part then, given that the result would be an aluminum grille, not a negative aluminum mold.
Speculating openly, this piece was likely used to create a prototype grille via a casting method or other molding process, with the resulting piece processed and later used for measurement and development purposes. Having an actual model to measure from would be useful in the development and machining of an injection molding die. These dies are most typically carefully machined out of tool steel, which allows them to produce hundreds of thousands of plastic parts in a rapid fashion. The use of tool steel is key to achieving a good surface finish and minimizing wear after many “shots” of molten plastic.
Perhaps someone in the broader engineering fraternity can enlighten us further. In any case, it’s a strange piece of engineering ephemera that you’d never expect to see outside a Chrysler plant. The fact that it survived to this day and made its way to a flea market suggests that someone took a little keepsake from the K-Car engineering department. Now, it’s become a cool flea market find with a great story.
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