(None of the pictures in this article are of the actual cars, but have been gleaned from the Internet using Google image search.)
This COAL is dedicated to my parents, who got me through some tough times
Act 1: 1985 Chrysler LeBaron-Surprise Attack
So my Grand Am could carry me no longer. I was starting a new life in Baltimore with a job that necessitated a car. I was also broke. It was the goodness of my parents that got me out of this mess.
My Dad liked to keep random extra cars around. “In case someone needs it.” He would say. Whenever I visited, there was always a random surprise in the driveway. The “special guest cars” varied wildly from a Ford Fairmont to a Dodge Shadow, to a Ford Escort, to an Oldsmobile Cutlass, to a Mercedes W126. I could easily do a separate COAL series on the surprises I found in my parent’s driveway. Up until the mid 90’s Dad’s daily drivers were almost always GM cars. His extra cars were always something different.
This time Dad’s extra car was a 1985 Chrysler LeBaron with 120,000 well cared for miles. Dad had acquired it from an elderly first owner. It was mine to use no questions asked…thanks Dad!
Despite its mini limousine looks, this generation LeBaron was just a Dodge Aries with a fancy suit. Fake wood, and living room interior fittings abounded. The car was a light blue with blue cloth interior that was in very good shape.
During this time in my life, I was constantly traveling back and fourth from New Jersey to Maryland. The car came equipped with the 2.2 liter four cylinder rated at 99 horsepower. While not a fast car, I remember the car being comfortable and competent on the highway. The other thing I remember is the optical illusion that the styling produced. Those around me thought I was driving a large car. Someone referred to it as “an old boat.”
Although it certainly did have all the styling cues of the big Chryslers of the past, my Grand Am was around the same size if not bigger, and nobody ever referred to it as a “boat.” I wish those people had seen my Caprice. If the LeBaron was a “boat” to them, then the Caprice was an aircraft carrier! But I digress. The LeBaron provided me with comfortable and reliable transportation for about a month.
One day, when I was on my way to work, I stopped at a gas station to fill up. I was sitting in the car when I heard “give me the f****** money!” I then heard angry voices and then a scuffle. Something told me to get down. I found myself in the middle of a gas station robbery. The next second, I felt a sudden jolting impact and was thrown forward. I looked up in time to see the rear end of a silver Mazda 626 escaping from the gas station.
My heart sank when I stepped out of the car to see that the entire rear end of my car was destroyed by the fleeing getaway car. The red tailight lenses lay shattered on the ground and all the taillight bulbs were visible. The rear quarters were deformed which caused the trunk lid to deform upwards in the middle so that you could peer into the interior of the trunk. How that 626 did this much damage to my car and still managed to escape under its own power is still a mystery.
Both our insurance company and the insurance company of the gas station gave us a hard time about compensating us for the damage with each side claiming that the other was responsible for compensation. Meanwhile, I had to get to work. My understanding and patient Dad helped me to temporarily make the car legal to drive by putting some clear red lens repair tape over the exposed tail light bulbs. Despite being smashed in the back, the car seemed unfazed and continued to provide me with reliable transportation for the next few months.
Act 2 1987 Chrysler New Yorker Turbo-History Repeats Itself
I continued to drive the battered LeBaron until Mom got herself a brand new Honda Civic. Seeing my need, she gave me her now surplus white 1987 Chrysler New Yorker Turbo. Like the LeBaron, it was basically a Dodge Aries but it had a few tricks up its sleeve.
The New Yorker Turbo was the flagship of the Chrysler lineup in 1987. It was equipped with a 146 horsepower turbocharged four cylinder that contemporary media claimed ” had the acceleration of a V8.”
The interior had the luxury living room treatment with the blue poofy velour seats and wood galore.
The car also had all electronic instruments, power everything, automatic climate control (inoperative), overhead console with external temperature display (also inoperative) and the Knight Rider inspired Voice Alert warning system. A robotic male voice intoned “please fasten your seat belt.” When you did, he would actually say, “thank you.” He said other things too: “lights are on,” “there is a door ajar,” “all systems are normal.” There was something wrong with the digital speedometer. When you first started out, the display was blank. You could not tell how fast you were going.
It took about 15 minutes for it to kick in and the display would light up and everything would be normal. It kinda reminded me of the old tube TVs where there was a delay between switching it on and actually being able to see something. The turbo produced a high pitch whine similar to a siren but did provide pretty good acceleration.
Full of gratitude, I took the car back to my place in Baltimore. A few days later, My future wife and I went out to dinner with a friend of mine. At dinner my friend was recounting to us how her son had borrowed her Corolla and gotten into an accident with it and found a cheap body shop in the area and gotten it repaired better than new. ” What a nice boy,” we said and continued a lovely evening with friends. Little did we know, that we would be calling on that cheap body shop less than 12 hours later.
The next morning I was driving to work. My route that morning took me through horse country in Northern Baltimore County. It was a beautiful Fall day and I was listening to some nice smooth jazz on the high end aftermarket stereo Dad had installed as a gift for Mom. It was really a gorgeous day with beautiful scenery. I’m not really sure what happened next. I remember the car wandering slightly onto the shoulder and when I tried to correct it, the car spun around 360 degrees a few times. The car busted through a farm fence. Through the windshield, I saw horses scattering out of the way just a few feet from my out of control car.
The car came to rest in a ditch in a pasture in the middle of a horse farm. The front bumper was sheared off, both fenders were mangled and both front doors opened and closed funny. Extremely embarrassed, I called my friend who had hosted us for dinner the previous night and had to sheepishly ask, “Uh, whats the name of that body shop again?” We took it to that shop and after evaluating the damage for ten minutes, they looked at me and sadly shook their heads saying that it would not be an easy nor practical fix.
My next call was tougher still. I had to call my parents and tell them that I had totaled the second car they lent me to replace the previous car they had lent me which I had also totaled. Their kindness amazed me when they reimbursed the farmer whose fence I had broken and whose peaceful horse farm I had intruded upon.
With no other choice, I continued to drive it like that for a while. Like the LeBaron, it proved quite operable despite the heavy damage. Although occasionally the Knight Rider system would say “your door is ajar” when it was not actually the case. However, before long, the transmission began to slip. In a cruel repeat of the fates of both the LeBaron and my previous Pontiac Grand Am, I realized that the New Yorker’s transaxle was damaged by the impact and the car would soon be immobile.
So I was once again in need of a car. My next COAL would be my first foray into foreign territory.