When I was about five years old, my grandparents bought a brand new, navy-colored 1980 Chrysler LeBaron sedan from the former Christopher Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Napoleon, Ohio. This was part of their usual, three-year car-buying cycle. Grandpa was a grain farmer in northwest Ohio and never made a lot of money, but a new car every several years or so was one luxury he and Grandma afforded themselves. I remember being taken with this near-luxury car’s styling and more compact dimensions compared with the mint-green, “road-hugging” 1977 Ford LTD it replaced in their garage next to their silver, ’79 Ford Fiesta. It was at this point that I started paying attention to all the restyled M-Bodies from Chrysler Corporation on the road, including Dodge Diplomats like our featured car.
While I thought the ’80 restyle was great for the sedans with their appropriately squared-off and formalized rooflines, I felt the design of the coupes was ruined. The new front end was attractive enough, with the Diplomat’s new face being somewhat GM-esque – Buick-meets-Pontiac, perhaps. Its front turn signals were also in the “correct” spot – below the headlights (unlike those of the LeBaron), but the rear deck lost all of its distinctiveness. What had been a really pleasing, sculptured mini-masterpiece (see the 1979 ad below), with its tastefully intersecting planes, modest hips, and a real personal luxury look, had been turned into what I thought was an utterly boring, unimaginative concoction of straight lines and nondescript, horizontal taillights. Shaving four inches from the coupe’s wheelbase (to 108.7 inches) did not benefit its proportions. The sedan’s styling seemed to have been improved as much as the coupe’s had been wrecked.
Dodge didn’t move many of these restyled coupes over their short, two-year stint, with only 16,349 units rolling off dealers’ lots for model year 1980, and with another, paltry 5,592 for ’81 (just under 22,000 total). Within the context of present day, however, their certain scarcity endeared me to this one even more. This example looked to have been loved enough to have made it to 2011 (the year of most of these photographs) in such fine shape. It clearly looks like it hadn’t been regularly subjected to street-parking or being driven in Chicago’s salty, slushy winter roads for much of its life. Cancerous tumors were forming on the lower rear quarter panels, which would be completely expected in the Midwestern United States for a three- or four-year-old Mopar of this vintage. My guess is that this car had been sheltered up to this point by a senior citizen who had recently moved to the nearby assisted living facility. Life goes on, garage or no garage.
While not as glamorous as a Mirada, as perky and cute as a Charger 2.2, or remotely as sporty as a Daytona – all three of these cars being some of the more memorable Dodges of the 80’s, this Diplomat coupe tugged at my heartstrings. It was an unpopular car in an unpopular body style and color, that had made it this far in life with a future that, at this point, seemed very uncertain. Have you ever witnessed a once-together friend or acquaintance with the appearance of good self-esteem have it take a serious hit and subsequently let themselves go? That’s what this car reminded me of.
As it would be with such a friend, though, I realized I was hardly the person to rescue this car with my own lack of certain spatial and financial resources. After all, for the ten years or so in which I’ve owned my condo, I have moved up only four or five places on our building’s list of eligibility to purchase an indoor parking space. The sympathy I felt for this Diplomat ran deeper than my commitment to saving it. Its owner might also have felt a great deal of affection for and connection to this car, with it having been kept in such great shape so far into the new millennium.
I’d guess that this example is powered by a 318 2-bbl. V8 and 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission, though it’s entirely possible that it’s powered by a 225 Slant-Six, with the latter discontinued in the M-Bodies after ’84. Gas mileage with the 318 would have been decidedly lackluster with combined EPA ratings in the upper teens, though this was on par with that of other domestic, rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered cars of the period. With the 318 / 3-speed auto combo, zero-to-sixty would have come in the mid-13 second range. For the sake of comparison, a 1980 Chevrolet Monte Carlo with a 305 V8 and 3-speed Turbo HydraMatic would have had comparable gas mileage and gotten to sixty in about two, whole seconds faster. Ouch.
This Diplomat coupe may not have been pretty, fast or efficient, and it may have shared its basic sheetmetal with the LeBaron, but it was still a mainstream, bread-and-butter, ChryCo passenger car. This is noteworthy by itself with FCA’s CEO Sergio Marchionne’s recent declaration that the Dodge Dart and recently redesigned Chrysler 200 will expire after each’s current product cycle. I don’t know much about economics, business models, or viability, but it still seems like such a shame that FCA has essentially chosen to end the legacy of Dodge’s (and Chrysler’s) mainstream passenger car business. Even if the excitement generated in Dodge showrooms tended to ebb and flow in a steady cycle over the years, it saddens me to think of this once-prolific make being relegated to “niche” status, with only the Charger and Challenger currently holding down the passenger car fort for the brand. I like this unsexy Diplomat two-door simply for being a choice people had.
I had originally spotted our featured car from the CTA Brown Line train. As I deboarded at the closest L stop with my camera, I was chanting “please, please, please be a LeBaron…” under my breath, hoping to get a fix of nostalgia as I remembered Grandpa Harold’s car. I was slightly disappointed it was a Diplomat instead, but I found myself looking for it from the train every time I took a trip into the Loop or back. Sadly, I haven’t seen it for several years now.
I would like to think it disappeared from this block to find a loving home with a new owner who attended to its budding rust situation quickly. Given this one’s indifferently street-parked situation and apparent neglect, I’m less optimistic that it met a fate better than that which awaits the Dart and 200 within FCA’s product lineup. It may have been nothing much more than a 70’s-vintage Aspen coupe in a conservative, more formal suit, but I feel this example deserved better simply for having made it this far in life relatively intact.
The subject car was as photographed by the author in Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois during February of 2011 and 2012.
- From Carey Haubrick: Curbside Classic: 1980 Plymouth Caravelle – T-Topped Canadian Special
- From JPCavanaugh: Curbside Classic: 1980 Chrysler LeBaron – A Car (and a Company) In Transition; and
- From Jason Shafer: Curbside Classic: 1985 Dodge Diplomat – Darting Around The Aspens.