I had tried on many different hats, sometimes simultaneously, when I was becoming a young adult. It was fun to shapeshift and discover ways in which I was more than just my parents’ kid. Even today, I tend to defy those who would try to put me in some sort of narrow box. A strong sense of individuality and fluidity has been important to me ever since having been subjected to wearing matching (off-brand) Members Only jackets with my younger brother as a kid.
In many ways and after its near-death experience at the end of the 1970s, Chrysler Corporation had very much reinvented itself in the ’80s. Out went the old, RWD, inefficient, indifferent mindset, and in came some new thinking. With the introduction of the K-Car platform and its subsequent variations, Chrysler’s image had pulled almost a full one-eighty by the time our featured car was introduced – a period when Chrysler seemed like it was on such a roll in doing more with less.
Curbside Classic has already covered most, if not all, of the K-Car platform and all of its spinoffs and offshoots, so this brief essay is not a redux of what’s already been written about (Jason Shafer did a bang-up job here). When I had first seen our featured car around seven or eight years ago, it was the first one I had spotted in a very long time. A near-complete absence of seeing any K-derived Chrysler LeBaron or Dodge 400/600 convertibles for such a long time enabled me with a fresh perspective in taking another look at these cars. Back in December of 2010, it was clear that this 600 had been a long-pampered example up to some recent point, as it was in shockingly great condition. It was as if this car had time-warped from the shoot of an ’80s John Hughes movie set in the wealthy Chicago northshore suburbs.
Once I had gotten over my immediate, almost-but-not-quite car crush on this 600, I started to pay attention to its little details. Why was I so close to desiring this car without fully doing so? Ostensibly, the Chrysler-branded variations of any given platform were to appear and be marketed as the more upscale, “formal” models, while the Dodges were supposed to be seen as the “sporty” versions. (Poor Plymouth, the original Chrysler “Everyman” brand, occasionally got to sit at the table with its Mopar stablemates, but there was to be no K-based Plymouth convertible.) When I looked at this 600, I asked myself: If I was determined to buy a new convertible from ChryCo in 1984, what would make me choose a LeBaron over a 600 (or vice versa), and why?
Phrased another way, what external features of this 600 ES Turbo shout “sporty” in a way that the looks of a similarly-optioned LeBaron wouldn’t? The 600’s “Swiss cheese” wheels (which appear to have been painted black after the fact) look decidedly sportier than wire wheelcovers that most LeBarons might be wearing, but to me, wheels would be easily swappable and aren’t necessarily integral to either car’s design. The chrome “waterfall” grille on the LeBaron had come to be associated with that nameplate and also project a luxury image, but I don’t find the 600’s horizontally-slatted, body-colored grille to be lacking that much in elegance by comparison.
I’ll say that the J-Body Mirada-inspired grille on the 600 also makes me long for an actual, “factory” Mirada convertible – a car that I wish had been built. The quad-headlamp treatment on the 600 makes its narrow, coffin nose-look grille look more like a beak-like proboscis, versus the beautiful visage of the nicely proportioned, dual-headlamped Mirada. There was only so much gingerbread that could be added to this small K-car platform to embellish its basic substance, and even an entry-level Mirada looks (to my eyes) so much dressier than any bejeweled 600.
There are other features and trim-bits that seem to be shared by both the 600 and LeBaron: a stand-up hood ornament, an available deck-lid luggage rack, and nearly full-width taillamps. If I had just arrived in the U.S. from another country around ’84, I probably would have been hard-pressed to tell, between the Dodge and the Chrysler, which was supposed to be the sporty one and which was the luxury variant. I’d love to show one of my young nephews and nieces pictures of both 600 and LeBaron convertibles, in the same color and with similar exterior options, stripped of exterior badges… and have them take the “Pepsi challenge”. That could be a fun activity.
There were about 1,800 of these 600 ES Turbo convertibles sold for an abbreviated, mid-year introduction in ’84, a figure that increased to 5,600 the next year. Prices for the ’84 started at $12,895 (about $30,900 / adjusted for 2018). The fact that the LeBaron convertible consistently outsold the 600 despite its higher prices seems to be one indicator that the angular styling of their shared body did luxury much better than sport. With a turbocharged 2.2L four-cylinder putting out 140-some horsepower in these 2,700-pound cars, they were reasonably fast.
I couldn’t find any vintage reviews to verify 0-60 times of the day, but for a mid-80s car, 140 horses seems like a lot. Did “Dodge boys have more fun“, as those memorable TV spots inquired? Probably a lot more fun than in other convertibles of the day (excepting perhaps the Ford Mustang GT), once your forearms got used to manhandling the steering wheel during torque-steer under hard acceleration.
My ultimate take-away from reflecting on this car isn’t so much that it tried to be too many things at once (efficient, luxurious, and sporty), but rather that its differences from its fraternal Chrysler LeBaron sibling simply weren’t enough to establish a different and separate identity for it. Its generic name didn’t help. Black paint would make most any car look sportier and more menacing, but I wonder if a black finish on a same-year LeBaron convertible, devoid of fake-wood and wire wheel covers, wouldn’t have the same effect.
I like this 600 ES Turbo convertible (and its LeBaron counterpart) for seemingly having upped Chrysler Corporation’s ante and external show of confidence, having seemed like such an underdog for so long. Chrysler’s newfound bravado would eventually be evidenced by genuinely exciting products like the Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler. In the meantime, Chrysler’s engineers and marketers earned my respect by putting out turbocharged convertibles that had at least one toe over to genuine desirability. This 600 ES Turbo is fine evidence of Dodge’s effective brand reinvention of the 1980s, even if it differed from its Chrysler LeBaron sibling only in its minor details.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
As photographed from between December 2010 and June 2015.