(first posted 12/12/2016) This rebadged LeBaron coupe shared a name with a Rolls-Royce and, in one way, echoed another Rolls-Royce. The Camargue coupe ended production just a year prior to the Phantom’s launch and both the Chrysler and Rolls-Royce had a distinctive body draped over less expensive sedan mechanicals. Both were also looked up to as the prestigious coupe flagships of their lines.
In Mexico, the Phantom was often equipped to a higher level than US-market LeBaron coupes and offered an impressive array of niceties like power-adjustable leather seats, digital instruments, and talking computers. It was the closest thing Chrysler offered to a Rolls-Royce and was one of the most luxurious cars sold in Mexico, a market at the time devoid of any German luxury brands.
Of course, the Camargue and Phantom otherwise shared nothing in common, especially not their appearance. The Camargue was regal and imposing but, to many, ugly. The Phantom, however, was regarded as the most beautiful Chrysler in possibly decades.
The Phantom competed with the Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar and the popular Chevrolet Eurosport, another rather unique Mexican market model. While those rivals offered V6 and V8 engines, the Phantom was only ever offered with turbocharged four-cylinder powerplants: the 2.2 Turbo I and II and 2.5 Turbo II.
Unfortunately, Mexican consumers didn’t receive the pretty convertible. What they received instead, however, more than made up for it. As the Dodge Daytona was not sold in Mexico, a Phantom R/T was launched in 1992 and sold alongside the Spirit R/T.
The Phantom R/T initially came with the 2.5 four-cylinder Turbo II engine with 175 hp, mated to a three-speed automatic. This was then replaced by the Spirit R/T’s 2.2 four-cylinder Turbo III, boasting 224 hp and 217 ft-lbs and mated to a Getrag five-speed manual transmission.
The R/T trim continued in the uglier, facelifted 1993 Phantom but was withdrawn for 1994. In the still rather closed market of 1990s Mexico, the Phantom R/T (and Spirit R/T) was second only to sports cars like the Corvette in terms of outright performance. The Phantom line was an excellent, image-building flagship for Chrysler, its elegant lines a marked contrast from the preceding rectilinear, K-based Magnum coupe.
Chrysler de México also publicized their attractive coupe quite prominently, including this commercial where a young couple is terrorized by a ghost.
Chrysler’s marketing tagline in the early 1990s in Mexico was literally “Chrysler engineering”. The launch of the Viper and the continued use of ever more powerful turbocharged engines helped the company’s image, and thousands of Spirits and Shadows poured out of Chrysler’s Toluca factory.
The Phantom was one of the last K-car derivatives to be manufactured, with production ending in 1994 as with the LeBaron. They may have been the same car – rorty R/T aside – but the different environments in which they were sold resulted in two very different images. In the US and Canada, the LeBaron was pretty but unexceptional—another rebodied K-car, popular with Floridian rental fleets.
But in Mexico, the Phantom was a rather special, big fish in a small, restricted pond. That market was changing: the Mexican government partially reversed their anti-import decree in 1991, with automakers allowed to import 15% of their total volume if their trade balances were positive. This increased further with the ratification of NAFTA and this resulted in more and more car companies returning to Mexico.
Had this governmental action occurred in, say, the early 1980s, the Mexican market would have seen the potential return of the German luxury brands during the Phantom’s run. Perhaps posing more of a threat, the tech-crazy Japanese would have brought their own highly-specified, turbocharged coupes with talking computers. While the Phantom was a good car, it wasn’t perfect: turbo lag remained a problem; Chrysler’s manual transmissions were notchy; reliability and build quality were so-so. In a market with greater competition, the Phantom likely wouldn’t have been as popular. But in Mexico, the Phantom was one of the closest things to a Rolls-Royce.
White Phantom photographed in Santiago de Querétaro, Querétaro; gray Phantom photographed in Colonia Roma Sur, Mexico City.