Cars Of A Lifetime: 1986 Chrysler LeBaron – Mini Brougham

1986 Chrysler LeBaron

It is a rather familiar theme in this series, but once again I found myself needing a set of cheap wheels. This time around money was really tight, but I managed to snag my favorite low-cost beater yet. It even had a partial padded roof for the brougham lovers out there.

1986 Chrysler LeBaron

The LeBaron didn’t start out with the spiffy flat black paint job; this is how it looked in the seller’s parking spot. The other side was slightly also beat up, but somewhat less so. It had some dents and non-structural rust as well missing all the hubcaps. What it did have in its favor was a very low price tag and an included valid safety inspection. Alberta has safety inspections mandated by one’s insurance company for vehicles 10-13 years old, depending on the company. It’s mostly a way for garages to make a little extra cash and less about safety. In theory you need a reasonable windshield, decent tires, brakes, suspension, and exhaust as well as a working heater, lights and wipers. Most of time you can’t get away with less than a couple hundred dollars even if there is nothing wrong with the car. So having an inspection already done is quite valuable in a cheap car.


For the total all-in cost of $160, I was the proud owner of my first K-car. Let me tell you my wife was absolutely thrilled to see it come home with me. I was actually banished to parking it in our rear parking pad off the back alley.


For a cheap car the interior was not actually too bad. The headliner seemed to be held up (quite effectively) with a Remembrance Day Poppy.


The powered window on passenger side stopped working at some point so the previous owner disabled it, but apparently could not get the rubber weather striping back on and rigged this up instead. Nice solution with the wire, eh? My son tore off the wire the first time he was in the car. I glued the rubber back on but never bothered fixing the window.


I have been told the combination of digital dashboard and center console shifter is a bit rare.


Here is a closer shot of the digital gauges. My apologies for the darkness of the oil pressure/battery gauge between the speedometer and traveler gauges. It did function just fine but does not show well in this photo. What did not function correctly, however, was the gas gauge. I did not know it at the time, but when it read 1/4 that was actually dead empty. As you might suspect, I found this out the hard way on the way to work. Amazingly, it happened right next to a gas station which I managed to coast into. From that point forward when the gauge read 1/2 full I took it as a reminder to fill up.

Chrysler LeBaron 2.2L engine

My LeBaron was equipped with the 2.2L four cylinder engine, a SOHC design with an aluminum head and iron block. Both the intake and exhaust manifolds are on the rear of the engine, which allows the engine bay to look rather uncluttered but makes exhaust access tough. A bore of 87.5 mm (3.44 in) and 92 mm (3.62 in) stroke yielded a 96 horsepower rating when new. The official EPA rating for a 1986 LeBaron 2.2 is 21/24 mpg and mine achieved exactly 21mpg in almost exclusively city driving despite running a bit rich at times.


Several months later I was quite enjoying the little Chrysler. There is some beater charm to having the lowest cost vehicle on the road. The LeBaron even made for a fairly decent winter car, although being banished to the back alley made things challenging at times. I do love how the wind swept snow in the above picture manages to make the LeBaron lines even more straight and boxy.


Just as I was feeling quite smug for snagging a vehicle with lowest cost per mile, disaster struck. For the first time ever, the LeBaron failed to start in the morning. It would crank over but not fire. While it was cold at -20C/-4F, it was not cold enough to cause starting issues. I charged the battery over night, plugged the block heater in for a bit and added a bit of gas to the tank (since the gauge was questionable), but still no go. Then I left the hood open by accident and went to work for a few hours returning to snow in the engine compartment. Certainly not my finest hour. Over the next couple weeks I tried everything I could think with no luck. It finally struck me that I should try a different battery. Success. Oddly enough, the car would happily crank over but would not fire on the old battery.


About a month later, another cold-related minor tragedy struck the LeBaron. My brother in-law went to open the exterior passenger side door handle and it broke in his hand. This is a notorious sore spot for K-cars and this one was no doubt helped along because of the extreme cold at the time (-30C/-22F). Taking off the door card exposed some bungee cords that the previous owner had used to secure the window glass.


The door card itself was apparently a temporary substitution from the factory.

O2 sensor

The car had always run rich, so I replaced the oxygen sensor which improved matters significantly. Access was a challenge but was slightly better from underneath.

LeBaron paint prep

The LeBaron was proving itself to be a survivor, so I decided it was time give the appearance a make over. On a budget of course. I decided on a flat black paint scheme while retaining the red padded roof. Outdoors during the winter is not the ideal setting to re-paint a car, however.


Here is my middle son (aged six here) adding some paint. He also added a few runs but that was less important than the fun he had.

LeBaron rear

The paint job came out not too badly for a sub-$50 investment. Of course the further away one stood, the better it looked.


Summer rolled around and the LeBaron was still going. It ran amazingly well, in fact. I had never ventured outside the city limits with it, but there was a car show a couple towns over that I wanted to go to. At only fifty kilometers away, I figured I would chance taking the Chrysler with me. It did make it there just fine but on the return trip, it stalled and died about half way home. I popped the hood and the dip stick came up bone dry. I had checked it before heading out, so obviously the sustained high rpm driving on the highway had either drained or burnt up all the oil.

I called my wife who had little sympathy for me (she told me not to take the LeBaron that morning), but I managed to persuade my sister in-law to meet me. I had just done an oil change on the family minivan so I asked her to bring the waste oil from that along. I suspected the car was done for, but pouring in some used oil seemed a worthy gamble. Amazingly, the car fired right up and drove home with no further issue. I topped it up with some more used oil but kept expecting a catastrophic failure at any moment. Even on the old oil the LeBaron remained my daily (in city only) driver for several more months.

last drive

The end of road came for the LeBaron several months later, but not as the expected, dramatic engine failure, but rather, as a result of changing of insurance companies. We swapped over our existing house and automotive insurance which saved us a significant amount but it meant the new company wanted a fresh safety inspection. Unfortunately I did not feel that the LeBaron was worth the extra investment. I took it out for a final drive down a gravel back road then parked it. While it ranks as one of my best bang-for-the-buck buys ever, the LeBaron was not yet done giving, as I traded it straight across for my next project vehicle.