COAL: 1981 Chrysler LeBaron A38 – A Flame In The Wind

Here’s an accomplishment few can (or might want to) claim:  I once bought a house and a car the same day.  It all sounds so grand doesn’t it?  Well, as Paul Harvey used to say, stay tuned for the rest of the story…

It was early June 1998.  I had found a nice, modest house for purchase so Marie and I had somewhere of our own to be subsequent to our upcoming nuptials.  There was a contract, all inspections were done, and we were at the point of awaiting the closing date.

My new job was going rather well and I was excited, yet nervous, for what the next few months would be bringing me.  Getting married and buying a house, all within three weeks, was a bit overwhelming but in a good way.  It was an exciting time in life.

Despite the flurry of activity I had going, my roving automotive eye was still quite active.  In retrospect this was sort of a fun challenge; while my ’55 Chevrolet had been sold, I was about to add another member to my automotive harem.

Also in retrospect, it seems I had been inadvertently subscribing to the Jay Leno philosophy of “one woman and many cars is cheaper than one car and many women.”

Thus it was one day within this narrow window of time when I was between the small towns of Bernie and Malden, in the northern fringes of the Missouri Bootheel, I found a somewhat weary looking 1981 Chrysler LeBaron.  What caught my eye, and aroused my suspicions, were the police wheels and hubcaps.

Stopping to take a look at the car, someone related to the owner came outside.  We started talking, the hood was opened, and I subtly examined the data plate Chrysler had been so kind as to put on the left wheel well.  Sure enough, it was stamped with an “A38”, which is Chrysler speak for a factory police package car.  I knew I had stumbled onto a rare critter.

At first glance this is just another M-body with a fancier grille.  Such is true.  However, if one gets all geeky about it, which I was/am, this car was approaching unicorn status.  In 1981 only, Chrysler Corporation slathered all their police goodies on a Chrysler branded M-body.  Why?

Model year 1980 had been the last year for the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare, with the M-body replacing it.  Was there a big portion of Aspen/Volare in the M-body?  Yes, but Chrysler had made a switch in model name and body designation.

Yet Plymouth, as was ever more frequently the case, was given the cold shoulder and denied an M-body for 1981.  While most people associate the M-body Plymouth as being a Gran Fury, which is correct, Plymouth had not yet made the transition.

The 1981 Gran Fury was still an R-body.

Fielding a Chrysler branded police car was likely a move of some expediency by Chrysler Corporation, as 1981 was a year they were focused on their new K-cars.  There had been Chrysler branded police cars as recently as the 1979 Newport and dating back to the early 1960s so the M-body LeBaron wasn’t exactly without some form of precedent.

For being a one-year wonder, it is undoubtedly safe to assume production numbers were minimal with survival rates being quite thin.  Researching this article I found pictures of marked ’81 LeBarons having been used by the Cities of Des Moines, Iowa and Dallas, Texas (seen here) along with the Putnam County New York Sheriff.  I have seen pictures of similar LeBarons being used by New York City.  Mine supposedly came from Winter Garden, Florida.

The M-body LeBaron was the best selling Chrysler branded automobile for 1981.  However, that wasn’t any extraordinary feat as the Newport sold only 3,600 examples and the rapidly fading Cordoba sold around 21,000 units.  In comparison, the LeBaron was a blockbuster with around 43,000 finding a home.

It’s doubtful a very high percentage went to police use.  In fact I would wager the nearly 4,000 LeBaron wagons made that year greatly outnumber the police spec cars.  How often do you see one of these wagons?

I bought this two-barrel 318 equipped LeBaron for the grand sum of $250.  At this price I figured it was not going to cause me to have a foreclosure on my new home.  Speaking of my new home, this certainly figures into this reminisce.

The day I was to retrieve the Chrysler was the same day I was due to close on my new house.  My father was accompanying me.  I had driven down to Cape Girardeau in my ’96 Thunderbird; my father in the new 1998 Dodge Ram 1500 he had purchased the week before.  Incidentally, he still owns this pickup today.

The closing was scheduled to last one hour.  Sitting down in the bank’s conference room with my father and Patty, my real estate agent, the group of bank employees starting thrusting various documents at me for signature.


Here’s where my charismatic and bubbly personality kicked in.  Too many of these various legal documents had spelling and grammatical errors.  It was terrible and such blatant, repetitive sloppiness drives me crazy – granted, none of us are immune to grammatical errors or other typos, but these documents had been proofread and used repeatedly.  Trying to be ethical, I was politely and calmly asking for clarification on each error I found or asking if I should correct it in an effort to avoid any possible future unpleasantries.  I was likely the unpleasantry for them, but so be it.

Amongst all the documents to sign was one stating I had not been discriminated against in any way.  When presented with the non-discrimination affidavit, I declined to sign it.  This caused some consternation among the bank employees.  I felt the need to diplomatically explain myself as I also knew the old “it’s not what you say but how you say it” scenario was at work, as it so often is with personal interactions.

“Well, here’s why I cannot sign it.  When I first visited you to open an account and apply for a mortgage, I dealt with Sylvia.  She made numerous derogatory statements about my youth, such as my being accustomed to being sent home with homework, and she was quite condescending throughout our conversation.  She even compared me to her irresponsible daughter who happens to be my age.  It was unprofessional and, as you likely know, I sent your bank president a letter explaining my encounter with Sylvia and elaborating on my disappointment with her behavior.  There has been no response which gives the appearance of condoning such conduct.  After meeting with Sylvia I almost closed my account but I also knew you were a better fit as you don’t sell your mortgages.

“So, no, I will not be signing that form.  Sylvia, on behalf of your bank, treated me like shit.”

Ok, so diplomacy isn’t my strongest talent.

Not Patty, but you get the idea

The room was nearly silent.  I say nearly as Patty was convulsing from stifling a laugh; all of the bank representatives had varying degrees of shock.  Patty knew the entire situation beforehand and she had also dealt with Sylvia.  I was then barraged with various apologies from the bank employees.  The closing took nearly 2.5 hours.

Fast forward twenty-odd years…in 2019 my parents relocated from Southern Illinois to Cape Girardeau.  My mother called Patty for her assistance.  Patty remembered me vividly; I suspect there are reasons other than I was one of her first clients after she relocated from Los Angeles in early 1998.

After taking possession of my house, I swapped vehicles with my father, dropped a few things off at my new house, and went to fetch my Chrysler.

Not his, but close enough

As another aside, trailering that Chrysler back with my father’s 360 (5.9 liter) powered Dodge was an epiphany.  Every vehicle I had trailered prior had been pulled with my father’s 1984 Ford F-150 and its 300 straight six – let’s just say this was a totally different experience.  That Dodge did not once strain pulling that 3,600 pound Chrysler – and the Dodge only had around 400 miles on the odometer, so the engine wasn’t even broken in.  That Dodge is a terrific tow rig.

The Chrysler ran quite well.  I had driven it onto the rental trailer and I drove it around my parent’s property when I dropped the car off at their house later that day.  The reasons for the sale of the Chrysler were immediately obvious; the glove compartment had several nasty letters from collection agencies.

Never have I seen any Chrysler branded vehicle so spartan.  My Chrysler had vinyl seats front and rear, rubber floor covering (the red was a carpet remnant that came with the car), and an AM radio.  There was no tilt wheel, no cruise control, no power windows.  The only obvious option it had was air-conditioning.  Despite this, it was mighty comfortable to drive.

From what I was told, the owner’s brother worked for the City of Winter Garden and had purchased this Chrysler at auction, giving it to their mother.  The mother later sold the car to the daughter, from whom I purchased the car.  Also, as I was told and the driver’s door in the picture below helps attest to, the car had originally been white but had been shot with primer, giving it this blue-gray color.

One of the tail lights was broken, which gave credibility to the statement it had been bumped in the rear.  A visit to a salvage yard netted me a set of tail lights, but I don’t think I ever replaced the broken one (I never licensed the car).  I did replace the spark plugs, which made that Chrysler run even better.

I also replaced the hood as the original one looked like it had had an intimate rendezvous with a ball-peen hammer.  The replacement came from a dark blue Chrysler Fifth Avenue and one could not really tell a profound difference in color.

Knowing my Chrysler was going to be sitting for a bit, I gave the rather new rear tires to my father-in-law for use on his Crown Victoria.  At that point in time, Marie had wanted to start a small business of cake decorating; I figured the Chrysler would make a memorable delivery car for her.  Mechanically, I had no concerns with the car despite it approaching twenty years of age.

For a variety of reasons, the business never happened, which eroded my need for the Chrysler.

I had also not fully anticipated the changes in my life due to getting married, particularly the desire and need to spend my time with other things.  Like with having children, some life changes are simply too difficult to comprehend if you haven’t experienced it.

That was the challenge I had with the Chrysler.  It was like a flame in the wind; its flame of promise kept being compromised by the winds of a changing life.  I was not able to really do anything with it.

While I kept my Chrysler limbered up, I realized it needed to go to a good home.  Even at that time, I realized my role in this Chrysler’s life was to get it to a place in which the owner would know what he had and would appreciate it for what it was.  Such would have been unlikely to happen if somebody other than me would have bought the car in 1998; in other words, one could say I saved it from a worse fate.

Putting the Chrysler up for sale sometime in 2000, it quickly found a buyer from Ohio who knew what the car was.  I hope he gave this near unicorn the attention it so deserved.

(Author’s Note:  A Flame In The Wind aired on the American Broadcasting Company from December 28, 1964 to December 16, 1966.)