COAL: 1983 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible – Fun in the Sun, K-Car Style

One evening, a friend of mine called as asked: “How would you like a convertible?  A friend of mine has one that he wants to get rid of.  It’s free!”  I said I was interested and started to ask the usual litany of questions including does it run, what shape is the body, and what’s the condition of the interior.  He responded: “What do you care?  The car is FREE.  Go get it and if you don’t like it, scrap it.”  With that proposition, how could one lose?

So, that next Saturday morning, I made an appointment to go see the car.  The owner told me that he now had other priorities and that he didn’t want to sink any more money into the car.  I’ve heard that before.  Condition wise, the body and interior were decent.  No gaping rust holes evident and the seats were still intact.  The top had some holes in it and the plastic rear window was very foggy.  Mechanically, the choke on the carburetor needed adjustment and more importantly, the engine had a rod knock.  But it started easily and other than the friendly rod saying hello, it looked to be worth the gamble.  I had taken my trusty tow bar with me and hooked the car up for the trip home.

The LeBaron convertible was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca and “The New Chrysler Corporation” in 1982.  ASC was the supplier who took a two door LeBaron, removed the roof, added some structure to the K frame and tunnel, installed a soft top, and installed a smaller rear seat.  In addition, the windshield was replaced with one that was a couple of inches lower in height.  The end result was pretty impressive, given what they started with.

The top was in bad shape when I got the car, and the plastic rear window was very foggy.  Since the rest of the car was in good shape, after the engine replacement I decided that a new top was in order.  One of the local trim shops I visited for an estimate was run by an older gentleman who told me many stories about the evolution of the top design.  He had been hired by a local Chrysler dealer to repair tops on new cars.  After listening for an hour, I decided that he knew what he was talking about and hired him to replace the top.  He did an excellent job.  One of the things he pointed out was the the 82 and 83 model years had the plastic rear window because of the stress of the large C pillar design.  In 84, the pillar was reduced by adding two small retractable windows to the rear seat.  This enabled the use of a glass rear window.

The car came without the center arm rest.  Apparently, the original one had been broken off of its mount and the owner just cut the base off.  One day in the pick-a-part, I came across an 84 LeBaron convertible in the Mark Cross edition.  The arm rest you see was still intact, although 100% gray in color.  A trip to the auto paint store yielded a spray can of red paint for vinyl and plastic.  The color match was almost perfect.

I changed the original cassette stereo to a combination CD/cassette stereo.  I had to replace the speakers due to the fact that Chrysler changed the grounding for the speakers in 1984.  I also added a HD radio converter under the dash.  Note that this car has a Chronometer and after 35 years, it still keeps perfect time!

Another trip to the pick-a-part yielded power windows and power locks for the car.  I found an 84 2 door LeBaron with both.  So I removed the doors and the fuse block and took them home for a retrofit.  The door panels from the donor car were the same exact color as my interior, the only difference being that the block with the window switches was an add-on.  Of course, when I went to remove the doors from the donor car, the roll pin which holds the hinges together would not budge.  Out came my trusty 5 pound hammer and a cold chisel.  Once I had transplanted the electronics, I returned the donor car door shells for my core charge.

I didn’t need to look for another engine as I already had a spare one in the garage.  I had plucked it out of a parts car several years earlier and decided to keep it for future use.  Little did I know at the time what that meant.  Before storing the engine, I had filled the cylinders with fogging oil and also sealed off all openings.  When I put it on the engine stand to start the preparation process, I checked the crank and found the dimensions within spec.  I put new standard bearings on as a precaution.  I also had a new cylinder head in the attic, another donation from the same parts car.  Installed it with a new head gasket and the engine was ready for installation.

The trunk was not affected by the top hardware, which is behind the rear seat, and the trunk is the normal size for a K car.  Another addition was the flexible panel covering the mini spare tire at the front of the trunk.  That was courtesy of the same Mark Cross car I got the armrest from.

The dash is original K car with only a gas gauge for amusement.  Notice the odometer reading.  The car has 88,888 miles showing, but since the odometer is only 5 digits, one never knows the actual mileage.  I got the car with 70,000 miles showing and have put on 18,000 miles in the 11 years I’ve owned the car.

One morning, I was sitting five cars back from a red light, with several cars queued behind me.  All of a sudden I heard a loud thump and was bounced forward into the car in front.  The teen aged girl driving a Dodge Dart was texting and not paying much attention to the traffic light.  She must have glanced up and saw the light turn green.  Without putting the phone down, she stepped on the gas and right into me.  Lovely.

Both shocks on the front bumper were pushed in.  I was able to remove the bumper cover and the bumper itself without breaking any fasteners.  That was the most amazing part of the repair effort, given that the car was 33 years old.  I then pulled each shock out and reassembled the bumper.  I was originally in a panic that I wouldn’t be able to find any parts any where, but this was not the case.  Fortunately, none of the plastic items were cracked.

As I wasn’t fond of carburetors in general, and specifically on this car, I decided that I would change the fuel system over to throttle body injection.  Upon doing research, I found that in 1988, Chrysler consolidated the two computers (body and power) into a single unit that was mounted under the hood.  Looking through Craigslist one day, I found the Omni shown above.  It was a 1989 model with TBI, and it was only $100!  Looks like I was on my way.  The seller was an instructor in auto technology at a local high school and had purchased the car for his students to work on.  He also drove an Audi, which explained the Omni’s grille.  I towed it home and proceeded to map out my battle plan.

I first proceeded to identify what I needed, and then listed the rest of the car for sale on Craigslist.  One guy took the yoke, struts, and hood for his Omni GLH.  He wanted to lower it by cutting the springs on the struts and he also had some hood damage.  I found another taker for the wheels and tires.  All total, I sold off many parts I didn’t need for $300 more than I had paid for the car.

Now, what to do with the rest of the car.  Thanks to China’s demand for scrap metal, I found a couple of guys who would give me $150 for the remains.  Sold!  Now my profit was $450.  My wife was very happy to see the Omni go.

I never did get to the TBI project, however.  More on that later.

Now, you may be wondering why this picture of the medieval rack is here.  Look below and wonder no more.

As we have become more and more familiar with electronic fuel injection, many if not all of us have forgotten the charming nature and performance of the carburetor.  At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that the carburetor choke was not functioning properly.  That was an easy fix, but the carburetor still didn’t perform very well.  I quickly got used to two foot driving when the carb started acting wonky.  I did find a used carburetor from a poster on which worked very well for the $35 cost.  I’ve had to take it apart a couple of times for cleaning and now have that art down to a 20 minute ordeal.  The carbs you see above are my insurance policy when the current one gives up the ghost for the last time.  Two came out of the boneyard.  The one in the center is a brand new Weber, on which the Holley carb was modeled.  I need to switch the throttle plate out with one of the older ones so I can hook up all of the linkages and have them work properly.  I figured I had better get the Weber since it was new while it still available.

One fine September day in 2012, I decided that I should put the LeBaron into storage for the winter.  I had been storing it at my mother-in-law’s garage since she no longer had a car.  While I was there, I decided to use her lawn tractor to cut the grass.  After cutting the grass,  I put the tractor in the garage and closed the door.  Normally, I would leave the tractor to cool down in the yard before putting it away, but on that fateful day, I did not.  I went into the house to check on things and came out 10 minutes later to put some things in the car.  There was smoke coming out of the eaves of the garage so I went to the side door to find out what was going on.  When I opened the door, all I could see was thick black smoke and could hear crackling sounds.  I then closed the door and called the fire department.  The lawn tractor had caught fire from either gas or oil dripping on a hot surface.  The fire department put the fire out in 10 minutes and there was no major damage to anything but the lawn tractor.  The LeBaron, however, was another story.  Every horizontal surface was covered in black soot and the insides had a strong, acidic smoke odor.  The next day, I washed the car several times to remove the soot.  The interior odor took several months to remove using numerous deodorizer canisters.  I almost lost the LeBaron that day, but once it was clean, it ran like new.

One of my most memorable repairs was the fuel pump.  Before I put the new engine into the car, I decided that a new fuel pump was in order.  Several years later, I had planned a business trip to York PA, which is 600 miles away.  As gorgeous September weather was forecast for the week, I decided to take the LeBaron and enjoy some top down driving.  The trip down was uneventful and so was the commuting on three of the days.  On the way back to the hotel on the fourth day, disaster struck.  The car just quit running while I was driving and I managed to coast into a parking lot of a well known national auto parts chain.  Suspecting a fuel issue, I pulled the air cleaner cover off and discovered that there was no fuel in the carb.  Couldn’t be the fuel pump, as I had replaced it a couple of years earlier.  But I had air, I had spark, so fuel was the only member of the triad missing.  I walked into the auto parts store and asked if they had one.  No, but the store one mile away does.  Turns out it was the only pump available in the area.  I had one of my co-workers come and take me to get the new pump.  I always take a tool kit when I travel any distance with an old car and it certainly came in handy this time.  A couple of hours later and the job was finished and the car ran fine.  The drive back home the next day was uneventful, but as a precaution for a 30 year old car, I purchased the one you see above as a spare.  That, of course, means that I will never need it.  Right?

Earlier, I mentioned the Omni and the fuel injection project.  I had stored the donor engine and associated parts in my mother-in-law’s garage until I had the time and patience to do the project.  Since I was the only one using that garage, I didn’t take the time to cover the throttle body opening.  When the lawn tractor fire occurred, the fire department graciously sprayed water on everything in sight, including the engine.  When I decided to get things moving a couple of years later, I checked the engine over and….you guessed it……water had entered one of the cylinders and the engine was locked up.  Since I had to clean out the garage to sell the house, it went to the scrapyard.  Fuel injection is still on the horizon, but I’m looking at a Mega Squirt set up once I figure out all of the issues.  Having the three extra carbs is also a factor in delaying any future fuel injection project.

One of the things about driving a 35 year old K car convertible is that it does generate some discussion and comments, whether stopped at a traffic light or at the store.  Recently, the battery gave up the ghost at a warehouse club gas station, so I pushed it away from the pump and called AAA.  While waiting, at least a dozen folks asked if they could help or just wanted to find out more about the car.  Invariably, every time I take it out on the road, someone will make a comment or ask questions.  Always gets thumbs up reactions from everyone.

So, what does the Miata have to do with the LeBaron?  Besides both being convertibles, there is a funny story.  My brother-in-law has a 1990 Miata similar to the one shown.  He thinks he’s super cool when he drives it and I don’t blame him.  One day, my 10 year old nephew was in the LeBaron with me and said that my car was really cool.  So, I had to ask why.  His dad’s car was sportier, fun to drive, and had lots of power, so why is mine cooler?  He responded it was because I had a power top and his dad’s car didn’t.  Beaters for the win!

I’ve owned and driven this car for 11 years and must say that the driving experience is well worth the occasional carburetor pains that I encounter.  I see at least two other LeBaron convertibles in the area, so there are still a few left on the road.  Yes, they made many compromises when designing and manufacturing this car, but it worked back then and still works today.  How else can you have Fun In The Sun – K Car Style?