COAL: 1985 Chrysler LeBaron GTS – The College Years

1985 Chrysler LeBaron GTS

My 1985 Chrysler LeBaron GTS, circa 1990

While my primary interest growing up was cars (as well documented in my previous COALs), I had a second interest that was also developing: Computers. This too would become a lifelong interest and eventually, a career.

As I mentioned in my last COAL, my Dad had purchased a small roofing company from his father. As it grew into a not-so-small company, the manual ways of doing payroll, accounting, and correspondence were quickly becoming a hinderance. It was time for the company to get a computer.

Back in the late 70’s, buying a business computer was not nearly as simple as it is today. In the pre-PC era, one typically bought both the hardware and software from the same vendor as part of a package (there were few standards and little to no interoperability). So each vendor had to be evaluated on both their hardware and software offerings.

Much like car shopping, I remember Mom and Dad dragging me around to all the vendors to sample their wares, while I lapped it all up. We hit all the big names: Burroughs, Honeywell, NCR. I can only imagine what these vendors thought about potential customers bringing their 12-year-old computer expert to their dog and pony shows. What we ended up with was a minicomputer from a company so small that few had ever heard of it: Wang Laboratories. Specifically, we got a Wang 2200 SVP, a computer so obscure that even Google Images struggles to come up with a decent photo. The low quality image below was about the best I could find.

Wang 2200

Wang 2200. What is sitting on the desk is just a terminal. The actual computer is located under the desk.

In an era when few people were lucky to have timeshare access to a computer and virtually no one owned one, I had almost limitless access to this magical device. It also didn’t hurt that the computer was located in the only room at my Dad’s office with air conditioning, specifically built to house it (well, more like a closet). I devoured the manuals (hand-writing corrections to the many mistakes I found in them) and tried wringing everything I could out of the whopping 32KB of RAM. I remember on more than one occasion standing around waiting for my Mom to finish running payroll so I could start noodling around.

There was really no doubt that I would go into engineering after high school. I just always knew. The real question was what kind of engineering? Dad was a Civil Engineer, so I didn’t want to follow too closely in his footsteps. So it really came down to my two passions: Cars (Mechanical Engineering) and Computers. Since Computer Engineering and Computer Science weren’t really proper fields yet, computers at the time meant electrical engineering. I’ve always been more of a software guy, so the hardware aspects of EE didn’t appeal to me. Plus, my red-green color blindness meant that I would have a hard time with the colored wires and resistors that were the norm of the largely analog electronics that were still being taught back then. Mechanical Engineering it was, then!

But enough about me – Back to the cars. I found myself in the Fall of 1986 enrolled as a freshman at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in their college of engineering. At first, my parents wouldn’t let me keep a car on campus, but they very quickly tired of the four-hour round-trip treks between Delaware and Cleveland to deliver me to and from school, so they eventually let me take the 1981 Plymouth Reliant (covered in a previous COAL) with me to college.

While I was away at college, my parents went through a series of unremarkable new cars and trucks, and eventually it was time to bid farewell to the Reliant, which was getting on in years and miles. It was replaced by an equally unremarkable 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier, a car so unremarkable that I won’t even bother COALing it. Actually, it was remarkable for one thing: It had remarkable amount of mechanical maladies – bad steering rack, bad struts, worn out brakes and tires, and a few other issues as well. By the time Dad got the estimate to repair everything (over $2,000), he wisely decided that the repair costs exceeded the value of the car, essentially making the Cavalier a total loss.

Dad said I could get whatever car I wanted to replace the Cavalier, and gave me a modest budget to work with (about $3000, if I recall correctly). What I really wanted was a 5-speed 2nd generation Honda Accord, but decent (non-rusty) examples were well out of my price range. I was not getting anywhere, when my dad found a 1985 Chrysler LeBaron GTS in my price range. It was only a few years old at the time, but the reason that it was so cheap was that the mileage was sky-high (about 90,000). This may not seem like a lot of miles today when 200K+ mile cars are common, but back in the 80’s this was taking a serious risk. In any case, this wouldn’t be the last time I would take advantage of the extreme depreciation of high mileage vehicles.

The LeBaron GTS wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but the 5-speed transmission and the unusual 5-door hatchback body style made it vaguely import-like (if I squinted hard enough). It had the 2.2 liter turbocharged engine, which promised a modicum of excitement. I knew from my previous experience with the Reliant that the Chrysler 2.2 was as reliable as a blacksmith’s anvil, so the high mileage didn’t really bother me. It was also fully loaded, with power everything, alloy wheels, leather interior (finally!), and a talking, digital dashboard (a door is ajar).

The styling was handsome, with decent proportions and a waterfall grille. I thought it was much better looking than the bullseye grill that it’s platform-mate Dodge Lancer wore. The non-flush side windows were the biggest external clue that it was a derivative of Chryser’s rapidly aging K platform.

Digital Dashboard

Digital dashboard, with 118,000 miles at the time.

I once accidentally left the keys in the ignition when parking in downtown Cleveland. When I came back to where I had parked it, there was only an empty space. It was recovered a few hours later, missing only the factory radio and, randomly, the cargo cover over the hatchback. I took the money for a replacement factory cassette deck and instead applied it towards an in-dash CD player, which was still a rarity at the time, and never failed to impress passengers. It had a removable faceplate (no one is stealing this baby), which you can see it in the dashboard photo above.

1985 LeBaron GTS

1985 LeBaron GTS

On another trip home, a sticky hood latch failed to close tightly and let go while I was driving on a highway. For some reason, this didn’t really phase me, despite the fact that the windshield cracked.  Contrary what the Shell Answer Man had led me to believe, there was no gap between the cowl and hood for me to see through. I basically had to stick my head out the window and drive like a dog. Luckily for you I was carrying my camera with me that day, and took the picture below shortly after the incident. Through a bizarre twist of irony, you can just see the Pontiac dealer where Dad bought his 1981 Bonneville years earlier in the background (The building with with the barrel roof).

My Dad surveying the damage

My Dad surveying the damage

The LeBaron GTS may not have been the car that I wanted, but it definitely turned out to be the car I needed. It was reliable, quick, and gave me a taste for electronic doodads that I still have to this day. So what happened to it? Tune in for my next COAL.