1999 was a watershed year in my household. I was back from my first year from Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario as a journalism major, and my one-year-older sister was also back from school. As well, my parents 1986 Plymouth Voyager minivan had expired the previous winter and my mom had gotten a stop-gap vehicle (1991 Pontiac Sunbird, a vehicle boring and crappy enough to not warrant its own COAL story). And both my older sister and I had jobs summer jobs at the same place.
After a couple of weeks of scamming rides off our parents and other people we knew, it became apparent that we needed a car of our own.
I remember actually having a difficult time finding a car that met our criteria; it had to be cheap (my sister, dad and I were each paying one-third of the purchase price) and I wanted it to have a least a little more visual flair than the Sunbird my mom had bought a few months earlier. After a couple visits to different used car lots around the Eastern Ontario towns of Prescott and Kemptville and finding nothing interesting (a smurf blue Geo Metro with badly touched up rust bubbles and a fading yellow Pontiac (Daewoo) LeMans), I bought a copy of Autotrader and went searching.
I remember the listing from a Kemptville used car place that has long since gone out of business – 1988 Chrysler LeBaron – 3 to choose – $1999, saftied and e-tested.
So the next week my sister and I went there to check them out. We immediately nixed the convertible (white, in overall bad shape with a leaky-looking top) and took out another white one (not a coupe but a five-door GTS, white over burgundy interior). While this one looked and drove ok, it had a digital dashboard that only displayed random numbers while you accelerated. So then we took the last one they had, a serviceable-looking coupe in dark midnight blue with light blue inside and the 2.5 litter engine with 3-speed torqueflite transmission. Not an exhilarating combination, but given that the only vehicle I was used to driving at that time was my moms Voyager with the 2.6 and a lot more weight (and usually people) to carry around, the LeBaron seemed pretty light on its feet.
Although not perfect, this one had no (visible) rust, had comfortable seats and a decent radio. I remember thinking the ride was pretty smooth although the interior was a lot smaller than the exterior dimensions would indicate.
Seats were comfortable, but not overly supportive
Trunk was pretty small
But most importantly to me at least, it looked at least a bit like a sports car. My parents had become fans of Chrysler after dealing with a couple GM “quality” nightmares in the mid-late 1970s, and they found their Dodge Aries and Plymouth Voyager better-quality vehicles than their Oldsmobile Cutlass or Oldsmobile Omega they had owned previously.
Overall pretty sporty looking. Mine didn’t have the factory wheels.
The LeBaron was not perfect but it got lots of use that summer. Besides being driven to and from work each week day, we used it on the weekends to see friends in the Greater Toronto Area closer to where we went to school. One weekend I drove it to Wasaga Beach, I was worried it was overheating but just pulled it off, topped off the coolant reservoir and went on my way. The radiator (and alternator) that summer did get replaced; neither job stands out as being particularly difficult at least with my dad helping me.
I do recall one time driving on the back gravel roads near where my parents lived when I overestimated the capabilities of the k-car derived suspension when I took a sharp corner at about 80 Kms. I didn’t put it in the ditch, but I did learn that, despite its shapely profile, the LeBaron was no sports car.
After that summer, my older sister got married and moved permanently away from home. However my younger sister got her licence and soon pressed the LeBaron into use. As well, things that Chrysler Corp didn’t probably mean to last for more than 10 years started to fail – the headlights stopped coming up, the headliner started to droop, and the car was looking a lot more worn by the time I went to use it the next summer.
I still used it regularly to get to and from work during the summers, and eventually it was passed down to my younger brother when he started to drive. In its last year of service, the master cylinder for the brakes failed and resulted in my younger brother rear-ending a friend of his; although this was fixed the amount of rot in the floor underneath meant that it wasn’t going to be safe to drive much longer.
The next spring i completed the ritual of moving all my stuff from the place I lived in Toronto back home one final time.
Any amount of melancholy I felt about this last journey was tempered by the overall sorry state of the LeBaron by this time. Its once dark blue paint that I waxed to a shiny finish not long after we bought it was now fading and chalky and its neat headlight covers had been in a permanently downward fixed state for some time. Someone had even stolen the pentastar from the trunk lid.
But worse than it looked was how it drove – the accelerator cable had become sticky and almost caused me to get into an accident while merging onto the Don Valley Parkway, and when I stopped outside Gananoque to grab something to eat, the car would not start after it was left sitting for a half hour. It turned out that it had developed another quirk while I was away at school; if there was less than a half-tank of gas in it, it wouldn’t start.
As I returned to the car from a gas station with fuel (in a new jerry-can, yet), I decided it was time to get a car that didn’t have so many things wrong with it. Thanks to my steady and high-paying (for the time) summer job, I actually had about 6 grand left in my education fund. It was time to get a new car, which you will read about in my next COAL.