COAL: 1992 Chrysler LeBaron – Don’t Say Grey!

The decision to sell the ’90 Jetta was easy, troublemaker that it was. Now then: what would replace it? We talked about it round the supper table on the back porch one evening in the summer of 1995. Dad had worked his renowned magic on some good salmon. My Big Wheel in the background dates this pic to the early 1980s, but I won’t tell if you won’t:

So what would it be? It sure as hell wasn’t going to be a VW or any other German car; the Jetta had seen to that. It probably spoiled things for any other European car, too, so we wouldn’t be going back and having a try with a Volvo 240 that might’ve been a better choice than the Jetta in the first place. Dad held Consumer Reports in high regard, and they held Japanese cars in high regard, but to mom and dad they still weren’t on the radar or in the running, which is a little strange. Then again, Consumer Reports had gushed about the Jetta; they’d said it “exuded quality”—our experience had been that in fact it excluded quality, and maybe that dimmed dad’s view of CR’s veracity.

It occurred to me between mouthfuls of utterly perfect barbecued salmon that dad’s father seemed to be having good luck with the ’91 Plymouth Acclaim he’d bought when Budget Rent-a-Car had finished with it. How about an Acclaim or a Spirit? That idea gained traction pretty quickly—even Consumer Reports managed to hold their nose and bring themselves to say something nice (“among the most reliable domestic cars”)—and we set about seeing what was around. I was advocating for a car with the turbocharged 2.5-litre 4-cylinder engine, for a couple of reasons: that engine would perform well at Denver’s high altitude without bringing the valve troubles of the 3-litre Mitsubishi V6 or the dreaded A604 ProbleMatic transaxle. Also, the turbo cars got higher-spec brakes and suspension components.

But even in 1995, turbo AA-bodies were just about nonexistent; none was to be found. We wound up at Colorado Chrysler-Plymouth, which I think might’ve been one of Doug Moreland’s stores (“Nobody beats a dealin’ Doug deal…nobody!!!! “). Plenty of AA-cars on the lot. The salesman, after saying he had no turbo cars, tried to steer us toward a V6 model. “We don’t want a V6 car; they have valve and transmission problems”, I said. The salesman chuckled patronisingly: “Well, actually, those transmission problems you must’ve read about were solved about two months into that transmission’s first year. And so was the valve issue. It’s an easy fix on the early cars, too, it just takes a snap ring in the valve guide.” I wasn’t paying attention to him; instead I was making a show of unboxing my “Engine Ear” electronic stethoscope.

This I proceeded to apply to various underhood parts of various cars on the lot. I don’t think I was really listening for anything in particular, but it quieted the salesman in a hurry. A bit like a hard hat, reflective vest, clipboard, and deliberate stride is fairly effective against “Stop! You can’t go in there!”. Eventually I gave a thumbs up to a silver 1992 LeBaron sedan with the 2.5-litre nonturbo engine. Neat trick shutting up the salesman with my whizbang engine stethoscope, but he got the last laff after all; my folks paid something like $10k for it. Robbery! The car’s MSRP had been $13,998 (~$26,200 in 2020 Dollars) and it was three-plus years old with about 70,000 miles showing. At some later point when I had a brief Carfax subscription, I ran its VIN and found it had been first bought by a rentcar company, who sold it to someone who advertised their name—Sultz—to the world by dint of a custom licence plate (I will never understand this). The Sultzes traded it in, and then my folks bought it. With ~70K miles. For ten kilodollars. Oy vey.

It had a column shifter for the 3-speed automatic. It didn’t have that lame padded vinyl “Landau” Iacocca roof that disfigured so many of these. It did have the upgraded gauge package—not the digital one, but it had a tachometer (please cut me a break), oil pressure gauge, and voltmeter not present on the basic cluster. Above the HVAC control it had an “Information Center”, too: a pictogram of a generic car viewed from above, with little red lights to indicate if any of the four doors or the trunk were open, and separate warning lights for “Headlight Out”, “Taillight Out”, and low windshield washer fluid. It didn’t have the Traveller trip computer, but it did have a cassette player built into the FM/AM radio. Oh, and heated chromed power sideview mirrors and a backglass defogger. 14-inch steel wheels with snap-on plastic covers and 185 or 195/70R14 tires. Front disc and rear drum brakes, no ABS. Silver outside, grey-grey-grey (scuze me, “Medium Quartz”) everywhere inside.

It was about as low-spec a car as Chrysler were willing to slap a (Japanese-made!) “LeBaron” name badge on. It had air conditioning, power windows and locks with a clever hookup: can’t power-lock the doors from the driver’s door switch if that door’s open and the headlamps are on; cruise control, intermittent wipers, and tilt steering column as almost the only upgrades from the bare-bones basic bottom-of-the-line Spirit-Acclaim equipment. Oh, wait, that’s not quite true, the dashboard had phony stitching moulded into the edges of the –grey– quartz dashboard cover; Spirits and Acclaims didn’t get that, and they had plain black plastic trim around the controls rather than this LeBaron’s printwood. No de luxe chrome buttons on the HVAC control, but the car had a split bench seat covered in fuzzy, grippy, rather sturdy mouse fur—no tufted pillowtops—with manual 2-way adjustment (forward and backward!).

Oh, and it had a stand-up plastic crystal Pentastar hood ornament. If you can bring yourself to watch this far-fetched video, replete with music-on-hold on infinite repeat, you’ll learn that was a deliberate touch of luxury (was too, shaddup!):

I replaced a bunch of consumable parts the day it came home: spark plugs, plug wires, cap and rotor, PCV valve, crankcase breather filter, and the (undersized) air filter. The ones that came out weren’t long past due, but they weren’t new, either. Nevertheless, the car was underpowered, sluggish and slow with the wheezy 2.5-litre engine and its throttle body “fuel injection”, which I’d rather call a pressurised-fuel electronic carburetor. It didn’t have to be this way, as Chrysler de México demonstrated that same year on that same car, but I guess real fuel injection was considered unAmerican and the piss-‘n’-dribble setup was considered good enough.

I put in synthetic oil—regular-brand stuff bought at a regular store, not one of these scams (oil you have to get from a pyramidal “dealer” out of his garage or the trunk of his car) and a good quality filter. The filter got changed every 8,000 miles; the oil every 16,000.

Over the years I specified and directed some upgrades: European-spec headlamps (objectively not better, just differently lousy and a bit less uncomfortable to drive with), European-spec sideview mirrors (larger, spring-hinged), European-spec side turn signal repeaters (is it a good idea for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers to see your signal when they’re alongside your car on the side where you’re about to move? You be the judge!)

Mother, being short, had to move the seat far forward to reach the pedals. This put her within danger distance of the first-generation airbag in the middle of the steering wheel. She got one of the few letters NHTSA issued, granting blanket permission for the letterholder to have the airbag disabled on any vehicle. I did this in the LeBaron by installing an export-spec steering wheel centre pad with nothing behind it.

The tubular antisway bar integral to the rear suspension’s trailing arm assembly cracked, broke its minimal tackweld, and began making creaky kroinnnnnnkkk noises; we had a solid steel bar welded in, which stopped the noise and stoutened things up in turns. There was a TSB for improved cold-engine driveability by dint of a revised intake manifold, so we got that installed. It didn’t perceptibly change the car’s performance. When we had the timing belt done we used a Mopar multi-keyway cam sprocket to advance the cam a few degrees to try to compensate for the thin Denver air. It didn’t change the car’s performance perceptibly. When the muffler went away we had a Magnaflow low-restriction item put in. It didn’t change the car’s performance perceptibly, but it did make it louder.

My second year at UOregon, I got a call from mother: the car was dripping bright green fluid from behind the right front wheel. Okeh, that’s probably a water pump seal; take it over to South Denver Automotive and have them see to it. A few days later, she rang again: “I took it to South Denver Automotive and you were right, it was the water pump. But I don’t think they did the job right; all the way home from the shop the water pump warning light was on.”

«The…uh…sorry, the which, now? The water pump warning light?»

“Yeah. It was on steadily when I was driving straight, and it was flashing when I would go around a corner or over a bump in the road.”

«Huh. And where is this water pump warning light, mother?»

“It’s on the dashboard with the other warning lights!”

«What does it look like?»

“It looks like a little icon of a fountain!”

«Mother; you’re low on windshield washer fluid. There’s a jug of it on the shelf in the garage.»

A year or two later, after I’d transferred to UMichigan, one day I spent the afternoon gathering data to reproduce earlier experimental results that I do not like being drunk (confirmed!). Specifically, I’d been in a bar drinking a beer called “La Fin du Monde”, which in French means “The end of the world”. It’s a Quebecois (i.e., distinct) beer with 9 per cent alcohol. I don’t recall how much of it I drank—enough that I stood no chance of riding my bike back to my dorm. For the matter of that, I stood no chance of staying stood; I leaned on the bike as a sort of makeshift walker, shambled my way home, and heavily fell more or less into bed.

Nowhere near long enough later, the phone rang. I ignored it, but it kept ringing; eventually I had to answer it. Mother was at the Chrysler dealer, in the middle of an argument with their service department, and she’d somehow got it in their head that I worked for Chrysler and she was gonna call me and have me tell them what was what, tellya what. I’m sure I don’t remember what the quarrel was about, nor exactly how I managed to handle that conversation, but somehow I put out whatever the fire was. Thanks for that, mother!

The car was fine for what it was: an unpretentious box on wheels, with not many frills but not so few as to feel like a penalty box on wheels. It rode and drove pleasantly enough. It was practical, with plenty of room in the cabin and in the trunk. It got decent gas mileage. It wasn’t expensive to insure or to keep in good repair. Aside from the occasional flat battery or other such, and the steady trickle of parts it consumed, as we had grown to expect from the American cars we bought, it didn’t break down. It took my mother where and when she wanted to go. All in all, she put another 70,000 miles or so on it, with some assistance by my sister who drove it at university in Illinois for a year or two—when she was done with it there, I drew the task of bringing it home; that was an unexcused absence from my job at the wrecking yard, and mostly what I remember about that trip is listening to Pink Floyd while stuck seemingly forever in traffic on I-80 or I-90 under the hot sun.

That thing about the “water pump warning light” wasn’t the only mother-related laff with this car. Sometime in 1999 when dad was busy having lymphatic cancer and mother was busy making everything about it worse for everyone, the car’s radiator failed. I was in the auto parts biz at the time and used my connections to get an OE Valeo radiator delivered quickly, then spent a few hours putting it in with a new thermostat and hoses, etc. My walking back in the house afterward, all dirty and greasy and coolanty, lit the fuse on one of mother’s rages: “I AM SICK AND TIRED OF YOU ACTING AS IF WE’RE YOUR SERVANTS! YOU NEVER DO ANYTHING USEFUL AROUND HERE, ALL YOU DO IS TAKE-TAKE-TAKE-TAKE!”, she screamed.

I had much too much experience with these tantrums for the absurdity of the accusation to seem unusual. Keeping my voice deliberately low, I said “I’m all done replacing the radiator in your car. I put in new hoses and a new thermostat and flushed the coolant, so I don’t think there’ll be cooling system trouble any time soon with it.” Her response: “THAT DOESN’T COUNT! YOU LIKE WORKING ON CARS!”. Remember, kids, it only counts as work if you hate doing it.

At ~140k in 2001 it was getting kind of aged for her. There are some hoots to be had about what she replaced it with, and how that went; those will be told in their turn. I bought the LeBaron from her for $1,200, put an additional $600 worth of brake and exhaust work into it—I ditched the Magnaflow and the internally-broken headpipe resonator (oh, that’s why so much ping at full throttle!) and went back to stock, and proceeded to run it about 40,000 of the least expensive, most reliable miles I have ever driven. In the harsh climates of Michigan and Ontario, at that. I did a few more upgrades along the way: a FWD Mopar wizard in Brantford, Ontario worked some magic on the transaxle so its shifts were just lovely: crisp and quick without being jarring, rather than mushy and slurred as before. I swapped on a set of the ’94-type taillamps, intending to eventually use their inbuilt reversing lamp compartments for amber turn signals—the ’92 rear bumper had reversing lamps—but I never got around to the wiring work that would’ve been necessary.

By 2004 or so the car was beginning to get on my nerves. The driver’s seat, never the world’s most supportive, had grown even flatter than it started and was distinctly uncomfortable on long trips. The driver-side headlamp lens had cracked—the export lamps were cheap glass rather than cheap plastic—and replacements had grown costly and difficult to get. But it still ran and drove well, the A/C was still frosty cold, and everything else still worked including the Chrysler Infinity FM/AM/Cassette/CD player I’d added. I sold the car into the greater Detroit area for $1,200, to a friend of a friend of a friend. Eventually it needed a head gasket, I heard, and the cylinders were said to still have visible cross-hatch. I guess that validated my long (by US standards) oil change intervals.

Really no substantial complaints. It did an unapologetically fine job of being what it was, and I liked it quite a lot better than I would have liked a comparable car from Ford or GM.

(We’ll be back to the oldies next week!)

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