Curbside Classic: 1980 Chrysler LeBaron – A Car (and a Company) In Transition

(first posted 2/25/2014)    Let’s just get this out front.  I love these cars.  I have always loved these cars.  But I have never been quite sure of the source of these cars’ hold on me.   They were not exceptional for their power or styling, although they were no worse than competitive offerings.  It certainly wasn’t the build quality, either.  In fairness, though, this had improved quite a bit from Chrysler’s lows of the mid 70s.  Maybe it was that this car seemed to represent a shift in what was coming out of the company.  More bluntly, this finally looked like a car that I would not have to make excuses for liking.  That, and the fact that it didn’t look so much like that cursed Volare.

Long after other brands developed a multiplicity of models, Chrysler remained a one-car division.  The company finally reconsidered when it introduced “the small Chrysler” – the 1975 Cordoba.  If the Cordoba was the small Chrysler, the new 1977 LeBaron was the teeney-weeney Chrysler.  The LeBaron, and its Dodge Diplomat twin (CC here), were the beginnings of the M body, an up-market variant of the 1976 Volare and Aspen.

The 1977-79 LeBaron had been only moderately successful.  Both the Ford Granada and the Cadillac Seville had shown that there was a big market for more luxury in a smaller package.  But the original LeBaron never really ht the mark.  The cars were not that attractive (anyone could see that they looked too much like the much cheaper Volare), and this was not a high period for Chrysler’s quality (please note the subdued understatement).  But in the early fall of 1978, we drinkers of the Chrysler Kool-Ade were met with the news that Lee Iacocca (fresh from his firing by Henry Ford II) had accepted an offer to lead Chrysler out of the wilderness.

The heavily restyled 1980 LeBaron was one of the first new vehicles launched under Iacocca’s watch.  Only a year earlier, the introduction of the 1979 R body had been a complete disaster.  This car hit the ground much more smoothly.  Finally, the car didn’t look quite so much like a Volare, and I considered it a big improvement.  Mechanically, the car was pretty much a carry-over from the prior version.  Either a 225 ci slant 6 or a 318 (5.2 L) V8 powered the car through a Torqueflite tranny with a lockup torque converter.  But beyond the basics, there were significant improvements, not least was the extensive use of galvanized steel in the bodies.  The bodies of Mopars from this era proved to be virtually impervious to rust-through in the snow belt.  Not even the sainted GM B bodies resisted corrosion this well.

Also, the cars interiors were improved a lot.  The LeBaron was not slotted as a luxury car (this was still the New Yorker’s job) but the quality of its interiors was nothing to be embarrassed over.  The instrument panel (a carry-over from 1977-79) was traditional yet expensive looking with lots of buttons and chrome.  Plus, it included both an ammeter and a temperature gauge, as was routine Chrysler practice at the time.

Unfortunately, these cars were introduced at perhaps the worst possible time.  This car found itself in the middle of a perfect storm.  First, Chrysler’s fortunes had been flagging for some time, and by late 1979, there were doubts that the company would survive, even with a Federal loan guarantee package.  The deathly pallor of the company frightened off a lot of buyers.  No matter how nice the cars may have seemed, recent experience had suggested that buyers were going to need no small amount of warranty service, so why take a chance on a company that might not be there to provide it.  Second, the economy had begun its drop into one of the worst recessions of the postwar years and sales of everyone’s 1980 models tanked.

Finally, by the summer of 1979, gasoline prices started a 3 year long upward spiral which hammered the sales of larger cars.  The LeBaron was probably hurt more than most.  If you wanted a large V8 car, the R body Newport and New Yorker were there to give you real big-car roominess and ride.  Although the LeBaron was significantly smaller in usable passenger and cargo room, the car used the same powertrains and did not provide much of an improvement in efficiency.  The confluence of these currents made sure that  these cars were relatively rare, even when new.  My research indicates that about 33000 of these sedans were made (including all engines and trim levels), down from about 58000 sedans in 1979.  Compare this with the nearly 110,000 Fifth Avenues in 1985 (at nearly double the price of this LeBaron), and you can see how poorly these cars sold.

An interesting side note to this car, is that in mid 1980, Chrysler farmed a job out to American Sunroof Corp. to build a small number of LeBarons with a cobbled-up rear roofline extension and other unique styling and trim touches.  The result was 654 examples of what was called the LeBaron Fifth Avenue Limited Edition.  After a hiatus in 1981 (the final year of the rear drive LeBaron before the name was transferred to a fancy K car), that car became the 1982 New Yorker Fifth Avenue, and then just the Chrysler Fifth Avenue in 1983-89.  The Fifth Avenue remained as the final “traditional” Chrysler, and graced many a senior citizen’s garage in the 1980s and 90s, making a lot of money for Chrysler in the process.

I saw this particular car as it turned into a parking lot about 50 yards away from me.  As I noticed the car, the thought flashed through my mind that this was not a Diplomat or a 5th Avenue, but their much rarer platform-mate, the 1980-81 LeBaron.  I circled through the parking lot and thought I had lost the car, when I finally saw it, just as its owner was coming out of a store.   John McCullough was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his day to let me photograph his car and to tell me a little about it.  John, now retired, is the son of the original owner, who bought it around the time he retired.  John’s father had owned a Plymouth and Dodge dealership in Findlay, Ohio for about 40 years, and this was his final choice for a new car.  John has owned the car since 1989, and and it still only has about 80,000 miles on the clock.  This particular car is the high-end Medallion series (as opposed to base or Salon trim), and is thus one of only about 13,000 made.  A good number of those were the slant 6,  so one of these with V8 power was a rare sight even in the 80s.

The car is driven regularly and has served its only family well.  It has, however, been the recipient of some hard knocks on its driver’s side.  John told me that at least the replacement door fixed a bad power window.  Also, we can see that the galvanized steel in the body has done its job, as there is nary a rust hole anywhere on this old warrior.  After our talk, John slid into the driver’s seat to leave.  A single “Na-Rayre” from that old Chrysler starter and the well-tuned 318 sprang to life.  I love those sounds.

As I recall my encounter with this old LeBaron, I think I understand my love for these cars a little better.  This was an honest car that aimed for a disappearing segment of the market.  It was nicer than the Diplomat, and lacked the excesses of the Fifth Avenue, which tried to be something that it was not.  It was just a well-executed upgrade of a mid-priced mid-sized car, which fixed many of the problems that stemmed from the car’s flawed Volare platform.  These were among the last cars with some of the old-school Chrysler touches but were the beneficiaries of some improved execution as the company entered the “New Chrysler” era.  The result was a car that still had its issues and was not for everyone, but did (and continues to do) what a good Chrysler always did – outlast a lot of other cars.