I was riding a southbound bus from my neighborhood when this first- (or second-) year Chrysler LeBaron convertible caught my eye out of the eastern windows of the bus. I was super-excited. It was late September and still pretty warm outside, so I instinctively pulled the cord to request the next stop and basically told my now-ex that we were deboarding, nowhere near where we were headed. Instances like this may or may not have contributed to the demise of our long-term relationship, but then as now, I have no regrets for having taken a little detour to get these pictures.
Photographing this car was important to me, and my love of cars had been fully disclosed probably by our second date, if not the first. After all, any K-Car from any division of Chrysler Corporation was a rare find by 2013, and when new, this little red beauty was intended, along with the reborn Imperial coupe, to be the showroom traffic generator of your friendly, local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. Additionally, my earliest family-car memories were of Mopars, as the first three automobiles that had played a part in my own life’s story were all Plymouths.
Along with the 1982 Buick Riviera convertible, the same-year LeBaron convertible (with ’82 being the first year of the front-wheel-drive LeBaron and also the second year of the K-Cars’ introduction) was viewed as the grand reintroduction of the American convertible. This was after the “final year” 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertibles had rolled off the assembly line (before returning again for ’84, throwing investment buyers of the ’76 models into hissy fits), and when everyone assumed that the U.S.-branded drop-top was gone for good.
I was in my early grade-school years when the K-Baron convertible had made its debut (selling just over 12,800 units for ’82, and just under 10,000 units the next year), but I remember the appearance of this soft-top Chrysler seeming like a big deal. Even a little kid like me could sense the excitement generated by all of the triumphant commercials starring the then-CEO, the late Lee Iacocca. He delivered his sales pitches on TV spots with such a friendly-but-no-nonsense demeanor and confidence that it seemed impossible that anything he said could be anything but the absolute truth. Whereas the teenage me would later learn the ways of irony and call B.S. on things that didn’t ring true, the young me saw Mr. Iacocca as being maybe just one or two rungs down in authority from the President of the United States.
Looking at our featured car, in all of its shrunken, right-angled, geometric glory, I suppose that one “just had to be there” to understand the excitement a car like this little Chrysler generated when it was introduced. This was also at a time when the eponymous Chrysler brand still seemed to have real luxury connotations. Around this same time in the early ’80s, my maternal grandparents were on their first of two consecutive Chrysler M-Bodies, a 1980 LeBaron sedan, this car’s larger, RWD predecessor. I had spent a considerable amount of time as a kid at Chinonis Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge on Clio Road, on Flint, Michigan’s “Miracle Mile” of car dealerships (thanks to our ’77 Volaré), and I remember thinking that the downsized K-based LeBarons seemed to give up only a little in apparent prestige to what my grandparents drove and would replace with another M-Body, an ’83 Chrysler Fifth Avenue.
An ’82 base price of $11,698 for the base LeBaron convertible equates to over $31,000 in 2020 (the $13,998 LeBaron “Medallion” convertible’s price amounts to almost $37,500 in present day), though I’m positive both convertibles were well-equipped at that price. Also, from a different perspective, the entry-level convertible cost almost 25% more than the most expensive non-convertible, the Town & Country wagon. That Chrysler moved 12,800 of these convertibles in ’82, which I think is a fairly substantial number for an expensive, niche vehicle, shows that buyers were ready for the return of the American convertible.
For those who wanted a truly elegant and stately looking convertible, the ’82 Buick Riviera was available for a staggering starting price of $23,994 (over $64,000 in 2020, a figure that splits the difference between the base prices of a 2020 Chevrolet Suburban and a Cadillac Escalade). Still, now removed from the once-everywhere nature of the K-cars, I can see the appeal of a small, elegant soft-top runabout like this red LeBaron.
Though its proportions were slightly awkward (it was too short from bumper-to-bumper on its 100.3″ wheelbase for its chunky, linear styling to look genuinely great), it combined classic, Chrysler styling cues (waterfall grille, a myriad of Pentastar emblems, etc.) with a small, manageable platform that had what was seen as new-school, FWD technology. The masterful ad campaigns that were being broadcast regularly must certainly have helped with its success and popularity.
When discussing the return of the American convertible in the early 1980s, I have often observed that that people immediately gloss over the Riviera and promptly reference the LeBaron. I honestly don’t remember seeing any ads for the Riviera (the only reference on the Buick that I could find on YouTube was this non-brand-specific clip from General Motors from ’82), which may have something to do with this. Circling back to my opening paragraphs, though, the sight of this LeBaron convertible from one of the first two model years in which it was available reminded me of the optimism I had felt as a kid that anything seemed possible in terms of new and exciting automotive products. This was easily worth having deboarded the bus that day.
Uptown, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, September 28, 2013.