Curbside Classic: 1988 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible – Dressed For Success?

First impressions are important, which is why career advisors instruct people to dress for success.  If you head to a job interview wearing conservative, fashionable clothing, looking confident, and avoiding questionable accessorizing, you are likely to be viewed as a successful candidate.  Of course, this has to be backed up with actual skills, or else the charade will be superficially obvious.  Many people fall short of that latter point; cars do, too.  Our featured car is like the good-looking job applicant who has little to back up those looks.  This might be Chrysler’s prettiest design of the 1980s, but under the skin it was disappointingly identical to every front-drive Chrysler product of the decade.

This was certainly an attractive design, in both coupe and convertible form.  Joking about the LeBaron’s sexy appearance, the Washington Post’s automotive correspondent wrote that “if the LeBaron were a textbook, it would be banned in Alabama.”  Banned or not, it represented a break from the boxy tedium and tacky accessories that had filled Chrysler showrooms for many years, and the company held hopes that it would attract legions of upper-middle class customers to become customers for life.  These hopes went largely unfilled, as many car shoppers saw beyond the car’s seductive appearance.  Instead of being a transformative car, the coupe version quickly tanked, and the convertible only stayed afloat by finding a niche as a bargain soft top.

Chrysler Corporation flirted with death in the early 1980s before staging a remarkable comeback, thanks to two factors: The successful Aries/Reliant K-car, and increased manufacturing efficiencies.  This latter point included the company’s ability to create a whole family of cars from the humble Aries/Reliant twins.  From minivans to New Yorkers to Daytonas, K-car derivatives filled Chrysler Corporation’s wallet due to saved costs.  Chrysler returned to profitability, but as the North American auto market emerged from its malaise-era doldrums, how long would customers remain satisfied with gussied-up K-cars?

The mid-80s Chrysler-brand lineup illustrates this challenge: How could cars like these stack up to increasing domestic and import competition?  Chrysler sensed this looming problem and sought to shake off its “Miser Motors” reputation by attracting a younger and more affluent clientele.  Furthermore, with consumers rediscovering their affection for large cars, Aries/Reliant derivatives were losing appeal across all demographic segments.  Meeting these challenges required both fresh products and a fresh mindset.  Chrysler’s mid-1980s strategy was to refashion its midrange LeBarons into international-flavored models.  The LeBaron GTS / Dodge Lancer twins debuted for 1985, while Round Two starred our featured car… the LeBaron coupe and convertible (known internally as the J-body), which bowed two years later.

LeBaron’s introduction coincided with a refocusing of the Chrysler brand itself, emphasizing semi-premium models unique within Chrysler Corporation’s offerings.  Initially, Dodge dealers were to get a version of this car to sell as a Lancer coupe, but ultimately it wound up being a Chrysler-only product.

Given that Chrysler hoped to expand its customer base to new horizons with this car, it’s curious that they named it LeBaron.  Intended to evoke visions of 1930s coachbuilt grandeur, the name more likely reminded customers of a more recent decade’s string of unexceptional sedans.

If Chrysler really wanted to use a name from its recent past, it should have called the new car Cordoba.  When introduced for 1975, the elegantly-styled Cordoba coupe vaulted to the top of the sales charts, accounting for two-thirds of Chrysler brand sales for its first two years.  No such success, however, would accompany the 1987 LeBaron coupe and convertible.  In its introductory year, for example, the new LeBaron accounted for only a quarter of Chrysler brand sales.

The LeBaron coupe was introduced first, in February 1987, and from the outset, sales were somewhat disappointing.  Part of this reflected that the car’s introduction caught the tail end of the personal luxury coupe era.  While still a notable market segment, 2-door car sales were heading downhill quickly in the late 1980s; a repeat of the Cordoba’s success was unthinkable.  But just as significantly was that beyond its looks, this car just didn’t resonate with buyers.  Initially, Chrysler blamed its odd February introduction for the car’s tepid sales, though by October, dealers were saddled with a three-month supply of LeBarons – more than the ideal 60-day supply, and rather discouraging for a new model.

Given its early lack of success, the LeBaron may have faded away quickly were it not for the introduction of a second body style – the convertible, launched several months after the coupe.  With the 1982-86 LeBaron convertible ranking as one of Chrysler’s 1980s hits (it helped to reinvigorate interest in droptops after they faded away a decade earlier), Chrysler expected this new convertible to be well received… but few could have imagined that over the model’s lifespan, the convertible would actually outsell the coupe.

Source: Standard Catalog of Chrysler, 1914-2000

For 1987, Chrysler produced about 83,000 LeBarons, though convertibles accounted for only 8,000 units due to its late introduction.  The following year saw an interesting turnabout: Coupe sales plunged by 35%, and the convertible came on remarkably strong.  Between 1988-90, annual convertible production averaged 38,000 units, even among falling coupe sales.  By 1990, convertibles comprised two-thirds of LeBaron production, and after 1993, the coupe was dropped altogether.  Even in those final years, the then-aged convertible still pulled in over 30,000 annual sales.

Unlike other 1980s Big Three convertibles, LeBaron was designed completely in-house, rather than being a coupe with its top cut off by an aftermarket company.  Engineered as a convertible from the bottom up, LeBaron’s chassis was reinforced (particularly in the central tunnel and surrounding the rear seat) on Chrysler’s St. Louis assembly line.  LeBaron also featured a power-operated hydraulic top with a glass rear window – both somewhat of a novelty among 1980s convertibles.

Coupe or convertible, people’s initial reaction to these cars was typically positive, since the design was very well executed.  The car’s signature design feature was the concealed headlights – different from the more typical 1980s pop-up headlights, these swing-up doors provided a sleek, yet still formal look.  This permitted a dignified grille, in keeping with Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca’s preference for traditional designs rather than the trendy, bubbly cars he dismissed as “flying potatoes.”  LeBaron pulled off its traditionalism very well, with its steeply-raked windshield and subdued athleticism avoiding the boxy gingerbread look of other period Chrysler products.

Incidentally, while the concealed headlights may have seemed like a fresh idea, it was recycled from a decade earlier when similar “retractable headlamp doors” appeared on Chrysler’s 1977 LeBaron Turbine concept car, and modified versions appeared on the 1979-81 New Yorker and 1981-83 Imperial.  Of these designs, the ’87 LeBaron’s was easily the most attractive.

LeBaron’s design smoothness is carried over to the rear, where a full-width light panel produces a clean, contemporary appearance.  The rear quarter’s vaguely Coke-Bottle, athletic shape translated well to 1980s design trends, managing to be neither stodgy nor futuristic.  Overall, the design is devoid of period cliches or tacky embellishments, making it one of the more polished designs to come out of the Big Three during its era.

Undoubtedly, LeBaron gained many sales based on its appearance – but likely lost as many due to its undistinguished drivetrain.  Despite its status as 1987’s Indy 500 Pace Car, it was based on the humble K-car (in fact, this car rides on the same 100.3” wheelbase as the Aries/Reliant) and had a predictable drivetrain.  Power options for 1987-88 started with Chrysler’s 2.5-liter 100-hp 4-cylinder engine, with an optional 146-hp 2.2-liter turbo powerplant (later versions offered an upgraded turbo or a V-6).  Five-speed manual transmissions were standard, though the vast majority of LeBarons left the factory equipped with three-speed automatics.  None of this was particularly thrilling in the late 1980s, and it wasn’t just the engine that lacked excitement or refinement.  For example, the MacPherson strut / rear beam axle suspension was hardly advanced, nor were the standard disc/drum brakes.

A lack of refinement made the sleekly-styled LeBaron drive like an Aries.  These cars weren’t bad to drive, but they lacked any outstanding feature with which to impress test-driving customers.  Buyers interested in spirited driving could choose the optional sport suspension and larger tires, but even this didn’t approach leading-edge driving dynamics for its day.  Combined with over-boosted power steering, LeBaron won few friends based on its personality.

While disappointing, this relative lack of refinement wasn’t a fatal flaw in the late-1980s personal coupe sector.  Looking at LeBaron coupe’s competitors, the GM-10 cars (Cutlass Supreme, Regal, etc.) had similarly uninspired base models and questionable quality control.  But Chrysler found an advantage on price: LeBaron undercut the GM-10s’ prices by about 15%.  Ford’s RWD Thunderbird felt more substantial, but it likewise came at a hefty  premium.  Chrysler’s competitive pricing kept LeBaron coupe in the game for a while even without any compelling mechanical advantages; though in hindsight, it’s clear that a better-engineered car would have crushed the GM competition.

As for the LeBaron convertible, it was basically in a league of its own.  A $14,000 base price positioned it as a value-leader for convertibles – undercutting the Mustang, Cavalier, and even the VW Cabriolet.  While fully-loaded LeBaron turbos pushed $20,000, even they seemed like a value when compared to the competition.  Thus, the concept of an affordable convertible wound up being LeBaron’s lifeline.  Ironically, for a car that was supposed to bring Chrysler out of the bargain basement, LeBaron found its greatest advantage in… beating its competitors’ prices.

Our featured car is well equipped with leather interior, automatic climate control, the optional Infinity stereo system, and electronic instruments.  It does not, however, contain the optional turbocharged engine, instead making do with the standard 2.5-liter four to power the 3,000-lb convertible.

A car like this would have listed for about $18,000 when new… not an insubstantial price, but for customers looking for a svelte 4-seater convertible, this car would have been high on anyone’s list.

Climbing aboard, one sees that the interior didn’t get the same level of design attention as the exterior.  Cheap plastics abounded, the fake burled walnut trim didn’t fool anyone, and the squarish dashboard appeared incongruous when compared to the graceful exterior styling.  Many components came straight from Chrysler’s parts bin, like that boxy dash assembly sourced from the LeBaron’s showroom predecessor, the Laser.  This interior wasn’t exactly a selling point for a “premium” Chrysler.  1990 LeBarons received an updated interior, the likes of which should have come with this car three years earlier.

Front seat accommodations were generally roomy enough for comfort, and while the rear seat certainly wouldn’t win any enjoyability awards, it was certainly acceptable by 1980s standards.

Not that anyone cared about the rear seat in a convertible.  In fact, the phrase “not that anyone cared” explains why the LeBaron wasn’t a complete flop.  Convertibles are awesome – doubly so in the 1980s when the auto industry was emerging from the Convertible Dark Ages.  Putting the top down on a beautiful day makes about 70% of life’s problems disappear, and also obscures all sorts of faults that would be untenable in an ordinary car.  The LeBaron was average from a mechanical standpoint, very good from an appearance standpoint, and splendid as a convertible.

Chrysler hoped the car’s charm would work in the European market as well.  When the company relaunched its Chrysler-branded vehicles in Europe, LeBaron was the company’s image-leader.  Predictably, European sales of this New World convertible were less than outstanding, though it did develop a small, loyal following.

At some point, Chrysler management must have realized that the carbuying public was fatigued over regurgitated K-cars.  Had that realization come earlier, the LeBaron could have had a much more impactful legacy.  As it is, the LeBaron left many observers scratching their heads… it’s easy to envision this as a great car: Why was Chrysler seemingly satisfied with it being average?

Given this averageness, the LeBaron lasted a mighty long time – 6 model years with no significant design changes, and another 3 years after a facelift (which replaced the concealed headlights with flush-mounted lights).  After 1995, LeBaron was replaced with the Sebring – a similar vehicle with good looks, average engineering, and with a convertible handily outselling its coupe counterpart.

In retrospect, LeBaron joins the legion of cars that made it halfway to success.  It looked the part, but undoubtedly many test-drives ended with disappointment.  Like a job-seeker at an interview, one needs to look the part and act the part.  Dressing for success is a good start, but not quite a complete strategy.


Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in December 2018.


Related Reading:

1992 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible: Take Your Top Off, Sweetie   Jason Shafer