Curbside Classic: 1988 Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country Turbo – Most Downsized Vehicle Of The Malaise Era?

Throughout its lengthy history, the Chrysler Town & Country was a vehicle that came in many different shapes and sizes. Yet throughout nearly eight decades of uninterrupted production (save for WWII), there was always at least one of two constants: 1) the Town & Country was Chrysler’s most family-oriented vehicle and/or 2) it was a “woodie” in one form or another. In many years, these two qualities happened to overlap, with one of those such being 1988.

Starting out life in 1941 as a true “woodie” station wagon, following World War II, the Town & Country was a woodie 4-door sedan, 2-door convertible, and ultimately, a 2-door hardtop sedan through 1950. Immediately following this, the Town & Country became Chrysler’s fullsize station wagon in 1951, a vehicle that ran concurrently with Chrysler’s fullsize sedans through the 1977 model year. Most recently, the Town & Country was more well-known as Chrysler’s long-running and very popular minivan, sold from the 1990 through 2016 model years. Yet the years between its life as a fullsize station wagon and a minivan are often most forgotten.

Although the rest of its fullsize C-bodies lasted another year before they were downsized to the 4-door “pillared hardtop”-only R-body for 1979, the Town & Country was shuffled to the midsize M-body in 1978. Serving as the premier station wagon variant of the LeBaron line, it came complete with simulated teakwood appliqué with white ash surround and insert moldings reminiscent of the original real woodie Town & Countrys of the 1940s.

Despite losing some two feet of length, nearly 1,000 pounds of weight, and the availability of a third row seat, at 205.5 inches long and 74.2 inches wide (based on 1981 specs), the M-body Town & Country still exhibited very fullsize exterior dimensions by today’s standards. It was also a very fullsize vehicle compared to the Town & Country that arrived in 1982, as to little surprise, Chrysler’s wagon was downsized yet again to the ever-multiplying compact front-wheel drive K-platform.

Now reduced to decidedly compact dimensions, the 1982 Town & Country rode on a taut 100.1-inch wheelbase and measured only 179.9 inches long, 68.5 inches wide, and a svelte 2,676 pounds. Downsizing of substantial proportions was the name of the game in the American automobile industry from the late-1970s through mid-1980s, but the Chrysler Town & Country was subjected to one of the largest quantitative losses of mass of any nameplate, and quite possibly the most significant loss of mass of any automobile during this period.

Just to put things in scope, the 1977 Chrysler Town & Country rode on a 124-inch wheelbase, measured 227.7 inches long and 79.4 inches wide, and tipped the scales at a mammoth 5,126 pounds with its optional 440 cubic inch (7.2 liter) V8. So, in just five years, the Chrysler Town & Country lost some 58 inches in length, 11 inches in width, and 2,450 pounds in weight. In fact, the Chrysler Town & Country wagon just might hold the title of “Most Downsized Vehicle” of the Malaise Era.

The Town & Country’s body wasn’t the only thing that faced such a drastic reduction in size. In that same period of time from 1977 to 1982, the Town & Country’s largest engine went from a 7.2 liter V8 making an admittedly weak 195 horsepower and 320 lb-ft torque as a result of emissions standards to a 2.6 liter I4 making just 92 horsepower and 131 lb-ft torque. Thankfully, power soon rebounded a bit, and by 1985 the Town & Country was available with an optional 2.2 liter turbo making 146 horsepower and 170 lb-ft torque.

In any event, the K-body Town & Country retained familiar styling features of its immediate predecessor including a prominent chrome “waterfall” radiator grille with crystal Pentastar hood ornament, standard roof rails, the quad headlamp fascia echoing larger Chryslers, available wire wheel discs, and its iconic faux “marine teak” woodgrain trim with light “white ash wood” moldings. A woodgrained LeBaron Town & Country was also produced during this era, the nameplate’s first application on a convertible since the 1940s, but for all intents and purposes, this article will focus only on the wagon.

As with past generations, the K-based Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country was a reasonably comfortable place to be in standard form, and a downright luxurious place to be if optioned right. Offered for the entirety of its production was the Mark Cross package, which upgraded the T&C’s standard cloth interior to soft leather supplied by the luxury leather retailer, Mark Cross. Mark Cross edition cars by default added the available 50/50 split front bench, along with a leather wrapped steering wheel and stitched door panels featuring the Mark Cross medallion.

Forgoing the button-tufted floating cushion design of larger EEKs, the somewhat loose pillow-like seats featured French stitching on the thigh and head cushions, with piping and contrast color vinyl trim. Mark Cross cars were commonly also equipped with all the power options including power front seats, windows, locks, mirrors, as well as air conditioning, electronic digital gauge cluster, and premium AM/FM stereo with cassette player.

Basic by today’s luxury car standards, for the 1980s, the Chrysler Town & Country was easily the most opulent small wagon available from an American manufacturer. After all, it was good enough for Frank Sinatra. Featuring luxuries rivaled only by the most loaded fullsize Buick Estate and Mercury Grand Marquis wagons — cars it was coincidently once sized directly against — the Town & Country was truly in a league of its own, in so many more ways than one.

Of course, that league was shrinking with the overall market for station wagons in the U.S. on the visible decline throughout the 1980s, as Baby Boomers’ preferences for family vehicles fell elsewhere. While there’s no quantitative data to support this, the LeBaron Town & Country’s buyers likely skewed middle-aged to older, as the Town & Country’s compact dimensions and fancier interior didn’t make it ideal for parents transporting many small, messy children.

Rather, the Town & Country was more ideal for people whose children (if they had them) were older and didn’t need to be driven around on a daily basis, much like one of the car’s most famous on-screen drivers, Mrs. Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Indeed this segment was small, but K-body Town & Country sales held fairly steady relative to total K-body LeBaron sales, averaging around 10 percent of total LeBaron sales from 1982-1988. Selling far better than top trim yet less plush in comparison Reliant/Aries wagons, a grand total of 52,601 K-body LeBaron Town & Country wagons were produced for the 1982-1988 model years, with its best year being 1984 at 11,578 units.

The truth was that those looking for a small luxury wagon or wagon alternative that wouldn’t break the bank had few options in the 1980s. As far as somewhat premium-ish wagons went, GM had their A-body Cutlass Ciera/Century and Ford had its Fox-body LTD/Marquis, but these wagons were larger and no more luxurious. The similarly-sized Nissan Maxima and Toyota Camry wagons lacked American gingerbread decor, and cost roughly 50% more when comparably-equipped, and anything from European brands easily cost much more.

The only truly luxurious compact SUV available at the time was the Jeep XJ Wagoneer, and it retailed for substantially more. There were no luxury minivans at this point, and even top-spec versions of the heavily-related Caravan/Voyager didn’t quite match the Town & Country’s posh finishes. Which likely sparked an idea at Highland Park.

Chrysler’s Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans were obviously a smash hit, and with the original K-car’s slated phase-out over the 1986-1989 model years that included no wagon replacements, it only was logical for Chrysler to introduce a luxury minivan under its own brand, thereby shuffling the Town & Country nameplate once again. The new Chrysler Town & Country minivan officially debuted in spring of 1989 as an early 1990 model, in the process marking the first time since 1974 that a new Town & Country increased in exterior size, a trend that would continue through 2016.

Concerning this generation Town & Country, the final wagon iteration, there is something intrinsically charming about its compact dimensions yet gaudy styling and big car aspirations… it’s almost cute. As a matter of fact, while photographing this car I was approached by the owner of the shop where it resided, asking if I was an interested buyer.

Had it not been for the crippling passenger side damage, I might have actually paused momentarily to even consider making an offer — before I would come to my senses and tell myself that buying an old K-car, even if it was for an insignificant amount, is an irrational decision on my part. I have neither the space nor time for another car of any type at this point. But I digress…

Aside from that very serious body and possible frame damage, and that’s a very big aside, cosmetically this must be one of the cleanest daily-driven LeBaron Town & Country wagons and K-cars still in existence. While the collector market for these isn’t that hot, they are indeed an interesting car in American automobile history, sort of a hybrid bridging of gaps between bygone eras of distinguished style and oblivious bigger-is-better consumption, and a modern era of increased social consciousness and efficiency.

It’s a bridging of eras that creates a very distinctive style, a style that certainly can be highly criticized for its overt gaudiness and its economy car underpinnings. Nonetheless it is a style that has its charm in a way very reminiscent of simpler times, even on a body so emaciated when compared to its decidedly obese predecessor of two generations prior. Some 21% shorter, 14% narrower, and 48% lighter than the Town & Country of 1978, could the Chrysler Town & Country be the most downsized vehicle of the Malaise Era?

Photographed in Falmouth, Cape Cod, Massachusetts – September 2018