Curbside Classic: 1994 Chrysler LHS – The (Belated) Graduation Gift, For Me As Well As K-Car Weary America

(first posted 8/2/2011)    Beggars can’t (technically) be choosers. This is where I tell the story of my, as well as Chrysler’s, first modern big car.

Chrysler’s LH cars came out of the desperate need for evolution away from everything but the Viper being based upon the K Car architecture. Everything that wasn’t a captive import for Chrysler seemed to have root in that economy car platform, from the Sundance America to the saddest Imperial that ever existed.

One of the benefits of Chrysler’s buyout of AMC in 1987 was the existing Eagle Premier. A dynamically good platform for a mid/full sized car with light weight, credible performance in V6 form and excellent road manners, it pointed in a direction away from the K-Car based zombie line up. Unfortunately for the actual Premier and its Dodge Monaco cousin they never really found a place within the Chrysler hierarchy. Whether they were direct competitors with a Ford Taurus or an Audi 100 wasn’t very clear. Nor did anyone really know whether the “Eagle” was an AMC extension brand or a genuine Chrysler. It’s not like being a product of either manufacturer with a dubious legacy would have been a benefit.

But the chassis became a test bed for what would (thankfully) replace all of the K Car variants by 1996. Although no direct parts made it to the LH cars, they did share the philosophy of a longitudinally mounted V6/Front Wheel Drive design and four wheel independent suspension.  But the new “Cab Forward” design language was draped on a wheelbase nearly a half foot longer than the already roomy Premier, and overall lengths stretched to decidedly un-K car lengths.

When the first batch of LH cars debuted mid year 1992, they made not only their Pentastar ancestors look hopelessly ancient, they also seemed remarkably fresh compared to the recent update of General Motors H Body cars that were their most direct competitors.

About six months later a competitor to the C body Ninety Eight/Park Avenue and Lincoln Continental (and with a little stretch of the imagination, a competitor for the Acura Legend) debuted in the form of the LHS.

Out of all of the American near luxury luxo-barges of the early 1990s, The LHS looks second most modern. It came to market within a few months of the “fatal beauty” original Oldsmobile Aurora that was the hands down looker of the segment. But it didn’t trade on design cues from the 1960s the way the last Ninety Eight did, or for that matter contemporary DeVilles. Nor did it have the pleasant nondescript look of the Continentals on sale during the life span of the first generation models.

From the roofline cribbed from a Jaguar 420, to those lattice wheels, they was something slinky to the looks of the LHS. These looks were also applied to a new for 1994 New Yorker, which save for a standard Bench Seat, wheel covers as standard, softer spring rates and a bit more chrome, was the exact same car.

So how did this near luxury sedan become my first modern car, with features such as Air Bags, Fuel Injection and Anti-Lock Brakes? When I was in high school, the only cars I had access to were my dads 1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon or my Great Grandmothers 1987 Chrysler Fifth Avenue. The Cutlass, then twenty four years old, had no physical connection to the rear brakes, and therefore was a safety hazard. My mother usurped the Fifth Avenue as her second car as her Porsche 944 started seeing more trips to the shop.

This left me without a dedicated car of my own. And the only person that cared was my Uncle Vic. Then seventy two and a confirmed bachelor, he had a healthy amount of disposable income. The week of High School graduation, I received a phone call. Uncle Vic was at the Olds-GMC dealership in Reno, and gave me a few options and a budget of $8,000. Before I could say “Cutlass Supreme Convertible” my dad got on the line and put an end to the shenanigans. I had no way, with no summer job and going off to college, to afford upkeep on a car all on my own. So no choice of five year old lease returns for me.

But, Uncle Vic let his own automotive tastes within the budget loose. On June 8th, he signed the paperwork for a lease returned 1995 Chrysler LHS. June 9th he parked it in the garage and continued to drive his beloved 1970 Electra 225 to the casinos. I didn’t know of the purchase until his will was read labor day weekend 2002. And there it was, in all of it’s silver on graphite glory. All 207.4 inches of “Cab Forward” roominess. Four insanely difficult to clean lattice wheels.

I always wondered what made Uncle Vic decide on a LHS. Considering he was at a GM dealership, there should have been dozens of LeSabres, Regals, Cutlasses and the such on the lot. And like my fathers side of the family he was fiercely GM Loyal, with of all jumping off points, a 1958 Buick Century.

What about the design language spoke to him? It wasn’t as “brougham” looking as the offerings from GM and Ford at the time. And maybe that was the point. To an old man, the LHS looked sporty and youthful in a way all offerings from other domestic makers couldn’t match. It was perhaps the most “youthful” big car to a septuagenarian’s eyes since the Impala SS spewed out of factories by the hundreds of thousands in the mid 1960s.

Even though I had long ago drank the “buy American” Kool-Aid my family served at the table, I wasn’t happy that of all recent used cars I was saddled with a full sized Chrysler a dead senior citizen probably considered youthful. There were the acres of hard black plastic in a car that originally cost $30,000. The somewhat harsh 3.5L V6. And that Gawd Awful Ultra Drive Automatic. But it served it’s duty. It was a remarkably tireless freeway cruiser. And it handled surprisingly well for something that was nearly the size of an early 1960s Impala.

Although it had been a pampered Garage Queen with barely 60,000 miles on it, it started to show its Chrysler issues soon. The front suspension needed constant re-alignment. The air conditioning never worked, and by 80,000 miles the Ultradrive was beginning to become hesitant about finding reverse, and clunky about downshifting for quick freeway merges.

It all got cured by a tree. On the way to class one morning I decided to avoid a stalled Corolla (it does happen, Toyotas do break), so I took out the LHS I had been apathetic about for two years on a redwood tree. And quality fails of all quality fails, even though I hit the tree at about 25 mph, the airbags didn’t deploy. I felt like it was an easy way out of a shotgun marriage. There was bound to be far more serious issues as it aged. I took the insurance money and bought, true to family brand loyalty, a 1991 Oldsmobile Eighty Eighty Royale.

And that makes me wonder, where did the typical LHS buyer go? What are all of the Luxo Barge buyers buying 20 years after the last gasp of this category fired its last assault on the Car Market? Only 3 American descendants of this genre still exist: The Buick LaCrosse, Lincoln MKS and Chrysler 300. And are these 3 survivors of what was once the heart of the American Car market now the dinosaurs soon to be extinct?

Is there still a place in the average car buyers heart for the stylish barge?. Or has America permanently moved on to some alternative. Despite the flaws, the original LHS was one of the most beautiful entries in a pageant nobody watches anymore. And it’s a pity that our roads, our dealerships aren’t filled with stylish whimsy that existed only 15 years ago.