(first posted 3/7/2014) Chrysler officially retired the K-cars in 1989, but the scaling back of different variations began earlier. This 1986-1988 LeBaron Town and Country wagon, with Turbo, was one of the most fully optioned steel-roofed varieties, made near the end of the original models’ run. Aside from some missing badges on the “wire” wheel covers, this is an excellent example of the original design’s versatility.
We’ve only recently covered the K-car in its most basic permutation, but most buyers knew this was a modest car. Although crank-down rear windows were mercifully installed by 1983, upgrades were drastically needed, particularly where they concerned powertrains. Convertibles were the big story for 1982, meaning you could get an expensive version with leather and a more wobbly chassis, but to really make these higher-trim variants viable purchases, more power was needed.
That came in 1984, with the first turbocharged 2.2. It certainly seems like the car’s current owner appreciates theirs, and why not? One hundred forty-six turbocharged horses were nothing to sneeze at back then, and with a high stall speed to offset its tall gearing, the Torqueflite helped mitigate the worst effects of turbo lag, making the most of the available 168 lb-ft of torque. A turbocharged version of the original K is probably the one which could comfortably drive in today’s traffic, as long as one remembers to actively use his or her right foot to overcome the lag. What’s more impressive, this very up-to-date tech was offered in the thoroughly conventional-looking wagon, which helped make the drastic downsizing relatively painless.
Of course, there’s not too much to say about the Ks that hasn’t already been discussed on these pages, so I’ll keep this focused on the LeBaron, which came out in 1982 and was produced until 1988. More rounded front and rear clips added for 1986, when the 2.6 Mitsubishi engine was exchanged for a long-stroke 2.5, also with balance shafts. Of the regular wheelbase Ks (and not the extended wheelbase sister models) only the LeBaron got the Turbo 2.2, which received continuous improvement, gaining a computer-controlled wastegate for ’85, lower friction internals for 1986 and a smaller turbo and revised intake manifold for 1988. The introduction of this engine in such a family friendly model is a decision which, with thirty years’ hindsight, has proven wise, helping these Reliant clones to compete with the likes of GM’s H-bodies and justifying their additional cost over lesser Dodge and Plymouth stablemates. It’s hard to think of any front-drive four-cylinder from the era which could come anywhere near meeting today’s performance standards, other than the Saab 900 turbo. Unlike that car, of course, the Chrysler wasn’t saddled with a such a notoriously fragile automatic transmission or a $17,000 price tag (in 1984, about $39,000 today).
The buggy it was attached to was obviously less impressive, but therein lay the new Town and Country’s appeal: like a good Detroit cruiser, its combination of an ordinary chassis with good power and cushiness made for a solid value. Precise handling and ergonomic design weren’t everyone’s priorities, but just as today, most people wanted to go fast. Despite its modesty and unfashionable design, the turbocharged K-cars offered one of the first ways for American car buyers to get moving again. It was an ironic use of new technology to reproduce that good old feeling.
Looking over this car, what strikes me most are all the embellishments on what ultimately is a very modest car. Growing up, the only K-cars I rode in were very basic Aries and Reliant sedans. Like the higher-trim minivans, though, the LeBaron offered buyers a way to doll up a very basic machine, and the inside of this small box, complete with chrome strips lining the cargo area, is oddly charming.
There are some people who find having the most fully-optioned version of car satisfying, regardless of the status of the basic package. This LeBaron Town and Country was made for them; it certainly looks like Chrysler threw its whole bag of tricks at its plainest car. On one hand, you have wire wheel covers, a clear
plastic glass hood ornament, and faux-wood paneling from which not even the luggage rack could escape.
On the other hand, you have the turbo engine, complete with fake vents on the hood and an ovular tailpipe extension (à la Saab). If the shape underneath all that trim weren’t so basic, it would come across as garish, but this package falls somewhat short of that, looking somewhat silly but still respectable.
A good gauge of the public’s reaction to a new design is how purchasers tend to order their cars. While K-car sales did get off to a slow start when the first well-optioned examples made their way onto dealer lots, demand eventually grew for more loaded examples. And considering that a lot of people ordered their K-cars with convertible tops or wood grain-festooned roof racks like the one seen here, Chrysler’s box was well-accepted.
Reasonable quality probably had a bit to do with it. Both Ford and GM had managed to tackle quality concerns to the point that their cars became reasonably reliable and Chrysler, at least for a while, did the same thanks to the simplicity of this design. Of course, time was running out for the basic K and by the time this car was built, the new J-body was replacing the LeBaron coupe and convertible, and the 3.0 V6 was coming on line. It and the Ultradrive transmission would fully replace the powertrain on this car’s successors, which used the same basic chassis. Today, we can see that it might have made more sense to reverse those engineering priorities, but that only makes these final, overdone LeBaron wagons easier to appreciate.