(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.
CC is definitely the place right now for fake-wood wagons!
I’m one of those who likes a fully optioned basic car. I drive an ’06 Ford Focus with leather and sunroof! The trick is to buy ’em used when the major gouging you get for all that tacked-on crap has depreciated out.
But even this was too much for me at the time. I want to call it “lipstick on the pig” except I never thought the K car was particularly porcine. It was that elusive honest car, squarely styled and priced right, at least in plain trim. But all tarted up and badged as a Chrysler? Oh, come now.
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
No, just no. The K cars were GM A-body competitors. The only thing a “Town and Country” K-car should have made GM want to do was make sure that wood grain and pillowed velour were kept as option packages on the Cutlass Ciera.
They did, the woodgrain was still available on the Century wagon until like 1993.
Sorry I meant “did” not “should”. My overall point was that the regular wheelbase K cars were not H-body competitors.
I must admit I always sort of liked those “crystal” hood ornaments. The way they turned the pentastar logo into a faceted piece was clever and it was different from any bit of trim offered by any other manufacturer.
Okay, now somebody needs to find a Vega/Monza woodie wagon. That would complete the Big Three Triumvirate. There has to be an H-body wagon out there somewhere begging to be photographed and written about.
There’s a GM H-body that the LeBaron can look down on!
“There are some people who find having the most fully-optioned version of car satisfying, regardless of the status of the basic package.”
All here know by now our 1981 Reliant was the most bare-bones car I have ever owned. Then in 1986, we bought a 1984 Chrysler E-Class. A stunningly gorgeous car. From the bottom of the line to nearly the top. The only options it didn’t have were a cassette player, power seats and cruise control. An extremely comfy ride!
I suppose the same comparison could be made for my 2012 Impala LTZ vs. a rental-grade LS.
I think you have to admit the idea of external, stuck on, non-structural, plastic wood has not aged well.
But I suspect that underneath there is a solid if unglamorous car waiting to offer some decent service, even if the driving position looks a odd, with the wheel at that angle.
Nice find, Perry
Actually the plasti-wood aged well, it really looked just that bad when it was new
I am trying to look at possibly buying one of these.. 1986 Paneled wagon 70,000 miles. Great shape. What’s a fair price for this. Thanks!
This car will get you there, but it doesn’t have a cupholder armrest.
Hmmmm…..MG or a white Chrysler LeBaron?…..tough choice.
I owned a nearly identical car sans the turbo. My 5th K car. After a 84 Aries wagon, 89 Aries Sedan, and an ’86 Dodge Lancer. They all had that 3 speed auto tranny that insured slow get aways. Remincent of a Chevy with a 2 speed auto or a Dynaflow.
Ever since seeing “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off” I’ve had a perverse desire to own one of these, di noc and all.
Ha ha ha! I have seen this movie a dozen times but I never noticed the seatbelt on the Town N’ Country caught on the door like on this photo!
Ferris Buellers family had one of the most 80’s car trios of all time, Mrs. Buellers Town and Country LeBaron wagon, Mr. Buellers Audi 5000 and Jeannie’s white Fiero 2M4.
You get a K-car double whack in Ferris Bueller, Mr. Rooney also drives a cheapo Aires sedan.
And didn’t his mate have a white 70s Alfa Romeo Alfetta saloon that wasn’t working which was why they stole his father’s car?
It worked, he starts it and rev’s the crap out of it several times, but they needed a “nice” car to pretend to be Ferris’s girlfriends dad so they could get her out of school.
Thank you! I knew this looked familiar but being as we didn’t get K-cars (and definitely never put plastic wood on cars) over here I was puzzled as to why. Mystery solved – It’s Ferris’ Mum’s car.
Hold your horses !
yup. that’s a LHD Opel Ascona. Not sold in the UK 😉
I believe they did sell them in US Buick dealerships though…
Oh yes ! I see, only the scenery is a bit UK-ish. But it clearly is an Opel Ascona Kastenwagen, the Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte edition.
Yep, that’s our little Buick Opel Kadett, but I never remember it coming as a woody
That’s an Opel Kadett. The woody above is an Opel Ascona, a bigger model.
I think the idea here was to offer an older “traditional” car buyer a smaller, more economical car without having to make all of the comfort tradeoffs that would have been required a decade earlier. I remember seeing these in showrooms, and they were NOT inexpensive. I recall looking at one (same color and all) in a showroom with my mother when her Horizon was getting serviced, and she ooohed and ahhhhed all over the thing, but knew that she could never afford it.
Chrysler should get some credit for its turbo development. Up to that time, turbos were high-maintenance items for enthusiasts. Chrysler developed the thing to provide good service in a grocery-getter. One big advance was water-cooling for the turbo bearing to solve the oil-coking that was all-too-common on turbos at the time from shutdown of hot engines. Also, I believe that those hood vents were functional, allowing heat to dissipate after shutdown.
As for the hood ornament, these were supposedly made of crystal, or at least some kind of glass. I don’t think clear plastic would still be that clear after all these years. As I mentioned the other day, if there were a K car that could worm its way into my heart, it would be one of these.
A “grocery-getter,” Ha! My elderly next door neighbors when I lived in San Diego had one of these, an earlier version, I think. By that time it was the mid-90’s, and they had babied this silly little wagon along quite nicely. Only the wife drove it, I would see her coming home with, what else, her groceries in the back, or arriving home all freshly coiffed from a trip to the beauty salon. It never went anywhere farther than a local neighborhood errand run. It always seemed so diminutive and fragile, it matched their personas exactly. Ever since, I have viewed these T&C K-wagons as elder-mobiles.
These cars became Chryslers because Chrysler had nothing else except an old BOF compact it was selling as a Fifth Avenue. If a buyer recognized the Fifth as the old Aspen and Volare gussied up as a Chrysler, then a Chrysler salesperson could at least show them a more modern K-Car based Chrysler, which was this one.
Chrysler didn’t have much to offer except these cars. Fortunately it was rolling in dough thanks to the Voyager and the Caravan, along with the K-Car and the company was optimistic and had the new larger FWD sedans being readied, which were legit Chryslers.
But not these. Not for those prices. They might not have been bad cars, but they weren’t Chryslers.
Actually, the Fifth Avenue was not BOF, but another in Chrysler’s long line of unibodies. These predated the minivans by several years, but you are right in one sense, that they were the products of desperation. Iacocca was convinced of two things – 1) that gas was headed to $2/gallon permanently and 2) that Chrysler did not have the resources to compete in every segment of the American market. This was why the RWD stuff all but disappeared and why so much development was put into a massive number of permutations from the K platform. When these came out in 1981, they were viewed as very modern and seemed to be where the future of cars was going.
Geez – those Fifth Avenues aren’t BOF? They sure seem obsolete even back then.
All Mopar cars with the exception of Imperials went unibody in 1960. Nobody thinks about that because the transition went very smoothly, unlike the Forward Look fiasco in 1957. Imperial went unibody in 1967 when it moved to a derivative of the C-body platform.
Unibody did not necessarily equal modern, with both the Fifth Avenue (and the AMC Matador) as Exhibits. Actually, Chrysler’s last BOF car (unless I am missing something more modern and obscure) was the 1966 Imperial that traced its lineage directly back to the 1957 models. Everything else went Unibody in 1960. (edit – Oops, BOC beat me to it.)
Why do some assume any pre-1980 RWD domestic is BOF? It was no secret that Mopar’s went unibody in 1960.
And why think the Volare’ family was anything close to BOF? It was like the Valiant/Dart.
Here’s a youtuby video with a K-Car theme.
I wonder what the Toyota Supra driver thought, I’d hate to be him.
Now I am laughing. A car called le baron with plastic wood trim. Does it have wood stove for heating?
Nicest K I’ve seen
Road Ready. Almost right up there in hyperbole with “Trail Rated”. Which I dyslexically thought at first was a special trim package for lawyers, or Jeep saying that they had all their files ready at hand for any defense work down the road.
HaHa – I love the idea of Trial Rated – someone needs to make that badge for some of the more notoriously litigated cars out there (Pintos and Explorers come to mind).
As a person that can appreciate a good brougham, these were a little over the top even for me. And too lacking the gravitas of a true brougham. I don’t know if anyone will agree with this heresy, but inside and out it does seem to sort of channel the 1940’s Town & Country. A gussied up Chrysler for the ’80s that worked for some people.
But, this did serve a literal and figuratively dying market. Sort of like the Panthers consolidated the rear drive V-8 market, the Super Ks consolidated every ’60s luxury styling cliché into a package for those worried about fuel costs. A fairly successful strategy until about 1985 – ’87.
But, even Iacocca figured it out as he had to have been the guy that green lighted Chrysler’s next huge transformation in the early ’90s with the LH PL and JA cars, seemingly in the nick of time, and they avoided the financial drama that led up to the intro of the Ks. I recall saying something to the salesman when I bought my ’95 Concorde that the store had to be pretty happy with the transformation of the line-up after all the Ks and derivatives. One of my Mr. Obvious moments.
Those vents look cool. Like the ones on an IROC-Z.
I’ve always had a thing for these and the convertible LeBaron variant. But the wood looks more at home here than the wood-clad LeBaron 2-door, like the one in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
We are used to the wood paneling being on big wagons so the smaller size throws off a bit. I still would have one of those convertibles though.
I thought Lucille Ball had one of these, but she had the previous generation, 1980.
Frank Sinatra had one of these K-car ones though which I still find kinda weird.
So was the Turbo powertrain actually good in terms of performance and reliability?
Like Harry Truman, Frank Sinatra was, deep down, a Chrysler guy.
He was good friends with Lido, of course, both Italians, he even did those “It’s time for Imperial” commercials for the 81-83 Imperials, so I imagine he probably got any Chrysler he wanted for free.
Yeah, I knew of his involvement with the Imperial and stuff. Interesting how these guys stayed loyal to Chrysler like that.
Just weird to pick the Town and Country over a New Yorker or Fifth Avenue.
Eisenhower was a Chrysler man as well, and his wife Mamie loved her ’62 Valiant.
Once you got past the considerable lag, it was pretty good for its time and as ’80s turbos go, it was as reliable as one could’ve hoped.
I think that “Road Ready” sticker was a result of Chrysler getting caught being naughty and selling some cars with rolled back odometers, or road tested cars that had the odo’s disconnected? I remember there being a few news stories about this, it was sort of a big to do back in the late 80’s.
You have an excellent memory. I recall reading something on this topic in Time magazine around that time. I think cars were being driven by employees, and had their odometers reset before sale. I can’t even confirm it was Chrysler, as it was so long ago.
That Road Ready sticker was on the 77 Newport Custom that my best friend’s dad bought new. I remember thinking “Ohhh, Chrysler finally has its shit together and has upped its game on new car quality.” That Newport Custom 4 door hardtop was indeed a very nice car. I think they had been through so much bad quality PR since 1974-75 (or was it 1969, or 1961, or 1957) that they were using that sticker to convince everyone that everything was different now.
From the June 25th, 1987, Chicago Tribune:
Chrysler Odometer Fraud Charged
|By Jim Mateja, Auto writer. Michael Tackett also contributed to this story.
The Justice Department on Wednesday handed down a 16-count indictment charging that Chrysler Corp. disconnected odometers on management-driven cars and that vehicles driven up to 400 miles, some of them damaged, eventually were sold as new.
The indictment, which also names two Chrysler executives, alleges that Chrysler sold more than 60,000 of these vehicles to dealers and customers between July, 1985, and December, 1986.
Chrysler could face a maximum fine of $120 million for conspiracy to commit fraud.
That’s the story, I remember that.
Honda (of America) had a similar problem back in the 80’s and 90’s. Some dealers were doing the same thing these Chrysler guys were doing. In addition, it was also found (in an unrelated matter) that the odometers didn’t work properly and were counting more miles than actually driven.
Good quality, there…
I could see some dealers trying to pull something like that off, if the owner or GM was a real prick, but it blows me away that a huge corporation pulled off something as petty as that. I mean, why risk a huge lawsuit to save a few dollars?
The thing that bugged me the most on the early K-cars like this beautiful wagon is that the door handles would droop on one end or the other. Looked really bad on the 4-doors where the front door handle would be going in one direction and the rear in another.
Ordinarily you wouldn’t notice a small misalignment like that but with all of the parallel lines if something was off kilter it would really stand out. You can see in pic below that the rear handle is slightly out of whack.
Hundreds of daily impressions like that can accumulate in you and create a lasting opinion of a car’s quality.
One minor correction: the hood vents on the turbo models were functional, complete with drip trays on the underside to deflect water away from various components in the engine bay. They’re also a popular upgrade with XJ Cherokee owners looking to do something about engine bay heat on the 4.0 models; the LeBaron vents will fit pretty much exactly between the Jeep’s underhood bracing with careful cutting of the sheet metal.
There was also a K-Car variant that used only one hood vent on some models – I think it may have been the Dodge 600 – but can’t remember the exact model and some quick Googling isn’t digging it up.
This may seem like an odd bit of trivia to post, but I’ve pulled a *lot* of those hood vents from junkyard K-Cars for use on Cherokees. I just really hope that it doesn’t make me some sort of subject matter expert on them; seems like the most useless thing to have rattling around in your head at a cocktail party while looking to make small talk.
Wow, really? I thought they were functional too, but I think maybe some… source which shall not be named (not related to CC) said they were fake when discussing a turbo K.
The later LeBaron and concurrent Lancer had the offset/asymmetrical hood vents or chimneys as I liked to call them.
I stared at the one on my Lancer for 11 years. That part of the car worked flawlessly.
I wish the car I found had Mark Cross leather like this one:
I may be suffering a delusion, but I seem to recall one of these having a console and a 5 speed. I know the LeBaron coupe came with a stick, but I’m not sure about the wagon. These cars also caught my eye with their use of 60 series tires (all season) as an upgrade. My golfing buddy drove one and they were great fun. Not much else had the grunt at the time, especially in a family car. I really liked the Dodge 600 version. The stretched wheelbase made for a well balanced driver in 1984. I learned how to shut off the damn voice alert at a Customs crossing at 4 a.m. “A door is ajar”. They were freaking out, and subsequently searched the car. I guess the disembodied voice seemed suspicious. Especially with a 5 year old and a 65 year old being driven by driven by a murky character like me.
A friend of mine bought a new 2 door Lebaron in 1982.
I remember it being a very nice metallic brown in color, with an almost orangish color pinstripe down its side. Beautiful velour interior also.
We were riding in it one day with another work buddy who asked “isn’t this car supposed to be front wheel drive?”
My friend answered “Yes it is a front wheel drive car.”
So then the other work buddy asked “Then how come it has a hump down the middle of the floor?”
I was riding in the back seat, I looked down, and son of a gun, there was a hump of sorts down the middle of the floor.
I still have no explanation why?
Exhaust pipe and torsional stiffness.
Thanks to this great piece, Perry, I now have a new appreciation for these T&C’s. They always struck me as nice cars, but after having read this, they actually seem legit.
The 2.2 turbo also was available in the standard wheelbase Dodge 600 convertible.
Just found this 1982 K prototype online, and I have to ask:
WHY didn’t they greenlight this for ’83 or ’84??
What.. Did they think it would shock the American
auto buying public? Too far ahead of its time?
I actually see a lot of post-2000 cues in this thing,
so it was hinting at a lot of cues that actually came
I can see a lot of the 1985 midcycle facelift in that nose.
I mostly see copycat Benz with odd proportions.
I think this was called the Chrysler SL. I wonder what became of it and the Turismo Spyder, which resembled a Ferrari 308GTB. Very nice looking cars.
Heaven only knows how many of the above I must
have confused at the time for a contemporary front-
wheel drive New Yorker! smh…
My mom got one of these in 1985. Cream with a dark brown cloth interior. No power seats or windows – she had a real Chappaquiddick fetish, and Pittsburgh is a city with a lot of bridges. Had the 2.6 instead of turbo. I drove for a couple of years in the early 90’s, when I shared it with my sister in NJ.
We were a K-car family. My dad’s last company car was an ’83 Reliant SE, and he also bought an ’86 Reliant wagon. Of the three, the T&C was by far the best. The engine was smoother than the 2.5 in the ’86, and the interior was much better than either, with surprisingly supportive and comfortable seats. Durable as heck, too. I still see these from time to time, and I’m always impressed with how well the cloth interiors – like this one’s – hold up.
An unfortunate relative
K cars were the best cars Chrysler ever made. The Aryes and Reliant are the coolest looking cars they made so is the 400 lebraon 600 Carivalle. They were much better built, faster better looking and safer and more reliiable then the junk LH cars. Hey Chrysler bring back the K car and people will come to your showrooms again in droves.
What does B.O.F. stand for?
Yah feel me?
Enough of the acronyms already!! 🤣