Curbside Classic: 1986 Chrysler LeBaron – Have a Cup of CAFE

The early 1980s was not a great time for American cars.  The U.S. auto industry slurped up a lot of alphabet soup in those years – EPA, NHTSA, CAFE and all of the constraints and regulations that came with them.  Jimmy Carter had told us that we had to be satisfied with less.  Even with him out of office, our new lowered expectations were turning into reality in showrooms everywhere.  In 1981, gasoline was over $1 per gallon, roughly equivalent to $3.50 in today’s prices.  But even so, it might be possible to have a little luxury in our lives.  This was the world that begat  this Chrysler LeBaron.

I am not sure that there has been a U. S. automotive nameplate that has been more broadly used (abused?)  than Chrysler’s LeBaron.  In the 1920s and 30s, LeBaron was a custom coachbuilder which built custom bodies for the most expensive cars of the day.  During the depression, the company was responsible for some of the most beautiful Chryslers ever built.   When Chrysler renewed its assault on the high end of the market it chose the LeBaron name to grace the best Imperial that the company offered.  While other companies watered down the old names and added fresh ones for their newest and best offerings, the LeBaron remained at the top of Imperial’s pecking order until Chrysler threw in the towel (again) and killed the Imperial after a disappointing 1975.  Then, from 1977-81, the name was given to Chrysler’s mid-sized line that tried (but failed) to take on the Cutlass juggernaut.

Act III of the LeBaron story brings us to today’s CC.  In 1980-81 when this car was under development, Chrysler knew two things.  First, it knew that we were entering a new era of scarce and expensive fuel.  The party was over, and even the most luxurious cars were going to have to crack 30 mpg.  Second, it knew that there was no money for a new platform to replace the larger cars that were being phased out.  This meant that anything new was going to have to be based on the K body, because that was all there was.

I have always been tremendously conflicted about this car.  During the depths of Chrysler’s near death experience (OK, the 1979-81 edition) I was in college and had become a huge Mopar fan.  Chrysler was my favorite car company and I had a big emotional investment in its survival.  I followed its ups and downs, and kept a keen eye on its new products.  When Chrysler introduced the new 1982 LeBaron, I knew that it was a Reliant wearing  a  top hat and a carnation, but I tried to be OK with that.  I really wanted to like the car.  “It’s a CHRYSLER” is what I kept telling myself.   But I couldn’t get the image of those big Imperials of the 60s and 70s out of my head.  The fact that GM was still churning out rear drive Park Avenues and 98 Regencys did not help.  The only consolation was what everybody knew in 1982 – that we were running out of oil, that the day of a car with size and room and power was over, and that we would just have to get used to a new normal where we would  have to be impressed with the fact that Chrysler engineers could ingenuously transfer the idle shake of the 2.2 into the front bumper to make the car smoother.  This was an actual bragging point at the press conferences.

Really, Chrysler did the best it could with what was available.  Chrysler took its best luxury gizmo-tech and put it into this car.  Does anyone remember the Electronic Voice Alert system that told you what you needed to know about the car?  This was the famous talking car that everyone found so obnoxious and that the comedians could not get enough of.  But at the time, the best luxury car thinking was that the only way forward into the 80s was to offer a 5/8 scale of a 70s American luxury car.  And they even trotted Ricardo Montalban back in front of the cameras to sell it.

Although I identify this car as a 1986, it could also be an 87 or 88.  Not even I can tell you the difference, so please feel free to correct me on this.  I am sure that is one of these final 3 years for this car because this is the aerodynamic version.  I am not kidding.  Kind of like the aerodynamic restyling of the 85 Town Car where they took a belt sander to the sharp corners.  But for what it was, it was not a bad car.  Given the design constrictions of either the era in general or of Chrysler’s financial situation in particular, they could have done worse.  Compact, economical, reasonably durable, reasonably smooth, and with all the toys luxury buyers had come to expect- the car did what it had to do:  Preserve the Chrysler nameplate for better days ahead.  And in truth, this big little Chrysler was no worse than any of the little Buicks that GM managed to put out with all of its resources.  So all these years later, this former Mopar fanboy can take some consolation in that.

Unfortunately for Chrysler, a rising economy and falling gasoline prices doomed this car to also-ran status for the rest of its days.  Chrysler would spend several years slicing, dicing and stretching this car like a 53 Studebaker until the company could bring out some cars more suited to market preferences during the Lutz-led product renaissance of the mid 90s.  Having lived through this era, I am not so sure that I am ready for another sip of CAFE.