Chrysler LeBaron Coupe/Convertible
When discussing the topic of government bailing out struggling American automakers, the mind turns naturally to Chrysler. After all, the smallest of the Big Three famously received $1.5 billion from the government in loan guarantees in 1979. Powered by Lee Iacocca's charisma, a solid if unspectacular small car platform (the ubiquitous K-car), and brisk sales from its innovative minivan, Chrysler managed to survive and even thrive in the 1990s.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Chrysler tinkered with the K-car platform and the equally ubiquitous 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine like a small child tinkers with Legos--crafting endless combinations of disparate creations from essentially the same set of parts. As with the kid with the Legos, some of the results were wonderful--and some weren't. But only one was truly beautiful--the LeBaron.
I can hear the snickering already, so let me clarify--after all, as Oldsmobile did with "Cutlass," Chrysler throws the LeBaron moniker around with wild abandon. I'm not talking about the Dodge Diplomat clone (though that's a pretty wagon), the Dodge Aries clone, or the Dodge Lancer sports sedan clone (certainly a future Car Lust in its own right). No, I'm talking about the Chrysler-specific personal luxury coupe that debuted in 1987 and broke new ground with its smooth, stylish lines.
Now the snickers are turning into belly laughs--that's fine, laugh it up. Those of us with more refined tastes will be cruising around in our LeBarons.
My 11-year-old eyes thought the LeBaron was the prettiest car around in 1987, and not even the cynicism of age has dispelled that impression. The Chevrolet Monte Carlo was the definitive personal luxury coupe of the mid-1980s, and it looked like the clear throwback to the 1970s that it was. The LeBaron's trim, curvaceous body and lack of ostentatious ornamentation--especially in silver--made the Monte Carlo look terribly dowdy.
The feline form was European in its svelte shape; but the hidden headlights, curvaceous rocker panels, and toothy grille were clearly American without resorting to cliche. Add to this the availability of a stunning convertible edition--a rarity in the 1980s--and the LeBaron really stood out. This might be damning with faint praise, but the LeBaron was much more classy and elegant than its more expensive quasi-Italian cousin, the Chrysler-Maserati TC.
Performance wasn't bad either. The smooth Mitsubishi V-6 was available, but I would have opted for the potent if unrefined 2.2-liter turbo. With about 175 horsepower on tap, the LeBaron had more than enough punch to keep the wind whistling through your hair. It wasn't quite a budget Mercedes-Benz 560SL in either performance or build quality, but the LeBaron was a very classy cruiser for the price.
Unfortunately, these haven't really aged well. As with most of the K-car derivatives, I haven't seen a really nice LeBaron in years. The styling that was so ground-breaking in 1987 began to look more anonymous as more and more cars aped its lines; and the car turned ugly in 1993 when exposed headlamps replaced the hidden headlights.
Unlike most of my car lusts, I'm not sure I'd want to actually own a 20-year-old LeBaron convertible. The whole experience is just far too likely to sour me on the car. No, instead I'll simply gaze at the ones I see with fondness and regret.
The commercial below is yet another Chrysler commercial that says little or nothing about the car itself. Though with James Earl Jones lending the ad a little of his freight car load of growly gravitas, I almost don't care. It all comes together with this tagline: "LeBarons are beauty with a passion for driving."
Better even is the Spanish-language ad below the English one. It includes many of the great cliches of the time, including the oversized sunglasses (0:07), the booting-up electronic dashboard (0:08), a fantastic shot of the electronic dashboard reflected in the oversized sunglasses (0:09), purposeful grasping of a shift knob (0:14), a little bit of air (0:21), and a dramatic reveal of the once-hidden headlights (0:25). Plus, the non-US cars were called Chrysler Phantoms. That's an awesome name.
The top image is courtesy of Flickr user BoLdOx, the second image is from 99HeyJude, and the third is from How Stuff Works. It is a bit odd that one of the images comes from a user with a Flickr handle named after a Beatles song; while the commercial below is serenaded by a cover of a Beatles song. Coincidence? Yes, absolutely.