The real LeBarons

By Bob Tomaine |

F ew things were going well at Chrysler Corp. in the mid-1970s. Problems at the corporate level ‘ like running out of money ‘ paralleled cars that, in many cases, were missing the target. True, the company was not alone in building large cars in a time of rising fuel costs, but Chrysler Corp. products even seemed big, and that wasn’t good.

    The Imperial was one casualty, so when a mid-size Chrysler Corp. was launched in 1977, it was given a name long tied to an Imperial series: LeBaron. Although the Imperial had rarely provided serious competition for Lincoln and Cadillac, its failure to return for 1976 surely pained the company.

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A LeBaron station wagon appeared in 1978 and was given another name long associated with upscale Chryslers, Town and Country. This one is a 1979. (Bob Tomaine photo)

    And if it was embarrassing to admit defeat in the luxury market, it was equally so to watch quality problems appear soon after the Aspen/Volare’s 1976 introduction. It also must have been at least a little frightening to any manager or executive paying attention, since the Aspen and Volare were as replacements for Dodge’s Dart and Plymouth’s Valiant, respectively,  and the two older models were generally well regarded as solid, dependable cars.

    Despite all of that, there was reason to hope. Chrysler’s big success of the time was the Cordoba, introduced in 1975. The downsized luxury coupe perfectly followed the classic long hood, short deck formula, but with its twin at Dodge, the Charger, each wore styling fresh enough to distinguish it from the competition. The Cordoba really was smaller – its 115-inch wheelbase was 9 inches less than that of a New Yorker, and its overall length 11 inches less, but it still weighed in at 2 tons, and that left an opening for another model that would be smaller yet.

    That was where the LeBaron came in. With dimensions comparable to those of the Aspen/Volare to which it was distantly related, the LeBaron weighed 400 to 500 pounds less than the Cordoba. It did offer one big similarity to the Cordoba, though, in that the LeBaron had a Dodge derivative ‘ the Diplomat ‘ that barely differed from it.

    Among the shrewder parts of the planning behind the LeBaron was that it did not target those seeking basic or mid-level transportation. Instead, it was carefully aimed at luxury-car buyers in the same kind of thinking that had created two of its contemporaries: Cadillac’s 1976 Seville and Lincoln’s 1977 Versailles. All three felt small when compared to their respective full-size brethren and were touted with descriptions like “international-size” and “precision-size,” most of which were simply ways to say “Mercedes-like” without actually saying it. The Versailles is so obviously based on the Granada/Monarch that it could easily be taken for one of those less-expensive cars, but the Seville and LeBaron disguised their roots well; a Seville looks little like a Nova and the LeBaron’s resemblance to the Aspen/Volare is effectively one of family identity.

    The LeBaron today would be described as “nicely equipped” with its 318-cid V-8, automatic transmission and power assists. But since its option list included such items as air conditioning, power windows and seats, road wheels and a sunroof, it would probably also be called a “near-luxury” car. Hair-splitting aside, the Le-Baron soon proved its planners right; it sold about 46,000 examples in its short first year, and that figure rose to about 128,000 in 1978 before falling to about 96,000 in 1979. However, nothing is free, and it fell to the Cordoba to pay. That model’s first-year sales had hit about 150,000 and the number reached about 168,000 in 1976, but dropped off slightly to about 163,000 in 1977 when the LeBaron appeared. That might not have caused panic at Chrysler, but the trend intensified with just some 108,000 Cordobas sold in 1978 and about 73,000 in 1979. That was the last year for the original Cordoba and the down-sized, restyled version that followed never produced anything like the enthusiasm generated by its predecessor. It continued only through 1983, even as the LeBaron pressed on.

    Certainly one of the more curious additions to the LeBaron came in its second year, when buyers were given a choice of not only the 318 and a newly available 360 cid, but also one of Chrysler’s most enduring engines, the 225-cid “Slant Six.” If that wasn’t enough to surprise potential customers, the standard transmission was now a four-speed with an overdrive top-gear, but changes weren’t limited to drivetrains.

    Beyond normal year-to-year differences, the LeBaron sedan and coupe were joined by a station wagon. It made good sense; the full-size Chrysler wagon had sold poorly in recent years and was therefore dropped, freeing up another important name so that the new LeBaron wagon could become the Town and Country.

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When the new LeBaron debuted in mid 1977, it was the lightest Chrysler ever produced and was available as a coupe or sedan. This red LeBaron coupe hails from 1979. (Jeremy Tietz photo)

    It was a smart move. While the merits of simulated wood versus the strengths of genuine wood can be debated and usually are, the Town and Country name, even in 1978, recalled to many the high-end Chrysler woodies of the 1940s and early 1950s. Few commented on the fact that the LeBaron Town and Country wore its side paneling bumper to bumper, like most wagons using plastic wood trim, and unlike true woodies. However, a non-plastic-wood-trimmed wagon became available in 1980.

    That change was part of a restyling that reduced the roundness of its body panels and edges to give the car a more angular quality. It added up to a fairly different ‘ but clearly related ‘ look that would continue through 1981 on the LeBaron and then, via one of the era’s more complicated reshufflings, on the New Yorker Fifth Avenue. The explanation is that Chrysler dropped its full-size models at the end of 1981, placed the LeBaron name on a new, smaller model and moved the New Yorker name to the former LeBaron sedan. Names continued to bounce around, and for 1984, the one-time LeBaron was simply a Fifth Avenue and still looked about as it did in 1980.

    In its final identity, it would run through the 1989 model year with few visual changes. By the end, it was a decidedly low-tech survivor of an earlier age and easily found buyers who wanted exactly that: a large, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan with a V-8. After some 43,000 sales in 1988, though, Chrysler just couldn’t find enough of those customers, and with about 17,000 Fifth Avenues sold in 1989, the design was retired and the name ‘ like LeBaron and New Yorker ‘ found itself on a new car.

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