By Brian Earnest
It’s not easy to come up with a list of 1980s cars that most enthusiasts would consider “collectible,” but the 1982 Chrysler LeBaron convertible probably belongs in the conversation. It may never go down alongside the ’32 Fords, ’57 Chevys and Hemi Mopars on any all-time collector rankings, but the ’82 LeBaron ragtop had plenty going for it.
First, and most obviously, it was a convertible in a decade where droptops were not really in style, particularly when it came to larger cars. Chrysler had been totally out of the convertible game for many years — in fact, nobody had made a domestic convertible since the 1976 Cadiallc Eldorado — but the fabric top was finally back in ’82 for the LeBarons.
The LeBarons were also noteworthy for their front-wheel drive, which was a first for Chrysler. The model was moved to the Chrysler K platform for the model year, making it about 800 lbs. lighter and about two feet shorter than its predecessor. That gave the LeBarons really good gas mileage for the time (between 25 and 40 mpg) and made them appealing to a wide audience.
But as nice as they were, not that many ’82 standard LeBaron ragtops hit the streets. A total of 3,045 of the LeBaron convertibles were built, along with another 9,780 of the more upscale LeBaron Medallion versions — for a total of 12,825.
If the ’82 LeBarons ever do catch fire with the car collector crowd, guys like Jerry Davis of Concord, N.C., will certainly be ahead of the curve. Davis has owned three of them, and has two unrestored cars in the garage at the moment – a lovely white version and a brown car that he recently acquired and is still cleaning up. Davis’ affection for the cars has been long-running, too. He owned his first ’82 LeBaron back in 1990s and has been a fan of the cars ever since. “I really, thoroughly enjoyed that one and we handed it over to our daughter to go back and forth to college in,” he said. “By that point it was a 10-year-old car … But as I’ve gotten older I decided to go ahead and get another one.
“They are fun, cheap convertibles and you can have the wind blowing through your hair without a huge investment. Old cars can be extremely expensive if you let them, or you can be extremely cheap, like me. But they can be inexpensive and you can still have fun with them.”
Davis found his white car in California and it was too nice to pass up. The car had just 44,000 miles on the odometer, was completely in tact and had obviously been well cared for. “A woman in California owned it, and her boss liked the car and he finally talked her out of it and he bought it from her,” said Davis. “Then he eventually decided he didn’t want it anymore and I found it on eBay. What caught my eye, of course, was that it had 44,000 actual miles on it.
“I got it for a really good price, and when I finally got it and really looked it over, I thought, ‘This is really, really nice!’ It had a few scratches on it, and the tires on it were so old they had dry-rotted to the point where they were splitting through the tread. I was tempted to leave them on it, but I was afraid I’d blow a tire. But there were no tears in the upholstery or anything. It needed a change of tires and some cleaning, but that’s about it.”
The ’82 LeBarons were well-equipped for the period and came in two-door coupe, four-door sedan and two-door convertible configurations. They came standard with a 2.2-liter Trans-4 engine that, mated to a four-speed, was rated at 84 hp. A 2.6-liter Mitsubishi-built overhead-cam four-cylinder rated at 92 hp was optional for the LeBarons, and both of Davis’ cars have the 2.6.
The LeBarons were based on the K-Car, but they were clearly more upscale, with standard amenities such as a four-speed manual transaxle, power steering and brakes, cruise control, tilt steering, power windows and door locks, digital clock, electric cooling fan and day/night inside mirror. The fancier Medallion version added halogen headlamps, a light/gauge alert group, dual mirrors, bodyside stripes, color-keyed wheel covers and trunk dress-up items. A “Mark Cross” edition was also available for buyers who wanted their LeBaron loaded with everything. It included the 2.6-liter engine, a special interior, air conditioning and a few other goodies.
As is often the case with old car purchases, Davis came across his third LeBaron, a Mahogany Brown car with a white top, by accident. “I saw a Craig’s List ad for an ’82 convertible, and I told my wife we surely don’t need it, but I had to go look at it,” Davis joked. “Turns out the car was only about three miles from me, and it had been there in the family since it was new.”
The car was another all-original specimen with 80,000-plus miles on it. The only real drawback was that it had been sitting outside, albeit under a cover, for quite some time. “It was covered, sort of, but it was still outside storage,” Davis said. “When I first saw it it was all dirty nasty. I took two months until we could get the deal together, but I finally decided I would buy it … It needed a lot of cleaning, but when I opened the doors up, except for the cobwebs, the interior was absolutely immaculate. I’ve been scrubbing the paint to get all the junk off and working on the inside. I pulled the wheels, then took the gas tank off because it had been sitting for so long. Turns out the tank was totally clean on the inside so I did a lot of extra work for no need whatsoever.
“But when I put the air cleaner back on it, it fired right up,” Davis remarked with a laugh. “It hadn’t run in about five years! And I charged that battery up, and lo and behold the battery is still holding up. It runs good. I’ve driven it around the block some and I’ll get it all cleaned up and everything and it’ll be a nice car. Right now we still have kind of the ‘before and after’ with the white one and the brown one.”
Davis jokes that he and his wife have become known as the “convertible couple.” In addition to their LeBarons, the family has a 1963 Plymouth Valiant convertible and Christine’s daily driver is a Miata ragtop. “And all of them are white except for the one brown one,” Davis said. “That’s the oddball.”
Davis said he is still on the lookout for a older car to restore, but for now he’s happy to have some hobby cars that are a blast to drive and easy to keep running. And if his LeBarons ever get hot as collector cars, Davis figures that will make them even more fun to own.
“Hey, they only made about [12,000] of them and there’s no telling how many got crashed or are gone now,” he said. “There can’t be that many of them. It may very well become a collectible type car. It’s certainly a nice-looking car, with the leather and all the chrome.
“But I really just enjoy them. It’s just fun to participate in the hobby.”
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