By on July 6, 2011


Chrysler has used the LeBaron name on and off since the 1930s, and the prestige level of the LeBaron badge has been on a gradual downward spiral all along. Some may disagree with that assessment, however, depending on whether they judge the transition from the M (Dodge Diplomat) platform to the K platform in 1982 to have been a step up or a step down. I think the presence of a Slant Six under the hood disqualifies any vehicle from claiming luxury status, and that’s what we’ve got here.

GM and Ford were also cashing out the prestige capital they’d built up in their luxury marques during the Malaise Era, so Chrysler wasn’t alone in this process. And the Diplomat was a perfectly competent and solid machine, well suited to both commuting and police duty. But… luxury and Slant Six don’t mix. Chrysler would have been better off making this the top Diplomat trim level and selling the car as a Diplomat Brougham d’Class or something.

Then there’s the painfully fake wood dash trim and gumball-machine-trinket-quality glovebox emblems staring the passenger in the face as he or she attempts to feel true Chrysler exclusivity.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

50 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Chrysler LeBaron...”


  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    But… luxury and Slant Six don’t mix.

    Why, does “luxury” really have to mean “eats head gaskets, sh_ts valves and pisses oil”?

    Were I so completely unhinged enough to want one of these, I’d take the Slant-6. I believe it was the one part of my parents’ Aspen that was still working and not subject repair, recall or rust.

    Diplomat Brougham d’Class

    And they say American car companies have no imagination when it comes to names! Behold, the equivalent to the likes of Mazda’s Super Bongo Friendlee.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      But… luxury and Slant Six don’t mix.

      Yeah, thanks to CAFE they did. However, I would agree with your assessment of the car, this would be the one to have. Not that the 318 was bad or anything, but this would be the most liveable combination, in regards to every day usage. And the later M bodies were much better cars than the F body forbears…

      It still never ceases to amaze me how well preserved the cars out west are. This car looks like it could be perfectly serviceable, with the exception of the missing seats and wheels…

    • 0 avatar

      Given the choice between the 1981 Slant Six, and the 1983 mix of “K-Car,” “luxury” and “turbocharged 2.2L four-cylinder maxed out to within an inch of its pitiful little carbureted life” and gimme the six banger any day.

      • 0 avatar
        Flipper35

        “turbocharged 2.2L four-cylinder maxed out to within an inch of its pitiful little carbureted life”

        They were MFI by the way. Pretty stout too, thought you shouldn’t do the old aquarium valve to fool the wastegate and run 16psi without upgraded injectors.

      • 0 avatar
        windswords

        Like Flipper said ALL Chrysler Turbo fours were multipoint fuel injection. And upgradeable (more power!).

        I heard that the 2.2 (later available as a 2.5) were designed by the same engineer who did the Slant 6. It was his last project before retiring and he aimed to make it as rock solid as it’s predecessor. He succeeded on most counts, especially after Chrysler stopped skimping on the quality of their head gaskets.

      • 0 avatar

        I stand humbly corrected! Too many sour memories of the carbureted lump in my first car — an ’84 Turismo — clouded my judgment.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        The 2.2 designer also did an excellent job of making it easy to service all major external components. From the 2-piece water pump housing and cover to the “stand in front of the bumper and reach down” front-mounted oil filter, I have not found a transverse engine as hassle-free to wrench on as ChryCo’s 2.2s. Come to think on it, when you stripped away all the smog-era hoses (or worked on a version that predated that period), the /6 was also a paragon of easy-access design.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        So my 1981 200 c.i. Mustang six made 90HP with all the smog adjustments. My 1966 Mustang with the same engine supposedly made 120HP.

        What did this Chrysler beast make?

        That car looks really good compared to what is still on the road around here.

    • 0 avatar
      Acubra

      Japanese car names is an endless source of laughs.
      A friend of mine used to have a Daihatsu-Mira-Pit, we used to joke about him being mired in the pit.

      Also, from the memory – Daihatsu Naked; Honda Life Dunk; Honda That’s, Isuzu GIGA Light Dump, Mazda Bongo; Mitsubishi Pistachio, Nissan Prairie Joy, Suzuki Cappucino, Nissan Laurel Medalist, etc, etc…

      Actually, a good write-up with some wonderful examples:
      http://www.shiotsu-autotrade.jp/blog/funnyjapanesecarnames.html

    • 0 avatar
      windswords

      My first new car had the 2.5 version of this motor. It also featured the “stand in front of the bumper and reach down” front-mounted oil filter. I was astounded that I could just open the hood (which was counter balanced, no prop rod) and just reach down and remove the oil filter. I gave up DIY for my Ford ZX2. The filter is near the top of the engine (good) but up against the firewall (bad) and if I unscrew it there is not enough room to remove it from above. If I get it from underneath, it’s too high on the engine to reach it, unless you have a car lift or a pit.

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        My Buick has the oil filter right on the bottom of the engine next to the pan. Get down to drain the oil and there’s the filter staring you in the face, ready to be replaced.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    My parents owned a ’77 Chrysler LeBaron sedan which I think might have been the last new car they ever bought. It had the 318 with the computer controlled “Lean Burn” system. Dad had towed with it and the rear axle sang like a suprano after that, eventually failing. Being the depression era “kid” that he was, he went to a scrap yard and found another axle out of a Volare’ (like my ’77 Volare sedan which also had a 318 – sans Lean Burn). The original back axle in the LeBaron was the light version generally reserved for slant six cars; the axle in the Volare’ (and presumably Aspen) was the heavier one, obviously he purchased a heavier one to replace the lightweight that the factory had put in.

    I presume the corporate bean counters figured if someone wanted a “Chrysler LeBaron luxury sedan” they wouldn’t be doing mundane things like towing? Well they did save 5 cents on the car when they built it but I take note that after that, my parents didn’t buy any more new Chryslers and only bought full sized used Chryslers then a GMC Suburban (which was another mistake – since it was blue and all the paint literally fell off!)

    Now they are running a Mercury Villager which they got used and dad (now age 80) said it is probably the best car he’s ever owned – and he knows it is a Nissan in drag, so to speak.

    He was also very impressed with my wife’s Hyundai Sonata four cylinder when he borrowed it a couple of years ago.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    @psarhjinian, no luxury doesn’t have to mean unreliable engine, but it should mean “power” even if that power is merely a torque reserve that can be tapped when needed. Likely my father thinks his 1990s Suburban is the most luxurious vehicle he’s ever owned thanks to a combo of sound deadening and powerful SBC.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Chrysler apparently thought luxury equated to turbocharged 2.2 liter four cylinder engines and hilariously baroque styling in the 1980s, so this is pretty much par for the course for them.

    Except for the minivans, Chrysler didn’t really recover from its Malaise Era funk until 1993-4 with the introduction of the LH platform cars, the Grand Cherokee, and the redesigned Ram pickup.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      Well, it isn’t luxury that saved Chrysler; it was the K platform.

      That Chrysler tried to make luxury cars using the K platform was perhaps silly, but nevertheless the K platform was an excellent rebirth for them at the time.

  • avatar
    tced2

    Many (most?) BMWs have 6-cylinder engines. Many Mercedes have them too. Only the uber-luxury models have V8s or higher. Six cylinder engines aren’t for luxury/performance vehicles?

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Dan is right about power (above), but I’d hazard that even in that era the real-world difference in power between the slant-six and one of the strangled eights is pretty minimal.

      Having a V8 was and is really is perception. Of course, not leaking oil from a warped head is also a perception issue.

    • 0 avatar

      Not the Slant Six. The Slant Six is for 400,000-mile Valiants and airport tugs, not for luxury cars.

      • 0 avatar
        alfabert

        LJK Setright would respectfully but vigourously disagree
        with you.

        “Setright’s impressions of the early 2600 were characteristically iconoclastic – he was at pains to challenge the accepted orthodoxy that the smaller engines diminish the SD1’s appeal, and suggests that the six cylinder units imbued a different but welcome character to the car: ‘It is a gentleman’s car in a way that the V8 cannot aspire to emulate.”

        And in writing about a (non-British) car:

        “The number of cylinders thus idealistically laid out in this altogether new ____ is six. This is the proper number of cylinders for a gentleman’s car, and that is the sort of car the ____ is. ”

        The old straight-six Mercedes S-class 10 feet from me is inarguably a luxury car by every traditional measure, including its thirst for premium gasoline.

        I absolutely agree with you, nothing makes this Aspen, pardon me, “LeBaron”, a luxury car, not even a 318 which properly belonged in it. Yet with only 32,460 miles showing on the odometer, its slant-six could have had 367,540 good miles left to it, unlike all the rest of the car.

    • 0 avatar
      BigOldChryslers

      There have been a couple recent articles about the Cadillac (Fleetwood) Brougham over on Curbside Classics. The fullsize Caddy soldiered on virtually unchanged from 1977-1992 because people kept buying them. The Caddy Fleetwood Brougham is the last quintessential American luxury car. Note that RWD and a V8 under the hood are an important part of the formula.

      This LeBaron is marginally too small, too obviously a tarted-up Diplomat, and has entirely the wrong engine to compete with said Cadillac as a “luxury” car. This car is a pale shadow of fullsize C-body Chryslers. The K-car may have saved Chrysler, but the K-based Imperial, New Yorker, etc. that followed this are just a joke IMO.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Going from the M platform to the K was more like 2 steps down, incredible what Iacocca tried to do with the K chassis, even a freaking limo, ragtop, wagon, sedan, minivan, oh well that last one kind of worked.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      Can’t agree with that. The K platform saved Chrysler, while dogs like this one were killing it.

      As an 85 LeBaron GTS owner, I didn’t like it that my car shared half of its name with the car shown here. The GTS/Lancer twins were pretty nice cars for the time; mine went 206k miles.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        I had a Lancer ES Turbo that went about 160K before I stupidly traded it in for a Dakota. Not that the Dakota was a bad truck, I really didn’t need a pickup truck after I moved to Michigan. Which was about a year after getting the Dakota.

        People can complain all they want about the K cars, but they saved Chrysler and some of the spin offs were pretty darn good. Even the basic K car was good for the times. A lot has changed in 30 years, and you really can’t compare a car from back then to one now, IMO.

      • 0 avatar
        JustPassinThru

        The M chassis was the company’s best-seller at the time it was discontinued; and had been for a couple of years. That’s why it was given a reprieve and the line moved to vacant space in an AMC plant…also starting a fortuitous relationship.

        It was only dropped to comply with CAFE; and because Lido had promised the company’s saviours in Washington that Chrysler would be 100 percent front-wheel-drive. The mid-1980s drop in fuel prices, and the sudden popularity of the M chassis as the Law Enforcement Car of Choice, caught Chrysler by surprise (like many things, it seems).

        But no, the M was not what was taking the company down. The premature birthing of the Volare certainly cost the company, and more than just money; but keeping it in production in this form was not only smart but the only choice.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      The K platform worked well in all its applications. Right for the times. Now? Not so much, but that was then. We enjoyed all of our K’s and EEK’s.

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      One funny thing about the initial Reliant and Aries K cars (whatever their technical virtues) was that they were advertised as six-passenger cars; I remember the magazine ads. Who on earth were they trying to fool?

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Those parking lights were readily identifiable in the dark to teen scofflaws like me, back in The Day. Thanks for the scary flashback.

  • avatar
    obbop

    The slant-6 holds a special place within or whatever upon more than a few neurons or whatever that saves memories inside my semi-round head.

    I do admit that I would have preferred a 318 in that 1972 Plymouth Duster.

    Or even a 340 but I believe the 318 was generally a more “practical” engine with ample propulsive power.

    Perhaps the weight of the LeBaron was a bit too much for the slant-6 output, especially when the A/C was engaged and what with the air pump, power steering and other power draining parasitical parts.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    You couldn’t beat a slant-six to death no matter how hard you tried. Probably the best 6 cyl. engine ever made.

    I had a 1980 LeBaron coupe for a couple of years and it may not have been “luxurious”, whatever that means – I’m just a nuts-and-bolts type of guy, but it sure was comfortable and it went where I pointed it and I felt pretty pleased with myself every time I drove it.

    As for the tacky trimming – correct. The chrome-plated plastic was half worn off around the gauge cluster and the fake wood contact paper was also peeling off. I took the dash apart, steel wooled the chrome off, cleaned off all residue the fake wood left behind and “Euro-styled” the dash by painting the gauge cluster satin black and generally cleaning things up – the result was pretty sharp.

    When the first “Batman” movie came out, I somehow received a bat sticker and slapped it on the left side of the trunk lid, and the car from that time on became referred to as the “Batmobile”. The guy I later sold it to kept the sticker and every time we saw the car after we moved to Ohio on visits back home, we always got a good laugh! He kept that car for about three or four years.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I always liked these back in the day. My favorite was the LeBaron wagons with the woody trim. These were the best modern attempt to re-create the look of the wood wagons from the 30s and 40s. Better than just the contact paper most often seen then. That version of the Town & Country may have been my favorite of all of the Volare variants that Chrysler made over the years.
    I’m torn on the slant 6 in these cars. I would have preferred the 318 (or 360 if you could get it). But the 225 was one of the best engines ever made. I believe that it even had hydraulic lifters by 1981, but this took away some of the charm of the clatter at idle from the older ones.
    These were not so much luxury cars, because the big R body New Yorkers were still out in 81. The LeBaron was aimed more at the Cutlass and Century, although it never sold nearly in their league.

  • avatar

    How sad — and typically American — that LeBaron went from being the name of a premier custom coach-builder to being an aspirational laughing-stock of a badge for Chrysler.

  • avatar
    Omnifan

    318 or /6? I had an 80 LeBaron with the 318. Good power, but thirsty on gas. The /6 would have been power challenged with the A/C on.

    Mine was a two tone gray/silver metallic with the padded vinyl roof. Verrry comfortable. Just couldn’t pass a gas station.

    +1 on the woody wagon version. Wished I’d had that one instead.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    This car was an embarrassment.

    It is a Plymouth Volare cross-dressed into a Chrysler. Instead of a Valiant, Chrysler crashed and burned with it’s replacement, the Volare. By 1979 Chrysler was broke and had a line of cars few buyers were gullible enough to purchase. The new Imperial failed, so it became a New Yorker. Remember the Fury II? It was a lousy Coronet that Chrysler pimped out as a “new small Fury”. Chysler was drowning in failure and debt when this LeBaron hit the streets.

    Chysler wasn’t alone. Ford was dying then too. Both companies were tossing their best names onto cheaper small cars and hoping buyers bought the lies.

    So anyone who thought it would be nice to own a Chysler discovered this vehicle was an affordable Chysler. They could pretend they had a real Chrysler and Chysler pretended right along with you. Plastic chrome? Fake leather? Cheesy hood ornament? Special roof treatment? Phoney wood? Just pretend it was real and everyone else might too.

    But it wasn’t a Chrysler. It was a Plymouth Volare pimped out in cheap glued on crap trying to land a paying John on the mean street of Malaiseland. Was it a decent car? Sure – as a damn Plymouth. It was not a decent Chrysler.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      You know the older I get and the further we get from the 1980s the less I differentiate the different Detroit brands and all the social climbing baggage they once carried.

      Whether it is a Dodge, Chrysler, Plymouth or whatever – its all the same to me. Is the product good? Does it fit my budget? Can I stand to drive and look at it for the next decade? Will it even last a decade? Same for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury. Same with all the many GM brands dead or alive.

    • 0 avatar
      and003

      I’d prefer a 2-door LeBaron myself. I could see one being fitted with an Art Morrison chassis and a 6.4 Hemi (392) under the hood. LeBaron SRT-8, anyone?

  • avatar
    HoldenSSVSE

    But does it have rich Corithian leather?

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    I always thought it was FINE corinthian leather but Murilee’s right. Wow, what a voice Ricardo had:

  • avatar
    powrtoast

    My parents had this exact car when I was younger. Actually, the one featured here is a little bit better optioned than my folks’ was – this junkyard one at least has the tint strip at the top of the windshield. Ours was a 1981 beige base model (called “special” back then), with cloth bench seat (red), this same stereo, the Slant Six, and no A/C. Some relatives drove Fifth Avenues (the downsized 1982-on version) – which so exacerbated my pre-teen bitterness toward our gas-sucking, underpowered, poorly-built version of the same car. The car wheezed right along to just over 70K miles before it was replaced with an 88 Century with the rare 3.8 liter V6. I remember that the engine was not an issue with that car until the last year or so, but other build-quality issue were present from the start. I know that as a youth, I would have happily seen this car disappear in favor of the new “super-K” LeBaron that came along in 1982. Looking back now, I can see that would not have been the answer. At the time, they also test-drove a Pontiac Grand LeMans and a Mercury Cougar (fox platform sedan-ized). This is fairly representative I guess of what was available to them in northern New England at the time (well, there was a Peugeot dealer in town, but no Honda dealer yet)

  • avatar
    Bryce

    Hard to believe Chrysler kept the ancient slant 6 in the US for so long the Aussie Hemi6 was so much better why wasnt that used it had been around 10 years by the time this shitbox was made and Chrysler Oz was going out of business by 80 it shoulda been an obvious grab but no stupidity reigned

  • avatar
    SP

    Great job on the lead-in photo. The color is a big part of it, but the phot really picked up the most interesting angles and details of the car. Nice work!

  • avatar

    Clarification about the origins of the LeBaron name. LeBaron Carrossiers/LeBaron, Inc. was an automotive design firm, founded in 1920. In 1927, it was bought out by Briggs Mfg. Co., but it continued to do custom and semi-custom bodies for various customers, including Chrysler, Packard, and Stutz. In the early fifties, after the death of the founder, the family sold most of the company’s assets to Chrysler, including the LeBaron name, which Chrysler started using in 1957 on the Imperial. So, prior to 1953, there were Chryslers by LeBaron, but not Chrysler LeBarons.

  • avatar

    My impression as a kid was you bought the Diplomat if on a budget, the Caravelle if you had some extra cash, and the Lebaron when you wanted it all in a “Quality Engineered” Chrysler, and that included a V8, not the workingman slant six.
    IIRC it was the Lebaron that had all the chrome trim, the velvety upholstery, AC, the works, but this example likes pretty plain indeed.
    Full disclosure: My dad had a 79 Diplomat 2 door with a slant six and while the engine could use more power it was incredibly reliable which is something to be said considering the car was built during Chryco’s darkest hours.
    In fact I have known a number of cars and vans with the venerable slant six and heard nothing but praise for their longevity, even the clatter from it was a sound all its own.

  • avatar
    scottcom36

    I don’t dislike this car, but it’s pretty sad that the eagle emblem from the Imperial found its way onto the dash.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    So that’s how they added the push-pull buttons on the Mopar A/C retrofit kit: they reversed the station selector buttons and used unplated black plastic.

  • avatar
    roger628

    My dad leased a ’78 model 2 door Medallion with a 318 and most of the toys in the spring of 1978. Absolutely awful car-missing parts and loose bolts on delivery-and got worse from there. Flaking paint leaving rust underneath, shorted wiring in the steering column, ball joints gone by 50,000 miles, teeny little rear axle that was worn out by said 50,000, and the piaste-de-reistinace, a failed front wheel bearing that caused the wheel to part company with the rest of the heap. This was just around 70,000 kms (42,000 miles).

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    @ Windsords, you are correct about the 2.2 being designed by the chief engineer of the slant 6, and it was his last project before retiring. That is why the 2.2 had a beefy bottom end with generously sized main bearings for a 4 cylinder. The engine was even tilted slightly rearward as a tribute to the slant 6. The head on the first years was like the head on the volkswagen 4, but later versions used a different design. I’m not sure which year they changed it, I was never really a fan of the K cars.
    @JP, the slant 6 was switched to hydraulic lifters in mid 76 in order to make it quieter for use in the F body cars, and in 77 they went from forged to cast cranks. I agree that a slant 6 just does not sound like a slant 6 without the clatter of the solids. The later engines can use the solid setup, but you also have to use the earlier head along with the pushrods and rocker arms/shaft.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India