Things looked very grim at Chrysler during the late 1970s, as Oil Crisis-shocked car shoppers avoided buying thirsty land yachts and ancient-technology compacts in droves. The Carter administration grudgingly bailed out the company with loan guarantees in 1979 (leaving “small enough to fail” American Motors to seek help from the French government) and Chrysler needed a huge sales hit in a big hurry. Under the leadership of Lee Iacocca (freshly canned by Henry Ford II), Chrysler developed the modern, front-wheel-drive K Cars and the company was saved. The very first K Cars hit the road for the 1981 model year, and I’m always on the lookout for those historic early Ks when I’m searching for interesting bits of automotive history in junkyards. The ’81 and ’82s have become nearly impossible to find, but this once-plush LeBaron convertible appeared in a Northern California yard last month.
While a bafflingly complex family tree of K-derived vehicles grew up in Chrysler showrooms through 1995 (including the hot-selling Caravan/Voyager/Town and Country minivans), the only “true” US-market K-Cars are the Dodge Aries, Dodge 400/600 coupe, Plymouth Reliant and Chrysler LeBaron. 1982 was the first model year for the K LeBaron and this car was built in March of that year, so we’re looking at one of the very early successors to the Dodge Diplomat-based LeBarons of the 1970s.
Chrysler developed a homegrown 2.2-liter, overhead-cam straight-four engine that proved very successful, and a 94-horsepower version of that engine was the base powerplant for the 1982 LeBaron. This car appears to have just about every option available that year, so of course the original buyer went for the 2.6-liter Mitsubishi Astron straight-four. With hemispherical combustion chambers, the 2.6 could be called a Hemi (a few Ks even got “2.6 HEMI” badging); horsepower came to just 93 in 1982, but the 132 pound-feet of torque beat out the 117 lb-ft of the Chrysler 2.2 that year.
Silver-faced gauges and complicated radio controls were all the rage during the Late Malaise Era, and this car has both. Note the Chronometer next to the HVAC controls, a digital design with green vacuum-fluorescent display lifted from the previous-generation rear-wheel-drive LeBaron.
The non-cloth bits of the convertible-top mechanism look decent enough, so perhaps some junkyard-shopping LeBaron owner will rescue them. The ’82 LeBaron was the first Detroit production convertible since Cadillac built what it claimed was the last-ever convertible in 1976. When Cadillac resumed making Eldorado convertibles in 1983, owners of ’76 Eldos sued. Later on, even the wretched Geo Metro became available with a convertible top.
K LeBarons aren’t really worth restoring these days, unless you happen to be talking about Lee Iacocca’s personal car, and this one is pretty rough. Still, some of its parts may get rescued before what’s left gets fed into the cold steel jaws of The Crusher.
According to Iacocca, this dazzling convertible put a little fun back in driving. If you can find a better car, buy it!
Ricardo Montalban didn’t just pitch Cordobas for Chrysler. By ’82, Ricardo rolled in a LeBaron.