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Chrysler LeBaron

The Chrysler LeBaron, also known as the Imperial LeBaron, is a line of automobiles built by Chrysler from 1931 to 1941 and from 1955 to 1995. The model was introduced in 1931, with a body manufactured by LeBaron, and competed with other luxury cars of the era such as Lincoln and Packard. After purchasing LeBaron with its parent Briggs Manufacturing Company, Chrysler introduced the luxury make Imperial in 1955, and sold automobiles under the name Imperial LeBaron until 1975. Chrysler discontinued the Imperial brand in 1975, and reintroduced the Chrysler LeBaron in 1977 to what was then Chrysler's lowest priced model.

The "LeBaron" name has since been applied to five different cars built by the Chrysler Division:

  • 1977–1981 M-body (mid-size) LeBaron sedan, coupe, and wagon
  • 1982–1988 K-body (mid-size) LeBaron sedan, coupe, convertible, and wagon
  • 1985–1989 H-body (mid-size) LeBaron GTS hatchback
  • 1987–1995 J-body (personal luxury) LeBaron coupe and convertible
  • 1990–1994 AA-body (mid-size) LeBaron sedan

The last Chrysler LeBaron was produced in 1995, to be replaced with the Cirrus and Sebring. The LeBaron was one of Chrysler's longest running brands.

The LeBaron background

LeBaron was one of the many prominent coachbuilders in the 1920s and 1930s to provide bodies for luxury cars. It was founded in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1920 by Thomas L. Hibbard and Raymond H. Dietrich. It was later purchased by Briggs Manufacturing Company of Detroit in 1926, the major manufacturer of bodies for Ford, Chrysler, Hudson, Packard and others, and operated as a Briggs specialist subsidiary.

LeBaron supplied exquisite custom bodies for various car companies such as Chrysler's luxury Imperial line, Duesenberg, and Cadillac. LeBaron's last projects for Chrysler were the Chrysler Newport Phaeton, a super-streamlined dual cowl phaeton with an aluminum body and the remarkable 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt, a sleek roadster with concealed headlights (like the 1936 Cord 810/812) and a retractable metal hardtop styled by Alex Tremulis, who would later style the legendary Tucker of 1948.

Chrysler purchased Briggs Manufacturing Company in 1953. Two years after the Chrysler Corporation introduced the Imperial as a separate luxury division, LeBaron was designated the top-of-the-line Imperial models in 1957 through 1975.

Classic generation (1931–1941)

The LeBarons started in the 1930s during the automobile's Classic era and competed directly with the luxury brands of its day such as Lincoln, Cadillac, and Packard. In the mid-1930s, Chrysler added a radical new "Art Deco" design shape, known as the Airflow Imperials, to the Chrysler line. The high-end CW series were supplied by LeBaron. The design features were considered advanced and perhaps ahead of their time. However, the shape was too radical for buyer's tastes and non-Airflow models outsold Airflows by about 3 to 1. Raymond Dietrich, co-founder and former stylist at LeBaron, was hired in 1932 to be Chrysler's in-house stylist. Dietrich restyled the Airflow line and Chryslers moved to more mainstream styles. As a result of the poor Airflow sales, Chrysler design actually became quite conservative for the next two decades. Auto manufacturers continued to build up their in-house styling departments and bodyworks, with the result that LeBaron became less important to most of its customers for design ideas and bodies. Toward the late 1930s, LeBaron/Briggs built more bodies for Chrysler and fewer bodies for Ford. Chrysler became their biggest customer, with additional bodies built for Packard, Hudson, and Graham-Paige. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the LeBaron name and division became less important for Briggs, although it remained a division of Briggs until the Chrysler buy-out in 1953.

LeBaron's last projects for Chrysler were two concept cars: the Chrysler Newport Phaeton, a super-streamlined dual cowl phaeton with an aluminum body and the remarkable 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt, a sleek roadster with concealed headlights and a retractable metal hardtop styled by Alex Tremulis, who went on to later style part of the legendary Tucker of 1948. Only 6 of each were made.

Imperial generation (1955–1975)

For 1955, Chrysler Corporation spun off Imperial as its flagship luxury brand, taking its name from the original Chrysler Imperial series. Intended as a direct competitor for Cadillac, Lincoln, and Packard, Imperial was a completely distinct vehicle that did not use the Chrysler nameplate.

Through the existence of the division, Imperial used two nameplates alongside a nameless base model (Imperial Custom, from 1960-1963). Its mid-range line was the Imperial Crown, with the flagship line branded as the Imperial LeBaron (in deference to the coachbuilder); Southampton was a sub-designation applied for pillarless hardtop bodystyles.

In June 1975, Chrysler retired the Imperial brand in response to declining sales of the marque; the Imperial LeBaron was repackaged for 1976 as the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham.

First generation (1977–1981)

For 1977, the LeBaron returned, moving from Imperial to Chrysler. Introduced as a late model-year response to the Cadillac Seville and Lincoln Versailles, the Chrysler LeBaron was the first compact Chrysler ever produced. Effectively a new generation of the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volaré, the LeBaron was the inaugural model of the M platform (alongside the Dodge Diplomat). In contrast to the Seville and Versailles, the LeBaron was offered as both a two-door coupe and a four-door sedan, with a Town & Country five-door station wagon added for 1978.

Though the LeBaron sedan and station wagon was visibly similar to the Volaré (which shared a common 112.7-inch wheelbase), the vehicles did not share hoods, trunk lids, and front and rear header panels. The LeBaron coupe shared the same wheelbase as the sedan/wagon (4 inches longer than the F-body coupe), with a sleeker roofline. A 225 Slant Six was fitted as the standard engine, with the 318 and 360 V8s offered as options; a 3-speed Torqueflite automatic transmission was offered with all three engines, though a 4-speed manual overdrive transmission was offered with the 225 and 318 engines through 1981.

For 1980, the LeBaron underwent an mid-cycle facelift. The exterior was styled with sharper-edged sheetmetal and restyled with a waterfall grille (similar to the 1974-1975 Imperial); the sedan roofline underwent aerodynamic revisions (no longer shared with the Volaré). The two-door moved to the shorter F-body wheelbase, also receiving aerodynamic enhancements to its rear sheetmetal. The interior underwent design upgrades to make the model line more luxurious. Chrysler introduced a limited-edition "Fifth Avenue" option package for the 1980 LeBaron four-door sedan. A conversion by American Sunroof Corporation, the Fifth Avenue featured a padded vinyl roof that covered the quarter glass of the rear doors, along with interior trim upgrades.

Following the discontinuation of the Volaré for 1981, Chrysler introduced a police-equipment option package (keeping Chrysler-Plymouth dealers in competition for law enforcement fleet contracts); for 1982, the Plymouth Gran Fury was downsized to the M-body, directly replacing the Volaré. After the LeBaron was moved to the K platform for 1982, the M-platform remained in use until the end of the 1980s, supporting several Chrysler-brand nameplates (alongside the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury).

Production Figures:

(For 1979 and 1981, coupe and sedan production figures are not separated)

Second generation (1982–1988)

For 1982, the LeBaron moved to the front-wheel drive Chrysler K platform, where it was the upscale brand's lowest priced offering. It was initially available in just sedan and coupe versions. In early 1982, it was released in a convertible version, bringing to the market the first factory-built open-topped domestic vehicle since the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado.

A station wagon version called the Town and Country was added as well. A special Town and Country convertible was also made from 1983 until 1986 with a 1,105 total produced, which like the wagon featured simulated wood paneling that made it resemble the original 1940s Town and Country. This model was part of the well-equipped Mark Cross option package for the latter years.

Despite being mechanically similar to the Aries and Reliant, its fascias closely resembled those of the larger E-body sedans. This generation featured Chrysler's Electronic Voice Alert, a computerized voice which warned drivers about various conditions with phrases such as "A door is ajar" or "Your engine oil pressure is low".

The LeBaron was facelifted for 1986 receiving rounder front and rear ends to improve aerodynamics. The sedan's full vinyl roof was replaced by a landau padded top. The instrumentation cluster was revised from a rectangle speedometer and fuel gauge with a message center to round gauges similar to the Reliant/Aries but with an argent surround for a more upscale appearance. Coupes and convertibles were dropped for 1987, being replaced by the all-new J-body LeBaron released that year. The sedan and wagon continued with minor change until 1988. A new digital dashboard replaced the analog gauges for a more modern appearance. A larger LeBaron sedan based on the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim would arrive for the 1990 model year.

1985–1989 LeBaron GTS

The 1985 LeBaron GTS was a somewhat different car than the standard LeBaron and was based on the Chrysler H platform. It was available at the same time as the Cadillac Cimarron as a luxury-brand model, while offering a similar level of equipment to the small Cadillac. As a 5-door hatchback still derived from the K-car, the GTS (and the similar Dodge Lancer) was more of a performance vehicle than the softer-tuned K-car LeBaron sedan. In base configuration, the car was powered by Chrysler's 2.2 liter inline-4 engine, later replaced by a 2.5 L TBI version generating 100 hp (75 kW). A turbocharged 2.2 L engine producing 146 hp (109 kW) was also available. The GTS moniker was dropped for 1989, the final year of this vehicle's production, after the K-based LeBaron sedan was discontinued after 1988.

Trim levels

  • High Line - 1985–1989
  • Premium - 1985–1988
  • GTS - 1989 (replaced "Premium" after the "GTS" was dropped from the name of the car)
  • "Pacifica" 1986 (replaced by Shelby Lancer in 1987) Limited 500 run

Production Figures:

European market - the Chrysler GTS

After some years of absence, Chrysler officially started offering some models under its own brand on the European market from April 1988 on. One of them was the "Chrysler GTS", which in fact was a rebadged version of the Dodge Lancer ES. Sales figures were moderate.

Third generation coupe/convertible (1987–1995)

After discontinuing the first generation LeBaron coupe and convertible in 1986, Chrysler released a new LeBaron for 1987, built on the J platform (a K platform derivative) and available as a coupe or convertible. The all-new LeBaron looked modern and aerodynamic compared to its boxy predecessor and was quite stylish for its day, featuring headlights hidden behind retractable metal covers and a waterfall grille, steeply raked windshield, full-width taillight lenses though only the edges actually lit up, and curved (Coke bottle) style rocker panels. The LeBaron was equipped with a trip & fuel economy computer and full instrumentation. In Mexico, these models were marketed as the Chrysler Phantom. The available engines were the stock 2.2-liter and 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated or turbocharged, and for the 1990 model year, a 3.0-liter Mitsubishi V6 became available, although the Mexican Chrysler Phantom R/T DOHC 16V also offered the same 2.2-liter turbo engine as used in the U.S. market Dodge Spirit R/T.

For 1990, the LeBaron's interior was refreshed, featuring an all new dashboard, gauge cluster, door panels, and center console design. All of the new components were designed to be smoother and more flowing than the comparatively boxy 1987-89 interior style, making it more in tune with the "aero" revolution of the early 1990s. The 1992 LeBaron coupes and convertibles could be ordered with a new "sport package", which featured a monochrome appearance including body-colored grille, accent stripe, and decklid logo. The package also included 14-inch "lace" style wheelcovers and a black strip below the taillights in place of chrome, with special blacked-out window moldings on coupe models.

1993 Facelift

In 1992 for the 1993 model year, the LeBaron received a slight facelift. The hidden headlamps of the 1987-1992 models were deleted in favor of less costly flush-mounted replaceable-bulb headlamps, new wheel styles were made available, and all models got the amber rear turn signals introduced on the deluxe 1992 models. For 1994, a passenger side airbag became standard on all models. Also new for 1994 was the "Bright LX" decor package which included a "bright" chrome grille, "bright" chrome badging, and "bright" chrome molding inserts, as opposed to being body-colored on the GTC.

The available engines were a naturally aspirated 2.5 L and a turbocharged 2.2 and 2.5 L versions of Chrysler's inline-four, and the 3.0 L Mitsubishi V6 making a 141 hp (105 kW) in this application. The turbocharged engines were dropped from the lineup in 1992 for the 1993 model year. The coupe was discontinued after 1993. For the last two model years, the 3.0 was the only available engine. The convertible was discontinued after 1995, to make way for the new Chrysler Sebring coupes and convertibles, for 1995 and 1996 respectively.

Trim levels: 1987–1995

Throughout its lifetime, the LeBaron convertible/coupe was available in many trim levels. For its first year, the LeBaron was available in Highline and Premium, typical Chrysler trims at the time. The number of trims grew, peaking in 1990, with six available. After that, the number decreased until just two trim levels remained for 1995.

  • 1987: Highline, Premium
  • 1988: Highline, Premium, GT
  • 1989: GTS Turbo, GT Turbo, GTC Turbo, Highline, Premium
  • 1990: GT, GT Turbo, GTC Turbo, Highline, Highline Turbo, Premium
  • 1991: GTC, GTC Turbo, Highline, Highline Turbo, Premium LX
  • 1992: GTC, GTC Turbo, Highline, Highline Turbo, LX
  • 1993: GTC, Highline, LX
  • 1994: GTC, LX
  • 1995: GTC, LX

Export

The LeBaron coupe/convertible was part of Chrysler's export push and was regularly available across Europe. Springs and shocks were somewhat firmer on European-market cars. The initial European lineup was made up of the naturally aspirated 2.5 and the turbocharged 2.2; both were offered with a 5-speed manual or a 3-speed automatic. Power is 98 and 148 PS (72 and 109 kW; 97 and 146 hp) respectively. In mid-1988, the turbocharged 2.2 was partially replaced by the 2.5 Turbo, with power slightly lower at 146 PS (107 kW; 144 hp). The 2.2 Turbo received an intercooler, which boosted maximum power to 177 PS (130 kW; 175 hp). Called the LeBaron GTC, it was not offered with the automatic. Both turbo versions were discontinued during 1989; the 2.5 Turbo returned (only with the five-speed manual transmission) some time during 1990. The new version produces 155 PS (114 kW; 153 hp) at 4700 rpm, but it was discontinued yet again in 1991. The 3.0-liter Mitsubishi V6 engine was introduced to European buyers in mid-1989, and was only available with the four-speed automatic. It produces somewhat less power than the American models; 136 PS (100 kW; 134 hp) at 5200 rpm. The top speed was 182 km/h (113 mph) and the 0–100 km/h (62 mph) sprint took 10.8 seconds. After the 2.5 Turbo was discontinued in 1991, the V6 remained the only regular option until the LeBaron Coupé/Convertible ended European sales in mid-1994.

Racing

Several ARCA (one tier down from NASCAR cup racing) teams built LeBaron based race cars (supported by a revitalized Chrysler Direct Connection performance parts division) and ran them from 1988 until 1998.

Production Figures:

Third generation sedan (1990–1994)

The last LeBaron sedan was built on the front wheel drive AA platform, another K derivative, as junior level sedan to the more upscale New Yorker. It offered rebadged versions under the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim nameplates, and the three differed mostly in detail and trim choices, as well as the European Chrysler Saratoga.

Theoretically, as historically was the case in this era whenever Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth shared direct model variants, the Acclaim was supposed to be the more mainstream version, while the Spirit was the sportier version, and the LeBaron was the luxury version, reflecting the Chrysler brand's flagship status. In reality, however, there was considerable overlap amongst the three in available trim, equipment and features. The top-line LeBaron Landau model offered a padded vinyl half-roof with smaller "formal" backlight. All LeBaron sedans came with a standard driver's side airbag, and could seat up to six passengers.

For 1992, the LeBaron sedan was split into three trim levels: base, LX and Landau. The new entry model eliminated the previously standard V6 engine and landau vinyl roof while the Landau model still included the landau roof as standard. The LX, available one year only, offered standard V6 but no landau roof. For 1993, the LeBaron sedan received new rear lights, which incorporated the reversing lamps previously located in the bumper fascia and the lineup was reduced to two trim levels with the entry model now labeled LE. The LeBaron sedan was discontinued on May 18, 1994, while the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim continued production until December 21, 1994. The Chrysler LeBaron was replaced by the "Cloud Car" Chrysler Cirrus.

Safety

In 1994, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rated the LeBaron a 4 out of 5 for driver side and a 3 out of 5 for passenger side frontal impact occupant protection.

Trim levels

  • base - 1990–1992
  • LX - 1992
  • Landau - 1992–1994
  • LE - 1993–1994

Production Figures:

Mexican market

M and K-platform cars were assembled in the Toluca, Mexico facility. The M-platform LeBaron was sold in Mexico from the 1977 to the 1982 model years. The K-car LeBaron was also produced in Toluca and was sold for the 1983 through 1987 model years. There were no K-platform convertibles offered from the factory.

Chrysler Phantom was the Mexican-market version of the J-Body LeBaron Coupe. There were no convertibles of the J-body 2-door for the Mexican market. Phantoms were Chrysler's top-of-the-line model in Mexico and generally sold with a higher trim level than their United States counterparts; the Phantom was also only ever available with the more powerful, turbocharged engines. Chrysler Phantoms were marketed from 1987 until 1994, with the first cars delivered in December 1986. A more powerful R/T version (similar to the American LeBaron GTC but using a higher-tuned turbo engine) was also available in 1992 and 1993. The Phantom R/T originally received the 2.5-liter 175 hp (130 kW) Turbo II engine, coupled to a three-speed automatic, but this was quickly changed to the 224 hp (167 kW) Turbo III engine with a five-speed Getrag manual transmission.

The Mexican AA-body Chrysler LeBaron 4-door sedan was called the New Yorker (all of them with Landau roof), and the "K" body (slightly shorter) was reserved for the 4-door LeBaron's, which were sold in two trim levels, one with Landau roof and leather, and the other one without those two options.

References

Sources

  • Coachbuilt: LeBaron Carrossiers - 1920-1925, LeBaron Inc. - 1925-1928, LeBaron-Detroit - 1928-1942
  • Coachbuilt: Briggs Manufacturing Co. - 1909-1954
  • Conceptcarz: Chrysler LeBaron news
  • Allpar: LeBaron Coupe
  • Consumer Guide: 1990-1995 LeBaron coupe/convertible reviews
  • Consumer Guide: 1990-1994 LeBaron Sedan reviews
  • Front-Runners.net - LeBaron Road Test (PDF)

External links

  • Chrysler LeBaron History
  • Chrysler Le Baron GTC
  • MyLebaron
  • LeBaron.de - German Forum, Gallery, KnowHow...
  • Chrysler K-car Club

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