John Goreham’s post yesterday about the 1984 Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country that stars in the movie St. Vincent had me combing Craigslist, looking for an example for sale in all its wood-sided glory. Then I remembered I drove one.
Back when I worked for Hemmings Motor News, one of the guys I worked with was an inveterate wheeler-dealer. The lousier the car, the more interested he was. At one point in about 2007, he made some kind of swap that involved a Mercury Zephyr he was driving and was all excited and secretive about the car he was getting.
He rolled into the office the next day with this car, a 1984 Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country.
The LeBaron was the creme de la creme of the Chrysler K-Car family. For you youngsters in the audience that think cars like this are just ironic hipstermobiles to drive around and make fun of, let me tell you this: When I was in high school, EVERYBODY’s mom and dad drove K-Cars. In its first year in existence — 1981 — Chrysler sold more than 300,000 of these things. By 1984, it was selling more than 400,000.
To put that into some modern perspective, Toyota sold 400,000 Camrys last year.
Early K-Cars were “stylish” just like Soviet architecture. If depression had a shape, it would be this:
The K-Car came in a couple of different configurations the first year out, including Depressing Sedan, Depressing Coupe, Depressing Wagon.
Clearly, something had to be done at Chrysler to keep designers from hurling themselves off the roof of the building. That’s where Lee Iaccoca stepped in.
Iaccoca’s formula was simple: Take this hideously boring automobile and transform it into a wildly popular car, just like we did with the Mustang in ’64. Oh, and get it done yesterday.
At the time, there was an incredible amount of public relations and marketing around the fact that the K-Car was a “Clean Sheet” design, some of which you can see in this video Chrysler produced when he car was introduced. Pay close attention to the soundtrack, which was also featured in 873 porn films of the 1970s:
Iaccoca’s idea was to take the Aries, lop the roof off, throw some contact paper on the side and get it in the showroom, and boy, like yesterday.
The prototype for the Town & Country came from Creative Industries, a secret little skunkworks company in Auburn Hills that built all kinds of crazy stuff, like the Dodge Charger 500, the Superbird, and a bunch of other insane 1960s projects that weren’t really designed for mass public consumption.
Iaccoca had seen Creative Industries prototype and wanted it. Just build that. When Chrysler Director of Body Engineering Burton Bouwkamp suggested that he’d need a year to get tooling, injection molding dies and everything else required to build a convertible together, his boss, Hal Sperlich told him “build production cars the same way that Creative Industries built the prototype,” Bouwkamp wrote in an article for Hemmings Motor News. “I said that was impractical because it would cost more than $1,000 per car. Hal said that Lee didn’t ask how much it would cost – he said ‘do it.'”
Bouwkamp went on to explain that the cars were so wildly successful that there was a backlog of orders, mostly because they were being hand-built by Creative Industries.
“Hand-built” is one of those terms that sounds a lot better than it is. Instead of having a robot laser-weld stuff together, you’ve got a guy who has a significant drinking problem doing it.
It’s the best-looking of all the early K-Cars, just like Danny Bonaduce is the most successful of all child stars who has ever spent several years living in a car. (Probably this car, by the way). The inside is covered in a combination of brown and 97 acres of synthetic material made to look like something not quite natural.
There’s a lot wrong with the LeBaron Town & Country. It all starts with the acceleration. Without the benefit of turbocharging, these cars hit 60 miles an hour about as fast as you could pedal to that speed. 11.8 seconds was the going rate. Turbocharged versions — like this one — were supposed to get there in around eight seconds, but in this case “around eight seconds” is like when you say you’ll be there around 8:00 and show up at 11:30.
All that power is filtered through an exhaust that has the deep, visceral note of a car wash vacuum cleaner. Its not a “note” at all. It’s just the wooosh of air escaping, like somebody left the petcock open on a 50 gallon air compressor.
You double down on the pleasure with all the handling that only a front-wheel drive car from the 1980s on half-bald whitewalls can muster. It didn’t steer as much as it lurched, tentatively wandering from side to side the way you’d walk around an unfamiliar house in the dark looking for the bathroom.
You have to really search around for good things to say about the Aires platform. The K-Car entry on Allpar.com suggests that “the Aries and Reliant ended up with the least door closing effort of any Chrysler vehicle, regardless of price.”
Honey, where’s the checkbook?
People talk about the “Malaise Era” of automotive production in terms of cars produced between 1973 and 1983. That’s unfair to every car built in 1973. They were all better than the Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country.
Is the LeBaron Town & Country ironic? You bet. But drive one, and you’ll long for the days of a 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass or even a 1977 Ford Granada. If anything gives you any reason to think about owning one of these, please do yourself a favor: ball up your money and throw it at the next homeless person you see. You’ll feel better about yourself in the long run.