Even with a Storied Name, the Compact K-Derived Ragtop was a Gamble for Lacocca

When Lee Iacocca left the Ford Motor Company and joined Chrysler in 1978, he was faced with rebuilding a car company on the verge of bankruptcy. One of the reasons for the company’s lack of capital, he claimed, was that the corporation’s diverse number of platforms—five in production at the time —shared few common parts, which in turn had created a complex manufacturing and inventory conundrum.

Correcting Chrysler’s fortunes would require a streamlined system of production already in practice in Germany and Japan: fewer platforms with a broad array of shared components, most of which were hidden from buyer’s eyes. While Iacocca stood before the U.S. Congress making his appeal for the great “Chrysler bailout” in 1979, his engineers were busy developing a new chassis: The K-car platform.

The new front-wheel-drive K-platform debuted as the compact Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant in the fall of 1980, replacing the recall-plagued Aspen and Volare in the divisions’ lineups. Each of the new “K-cars” were offered in two-door and four-door sedan body styles, as well as a station wagon, in various trim levels. It was a clear shift for the corporation, with more aerodynamic and fuel-efficient vehicles aimed at lowering the buyers’ operating costs while simultaneously reducing production costs.

No sooner had the K-car begun to roll off dealership lots across the country when the parent division began to adopt the chassis for a reimagined LeBaron, set to be introduced for 1982. Like its corporate siblings, the new LeBaron was to make use of the existing two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and wagon—but a storied, luxurious name needed, perhaps, just a bit more, and this is where adaptability came into play as part of Iacocca’s engineering directive.

The Chrysler brand had not offered a convertible since the 1970 model year. Encouraged, in part, by a rebounding economy, Iacocca felt there might be renewed interest. To test the waters, he had a LeBaron two-door coupe sent from the St Louis, Missouri, plant to California, where it was modified into a “non-functional” convertible. Once completed and displayed at several auto shows — where it was met with strong interest— Cars and Concepts, based in Brighton, Michigan, was contracted to manage the conversion of two-door coupes into convertibles for the posh LeBaron (and the new Dodge 400).

Cars and Concepts was chosen from a list of aftermarket firms based on their competitive price, coupled with a full-service package of engineering, manufacturing, and after-sale support. Just as important, the company was deemed to have a proper concept of how to build convertibles in the new decade. As one would expect, Cars and Concepts did more than just hack off the roof of a two-door coupe. Approximately 34 separate steps were undertaken to complete the complex conversion, most of which included the necessary sheetmetal surgery and intricate body reinforcement required.

Thus, when the reimagined Chrysler LeBaron was officially unveiled for 1982, the entry-level luxury car was available in two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and convertible guises. Having shed its former boxy look for aerodynamic sleekness without sacrificing elegant trimmings, the all-new LeBaron was announced as, “Lee Iacocca’s dream to combine high mileage and luxury in a series of cars,” in ads pitched by actor Ricardo Montalban.

With the redesign came refreshing fuel-mileage estimates of 25 in the city and as high as 40 on the highway. Such numbers were made possible in part by a Chrysler-developed 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine (equating to 135 cubic inches) rated at 84 horsepower and 111 pound-feet of torque offered as standard equipment, save for the LeBaron Town & Country, which received the otherwise-optional Mitsubishi-produced 2.6-liter four-cylinder. A four-speed manual transmission was standard, though an automatic was optional.

Naturally, the LeBaron convertible was to be the ultimate in luxury further touted in Chrysler brochures and ads: “The convertible exudes an elegance, a sense of style that starts at the tip of its highly stylized grille and continues through to plush interior appointments. No other car is causing so much excitement.” That said, a luxury tradition was maintained when Chrysler offered the line in the upscale Medallion series, as depicted by this Mark Cross edition currently under the care of Ted DeHoogh of Sioux Center, Iowa.

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