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Car of the Month, January 2009: George Watts' 1989 LeBaron Convertible

1989 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible

This fine 1989 Chrysler LeBaron Premium convertible, owned by George Watts of Williamstown, New Jersey, appeared at the 2008 Allpar/Slant Six Club meet in New Brunswick. It is powered by a 4-cylinder 2.5 Turbo I with a Turbo II intercooler setup added by the owner. As of the show date, the car had about 44,000 miles on the odometer.

Mr. Watts bought his 1989 in 2004 over the Internet from a seller in Huntsville, Alabama, paying about $3,500. He took it over with a black body, and had it repainted in Mopar “Bright Silver.” The decklid shows a GT imprint, but that imprint, Watts says, “is a liberty I took when having the car painted. In 1989 they called this car a Premium. There were convertible GTs in 1989, but they were white.”

Chrysler LeBaron

The car originally had a black top, which Watts replaced with new blue Stayfast Canvas. The top was redone by Klassic Auto Upholstery of Florence, New Jersey. The entire original interior was replaced with Twilight Blue components out of a vehicle purchased from a Florida seller. Watts performed detailing himself, with exterior paint done by a local professional.

Originally purchased in California, the car meets that state’s emission standards. The car has Mopar’s 12-button EVIC, or electronic vehicle information center. The engine is original except for the intercooler system, which came out of a Chrysler TC by Maserati model, and a Mopar Performance computer installed by Watts to replace the stock onboard computer.

turbo engine

According to Watts, the Mopar Performance computer “made a noticeable difference, but I’m not sure how to give you that in numerical terms. Fuel mileage with the stock SMEC averages about 22-23 mpg in mixed driving using premium gas (93 octane), as recommended by the owners manual for the turbo engines. Mileage with the Mopar Performance SMEC is about 15% less, but with a noticeable improvement in acceleration and engine response. I averaged 28 mpg driving the car to Detroit for the Woodward cruise last summer.”

The valve cover and intake manifold were powder coated in “Viper ’wrinkle-red’ by a company -- in Texas, if I remember correctly. I sent it out to them for refinishing.” Alloy 16-inch wheels have replaced factory 15-inch wheels but the exhaust system is original, including a dummy chrome tip.

Mr. Watts is president of a company that sells and installs audio-video systems, Hi-Fi Sales Co. of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He reports having owned seven LeBaron convertibles over the years, including a 1987, a 1988, the 1989, a 1990, and a 1994. He still has the ’94, with 272,000 miles on its odometer.

interior

In the 30 years that he has been with the company, Watts’s company cars have included a Mercedes SL and BMW Series 3. Presently it’s a 2006 Porsche Carrera, but his ’94 LeBaron still provides most of his daily transportation.

How would he compare the performance of the LeBaron to the Euro cars?

The LeBarons aren't on the same level as the European cars [editor’s note: the Mercedes SL starts at $97,000, while the Porsche 911 Carrera starts at $74,360]. That doesn't diminish the fact that the J-body convertibles are very pleasant cars to drive on those sunny days and warm nights. It's a car that exceeds one’s expectations of what you would expect from a vehicle derived from Mopar’s K platform.

They're relatively roomy for their size, have very comfortable front seats. I’m 5-foot eleven, and for me the driving position is perfect. With the sport suspension and the GT, GTC, or Turbo drivetrain, they can hold their own in everyday driving. It's a far more comfortable car to drive on long trips than the Mercedes SL, for example.

As older cars, they're inexpensive to purchase and maintain, especially compared to the European cars. Someone looking for the cachet of a high performance or sports car isn't going to be happy with a LeBaron. But as a second or third car, or as a personal convertible, it's pretty hard to beat a nice LeBaron.

convertible

Hi-Fi Sales has 23 employees; five of them, including Watts, own Chrysler LeBaron convertibles. One co-worker is a retired vice president of a major motion picture company who drives a Cadillac STS, but who also owns two LeBaron convertibles. It’s a veritable company fleet!

The LeBaron tradition goes back to the 1920s when it was the name of a custom bodyworks company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was later bought out by Chrysler Corporation. The name appeared for the first time on a Chrysler vehicle, a Custom Eight Imperial, in 1931. More recently it has been associated with the mid-sized J platform Chryslers of the Eighties and Nineties such as Mr. Watts’s car (along with versions of Acclaims, Volares, Diplomats, Reliants, and others — sometimes during the same year.)

The basic LeBaron J convertible first came out on a 100.3-inch wheelbase in 1987. In that year it had the distinction of pacing the Indianapolis 500. The line features a long hoodline, short deck, hidden headlights and “waterfall” grille. It offered many power features, heated mirrors, tilt wheel, cruise control and power brakes, etc. New features in 1989 included four-wheel disc brakes and driver’s airbag. 37,489 convertible LeBarons were produced in 1989. Its last production year was 1994. (LeBaron Convertible details.)

Infinity stereo (by George Watts)

My 1989 has the optional Infinity II system priced on the window sticker at $219. The original radio supplied with the Infinity option was an am/fm-cassette unit with a 5-band electronic graphic audio equalizer. A separate Mitsubishi-made CD player was optional at the time, though my car was not equipped with it. I removed the original radio and replaced it with a later-model Chrysler/Infinity AM/FM/CD unit, and kept the rest of the system intact. This is a direct bolt-in swap that takes only a few minutes. The newer units are readily available on the Internet. There's also a combination AM-FM-cassette-CD model that's also a drop-in. But it's not Infinity branded and has somewhat different tonal characteristics from the Infinity units.

I would rate the stock convertible Infinity system as "fair." The radio itself is excellent ergonomically, and I can't really find any fault with that aspect. It's well illuminated, gets excellent reception. The controls are well differentiated and it's fully featured.

Unfortunately, good sound quality is hard to develop in a moving convertible. The system sounds fine when the car is standing still, but it can't overcome the inherent noise and loss of bass that occurs in a moving ragtop -- even with the top up. The rear speakers and their baffling are the real weak points. The Infinity door and rear speakers have self-contained bass amplifiers, but they're low powered and ineffectual at anything above low or moderate volume level.

Musically, the sound is very well balanced when the car is stopped or moving at low speeds. It has very good vocal and treble clarity, much better than many of the Bose systems I've heard in other cars. It just can't cut it at highway speeds. I've had both 1987 and 1988 J-body coupes with the Infinity system, and they sounded excellent by the standard of the day. The difference is attributable to larger and properly baffled rear speakers that were used in the coupes, and the inherent acoustic advantage of a solid vs. canvas top.

Today’s premium automobile audio systems are much more capable and developed than what was available through OEM back when these cars were new. That's what made, and makes, the aftermarket systems so popular. Virtually no aftermarket head units, though, are as well designed as the Chrysler radios are from an appearance and ergonomic standpoint.

I guess I'd rate the Infinity system in the 1989 convertible as a "6" on a scale of 1-to-10. -- G.W.

See other Cars of the Month • All Cars at Allpar200,000 Mile Club • Stories: People and Cars

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