Super K - The Dodge 400 / 600, Chrysler LeBaron and Town & Country, 1982-1988
The Chrysler LeBaron coupe and convertible models are often mentioned as though they started in 1987, when the J-bodied versions came to market; people forget the cars that started the convertible revolution in the mid-1980s and helped to bring Chrysler back from the brink - the so-called Super K models. The Super-Ks were first introduced in late 1981 as 1982 models - as the Chrysler LeBaron and a Dodge 400.
The 1982 Chrysler LeBaron took its name from the discontinued M-bodied LeBaron; before then, the LeBaron name had been used for high-end Imperials, a lofty position indeed, until the mid-1970s.
Like its immediate predecessor, the 1982 LeBaron was available in many bodies, including a 2 door coupe and 4 door sedan based closely on the 'regular' K-car - the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant.
At mid-year, a wagon version was added to the LeBaron line (closely resembling the Reliant and Aries wagons) with standard Town & Country woodgrain-plastic siding and moldings.
The similar Dodge 400 started as a two door coupe, with a four door sedan coming a few months later; there was no wagon. Most buyers and critics, however, were eagerly awaiting the arrival of an all new body style - a convertible. The convertible models were introduced about half way through the model year, and were built by Cars & Concepts of Brighton, Michigan, off of regular 2 door coupe bodies. [Read the creation story]
According to Thomas Mize, both the original K-cars (Reliant and Aries) and the Lebaron and 400 had an optional factory-installed sunroof for 1981-82; he has searched for the number of sunroof-equipped cars built, without success.
The Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400 differences
Most major exterior body panels were directly lifted from the K-car line, including fenders, doors, roofs, quarter panels and trunk lids. The major styling differences were the unique front clip and fascia, front grill, quad headlamps, the pointed, prow-shaped front bumper, wheels (replete with embossed pentastars), and the hood. Both the 2 door coupe and 4 door sedan models came with a factory padded vinyl top - full on the sedan and Landau style on the coupe - with a 'Frenched' rear window. Numerous body panels and suspension parts were designed by CAD.
Soundproofing itself resulted in numerous changes: “improved windshield molding and A-post seals, enlarged instrument panel silencer, improved dash liner coverage, enlarged bulkhead disconnect flange, improved steering column and cowl side silencers, tuned front bumper, steering column vibration absorber, linkless sway bar, low-rate central arm strut bushings, upper strut mounts, and front springs, unique tires, enlarged secondary seals at bottom of doors, premium rear shocks, isolator pads at bottom of rear coil springs, improved trailer arm pivot bushings, low-rate track bar bushing, foam seal added to rear seat belt retractors, openings in inner sheet metal covered with mastic, rear wheelhouse silencers, improved trunk to cabin barrier, expandable sealer in A-post cavities, butyl tops on pinch weld at top of sills, and improved heater resistor block sealing.”
The styling for each car copied the looks of other lines offered. The LeBaron had a waterfall style grill, similar to the M-body LeBaron it replaced, as well as the larger New Yorker. The quad headlamps were set in pairs, in heavily chromed bezels. Unlike the K-cars, the parking lamps and turn signals were located in the front bumper. In the rear, a more formal looking full width taillamp housing was used, with lots of chrome trim.
The Chrysler cars also carried a formal Chrysler hood ornament on top, some with a crystal Pentastar. The hood had a more pronounced center section, to meet with the top of the grill. The coupe models had a small 'opera' window on the sides, and the sedans used the vinyl top to 'blank' out the rear, side window. The Town & Country wagon was offered with Marine Teak vinyl wood grain siding, and Ash colored surround moldings, carrying the look of the Town & Country models of earlier years.
The Dodge 400 borrowed much of its style from the larger, rear-wheel drive Mirada coupe. The 400 had a similar slat-style grill and non-functional vents on the fenders. The 400's quad lamps were housed singly in deeply recessed housings, creating a very unique look. Like the LeBaron, the tail treatment was much different from the K-car base, and there was additional chrome trim, as well.
For the interiors, Chrysler carried over the K-car pieces, for the most part just using more plush fabrics and wood toned trim; rocker type door locks and recessed door handles were one of the few “major” changes, along with a standard high trim level. There were additional features standard on the Super-k that were optional or just not available on the basic K-car platforms. Additionally, the LeBaron and 400s used a different style armrest and door pull. Less vinyl trim was seen inside the Super-K and the carpeting and other fabrics were much more luxurious. The Super-K also boasted quieter interiors, as well, due to the heavier sound insulation used; and had small changes to the suspension for a smoother ride, including lower-rate shocks.
Available on the LeBaron models was an optional 'Mark Cross' leather interior package, which included Corinthian leather seat surfaces, unique door panel inserts and 'Mark Cross' badges on the door panels. There was no similar option for the Dodge.
The convertibles arrived at mid-year, offering the first domestically produced convertibles since 1976, when Cadillac had phased out the Eldorado rag top. The convertible tops had a plastic rear window and a wide quarter panel, which created blind spots over the shoulder and a slightly claustrophobic feeling with the top raised. There was a padded top boot that would snap into place when the top was down, and the top was power actuated, from a button on the console. All convertibles came with a vinyl interior, with bucket seats and a large center armrest. The 'console' wasn't really even that, just trim placed over the large, tunnel section of the floor, added for rigid support. Production of the convertible models was limited to 3045 for the LeBaron and 5541 for the 400 - the only year that the Dodge outsold the LeBaron.
Mechanical components of the convertibles
The major mechanical components were straight out of the K-car bin - with the standard engine being Chrysler's own 2.2 liter Trans-4 motor, mated to a 4 speed manual transmission. Convertibles had a standard automatic transmission. The only other engine available at the time was the Mitsubishi made 2.6 liter 'Silent Shaft' engine mated to the 3 speed automatic. This engine was standard in the LeBaron Town & Country wagon, and optional on all other models. All other mechanical components were straight from the K-car - steering (although standard power assist), brakes, suspension and more.
The bodies themselves were heavily modified to survive as convertibles. Added strength was found with new panels in the rear quarters and reinforcements in the A pillars and inner door panels; the floor pan was reinforced with a torque tube and extra metal in front. The convertible motor itself was mounted on the floor pan behind the rear bulkhead, with actuating switches on the console between the front seats.
The cars were launched in 1982. 1983 brought a 5 speed manual on the coupe models only - all others came with standard 3 speed automatics. The much-lampooned Electronic Voice Alert was introduced this year, given spoken warnings to alert the driver to various situations. The LeBaron convertible had a Town & Country appearance package, mimicking the wagon's standard look and including the 2.6 liter Mitsubishi motor.
Dodge 400 was given an optional 'Roadability' package, which included more performance oriented suspension components, similar to the 600ES sedan, which was Dodge's version of the new-for-1983 E-body platform - which was also based upon the K-car chassis, only stretched about 10 inches. This E-body platform also gave birth to the Chrysler E-Class and the New Yorker.
1983 also brought the LeBaron based Limousine and Executive sedan - both stretched from the LeBaron. The Limousine had seating for seven and a driver compartment divider with a power glass window and jump seats, as well as front and rear stereo systems and air conditioning. The Executive sedan did without the divider and extra seating.
One of the other changes for 1983 was that the Dodge 400 convertible saw a major decrease in the MSRP - nearly $3000! Quite a drastic drop indeed (and due to changes in how production was handled). Production of the convertible models was, as a result, considerably higher - with 10,994 LeBarons made, including 1,520 with the Town & Country equipment and 5,441 carrying the Mark Cross leather package. Dodge only saw 4,888 copies of the 400 convertible leave the factory.
1984 saw the most significant changes to the Super-K series. The Dodge 400 was replaced by the larger E-body 600, which was available in 600 or 600ES trim; 600 coupe and convertible were three inches shorter than 600 sedan, but all were larger than the K-based 400.
The Chrysler LeBaron had a 4-door coupe, 2-door coupe, and sedan as well as the Town & Country wagon, and Mark Cross luxury edition. The extended-size K-car featured an optional turbocharged engine, fuel injection, and "luxury features." The convertible featured a new roof, larger rear seat, power-drop quarter window glass, and a tinted glass rear window. New for the series were cosmetic changes inside and out, electronic gauges in the convertible Mark Cross, a longer front seat adjustment, and illuminated entry available on all models.
The Chrysler built 2.2 liter turbocharged 4 cylinder, based upon the original 2.2 Trans 4 motor, was added; it included multiple port fuel injection. The basic 2.2 also received fuel injection during the 1984 model year. The base coupes were available with a 5 speed manual transmission with the base 2.2 Trans 4 motor, as before, but all other models of the 600 and the Chrysler LeBaron came with a 3 speed automatic transmission as standard.
The Mitsubishi 2.6 liter engine was still optional across the board, except where it was standard equipment (on the LeBaron Town & Country convertible and wagon models).
The Chrysler E-Class sedan was discontinued at the end of the year, but replaced by a Plymouth version of the E-body called Caravelle (except in Canada, where Caravelle was used instead of Gran Fury on Plymouth’s rear-driver).
Styling also received an update, both inside and out. Inside, the standard instrument panel was redesigned, with more gauges (adding water temp and oil pressure to the standard speedometer and fuel gauge) and warning lamps. Electronic Voice Alert system was given a major overhaul, with more messages, a better voice, and a switch to 'de-voice' the box. There was a new electronic digital dash unit available, as well.
Burton Bouwkamp wrote: “I told Dick Rossio (Executive Engineer of Body Electrical) that the voice alert was getting on my wife's and my nerves and I asked him how to turn it off. Dick said there was no way to cut a wire without making the car illegal for some of the Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. I told Dick to find a way. Consequently, after the first 10,000 cars were built with the EVA feature, wiring changes were made and a switch was added behind (forward of) the glove box so an agile owner - or a dealer mechanic - could turn it off.”
On the outside, the cars received a new wrap around tail lamp treatment that was similar to the lamps on the larger E-bodies. Models equipped with the 2.2 liter turbo engine also included new louvred hood vents, which allowed increased air flow over the turbo charger when the car was in motion, and a vent for the incredible heat produced by the turbo. The convertible versions of the Super-K line received a newly designed top, which included reworked mechanicals and latches. The plastic rear window was replaced with a glass unit, and the quarter panels were smaller in size, allowing for the addition of new small quarter panel side windows. These quarter panel windows had standard power operation, as did the top. This new top allowed for a slightly wider rear seat and the additional windows halped with the over the shoulder view and the slightly claustrophobic feel of the previous generations.
Also new for 1984 was a new model - the Dodge 600ES Turbo convertible, based around the new motor, and using the shorter 600 K-body rather than the longer 600ES E-body. This package included a lot of blacked out trim, replacing much of the chrome, the 2.2 Turbo engine, a leather interior - very similar to the LeBaron's Mark Cross package, a sportier suspension set up, and ally wheels.
All of the 600ES models I've ever seen have the same 15" alloy wheels used on the 1984 Dodge Shelby Charger and Dodge Daytona Turbo Z models - with 16 holes around the face, and the Goodyear Eagle GT tires [according to Danny Moore, their standard wheel in 1984 is the "snowflake," followed by the "pizza wheel" with holes around the outer edge starting in 1985; he suggested the "snowflake" wheels were mainly on the four door versions]. One source shows these as 'optional' wheels, but I think that they were part for the 'ES' package. The upgrade from basic 600 to 600ES Turbo was pricey, at nearly $3400, but it sold well. Out of the 10,960 Dodge 600 convertibles sold in 1984, over 16% (1786) carried the 'ES' package. This compares with under 7% (1105) being the Town & Country package of the LeBaron's total of 16208 convertibles. The LeBaron Mark Cross package sold 8275 units, for a 51% share of the LeBaron totals.
Danny Moore added that the ES also came with the option of cloth high-backed buckets and rear seats. His own four-door ES came with the 2.6 Mitsubishi engine and an automatic floor shift (though Danny replaced it with a 2.2 turbo five-speed and Daytona Z suspension and brakes). He notes that his own 1984 brochure shows a four-door ES, but no two-door or convertible - where his 1985 brochure shows the convertible and four-door.
Again, the 600ES sedan was based on the Chrysler E-Class bodyline and not on what was called the "super K" used under the 400/600 and LeBaron 2 door, 4 door and wagon bodies.
1985 was, again, a year of minor changes to the Super-K lines. The wheels changed from a 4-lug to a 5-lug set-up, as many Chrysler products did. Buyers of the LeBaron could no longer shift for themselves - all LeBaron models carried the 3 speed automatic transmission - leaving the base Dodge 600 coupe as the only manual transmission car. Outside, only the LeBaron received any attention, with a slightly modified grill. The model line-up was much the same, with Chrysler offering 2 door coupe and 4 door sedan models, base, Mark Cross and Town & Country convertibles and the 5 door Town & Country wagon. Over at Dodge, the base 2 door 'Club Coupe' was still offered, as was the 600 and 600ES Turbo convertible models. (Read about the creation of the Town & Country, ordered by Lee Iaccoca)
There was a slight change in the E-bodies, with the 600ES sedan being replaced by a plusher, luxury model - the SE. More attention was being placed on the sporty - and new for 1985 - Chrysler H-series cars, the Chrysler LeBaron GTS and the Dodge Lancer 5 door liftback sedans. Production of the convertibles was much the same, with 16475 LeBarons hitting the roads, of which 6684 (40%) carried the Mark Cross package and only 595 (under 4%) being sold as Town & Country models. Over at Dodge, production of the 600ES model rose to a whopping 5621 units, representing 40% of the toal production of 13819 units. The base 600 convertible sold 8188 models.
Danny Moore wrote that his 1985 brochure shows the turbo engine being standard on the ES convertible and optional on the four-door, while it was optional on the 1984 ES.
1986 was a year of big changes for the Super-K models. A major face and body lift was performed, the new federally mandated 'Center High Mount Stop Light' made its debut, as did Chrysler's new 2.5 Liter 4 cylinder motor. This larger motor was based upon the original 2.2 Trans 4 motor, but with an increased stroke and the addition of twin, counter-rotating balance shafts at the bottom of the engine, to help offset the inherent roughness of the larger engine. This new motor marked the end of the optional 2.6 liter Mitsubishi motor.
On the outside, the changes were less subtle. The front and rear ends received subtly rounding to the corners, and the deck lid was redesigned and raised slightly. All of these changes were similar to the redesign of the basic K-Car line (Aries and Reliant). The LeBaron models had a flatter snout, and lost the slightly pointed prow like bumper and grill. The headlamp housings and side marker lamps were rounded out, as were the tail lamps. The addition of the third brake light to the trunk lid of the convertible meant the end to the optional factory luggage rack.
Styling changes over at the Dodge camp, however, seemed much more drastic. With the flattening of the nose, the 600 series lost their distinctive slat-style grill, replaced by a flatter egg-crate style, with gun sight cross bars. Also lost was the Pentastar hood ornament, with the logo now located in the grill cross bars. The bumper also lost its slightly prowed shape and used a flatter bumper. The formerly single mounted quad headlamps were now shining from two housings, each with 2 lamps inside, identical to the LeBaron's lamps. On the sides, gone were the unique and distinctive fender vents, replaced by smooth sheet metal. Like the LeBaron, the 3rd brake light killed the luggage rack equipment.
This would be the last year for some of the Super-K models, as an all new 'J-body' LeBaron (based largely on the Dodge Daytona and Chrysler Laser 'G-body sports coupe) was in the wings for a 1987 debut. The 4 door LeBaron sedan and 5 door Town & Country wagon would continue on until 1988. The new LeBaron Coupe and Convertible would replace the Super-K LeBaron 2 door coupe and convertible models, and there would be no Dodge counterpart, spelling the end of the line for the 600 2 door Club Coupe and 2 door convertible models - the base and ES. Production, however, was at an all time high for the convertibles, with 19684 LeBaron convertibles being made, of which 35% (6905) were equipped as Mark Cross editions and a mere 501 units (under 3%) showing as Town & Country models. At Dodge, there were 16437 convertible produced, with 11678 being base 600 models and only 4759 (29%) carrying the 600ES designation and equipment.
For 1988, the LeBaron Convertible gained hydraulically-dampened engine mounts to reduce low-frequency shake.
The Super-K Convertibles - Today
While the Super-K convertibles tend to be forgotten in today's world of J-body LeBarons and Chrysler Sebring convertibles, and they had a relatively short life (only 5 model years long), they deserve special mention and remembrance, even if only having the distinction of being the first domestic convertible re-introduced in the 80s. Many of these extremely versatile cars are still on the road today. They offered a great package for the times - light weight, good room, impressive handling and exceptional power - especially when the 2.2 Turbo engine was installed. For today's market, a used Lebaron or 600 convertible offers a good base to work with if you want to create a super screamer. Just take a more powerful Turbo motor from a newer model - say the powerful 2.2 liter Turbo II motor with inter cooler, at 174 hp, or the even more powerful Turbo III motor - found in the Dodge Daytona IROC R/T or the Spirit R/T - with intercooler, DOHC, 24 valves and a whopping 224 hp! While this would mean swapping out to a 5 speed manual transmission for the power, the potential of smoking a Porsche in a K-Car would be phenomenal.
Of course, you could also go the collector route, grabbing one of the lower production models (say, the LeBaron Town & Country convertible or the Dodge 600ES models) and hold on to it for a number of years, restoring it to original beauty and keeping the miles low, for an incredible investment. The prices on these models is relatively low right now - I've seen them at auction many times, going for much less than $1000! And the potential, given their limited production life and numbers, could equate to a good growth in future prices. Plus, it can be a fun little investment to drive around!
As for my own experience with the Super-K convertibles, I started my love affair in 1985, with a Dodge 600ES Turbo in white. We were able to get a great price from the dealer, as the car was a demo and had only 500 miles on the clock. Sadly, when I moved, I could only take one car with me, and the 1985 600ES was sold in 1995 with only 85000 miles. A few years later, I lucked out in 1999 on the web and found a 1986 600ES from the original owner for $1000. Sure, it needed work (head gasket), but with only 126,000 miles on the clock, I knew I had a winner. Now I just need to decide which way to go - mild or wild - and then create or restore....