Chrysler LeBaron History

Most people, LeBaron owners included, are probably not aware of how historical the LeBaron nameplate is. It is most certainly one of the longest running nameplates in Chrysler, if not automotive history.


1930s

1931 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight LeBaron
The earliest reference Ive found to a Chrysler product bearing the LeBaron name is the 1931 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight by LeBaron manufactured more than six decades ago. A visitor to 'The LeBaron Pages' bestowed upon me a detailed account of the history of the original company that lent our vehicles their name. Here it is:

LeBaron was one of the many prominent coachbuilders that sprung up in the 1920s to provide bodies for luxury cars. Until the late 30s, most of the great prestige automakers - Rolls-Royce, Hispano Suiza, Duesenberg, Packard - often supplied only a running chassis, which wealthy buyers would outfit with custom bodywork at substantial extra cost (a Duesenberg Model J, for example, cost $8,500 for a chassis and engine, while a fully bodied example could run nearly $20,000, a fortune in those days). The most famous European coachbuilders included the English Mulliner and Park Ward, Figoni et Falaschi in Paris, and Battista Farina, Touring, and Ghia in Italy.

LeBaron was founded in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1920 by Thomas L. Hibbard and Raymond Dietrich, formerly of Brewster. The company originally was called LeBaron, Carrossiers Inc., and served as design consultants. In 1924 they merged with the Blue Ribbon and Bridgeport Body companies to become simply LeBaron, becoming body builders as well as designers.

Neither Hibbard nor Dietrich was French, but they were fond of the French school of design and adopted the name LeBaron simply because it sounded French. In 1926 LeBaron was purchased by Briggs Manufacturing Company of Detroit, which supplied bodies to Chrysler, Essex, Ford, Hudson, and Overland. LeBaron became their subsidiary, handling special custom work and providing design ideas for the mainstream business. LeBaron supplied some exquisite custom bodies for, among others, Duesenberg, Cadillac, and Chrysler's luxury Imperial line: in 1932, for example, they built 28 beautiful Custom Imperial Convertible Coupes, Chrysler's top model, which rode a 146-inch wheelbase and used a 384.8 cubic-inch straight-eight engine.

Both of LeBaron's founders later departed, leaving the company in the hands of Ralph Roberts of Briggs. Tom Hibbard moved to Paris to join Howard "Dutch" Darirn, one of the most celebrated of American prewar stylists, and became design director at Ford in 1947. Ray Dietrich was lured away to found Dietrich, Inc. at Murray Corporation (which built custom bodies for Lincoln) and hired by Chrysler in 1935 to become the first official Chrysler stylist (previously, the Art & Colour Section of Chrysler had been part of the Engineering department), charged with restyling the disastrous Airflow line and adding the less radical, more attractive Airstream.

By the late 30s the market for custom bodywork in the U.S. had largely evaporated, hit hard by the Depression and the efforts of corporate stylists like GM's Harley Earl and Ford's Eugene Gregorie, and LeBaron had little work. Among LeBaron's last and most interesting projects were the Chrysler Newport, a super-streamlined dual cowl phaeton with an aluminum body, of which six were built (one paced the 1941 Indy 500), and the remarkable Thunderbolt, a sleek roadster with concealed headlights and a retractable metal hardtop (shades of the later Ford Skyliner and the modern Mercedes SLK). The Newport and the Thunderbolt, however, were only built by LeBaron, having been styled by Briggs personnel, the Newport largely by Roberts, the Thunderbolt by Alex Tremulis, who would later pen the legendary Tucker of 1948.

That was about all she wrote for LeBaron, although Chrysler revived the name (though not the firm) for its top-of-the-line Imperial in 1957. The first Imperial LeBaron was offered as either a pillared sedan or four-door Southampton hardtop, with a base price of $5,743. It remained the top Imperial model through 1975, Imperial's last year as a separate marque. In fact, the final Imperial was a LeBaron hardtop. The LeBaron nameplate was revived for the M-body Chrysler in 1977, based on the mechanicals of the corporate A-body (Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare). The name was transferred to the front-drive line in 1982.

--Aaron Severson


1940s 1950s

Now here is a truely rare LeBaron! One of only six built. The following is an excerpt from an article which appeared in the December 28, 1998 issue of The Detroit News:
1941 Chrysler LeBaron Thunderbolt"The 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt was a driveable, aluminum-bodied early-day concept car. Marked by a discrete silvery bolt of lightning on each smooth (with no handle, only a pushbutton) door, the hide-away hardtop convertible was one of six built for Chrysler by LeBaron. The electrically-controlled top could be concealed beneath the rear deck of the two-seater by pressing a button. Concealed headlights, anodized aluminum trim at the base of the car body and leather interior trim marked this sleek full-fender look. The '41 Thunderbolt was the first non-production car to pace the Indianapolis 500 race and was based on a design by Alex Tremulis, then of Briggs Manufacturing Co., and Ralph Roberts of Chrysler. It was powered by a 143-HP straight eight engine."

1960s 1970s

I have also found references to the Chrysler Imperial LeBaron nameplate for both the 1964 and 1975 model years, and presumably other model years during the 60s and 70s. The M-body LeBaron was available from 1977 to 1981 when it was succeeded by the K-body.

The following information is provided courtesy of Elijah Scott. "The LeBaron nameplate was introduced in the Imperial line for 1957. It was used to denote the highest model of Imperial. (Remember that from 1955 to 1975, Imperial was a separate division within the overall Chrysler Corporation). The midrange model was the Imperial Crown, while the 'entry' model was the Imperial Custom. The LeBaron model was used in the Imperial line from 1957 to 1975, when Imperial ceased to be."

1964 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron

1980s

1984 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible

In the early 80s the LeBaron was available as a four-door passenger sedan. 1982 saw the arrival of Chryslers now famous K-cars. We all know about the Dodge Aries / Plymouth Reliant Ks and their contribution to the financial resurrection of Chrysler. During those years the LeBaron K was available as a convertible through 1986 and as a sedan through to 1988.

An H body LeBaron GTS hatchback (Dodge Lancer) was available from 1985 through 1989. The A body LeBaron sedan (Dodge Spirit / Plymouth Acclaim) was available from 1990 through 1994.


1990s

1987 was the transition year that yielded the J body LeBaron coupe and convertible as successors to the K based sedan and convertible. Interestingly the J was the only modern LeBaron that wasnt carbon copied into a (Dodge / Plymouth) offering. A fact that J LeBaron owners should hold dear to their hearts.

1988 Chrysler LeBaron GTC Coupe
1993 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible

The LeBaron coupe was available through to 1993 with the convertible out-lasting it to the 1995 model year. The LeBaron has since been replaced in the Chrysler line up by the Sebring coupe and convertible, which itself is a resurrected Chrysler nameplate last seen I believe on the 70s Plymouth Sebring muscle cars.


The Ultimate LeBaron

If you thought the 1941 LeBaron Thunderbolt was a rare bird, check this out! A 'purpose-built' 1992 Chrysler LeBaron Coupe.

This machine was built expressly for time trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats. It's powered by a VNT turbocharged 2.0L engine based on the 2.2L/2.5L turbocharged engines found in many street LeBarons.

With an exhaust header, customized intake and an intercooler the engine produces a whopping 450hp! And it still fits into essentially a stock body.

1992 Chrysler LeBaron Coupe Racer
Photo provided courtesy: auto-enthusiast.com

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Last update: January 18, 2002.
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