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If you’re a car guy, you’ve likely been aware of the LeBaron moniker for a while, but perhaps didn’t have an entirely firm grip on why. Any confusion you might feel regarding the LeBaron name stems from the moniker having been used in three distinct epochs in Chrysler’s history.
In general terms, the late-Seventies/early-Eighties “downsizing” era is generally regarded as a bleak period for the American auto industry, and for good reason. As they raced to slash production costs and reduce fuel consumption, carmakers often shrank their products to a draconian degree–much to the dismay of the buying public.
Car-guy discussions regarding automotive downsizing usually center on styling. I have done my share of kvetching about how a few model lines that were “resized” in the late Seventies and early Eighties came off looking like caricatures of the cars they replaced.
By the mid-Seventies, Mercury wasn’t selling much beyond gussied up Fords. Wedged between Ford and Lincoln in FoMoCo’s family album, Mercurys were charged with drawing a customer type that was somewhat more affluent than Ford intenders, yet nowhere conservative enough to commit to a Lincoln.
For Mercury, 1977 was eventful year. The brand’s staple Comet compact cars were making one last appearance, while the midsize Montego lineup was redesigned and renamed.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time bemoaning the results of the Detroit downsizing movement that began in the mid-Seventies. Responding to rising fuel prices and an unusually high rate of inflation, manufacturers were desperately looking for ways to reduce materials costs and to improve fuel economy. The simplest way to achieve both goals was, apparently, to produce smaller vehicles.
Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate the extent to which emissions equipment and low-octane unleaded fuel had impacted the power output of new-vehicle engines is to note the following:
I would argue that the low-point in automotive designer licensing/co-branding came in 1993, when Mercury rolled out its Nissan-built Villager minivan complete with a line-topping Nautica Special Edition.
A funny thing happened on the way to Eighties: Cars got shorter. The “shortening” of the American automobile didn’t happen all at once—it came in staggered bursts, as individual manufacturers downsized the platforms that underpinned their largest cars.
It was the Brits who first used the term “Yank Tank” to describe the cars produced by American auto builders. And, compared to the cars sold in Britain after WWII–around the time the term Yank Tank came into use–the cars of the UK were certainly smaller, better handling, and more efficient than those sold Stateside. It is perhaps ironic then that the most-expensive American-built car in 1977 was, in fact, by definition a compact car.