While some of you were cowering away from last week’s polar vortex, one pair of cousins was driving straight into it in a lovingly crafted replica of the burnt-out rental car from the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Just like in the movie, there was no fabric top left to protect them from nature’s worst.
“The car is what dictated the Planes, Trains and Automobiles idea,” convertible co-pilot Jack Hannah told Jalopnik via email.
A coworker had been prodding Hannah to help him swap the engine in a black 1988 Chrysler LeBaron that had been sitting for three or four years, but that coworker finally just gave up and bought a new convertible. He’d acquired a rusty red ‘89 LeBaron parts car to raid for a fresh engine, but never found the time or extra hands to do it.
This black ‘88 ran-when-parked special was almost too nice to hack up, but the price for both cars was right for Hannah and his cousin/co-driver Steve Hall: $650. It wouldn’t be hard to find parts for it if they broke down on the road, either, given that the LeBaron was built on an update to the Chrysler K-car platform that underpinned dozens of Chrysler models in the 80s.
Better yet, it came with a genuinely questionable idea to attempt in the dead of winter.
“I had recently seen the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles and jokingly suggested doing that theme since it was the same type of car, only a couple years newer,” Hannah told Jalopnik. “It seemed like a crazy idea, but the more we talked about it, the greater of an idea it sounded. By the time we went to look at the car it was pretty much decided that’s what we were doing.”
In case you haven’t seen this movie, the hero car in Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a modified 1986 Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country, per IMDB. However, since no company wanted to be associated with the ineptitude on display in the film, it was done up as a “Gran Detroit Farm & Country Turbo” leased by the fictional Marathon Car Rental agency.
Hannah and Hall’s new project was a couple years newer than the movie car, but they’d make it work. What really makes the film car is just how beat-up that Not-A-LeBaron gets. In place of the trunk lid rides the luggage-trunk of John Candy’s character.
Worse yet, the entire interior—including the soft top—burns to a crisp after the car barely scrapes between two semi trucks.
The cousins’ newly acquired LeBaron was destined for a Lemons Rally: a cross-country road trip for cheapo misfit cars put on by the same people behind the 24 Hours of Lemons beater racing series. (Think scavenger hunt, not race event here.) It’s exactly the kind of event that hands out bonus bonehead points for driving straight into a cold snap fully exposed to the elements.
Hannah said he had to do a Lemons Rally after watching the Roadkill episode about the event. One of last year’s rallies even stopped in his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. However, none of the Lemons Rallies were headed back to Ontario this year, so Hannah opted to do the “Retreat from Moscow” Lemons Rally that wrapped up last weekend. That route went Moscow, PA, to Birmingham, AL, cutting down through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee in temperatures that reached negative double digits thanks to the aforementioned polar vortex.
Opting for the dead-of-winter rally meant that Hannah only had about two and a half months to make two LeBarons into one running avocado woodie.
The starter was seized in the black car they wanted to use, but it didn’t matter as they planned to swap its smoking 2.2-liter turbo engine for the running 2.5-liter turbo from the red car. As for why they didn’t just keep the running engine in the red car, I’ll let Hannah explain:
The parts car was an ‘89 LeBaron with a 2.5 turbo and only 76,000 kms (it had the extra digit on the odometer so it was either 76,000 or a 1,076,000), but the car had been hit in the front and was considered an insurance write off. Also, it had been sitting in a field for a long time and was completely rusted out. Again it supposedly ran, but it had no gas due to the tank being rusted through. But it did crank over with a fresh battery.
Luckily, the 2.2- and 2.5-liter LeBaron engines are almost identical on the outside, so the actual engine swap into the less rusty black car was a relative breeze. The hood came off in the process to make access easier for their engine hoist, but other than that, Hannah described it as the epitome of “installation is the reverse of removal.” You can even watch a tidy time lapse of the swap here, if you’re so inclined.
“It was almost too easy!” Hannah said after the swap.
Once everything was plugged in correctly, the car fired right up. The radio even worked. Hannah and Hall also added the boost gauge from the parts car because, well, why wouldn’t you want a boost gauge?
Unfortunately, the looks of that shiny black car were deceiving. The duo tackled the braking system after the engine swap, only to find that one of the brake lines had rusted out and had to be replaced. They added new rear brake shoes and wheel cylinders, too. New cables to reinstall the parking brake were actually the most expensive thing they replaced on the car. That item came out to about $60, but it was something they needed to pass inspection.
They also installed newer take-off snow tires on the car, as the ones that came on the ‘88 LeBaron were cracked and no longer held air.
The bigger, less pleasant surprise was that the black car’s passenger-side floors were rusted out, forcing the cousins to weld in a few patches to make it structurally sound again.
“We figure at some point the window was left down and the passenger side floor filled up with rain,” Hannah said. “[It] never dried out and it just rusted out.”
Once the car passed inspection and was legal to drive, Hannah started shaking it down on his daily commute to see what else they’d need to fix before the rally. This was mostly minor stuff: a cigarette lighter and cruise control didn’t work. He did end up replacing an oil pressure sensor, though.
But as we know, the movie car isn’t shiny black—or in good shape anymore. Problem is, Hannah rather liked his new LeBaron.
“By now I was liking the car and thinking of keeping it afterwards,” Hannah told Jalopnik. “So, I didn’t want to wreck the body. In the movie it got pretty mangled. So, we planned on swapping all the body panels from the parts car, dent them all up, then after the rally put the good panels back on.”
Problem is, they had a border crossing to worry about, and they weren’t sure the car would be let into the United States looking pre-destroyed. Instead of swapping every panel, they just swapped out the driver’s side front fender, which was also bashed in before the big semi truck crash in the film.
Likewise, the team removed the trunk lid and stashed it in the back seat to make room for a large luggage trunk, which was also a recreation of Candy’s trunk from the film. For the rally, this trunk held all kinds of spares they stripped from the parts car that they thought they might need, including driveshafts, brake hubs, and an alternator.
Hannah covered the car in “Sublime Green Pearl” automotive paint, although he admitted that this was his first time painting a car. He felt as if he was running out of paint after exhausting the two cans he’d bought, but the thin spots were mostly where wood paneling would go. The “wood” was actually self-adhesive shelf liner called Mactac, which the team cut and stuck in place.
The team’s friends helped out considerably with the details, like the “Gran Detroit Farm & Country Turbo” badging and the Lemons Rally banner on the windshield. They figured that the windshield banner could help explain why the car looked so shabby as it went through the border crossing. Friends also donated a CB radio to talk to other teams on the Lemons Rally as well as a period-correct Club.
“It isn’t movie correct, but nothing screams 80s security like ‘The Club,’” Hannah explained.
They bent the steering wheel and added the finger marks on the dashboard where Steve Martin and John Candy’s characters in the film held on for dear life as they drove between the two semi trucks, but stopped short of torching the interior. The idea of sitting on springs for the whole rally didn’t really appeal to anyone, and as the movie car itself proved, they needed things like functional gauges to drive the car on public roads. (Besides, the existing interior was pretty nice.)
The original, intact soft top remained on the rally car, as it gave the cousins a way to secure the car’s interior from thieves and the elements at night. But for all other times, they kept the charred top frame hooked onto the car, just as it was in the film.
They took the soft top out of the parts car, removed the fabric and burnt it along with the paint and faux-wood paneling with a propane torch. The charred frame then attached to the windshield at the usual attachment points for the LeBaron’s roof, and then hooked into place on top of the intact soft top at the rear. Hannah said they used flat black paint to add more scorch marks where needed.
To top it all off, they even recreated the Marathon Car Rental sticker on the rear.
The most difficult part of the entire build, though, was making sure two of the 15-inch wheels had shiny wire hubcaps like in the film.
“Nobody has them anymore and wreckers have scrapped everything from the 80s by now,” Hannah explained.
He finally found two but for a different, rear-wheel-drive car. Hannah said his team made them fit anyway with a grinder and a hammer, but one still came off on the way to the rally. Oh well.
“Once across the border and at the rally start we put on the burned top and installed the bent steering wheel,” Hannah said. “We removed the trunk lid, put it in the back seat area and strapped the travel trunk into the trunk opening.”
They also put on a donut spare for the start-of-rally inspection, where Lemons Rally organizers assign a number of points based on how strange, cleverly themed, and/or unlikely to finish an entrant’s car is. This is the one thing that proved too cold to bother with, as Hannah explained:
The plan was to use the spare only for judging at the beginning and at the [mid-rally car show at the] Lane museum, but it was too cold to change the first couple days. Then it became an unplanned experiment to see how far we could go. It lasted the entire rally. Approximately 1,700 miles. When we took it off it was bald and starting to split open where the tread used to be.
The car itself did fine. The new engine only used a half-quart of oil the entire trip. The only thing that broke was the passenger-side rear power window, and even that didn’t fail until the last day of the rally.
The humans also fared surprisingly well despite leaving the real top down the whole trip. Bundling up is key! Hannah told Jalopnik that they were tempted to put that top up on the third (and coldest) morning of the rally until they realized that moving the trunk lid lower on the back seat kept it from redirecting cold air at the back of their heads.
That third day was their worst, generally speaking, but at least it ended relatively early at Nashville’s Lane Motor Museum—and in much warmer weather.
“We got lost, phones had froze, GPS wasn’t working and we started to get on each other’s nerves as happens on long road trips,” Hannah said of their third day of the rally. “But by the end of the day at [the] Lane museum, we were good again and glad to be done that day.”
While their “Marathon Car Rentals” team finished fourth on points for the event, their insanity did not go unnoticed by the Lemons Rally organizers. Hall and Hannah won a trophy at the end for Random Acts of Stupidity, because who on earth thinks it’s a good idea to drive straight into a weather phenomenon known for setting record low temperatures on a donut spare without closing the car?!
Hannah made a series of videos about the build that you can watch on YouTube here, if you’d like to see more. You can also see all the checkpoints of the rally the team made it to on Instagram here. Needless to say, if you ever want to see oddball American roadside attractions like giant hot dogs and UFO statues, you need to do a Lemons Rally.
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