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by Jan DeGrass

(Vancouver Sun, April 2002)

My 1984 Chrysler LeBaron.

I once had a car that talked. It was a 1984 Chrysler

LeBaron, square-cut like a Mountie's jaw, sturdy, and very

brown--from its chocolate-coloured vinyl roof to its fuzzy

brown upholstery. It had a luxury feel, with power

everything, cruise control, stereo sound and blast furnace

defrosters. Even the visor mirrors lit up. It had belonged to

my father before he died; it was an unflappable car when

stuck in traffic in downtown Toronto where he and my

mother had lived. My father took pleasure in going through

the car wash on the weekends and polishing the car's

chrome trim and whitewall tires.

When it was bequeathed to me, the Chrysler was shipped

across country to take up rural living in Gibsons.

Unfortunately, its mere four cylinders were almost useless

for trundling up hills on the Sunshine Coast so the car and

I learned to relax and adapt by taking the slower, scenic


Chrysler continued to make the LeBaron after 1984,

though from what I've heard, they produced the cars with a

taped voice for only three years before discovering that

consumers didn't like a car talking back to them. But I

loved it. My morning routine was complete when I heard

the cheerful "All monitored systems are functioning," as I

first hit the gas pedal. Many's the passenger who thrilled to

learn that "A door is a ajar." Predictably, everyone would

answer: "No, it's not. It's a door!" In this way my car was

always filled with laughter.

"Please fasten your seatbelt," the electronic voice would

say in measured tones-- like the flight attendant on Air

Canada. After I buckled up, it would politely remark, "Thank

you." The tape used a male voice, deep and formal. At first

I wondered why not a woman's voice? After all, the car was

masculine looking--the sort of vehicle my investment

banker would drive (if I had one). Then I realized that they

had installed a man's voice because male drivers would

not like being told what do by a woman. This fellow's voice

is that of a colleague--the guy you play golf with who keeps

calm in a crisis: "Your oil pressure is low. Have this car

serviced immediately."

I took my Chrysler LeBaron on assignments for which a

truck would have been more suitable. One day, I had to

transport a 12-foot wide roll of linoleum plus passenger

along the streets of lower Gibsons. Since I didn't have a

roof rack, we hit on the ingenious plan of opening both

front windows and inserting the roll of lino across the front

seats like a food tray at a drive-in restaurant. The sausage

of lino sat quite comfortably across our legs, but stuck out

of both the front windows by about 3 feet on either side.

The voice was baffled. The car knew that something was

wrong, and we imagined it searching feverishly through its

tape loops for the equivalent of "Your lino is too long" or

"Don't smack pedestrians with your lino." After struggling

with the various phrases in its limited vocabulary, the voice

finally said: "Your windshield wiper fluid is low." Then, as I

imagined, it sat back triumphantly.

"Thank you," I replied.

Chrysler should have continued these cars because the

tape feature is perfect for a teenager's first car. "Come

straight home after school," the voice could say. Or, "Don't

speed." In fact, no one has been more fascinated by my

Chrysler than a 15-year-old boy visiting from England. We

took him on a drive to view the wonders of the Sunshine

Coast. You couldn't pay him to look at the scenery. Every

time the car spoke to us, he burst into fresh gales of

laughter. His final hysterics occurred when some electronic

glitch caused the side mirrors to rotate wildly at the same

time as the car informed us, "Your parking brake is on." He

later said the visit to Gibsons was the highlight of his trip.

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My 1984 Chrysler LeBaron