Three Forgotten Mopars: 1976 Dodge Aspen R/T, 1979 Chrysler 300, and 1979 Chrysler LeBaron

Buel McGuffey of Scottsville, Kentucky is a product of the 1970s, a decade that many auto buffs look upon with derision. When many are quick to talk smack about cars from the malaise era—a term we loathe here at HOT ROD—a few enlightened individuals embrace the mid-to-late 1970s with open arms. Self-professed experts like to think the intrinsic value of a collector car is based on its born-with powertrain, but real hot rodders know better; if you don’t like an engine, you can just freakin’ change it. During the ’70s, a lot of improvements went into the Chrysler vehicle platforms that started in the 1960s, particularly in the chassis and suspension, and just because you couldn’t buy a 426 cu-in Hemi in a new car when gas was today’s equivalent of $20 a gallon, that doesn’t mean the car is worthless today. McGuffey knows this, and he’s done all of us a huge favor by saving his favorites for us to ogle.

Our story begins at the 2021 Holley Moparty in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where we saw three out-of-place rides lined up in a row as if waiting to be rescued from the Island of Misfit Toys. As we approached, it was obvious these weren’t specially built dragstrip terrors, nor were they autocross wringers or detailed restorations. To the uninitiated, they could easily be three clunkers on death’s doorstep, just one poorly timed backfire away from the crusher. And yet, if you were smarter than the average muscle car bear, the trio possessed a magnetic attraction. Comprised of two 1979 Chryslers (a 300 and a LeBaron), and a 1976 Dodge Aspen R/T, the grouping was stock-ish, and in a vein that telegraphed that they were not modified enough to be all that fast, but not stock enough to be either original or a restoration. They were—gasp—daily drivers.

We had questions, and McGuffey had the answers. “I’ve been collecting for years,” said Buel in a laid-back Kentucky drawl. “I started out with a ’71 4-4-2. I’ve got several Oldsmobiles along with my Mopars. I grew up in a Mopar family. That’s all we drove most of the time. My first car when I turned 16 was a ’75 Charger SE, so that kind of attracted me to the Cordoba/Charger line-up like that. And we had a Plymouth Volare station wagon like most everybody else did. And a Chrysler LeBaron. I’ve always liked the body style of ’em; I always thought they was under-appreciated and overlooked.” Under-appreciated and overlooked? That’s an understatement, but as the cost of ’60s muscle cars skyrockets, this is changing.

McGuffey is like a lot of folks born in the early-to-mid 1960s who remember the golden years of performance, but who were too young to take an active part. Upon reaching driving age, his cohort was burned by the oil embargo, high insurance, and run-away inflation. As a product of Generation Jones, Buel embraces the humble cars of his youth rather than something older and less obtainable. “I just like cars; it don’t matter,” says McGuffey, now a part-time minister on disability with Parkinson’s Disease. “I’m particular to Mopar and Oldsmobile. I just like all of ’em. I like coming to these shows and appreciating the work that people have put into them whether it’s a concourse-quality car or just a daily-driver beater. You know, they’ve all got a story behind ’em. I like to share in that and just see what different ideas people have on them.”

The 1976 Dodge Aspen R/T

The new-for-1976 Chrysler F-Body was the vehicle platform that bridged Chrysler’s larger rear-drive cars and smaller front-wheel drive K-car models that arrived in 1981. The Dodge Aspen (along with the Plymouth Volare) was built on the F-Body between 1976 and 1980 and was a mechanical improvement over the A-Body it replaced. The F-Body’s simplified unibody construction and isolated transverse torsion bar suspension would spawn other platforms too, like the J-Body, which would underpin the Chrysler Cordoba and Imperial, and Dodge Mirada, as well as the M-Body platform, which would underpin the Dodge Diplomat and Chrysler LeBaron. At Dodge, the performance-minded Aspen R/T F-Body would replace the outgoing A-Body based Dodge Dart Sport. All this is to say that Chrysler built a diverse stable of vehicles off a single architecture, each with its own personality. “One’s a little more formal than the other. But the Aspen, it’s more of the sporty type,” says Buel. “The LeBaron is more your luxury type, but then you get to the Cordoba, 300, and stuff—they’re luxury performance cars.”

“I got the Aspen R/T first,” says Buel. “I had a ’79 Dodge truck, it was 30,000 original miles, [it had] been garage-kept since new, and I was just afraid to drive it. I’ve had [the Aspen] now for about three and a half years. When I bought it, it had a 318 Magnum engine in it and it dropped a valve, so I built a 360. I had a 380-horse 360 Mopar Performance crate motor that the bottom end was bad and the heads was good, and I could use them.” In stock form, the 1979 Aspen R/T was equipped with blacked-out grille, brightwork mouldings, body and decklid striping, R/T decals and medallion, rallye road wheels with white-letter tires, heavy-duty suspension, 318 cu-in small-block V-8, and A883 four-speed overdrive manual trans (318 cu-in only). Optional equipment was available in the form of a larger 360 cu-in small-block V-8, power front disc brakes, and power steering.

Since finding the 1976 Dodge Aspen R/T, Buel has repaired and upgraded many of its components, adding a Weiand aluminum intake and Quick Fuel carburetor. About his most recent Aspen R/T fixes, Buel reports: “I cleaned it all up, I changed the rear end, put a 3.91 SureGrip [8.75-inch] under it, and changed the wheels on it a couple of times. Just trying to keep it clean and updated a little bit.” McGuffey’s eyes squint at distant pictures only he can see, then he continues with a wave: “It has the A883 three-speed with overdrive. So far, it’s held up pretty good. It’s all pretty much stock. I’ve redone the brakes and lowered the front end a little bit with the torsion bars. I raced the Aspen with the other [318 cu-in] engine in it. It had an open rear end in it, like a 3.08, and I didn’t run very good. I think it ran 16s before. It had a stall in the carburetor that I was having trouble with, so I’ve changed carburetors with this new engine.”

The 1979 Chrysler 300

The upscale Chrysler 300 nameplate returned for a one-year-only swansong in 1979, and its foundation was the aging mid-sized B-Body built from 1962 to 1979. Based on the Chrysler Cordoba coupe body style (introduced in 1975), fewer than 2,900 Chrysler 300 examples were built. All were Spinnaker White, except about 30 built in Rallye Red—and, according to Buel McGuffey, some also in black that went to Canada. All had the E58-code 360 cu-in Police Interceptor small-block V8 with 195 hp. Other performance equipment included a four-barrel Thermoquad carburetor, hi-po camshaft, dual exhaust, cop car-spec suspension, and a 3.23:1 SureGrip rear end. In a nutshell, the 1979 Chrysler 300 was a cop car disguised as a personal luxury coupe.

In adding the 1979 Chrysler 300 to his stable, Buel had been in the right place at the right time, intervening with a rescue of the forlorn model. “The person that had it was fixin’ to make a demolition derby car out of it and so I couldn’t let ’em do that,” says McGuffey. “I bought it two years ago [2019] and I’ve been hunting parts for it ever since to do a restoration on it. I’m needing some interior parts and I’ve already got most of the 300-specific parts—there was a lot of them specific to the ’79 300, like the fender louvers. They were all white with a red interior. If you got a tilt column, well, you had the plain steering wheel, like what’s on it, but if you got a standard steering column, you got a three-spoke sport wheel—it’s made similar to the Tuff wheel.”

By the late 1970s, horsepower was shunned and sporty packages with real performance were nonexistent. The police car market, however, offered smart customers a loophole, and the ’79 300 was based on the RPO code A74 Special Service option. “Basically the 300 package was a police car Cordoba,” says McGuffey. “It’s got the heavy-duty suspension under it, the big alternator, the E58-code 360, big disc brakes, the 727. I think it’s got a 3.25 open rear end. I tried to put a set of Rallye wheels on it and they wouldn’t fit, wouldn’t clear the rotors. I had a set of the police car wheels and then I had a set of the [1978 Plymouth Volare] Super Coupe wheels, which the police car wheels are seven-inch and the Super Coupe wheels are eight. So I put the sevens on the front, eights on the back, and I put the others on a ’70-model Dodge short-bed truck that I’ve got.”

The 1979 Chrysler LeBaron

As if you needed one more thing to remember in the alphabet soup of Mopar performance, we introduce you to the Mopar M-Body platform—what would be the last of the rear-drive platforms before Chrysler called it quits (until the LX platform of 2005). The M-Body ran from 1977 to 1989, soldiering on through the first eight years of the front-drive K-cars, in the form of the Chrysler Fifth Avenue and Plymouth Gran Fury. It was derived from the F-Body that debuted in 1976, but had a significantly different exterior shell, most notably the hood, trunk, and front and rear header panels. As an M-Body, it was an upscale version of the Aspen/Volare and in coupe form had a 108.7-inch wheelbase, except for its first three years—1977 to 1979—which (like Buel’s) shared the longer 112.7-inch wheelbase with four-door models.

As 1979 was the last year on the longer 112.7-inch wheelbase, this LeBaron coupe has the idiosyncratic mini-boattail rear styling and curved muscular haunches that were a final gasp of ’70s personal-luxury excess. Buel McGuffey was a fan of the LeBaron’s formula, his family having owned one back in the day, and the backstory behind this one is bittersweet. “I bought a ’79 LeBaron earlier in the year. It was already pretty much done and we brought ’em to the Hot Rod Reunion—the Aspen and the LeBaron,” says Buel. “The night after the Hot Rod Reunion—this was going home—I got T-boned in the driver-side door and just destroyed that car. So, funny thing—while I was lying in the hospital, I found this car in Atlanta. It was a roller. I told the guy what was going on and he held it for me for quite a while, so as soon as I got settled with the insurance about a month and a half ago, I was able to go down and pick it up, and just started swapping parts off the other one and discovering what was all tore up on the other.”

Getting the LeBaron ready for Moparty would prove difficult, but not impossible. As you may have observed, Buel likes to roll with as many of his misfit toys as possible, enlisting an eager array of friends and family to help him transport them to various shows. “I had the built 904 [Torqueflite] in it but it busted the transmission in it and messed up the internals, so I put another 904 in it and it lasted about a week,” says McGuffey. “So the last weekend before the Moparty I was putting a [stronger] 727 [Torqueflite] in it. I had a 727 from the ’70-model truck that was built with the Kevlar bands, bolt-in sprag, and a bunch of other upgrades. I spent the last week under it swapping transmissions and getting it going. We got it done and got it here.”

As for the engine, Buel says, “It’s a .030-over 318. It has a Hughes Performance cam in it, it’s got the Magnum heads, Magnum Air-Gap intake, Quick Fuel carburetor. I put a new set of headers on it. It’s got a 3.55:1 SureGrip rear end under it.” As for the rest of the car, there hasn’t really been a lot of time to do much, other than get it road worthy for the Holley Moparty. “It’s original paint, original interior. I just got the car put together so I haven’t done anything much else to it. Took the vinyl top off of it, which was peeling away, and painted it in order to put another top on it.” Regarding the paint, which we initially mistook for a well-executed matte/satin paint job, it turns out this is what well-maintained paint looks like when aged. “It was originally gloss black, but over the years it faded,” he says.

In case you’re wondering if Buel has a favorite, he had this to say: “If I want to run to town, I just jump in one of ’em and go. My favorite is the one I’m driving at the time.”

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