Beijing-Jeep Almost Made The Third-generation Chrysler LeBaron

Chrysler LeBaron sedan at a test track in Beijing
Chrysler LeBaron sedan on a test track in Beijing

In the late 1990’s the Beijing-Jeep joint venture wanted a sedan to compete with the Audi 100. They choose the Chrysler LeBaron, and it came very close to production. But in the end, it just didn’t happen.

The Beijing Jeep Corporation (BJC, or Beijing-Jeep for short) was a joint venture between BAIC Motor and American Motors Corporation (AMC). The joint venture was founded in 1984. The joint venture produced the Jeep Cherokee XJ in many variants and several 4×4’s based on the BAW BJ212.

The 1993 Beijing-Jeep lineup. Note how gigantic the BJ212-based cars are compared to the Cherokee!

But the joint venture was not content with making just SUVs and off-roaders. They wanted more. More specifically; they wanted a sedan to compete with the FAW-Volkswagen Audi 100, which at the time was the most popular luxury sedan on the Chinese market.

Naturally, they went to have a look at vehicles made by the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler had bought AMC in 1987, and the acquisition included AMC’s stake in Beijing-Jeep. Their eyes fell on the third-generation Chrysler LeBaron.

The third generation Chrysler LeBaron launched in 1990. It was based on Chrysler’s front-wheel drive & transverse front-engine AA platform, which in turn was a variant of the famous K-car platform. Power came from a Chrysler 2.5 or a Mitsubishi 3.0.

In 1993, the LeBaron has been on the market for three years and production was scheduled to end one year later, in 1994. This was perfect timing for Beijing-Jeep. The joint venture formally proposed Chrysler to sell them the production line and blueprints. Once production ended, the plan was to dismantle the production line, ship it to China, set it up once again, and re-start production in 1995 or 1996.

Chrysler was very interested. So much indeed that it came as a bit of a surprise to the joint venture, which had long been begging Chrysler for new technologies and cars, until then without much success.

But the LeBaron was a full go as far as Chrysler was concerned. Beijing-Jeep happily went to work…

And the biggest job they had was to convince the planners of the central Chinese government that the LeBaron was the right car for the joint venture. Then as now, the central government needs to approve every car that is planned for production.

On top of that, every large Chinese automotive conglomerate was given a direction for which type of car they should (mainly) make. Shanghai Auto (SAIC) was a sedan maker, Dongfeng a minivan maker, and BAIC was a SUV/off-road vehicle maker.

So if Beijing-Jeep wanted to make the LeBaron sedan, the government had to approve two things: the car itself, and the fact that BAIC, as shareholder in the Beijing-Jeep joint venture, was deviating from its preferred direction. In that time, the government department responsible for these approvals was the Ministry of Transportation. Beijing-Jeep applied in early 1995.

Beijing-Jeep choose the code name ‘BJ-7’ for the LeBaron project. To engage the government they organized a presentation, as seen on this unique photos. The presenter appears to be an American, likely from the Jeep-side of the joint venture. On his left side stands a Chinese gentlemen, seemingly the co-presenter.

The text on the board, and under the picture, means BJ-7 product show. The meeting room is typically Chinese, with large wooden chairs and porcelain tea cups for all. The equipment stands out: a projector screen and two televisions. Quite rare for the time!

A couple of LeBaron sedans, the exact number is unknown, where shipped to China for demonstrations. These were of the base LE trim level. On this rare photo we see one of these cars driving at speed on the test track of the Ministry of Transportation in Tongzhou District in Beijing.

In the meantime, the joint venture started their search for local suppliers. The government required every joint venture to source a minimum of 40% of all parts of a vehicle locally. When a joint venture failed to do so, they were punished with heavy fines. This had almost happened in the early days of the Cherokee XJ production, so Beijing-Jeep wanted to make sure they got to 40% right away this time.

A photo of the same likely-American man, standing on a red carpet with a delegation from the Beijing city government, looking at a beautiful blue-gray Chrysler LeBaron. The Beijing government, main shareholder of BAIC, was all for the BJ-7 project. But the decision was not theirs to make.

The decision-making process by the government dragged on into late 1995. Production of the LeBaron had since ended and Chrysler, thinking they had a sure deal, started packing up machinery of the production line.

But all came to an end in June 1996 when the Ministry of Transportation announced its decision: Beijing-Jeep’s application for production of the BJ-7/Chrysler LaBaron had been denied. There were no possibilities for appeal and the government did not explain its reasoning. No was no, and Beijing-Jeep was forced to cancel the entire project.

None of the machinery for production ever reached China. What happened to the demonstration cars is sadly unknown. Chrysler was reportedly not amused with the cancellation, and it was only in 2006 that a Chrysler-branded sedan finally saw Chinese production, by the successor of Beijing-Jeep.

Too bad! The Chrysler LeBaron was a great looking car that would have been a good competitor for the Audi 100. But it was not to be.

Still, a tiny few third-generation Chrysler LeBaron’s are known to be on the road in China, all of them Landau top-trim level and most of them in Guangdong Province. These cars likely arrived via misty parallel import schemes typical for the 1990’s, and so have nothing to do with the Beijing-Jeep demo cars.

Sources: Weibo, Weibo, Anyv, ChinaDaily, Qichejingwei. The images of the BJ-7 are originally from a commemorative book called History of Beijing Automobile-Beijing Jeep (北京汽车史话-北京吉普卷).

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Nice story!