Having worried about what he was going to do without his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry was elated yesterday by friends who bought for him the car of his choice: a $25,000 Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue.
According to the Chrysler Corp. dealer's guide, the 1991 Fifth Avenue is "targeted at traditional, reasonably affluent prospects . . . married men with a median income of $55,000 who are established as full-size luxury car buyers."
Perhaps Barry misread.
After 12 years as mayor, he was certainly an established full-size luxury car rider. But since Sharon Pratt Dixon took over his job as mayor last week, Barry has been unemployed -- a status for which the dealer's guide recommends the Plymouth Horizon, a car designed "for economy-minded prospects and first-time car buyers on a budget."
The Fifth Avenue is billed as the "most prestigious" entry in the New Yorker line of four-door sedans. While not in the same class as a Mercedes-Benz, the car does have "all of the comfort and attributes of a true luxury car." Thus, says the dealer guide, it is the "wise" choice for "older baby boomers."
D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who raised money to purchase the car, called it a "fitting" choice.
"Here is one of the most politically powerful people in the country suddenly without a job, no pension, no retirement," Crawford said. "I thought it was most fitting that he get at least a nice, fine car."
Yet, in choosing the latest model Fifth Avenue, auto analysts say, Barry picked a car that not only looks like the less-expensive 1989 model, but is expected to be eclipsed by the newly designed 1993 models.
"It has a decent engine but it's basically outdated," one automotive expert said. "Design-wise, it's a throwback to the days when we were teenagers."
In the wake of Barry's defeats inside courtrooms and at the polls, some contend that the gift of a car was designed to uplift the ex-mayor's spirits. But anyone who drives a car in the Washington area knows that such contraptions are among the greatest stress producers known to man.
Rather than serving Barry's best interest, the auto offering appears mostly to help Washington save face, for no one -- not even the man's worst enemies -- wants to see him looking down and out.
"If someone had asked me to donate money to help buy him a car, I would have," said Florence Tate, a spokeswoman for Sharon Pratt Dixon during her campaign for mayor. "Marion Barry did in one lifetime what it takes many black families three generations to accomplish. He came from the cotton fields to lead the nation's capital. We don't want to see him lose everything. This way, we can at least say he rose from Itta Bena, Mississippi, to drive a New Yorker Fifth Avenue."
Actually, it is not an unusual ending. Historically, young men who have left small Southern towns in search of bright lights and big cities were expected to return to their neighborhoods in fine cars and fancy suits.
Many of them had not fared as well as they had dreamed, but the right clothes and cars made it appear they had.
Seated in the lap of leatherized luxury yesterday, Barry flashed his driver's license and looked like he was doing just fine.
His car came fully equipped, and includes a cellular telephone. The only thing missing is a vanity license plate. Some say one that says "NITEOWL" would be a nice touch.
Of course, the Fifth Avenue's trademark "Dynamic Noise Reduction" system and "rear suspension beam axle with trailing arm" are likely to drag the ground after one good bruising on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.
And as for those highly touted "coil spring gas-charged shock absorbers," Barry should be careful, lest his car hit a pothole and explode.
During his test drive a few days ago, Barry maneuvered up a hill and made four right turns.
"He said, 'I haven't driven in 12 years,' " recalled Raul Martinez Jr., sales manager for Anacostia Chrysler-Plymouth Inc. "But he drove pretty good."
Now, after only a few minutes behind the wheel, Barry is set to find out what driving in the District is really like. Other drivers, needless to say, have one more reason to drive defensively.
Too bad Barry wasn't allowed to venture into a real rush hour and take on a taxi driver -- or at least do battle with his own parking enforcement squads.
Chances are he would have settled for a wristwatch.