The Leata Cabalero: The Pride of Idaho

Chalk up the Leata Cabalero as one of those ideas that seemed pretty good at the time. The Cabalero’s main problem lay in the fact that its time was the 1970s when few cars, or ideas, were much good. That is the right spelling by the way, even though it isn’t. But then, little about the Cabalero is right.

Beginning with the car it started out as. Anyone who has ever owned, driven, seen or heard of the Chevrolet Chevette, knows that this story isn’t going to end well. The Chevette was General Motors first attempt at building a World Car. It was built on 6 continents, sold in 80 countries under half a dozen banners, and charmed no one. Soon after the first energy crisis of the decade, GM began selling Chevettes in the U.S. market - where It was received like dog crap on your neighborhood sidewalk. The Chevette was slow, cramped, noisy and ill-handling. But at least it was cheap… the cheapest, crappiest car in America.

The only good thing about the Chevette was its name…or rather its nickname. A girl who I dated for a while in college had one. Her name was Lilly and she loved her “Vette.” I loved the way she said, “mah Vette,” in her Tennessee lilt. But truth be told, unless one of them had Lilly’s cute little tush in the driver’s seat, the Chevette was truly a turd.

There is no good angle from which to view the Leata Cabalero. On first glance, it appears to have been designed by a circus midget who’d always wanted a Chevy Monto Carlo. A writer with a gift for linguistic imagery that far exceeds my own, Branden McAlleer in, describes the Cabalero as a “feculent lump of eyesore” with “bodywork swollen like a diabetic’s ankle…the Heartland’s arterial plaque.” A closer look suggests Branden may have been cutting the car some slack.

So how was it that someone could have concluded that by giving this a penalty box of an economy car a faux brougham interior, complete with cruise control and power windows, ladle on 350lbs of cheap plastic trim and bondo body bulges, while offering no improvements on the 52hp gerbil-wheel of a motor and the already inadequate brakes, and then charge more than double the original car’s asking price, the Cabalero would be greeted in the market place with enthusiasm. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.

The Leata Cabalero was the brainchild of Donald E. Stinebauch of Port Falls, Idaho. Doug Clark, writing in the Spokesman Review, describes Mr. Stirebauch as a “machinist, inventor and a man with big dreams.” I suspect that he was a tinkerer who let himself be carried away by a project… and maybe had too many beers with his buddies.

It also seems that Mr. Stinebauch was a romantic. He named the car after his wife. Doug’s piece does doesn’t say if the Stinebauchs are still married. Hopefully Leata the wife had a sense of humor about Leata the car and they are. The story goes on to quote Stinebauch as saying, “I should have never got into it…I lost a lot of money.” A good follow up question might have been, why he made the Cabalero in the first place. 

 Why indeed. As a car enthusiast, remembering the late 1970s can be a painful experience. But doing so one can almost understand Mr. Stinebauch’s thinking. Just a few years earlier, the epicenter of the personal luxury car market had shifted from full sized cars like the Ford Thunderbird and Buick Riviera, to midsized platforms like the Chevy Monte Carlo and Chrysler Cordoba. And now, even compacts like the Nova-based Cadillac Seville were going brougham. Could this entrepreneur from Post Falls be faulted for anticipating that the super-mini category was sure to be next?

It wasn’t. A total of 97 Leatas found buyers in 1976-1977 - which is hard to believe but true. Sales materials bill the Leata as “The Pride of Idaho,” and it appears that most were sold to near-sighted residents of the Gem State. Almost all Leatas were hatchback sedans, but 3 were produced as little pickups (El Camino-ettes?) Reportedly one convertible was also made… which I’m rather glad I could find no picture of.

But time heals all wounds, doesn’t it? Not this one. Almost 40 years after Leata’s unheralded demise, one of the few surviving Cabaleros appeared at the 2014 inaugural Motor City Concours d’ Lemons, where judges awarded it the un-coveted “Worst-in-Show” award. Their decision was not appealed.

Copyright@2019 by Mal Pearson