While there is a popular misconception in some sectors of the auto industry that you can become profitable simply by cutting your operating costs to the bone, the truth is that a car company lives or dies by the strength of its products. That was the hard truth that Chrysler faced in 1981, as it trepidatiously introduced the models that would determine its fate: the K-cars and the 1981 Imperial.
NEW BLOOD AT CHRYSLER
When we last left Chrysler, it was 1981 and the company had just launched the products that would determine its fate. Federally guaranteed loans, brutal cost-cutting, and a host of concessions from workers, suppliers, and creditors had kept Chrysler’s doors open, but none of those things would matter if Chrysler had no competitive vehicles to sell.
Chrysler’s truly gargantuan cars had died after 1978. What remained in 1980 was an array of downsized rear-drive cars — the intermediate M-body sedans (Chrysler LeBaron/Dodge Diplomat), the J-body coupes (Chrysler Cordoba/Dodge Mirada), and the big R-body sedans (Chrysler Newport/Dodge St. Regis/Plymouth Gran Fury) — along with the front-wheel-drive L-bodies (Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon) and a number of Mitsubishi products. The R-bodies were on their way out and would be gone after 1981. The M-body cars lingered through 1989, mostly for police and taxi use.
Chrysler’s most important new products for 1981 were the compact K-cars, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. The two versions were nearly identical save for grilles, badging, and trim; Chrysler no longer had the money to differentiate the brands more than that. Twenty years earlier, Lee Iacocca had lambasted Robert McNamara’s boxy, compact Ford Falcon, convincing Henry Ford II to write off the $35 million development cost of the even smaller, front-wheel-drive Ford Cardinal. Now, he was betting heavily on a car not much bigger than the Cardinal and even boxier than the Falcon.
The Reliant and Aries were extremely conservative cars in every way: square-rigged and upright, long on space efficiency, short on sex appeal. Their engineering was reasonably contemporary, with front-wheel drive, unitary construction, and Chrysler’s first modern four-cylinder engine (a bigger Mitsubishi four was optional). The Ks lacked some of the features of import rivals like the Honda Accord, such as a five-speed manual gearbox or an independent rear suspension; in compensation, the Chrysler products were substantially cheaper. The K-cars were slow but frugal, with reasonable passenger and cargo room and admirable fuel economy. The Reliant and Aries were not great cars, but as no-frills basic transportation, they were decent value.
Contrary to popular belief, the K-cars were hardly a runaway sales success and they got off to a slow start. Part of the problem was a mismatch between Chrysler’s low-price-centric advertising and the heavily optioned and thus rather expensive early production cars, but that issue was quickly solved. A bigger issue was buyers’ understandable concern about Chrysler’s viability as a company, still an open question in 1981. Buying a new car from an automaker that may not be long for the world is seldom a good investment, so Chrysler was once again forced to resort to generous rebates on cars that were now more modestly equipped and thus cheaper to begin with. The result was that a Reliant or Aries was not substantially costlier than the smaller Dodge Omni or Plymouth Horizon and a fair number of the 306,000-odd combined Reliant/Aries sales for 1981 probably came at the expense of the existing models. Ordinarily, getting buyers to trade up from a smaller car to a larger one is a good thing so far as profits are concerned, but that isn’t necessarily true when it involves cutting the larger car’s price almost to the level of the small one.
THE 1981 IMPERIAL
If the K-cars were all about unpretentious value, Chrysler’s other new release, the newly revived 1981 Imperial, was something else entirely. For a company so close to financial collapse that its chairman had sought federal relief and substantial sacrifices from its workers, releasing an overstuffed, overpriced prestige car took serious chutzpah. Iacocca was uncharacteristically apologetic about the Imperial, firmly asserting that it hadn’t been his idea.
It’s true that the Imperial was conceived before Iacocca’s arrival at Chrysler and approved by his predecessor, John J. Riccardo, but to our eyes, it seems very much Iacocca’s sort of car. Like Lincoln’s popular Continental Mark series, which Iacocca had launched back in 1968, the Imperial was a big, two-door personal coupe with a long nose, a short deck, and an upright formal grille. Like the Mark, the new car also carried a truly imperial price tag; at $18,311 ($1,000 more with the optional moonroof), it cost as much as three K-cars.
The Imperial nameplate had been introduced back in 1924 as Chrysler’s top-of-the-line model. In 1955, the corporation had made Imperial a separate division, hoping to better establish it as a prestige make akin to Lincoln or Cadillac. Its sales had never been very strong and Chrysler had pulled the plug in 1975. Still, the cash-strapped Chrysler management of the late seventies had salivated at the profits generated by the rival Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Continental Mark series. With the bargain-basement pricing of the Omni/Horizon and the K-cars, the prospect of a profitable new flagship was particularly enticing; much of the 1981 Imperial’s daunting sticker price was a fat profit margin.
CORDOBA IN DRAG
The 1981 Imperial, which was substantially smaller than its Brobdingnagian predecessor, was based closely on the J-body Chrysler Cordoba. The Cordoba had been launched back in 1975 as Chrysler’s first real entrée into the popular personal-luxury market; the Cordoba remembered today mostly for its well-remembered TV commercials featuring actor Ricardo Montalban. The Cordoba was downsized for 1980, becoming a derivative of the M-body sedans and the Plymouth Volare/Dodge Aspen.
The Imperial was distinguished from lesser M-bodies by unique heavier-gauge sheet metal, but its dimensions were nearly identical to those of the Cordoba, as were its suspension, brakes, and running gear. The pricier car’s main point of mechanical distinction was fuel injection for its standard V8, Chrysler’s first attempt at electronic fuel injection since the ill-fated Bendix Electrojector of 1958.
The Imperial’s stand-up grille and razor-edged front fenders, which suggested a self-consciously futuristic update of the 1969 Continental Mark III, were likely borrowed from the LeBaron-based 1977 Chrysler Turbine concept car, designed by Bob Marcks, then a Chrysler stylist. Based on surviving photos of the preproduction clays, those elements were chosen over a more curvaceous proposal that showed the strong influence of the Cord 812 by way of the original Oldsmobile Toronado.
The bustleback tail, not present on Marck’s Turbine Car design, was apparently the work of Chrysler designer Steven Bollinger, who did the initial design studies for the Imperial in early 1977. The bustleback, presumably inspired by Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royces, bore a startling resemblance to the rear deck treatment of the 1980–1985 Cadillac Seville, although as far as we’ve so far been able to determine, the resemblance was coincidental. (The Seville’s bustleback dated back at least as far as 1967, having originally appeared on Wayne Kady’s proposal for the 1971 Eldorado, but unless Bollinger — who was at Ford at that time — somehow saw Kady’s design and was inspired by it, we assume that both can be traced back to Hooper rather than one to the other.)
We would call the resulting design more cohesive than the Seville, which was almost bland from the front before taking a turn for the outré further aft. Even so, the Imperial remained a confrontational design, perhaps better suited to the tastes of the mid-seventies, when it was conceived, than the rapidly changing aesthetic of the early eighties. The effect was at least striking, if not particularly tasteful.
Inside, the Imperial was pure science fiction, featuring Chrysler’s first digital instrument panel. Perhaps inspired by the Lagonda, this self-consciously futuristic device had enough buttons and electronic displays to make an F-14 radar intercept officer feel right at home; 1981 Imperial advertising modestly proclaimed the dash “an electronic marvel.” Lest anyone find the high-tech trappings too antiseptic, the interior was dressed up with color-keyed Mark Cross leather upholstery and carpet so plush it resembled fake fur. As a crowning touch, a gaudy Cartier crystal medallion was set into the steering wheel boss.
OL’ BLUE EYES: THE IMPERIAL FS
Iacocca confidently predicted that Chrysler could sell 25,000 Imperials a year, the maximum output of the Windsor, Ontario production line. He also enlisted his old friend Frank Sinatra to sing a jingle for the car, “It’s Time for Imperial,” a favor Sinatra reportedly performed for a token fee of $1 plus an early-production car. Ol’ Blue Eyes also lent his name to the limited-edition “FS” package, which featured special “Glacier Blue” paint with matching interior trim and a complete set of Sinatra’s greatest hits on audio cassette, packed in a special Mark Cross leather case.
The 1981 Imperial was received gloomily by the automotive press, which saw it as the wrong car at the wrong time. In an era of downsizing, the Imperial was unfashionably bulky; its heavy-duty body structure and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink standard equipment had swelled its curb weight to an even two tons. Even with the fuel-injected V8, the Imperial’s weight and ultra-tall gearing made acceleration a leisurely affair: With a 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time of around 13 seconds, Chrysler’s flagship could potentially be outrun by a manually shifted Plymouth Reliant, and passing times were similarly sluggish.
The Imperial’s suspension and tires were calibrated for a pillow-soft ride, but the car lost its composure over sharp bumps or broken pavement. Stopping power was also poor, reflecting the fact that the brakes hadn’t been changed from the much-lighter Cordoba.
Unfortunately, given the state of the economy — not to mention that of Chrysler itself — the sales projections bordered on delusional. Even in its best year, sales of the earlier Imperial had never topped 25,000 and there was no evidence that buyers were clamoring for its return. Moreover, even better-established rivals were not doing well in that moment: Cadillac sales were down more than 40% and the downsized Lincoln Mark VI had just fallen almost 50%. Imperial production for 1981 tallied only 8,113 units, including Canadian sales.
Chrysler blundered further by hiking the 1982 Imperial’s price by a whopping $2,677. The price increase depressed whatever demand there may have been and sales plummeted to a meager 2,717. Before long, the company was offering rebates of up to $2,000. Recognizing the error, Chrysler slashed the base price of the 1983 Imperial to $18,688. Only 1,555 more cars were sold before Chrysler finally pulled the plug. (Sinatra fans may be dismayed to learn that a mere 516 of the 12,385 Imperials built had the FS package. The author has only seen one of these cars in the wild, although we were unfortunately unable to get pictures of it.)
A LONG WINTER
Despite the new K-cars and the Imperial, Chrysler’s sales figures for 1981 were depressing: better than 1980, but still barely half those of 1977, which had been far from Chrysler’s best year. It was little surprise, then, that Chrysler’s losses for 1981 totaled $475.6 million. 1982 sales were even worse, although cost-cutting had lowered the corporation’s break-even point by more than 50% and held operating losses to $69 million.
The 1981-1983 Imperial proved to be a dead end. It was canceled after 1983 along with the slow-selling J-body coupes on which it was based (neither the Cordoba nor the related Dodge Mirada had sold well either). The Reliant and Aries survived with minimal changes through 1989, but they managed to sell at least 200,000 units a year through 1988 — respectable, if not outstanding.
The real significance of the K-cars was the host of derivatives they spawned. The humble K-car platform’s many adaptations included:
- The mid-size Chrysler E-class (LeBaron) and Dodge 400/600, which included the first American convertibles since 1976
- The “Euro-style” H-body five-door hatchbacks (Chrysler LeBaron GTS and Dodge Lancer)
- The sporty G-body Dodge Daytona and Chrysler Laser coupes
- The bizarre Chrysler Executive Sedan and Limousine
- The compact P-body Plymouth Sundance and Dodge Shadow (and their respective sporty derivatives), originally intended to replace the Omni/Horizon
- The A-body Dodge Spirit, Plymouth Acclaim, and Chrysler LeBaron
- The “near-luxury” C-body Dodge Dynasty and Chrysler New Yorker
- The luxury-oriented Y-body Chrysler Fifth Avenue and Imperial
- The pricey Italian-American Chrysler TC by Maserati.
By far the most important K-car spin-offs, though, were the T-115 minivans (Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and Chrysler Town & Country), which were introduced in January 1984 and proved to be far more important than the K-cars themselves in restoring Chrysler to financial health.
Together, the K-cars and the ill-fated 1981 Imperial make an interesting point about the importance of forward-looking product development. When the K-cars were developed in the seventies, they were extremely controversial within Chrysler. Their front-wheel-drive platform was expensive to develop, cost around $700 million, and Chrysler management favored a more conservative, rear-drive alternative, the H-body, which would have been about $300 million cheaper. (It likely would have been similar to Ford’s Fox platform, which spawned the Fairmont and Mustang III.) The H-body would have been the safe choice, but in retrospect, the K-car platform proved to be the best investment Chrysler ever made. By contrast, the Imperial must have seemed like low-hanging fruit, an easy way to milk some additional profits out of an existing platform, but it was a resounding dud.
In part one of our article on the Chrysler bailout, we mentioned that, contrary to popular belief, it was John Riccardo who approved the K-cars, not Iacocca. Had the choice actually fallen to Iacocca, he might well have made the same decision — he and Hal Sperlich had fought and lost a very similar battle at Ford over a K-car-like proposal called the Tiger platform — but by the mid-eighties, Iacocca was as resistant to new platforms as the management of the Riccardo era had been. Spinning off new variations on the K-car architecture was far cheaper than creating wholly new platforms, and some of the spin-offs were certainly clever, but Chrysler’s lineup was increasingly characterized by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. That sameness would eventually cost Chrysler dearly, as we will see next week.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Frank Billington (with corrections and updates from Bill Watson et al), “Dodge Diplomat, Plymouth Gran Fury, Chrysler New Yorker, Fifth Avenue, Town & Country, and Caravelle,” Allpar.com, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 24 November 2008; Rich Ceppos, “Chrysler LeBaron Turbo: The hamburger principle revisited,” Car and Driver May 1987; David E. Davis, Jr., “Chrysler Imperial: Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, Car and Driver January 1981; Jim Dunne and Ed Jacobs, “Three classy coupes,” Popular Science April 1981; James M. Flammang and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Chrysler Chronicle: An Illustrated History of Chrysler – DeSoto – Dodge – Eagle – Imperial – Jeep – Plymouth (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1998); Patrick R. Foster, “Personality Profile: Bob Marcks: A Life in Design,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 24, No. 5 (February 2008), pp. 66-75; Jeff Godshall and Bob Marcks, “1977 Chrysler LeBaron Turbine,” Imperial Club, 3 March 2004, www.imperialclub. com/Yr/1981/Turbine/, accessed 23 November 2008; Aaron Gold, “K-Cars: Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, and Chrysler LeBaron,” Allpar.com, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 24 November 2008; David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Lee Iacocca, Iacocca: An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984); Mike Kuepper, “Driving Impression: Chrysler Imperial: It may be expensive, but it sure is big,” Car and Driver November 1980; Steve Magnante, “History of Automotive Design 1969-1988: Steven N. Bolinger, Chrysler Design Specialist,” Hemmings Classic Car December 2006; Curtis Redgap, “Chrysler Corporation R Bodies: 1979-1981 Downsized Full-Sized Cars: Newport, New Yorker, St. Regis, Gran Fury,” Allpar.com, 2008, www.allpar. com, accessed 25 November 2008; Gary Smith, “Bob Marcks, Designer at Studebaker, Ford, and Chrysler,” Dean’s Garage, 22 June 2009, deansgarage. com/ 2009/ bob-marcks-designer-at-studebaker-ford-and-chrysler/, accessed 11 November 2009; Jim Smith, “It’s Time for Imperial 1981-1983,” WPC News July 1983; Gary Witzenburg, “1980 Cadillac Seville: Unforgettable or Unforgivable?” Collectible Automobile December 2009; and Brock Yates, “Detroit’s Shattered Love Affair,” Car and Driver October 1974. We also made extensive use of the Imperial Club website’s “(Chrysler) Imperials by Year” pages (www.imperialclub. com, accessed 25 November 2008), which provided production figures, manufacturer specifications, and even details of the Frank Sinatra package.
30 CommentsAdd a Comment
You obviously have no taste, and by the way the crystals on the 81 – 82 Imperials are Cartier lead crystal NOT plastic obviously. It is one of the best looking cars made and is a he__ of a lot better looking than any of its contemporaries, or anything Toyota or Nissan or even Chrysler are making now.
There is NO individualism to the cars made today, although I do like the technological improvements that have been incorporated into today’s units, as well as the reliability improvements.
I have owned many fine cars, and some real dogs. I now have a 1981 Imperial, my second one and will never sell it! Take off your fogged up glasses and begin to see clearly. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find!!!
You’re correct about the Cartier crystals, and I’ve amended the text (although I will say they certainly [i]looked[/i] like plastic).
As for the matter of taste, you’re entitled to your opinion — as am I. I will say I do find the early-eighties Imperial better looking than the contemporary Lincoln Continental Mark VI, bustleback Eldorado, or Thunderbird. However, it’s clear that none of these is my kind of car.
The original pieces were in fact lead crystal. In 1983, Chrysler switched to plastic hood ornament as they began to wind down production of the Imperial, which as we know from the figures, slowed to a crawl.
At some point in time, Chrysler stopped supplying real crystal replacements (which were a common theft item back in the day as many Imperials for sale now are devoid of them) and offered plastic replacements under the original part numbers. I have purchased purported NOS stock with the original Chrysler Part# in original Chrysler packaging with plastic inserts. Many cars may have these late available plastic inserts which may be some of the source of confusion.
Thanks for the info — that might explain the ones on the car I saw. I stared at the crystals in the B-pillars and while I didn’t want to start poking at them, they certainly looked like plastic to me.
If the word ‘Cartier’ is across the bottom, it’s lead crystal. If not, plastic.
I agree. Aesthetically, Chrysler created powerfully distinctive designs in the 1961 to 1966 Imperials then did it again 1981-83. My absolute favorites were 1964 to 1966. The profiles of them were breathtaking. Chrysler showed themselves to be really courageous in these designs.
It seems like no one can write a “history” without injecting their own bias. I really don’t care what the author’s subjective styling preferences are. The fact remains that square-edged luxury cars sold well for almost a decade after the ’81 Imperial, alternatives for those detailess, and generic “jelly bean” cars that eventually supplanted them.
No sane person would argue the ’81 Imperial was on-target with the benefit of hindsight, but the this article fails to mention Chrysler had been developing it’s own EFI system in the years prior, and a high margin car was one way to justify the expense… Along with the digital dash, clear-coat paint, aluminum bumpers and other “new tech” for the era.
It really depends on what you call square-edged, I suppose. Does the BMW E28 5-Series count? It was certainly upright and more angular than not, and it sold quite well, as did the smaller if incrementally rounder E30 3-Series.
To a large extent, though, I think it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison because of the demographic shift taking place in the U.S. marketplace at that time. There were still people buying old-school American luxury cars for as long as Detroit was still selling them — the Lincoln Continental and Town Car, to name two — but there was also a growing population of affluent Baby Boomer Yuppies who never had any taste for that sort of thing and aspired instead to Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche. (Ironically, the Boomers later embraced big, boxy luxury SUVs, so if you want to make that point, I won’t argue.) That disparity in buyer tastes grew throughout the eighties and cars like the Imperial ended up being caught in the gap: It wasn’t an aircraft-carrier-sized barge like the older Imperials or their New Yorker Brougham successors, but it obviously wasn’t a 500SEC or a 635i, either.
I happen to own one of these very beautiful cars. As a GM Powertrain Engineer, one would expect that most of the cars that I have owned have been GM. With that said, Chrysler is my #2 brand behind GM and one of the cars I have is an 81 Imperial. Mine is rare Morrocco Red with sunroof and CB radio and came with the wire covers (which were replaced by the dealer with Appliance wires with spinner and they look REALLY good). I have thoroughly enjoyed this car and plan to keep it indefinately. I agree, the 318 even with EFI is not particularly fast but fast enough not to be a detriment to enjoyment. As a mechanic, I have addressed all of the quirks with the EFI system and the car starts, runs, and drives in all weathers from 11 degrees to 98. The car is extremely solid, well-built, quiet and comfortable to drive. I also own a Cadillac Eldorado of that vintage and I am hard pressed to decide which I like better, but they each have unique attributes that make them distinctive.
A Few Things:
1) The car was not universally panned by the press, in fact, it was well received and made quite a splash, initially. Contrary to belief, troubles with the EFI system did not cause a decline in the car’s sales primarily but more so of the times.
2) Auto sales ACROSS_THE_BOARD fell dramatically for 1980 and were depressed for 1981 and 1982, so comparisons of past sales have to be taken into overall context. The early 80s were a time of energy anxieties, high interest rates, and general economic malaise including a recession that began in the fall of 1981.
3) Chrysler introduced the car because at the time, personal luxury cars were extremely popular in the 70s and Lincoln’s and Cadillac’s sales were robust. Lincoln’s Mark VI sales for 1980 suffered some not only due to the economic conditions but that it was downsized probably a bit too much and the coupe was the smallest Lincoln by wheel base available and 3 inches shorter than the 4 door sedan. Meanwhile, the 79-85 Eldorado was the most popular generation of that car ever.
4) Chrysler had developed the EFI system at the Huntsville, Alabama facility that they owned at the time (now part of Siemens). With the introduction of fuel injection in the Lincoln and Cadillac for 1980, it was necessary for Chrysler to offer an EFI in order to compete effectively. Lincoln also debuted a digital instrument cluster at the time as well as Cadillac.
5) Chrysler made the decision to make most of the popular luxury features standard in the Imperial which is why the price was initially high. Most Lincolns and Cadillacs were purchased with these options anyways so the thought was to make a one price car would be distinctive.
6) The split between the alloy wheels and the wire covers varied between 50-55% in favor of alloys throughout the build based on the production documents that I have seen. The alloys were technically ‘standard’ but the wire covers were a no cost option. Again, most cars, even the Camaro, was available with wire covers, just a sign of the times.
7) Many people have debated what would have happened with the Imperial even had it proved to be popular. The Imperial-side of the Windsor prouction line was indeed capacity limited to 25,000, but the J cars were also sales disappointments at the time. The last Imperial rolled off the assembly line in April of 1983 the Cordoba and Mirada soon followed. The Windsor plant was retooled to produce the new minivans that proved so popular during the 1980s. Even if the Imperial had sold at 25,000 units, Chrysler would have faced a dilemma of where to produce it, possibly at St Louis with the M cars. The Jefferson Avenue plant that had built most of the full sized cars (and all other RWD Imperials of the past), was retooled in 1981 to produced the K cars and variants after the R body cars were discontinued.
8) As it was mentioned in another post, the ‘crystals’ were indeed crystal until the 1983 model year. Replacements available through the dealer in later years were plastic. Mark Cross Leathers were contracted to provide the interior appointments on leather equipped cars, an arrangement that lasted through the last Imperial named car in 1993.
9) The car that Bob Marcks referred to is called the La Scala that shows the origins of many of the design influences that ultimately became the Imperial. Jim Dunne of Popular Science wrote an article in the August 1979 that publically revealed for the first time what would ultimately be the design for the Imperial.
10) It is true that concept of the Imperial was green-lighted under Riccardo, but was originally going to be a Chrysler product, sort of an uplevel Cordoba. Again because personal luxury coupes were very popular in the 1970s, it was no surprise that Chrysler wanted a piece of the action. Until the 1979 redesign, Lincoln was selling more Marks than Cadillac Eldorados, partly because at least for the 77-79 Marks were very angular and Chrysler picked up on that theme as did Cadillac for their redesigns. The influence that Iacocca had was to green-light the bump up to the Y platform and adorn the car with the trademark features that made it what it is and turn it into a luxury coupe. Much like he did with the Continental Mark III for 1968. Being an Italian American from an industrial heartland state, Pennsylvania, Iacocca’s infatuation with bling items was understandable. Chrysler products of those years were extremely popular in Ohio, PA, New York, and other areas with high ethnic populations.
11) Original plans were to offer a 360 in the Imperial. The main reason that it was not was due to emissions certification. Chrysler had a hell of a time getting the Imperial certified with the 318 which ultimately caused many of the quirks that the car ultimately faced. In order to make the NOx readings right and to squeeze as much fuel economy out on the highway the computer was programmed to run excessively lean at times. Ford offered a 4 speed overdrive in 1980 and Cadillac one for 1982. Chrysler was not and could not afford to develop an overdrive unit for what was only a limited amount of vehicles and had to use the tried and true 904 3 speed Torqueflight in the Imperial. Thus necessitating the tall 2.24 rear end. Many owners have reported highway mileages well into the 20s although city mileage is predictably low.
12) Alot of people, including myself, have come to believe that the inability of the Imperial to gain traction in the marketplace was largely due to a combination of factors including bad economics times, but most importantly the fact that Chrysler was rapidly changing from a RWD car maker to a FWD car maker. By the time the Imperial was discontinued in 1983, only the M cars, and really only the Fifth Avenue, soldiered on in the consumer market.
13) As far as the Imperial being gaudy or full of unnecessary do dads, remember, Lincoln was doing brisk business with designer cars in the 1970s that lasted well into the 1980s, and the Cadillacs were full of such items, so the Imperial was not particularly unique in that regard. In fact, the Imperial was probably less gaudy than the Cadillac or the Lincoln which was clearly ‘lipsticky’.
Like with anything, it largely depends on what you are looking for out of a car. Many Boomers began to buy BMWs, and Mercedes, even though they were very astere and spartan looking until the 1990s, predominately out of the name and what the car represented. The domestic marques made broad line cars and someone buying a BMW or Mercedes were supposed to represent a new higher order thinking and a progressive brake from the past. The ‘Greatest Generation’ bought Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Imperials because most of them lived through the Depression and WWII and such a car represented a statement of arrival, a sort of we overcame so to speak. Many of those people told stories of having nothing in their younger years and even if many of them lived in modest homes having a Cadillac in life was a sort of validation of all of their hard work and labors. That is also why the average age of BMW and Mercedes owners has always been somewhat lower, because those cars attract more ‘new money’ people who not necessarily just aspire to own a car like that, but that the car represents their current lifestyle.
So one has to be careful when evaluating difference vehicles, both in terms of the current times, but also in the context of the target audience.
Sorry your comment got truncated — for formatting reasons, each comment box only holds 4,000 characters. If you’d like to repost the rest, feel free; this was not an editorial decision.
To your last point about demographics, I mostly agree: It was not that luxury car buyers on an individual level switched from Lincoln and Cadillac to Audi, BMW, or Mercedes, but that a lot of affluent younger buyers went from a VW or a compact to a 3-Series or 190E. I would note, however, that Mercedes made strong inroads in the ’70s to the affluent country club set (and not just younger members thereof), which I attribute to the fact that so many working- and middle-class people had gotten into Cadillacs or Lincolns; the American brands were no longer snobby enough unless you put a high premium on patriotism.
On point 2, I would note that the 1979-85 Eldorado, which as you point out was the most popular generation of that line, faced the same economic conditions as the Imperial in 1981, but the Cadillac’s sales were up 15% from the admittedly depressed (though hardly depressing) 1980 figure.
MY80-81 were tough years in the industry due to the economy and uncertainty in the energy sector. Yes Cadillac sales rose in MY81 but GM, although recording a loss and suffering distress, was not in the same precarious financial position as Chrysler. Also, GM was still in a command position in terms of market share at the time. The Seville was, of course well received, however by MY78, the Eldorado was something of a bloated relic, much like the Toronado, the biggest thing in the showroom. They were still marginally popular, but as the sleek somewhat downsized 77 Lincoln Mark V provided, that look was popular and for the last two years old Eldorado body outsold it. Of course as I am sure you know the 79-85 generation of the E/K cars were basically massive hits. The Seville styling was somewhat love/hat but was not really far off the first generation’s sales.
I have gotten pretty deep into the background of the 81-83 Imperial both as an owner and from the technological standpoint (which was an important reason I bought my car as an engineer I get a certain satisfaction working on unique technology) and have come to the conclusion that the Imperial probably would have suffered even if there were no problems with the EFI. Chrysler was just too far in the pits by the fall of 1980 and with the impending arrival of the K cars and with the success of the L cars, the future was rapidly shifting. I was still relatively young during that time, and even at GM, with the arrival of the X cars and the impending arrival of the J & A cars, we all sort of felt that we were witnessing about as big a shift of automotive paradigm as occurred when cars go automatic transmissions (and thus could be driven by anybody).
As far as demographics, the Depression/WWII set pretty much stuck to domestics by and large partly due to inertia (always big cars) and patriotism and brand loyalty. My father is a veteran of Korea and while he has studied and appreciated European cars, his distaste for Asian cars is well understandable. Also, many of the WWII generation that became comfortable often did usually after a long period of time “paying your dues” so to speak, where as many affluent Baby Boomers achieved wealth much quicker in their 40s. Of course, the 1970s was the first big decade where conspicuous consumption was overt and so much so among the masses which I tend to believe led to some of the “Broughaming” of many if not most cars. While performance waned both because of regulation and changing tastes people started to appreciate luxury touches in their cars and creature comfort installations reached record numbers.
As far as personal tastes are concerned, a lot of people don’t like cars like the Imperial, the Eldorado, or any other type of vehicle that seems to exceed practical consideration. The domestics have always tended to do it somewhat “Las Vegas” style while Europeans usually did it by other means like fancy body designs, or complicated technological installations that have often led to near irreparable cars. The Japanese, until recently, never got into the personality game, and even to this day, on average, offer smaller cars in size than the Americans and Europeans as a fleet. Some cars are purchased strictly for utility, trucks for work purposes and some people buy economical cars primarily for their low costs with little regard to anything else. However, I would say better part of 50% of the market usually buys a vehicle less on practical value primarily but still as they identify with it on an emotional level. It reflects their personality and satisfies them in an intangible way. That definition has always been a weak spot, IMO, with many of the major magazines who tend to lean heavily to performance aspects of the car. Cars like the Eldorado, Imperial, etc. tended to get panned because in the eyes of many of the testers, had no purpose. But the purpose was not so visible. Most people that buy SUVs really do not use the space, in effect over buy, but do so for subjective reasons. Easily overlooked so when I evaluate a car, I tend to judge it no only on the objective criteria but how well it hit the marks for its intended audience even if I am not in that audience.
I’m sorry the rest of your comment got cut off — again, that’s a limitation of the commenting system (it stops at 4,000 characters for formatting reasons), not an editorial decision. If you’d like to repost the rest of your comment, please feel free.
I don’t disagree with most of the points you made. It’s true that on an equipment-adjusted basis, the Imperial was not significantly different in price from its principal rivals; on the other hand, given the lurching economy of the early ’80s, the perception of lower prices did have its effect. (I still think that the success of the Oldsmobile Toronado during this period is a testament to that. The Toronado had done quite well for itself because while it didn’t have the Cadillac cachet, it did manage to be a sort of budget Eldorado.)
I would disagree with your assessment that the Japanese have not gotten into personal cars until recent years. The Japanese domestic market embraced personal cars by the early ’70s, but relatively few of those cars were sold here and those that were often fell victim to the disparity in tastes. A few examples include the Mazda Cosmo (sold here in rotary form as the RX-5) and the Toyota Soarer, essentially a glitzier, more luxury-oriented version of the Supra; only the later versions came here, wearing Lexus badges. The scale of those cars was still somewhat smaller than the big Marks and Eldorados (of necessity, given that most of the Japanese personal luxury cars were for domestic consumption), but their ethos was similar.
I recognize that some people really like these cars, just as they really like the Mark IV and V, and the reasons why are not lost on me. However, those reasons are at odds with my values, which makes these cars hard for me to appreciate except as kitsch objects. It’s not because they’re nigh hopeless in practical terms — plenty of things are highly desirable despite being functionally useless (or being useful only in ways that are ultimately irrelevant in any real-world sense). It’s more that I don’t share the common American predilection for excess for the sake of display, which tends to be the driving force in this class. It’s something I might tolerate for things that appeal to me in other ways (like the 1967 Eldorado, which I think is very handsome despite being at least 20% too big for my liking), but not something I’d seek out and not something for which I’d pay extra.
Craig, thanks for the very informative and well-thought-out recitative on the ’81-’83 Imperials. I have an ’83 I’m trying to coax back to life, as it were. Your writ was most encouraging for me to forage onward…as I try to find an answer to a ‘shorting’ instrument cluster.
I have an 1981 Imperial I purchased in 2006, drove to my home in Olathe, Ks from Spokane, WA, avg. 22.5 mpg, and yes it still has EFI. I am trying to find out how many \’81\’s were produced with the moonroof option, which mine has. The car is in purfect condition, I just don\’t get it out and drive it enough. It has approx. 21,000 miles on it.
My wifes grandfather had an Imperial and also worked at the Chrysler Parts Distribution Site. I found not only 5 or 6 Cartier Crystals with clip and mounts in plastic bags in a jewelry box, I also found 4 sets of blank gold tone keys with crystals in them.
Craig in NC, I enjoyed reading your interesting story of the Imperial and the K cars. I was a technician at a Chrysler store through the 80’s. I remember well the Imperials as I was the one called upon to make the change to the Carter 2 bbl carb system. When I left the dealership work and opened my own repair shop, I purchased 3 crates with the change over hardware and did the job privately for Imperial owners. Those were the last 3 the dealer had left over from the warranty changeover days.
The ‘K’ cars were great in my opinion and we still drive an 85 Laser, a 94 Shadow, an 85 Voyager and an 89 Chrysler’s TC by Maserati. All but the Shadow have well over 200,000 miles on them. The ’85 Voyager was used as display at Iacocca’s “American Patriot” Award Ceremony on the deck of the Midway in San Diego Harbor.
Craig in NC, great comments. Have to say you know your stuff… I’ve done some volunteer work at the Chrysler archives and one of my tasks was sorting/filing boxes of product-planning memos for this model. Luckily the director was quite generous with the photocopy machine (or maybe he just appreciated that I was doing the work) so I have my own copies. You’re correct that the 360 was the original choice, but scrubbed because of the certification costs. (BTW, CAFE standards are something the Euros aren’t bothered with to this day, having expanded their exemption loophole to 400,000 units annually. Thank you east/west coast Congress people and their dealer lobbies!) :eyeroll:
One reason this car was green-lighted (backed up by the memos) was unfavorable customer reaction to the Mark VI. I would assume backlash from attempting Mark V styling elements on a car that was two feet shorter. Another lost-in-history point is that these cars initially scored the highest Popular Mechanics customer satisfaction score to date among their owners. I don’t know if JD Powers was doing surveys back then, but it’s an interesting point.
Now I’d like to get in (again) on the psychoanalysis that inevitably makes it way into these histories-as-written on the internet…
I’m wondering if it ever occurs to the author that people sometimes purchase such cars simply because THEY enjoy them, not to impress others with their “status”? From around 2008-13 I owned an excellent preserved example simply because I was commuting from Detroit-to-Toledo frequently and enjoyed the quiet comfort at 75-80. Mine had a white-leather interior… It was impossible to be depressed while driving that car. Meanwhile I had a new Challenger R/T in the garage, fully aware that in the eyes of many I was an “unwashed ethnic” for owning either of these (anti?) status symbols. And for what it’s worth, I never owned and SUV because they simply don’t appeal to me. But God-bless those who want one.
Here’s one to ponder: If these Imperials (or Marks/Eldorados) are nostalgic retro-cars for depression/WWII folks, (long hoods, sparkling chrome, whitewalls, etc. like the classic Auburns, Cords, Cadillacs); are the Fiat 500/Mini/Beatle nostalgic retro cars from an era of post-war devastation, rationing, taxation?
I’ll take my retro inspiration with a side order of optimism vs. austerity please.
I would say that the target audience for the MINI, the FIAT 500, and the New Beetle is not of an age to have any particular sense of their antecedents’ original context beyond unrealistically glossy vintage press images and an aesthetic response to “cute old cars.” It’s like the difference between remembering the ’50s and the detached nostalgia that comes with primarily experiencing things through old TV shows and vintage fashion catalogs. In that sense, those cars are well-suited to the audience, providing the look with few of the sacrifices.
Likes and preferences seldom exist in a vacuum. “Status” is shorthand, and perhaps unreasonably reductive shorthand, for the larger question of how a vehicle fits into one’s perceived or desired self-image. It may not be first or even second on the list, and even if it is, it may be a point of defiance rather than pride, but it’s hard to avoid.
Of course I didn’t seriously think that retro-minicar buyers were thinking of wartime rationing when they purchased such vehicles. My point was simply to show one person’s nostalgia (or status) can be someone else’s nightmare. There is no denying that fuel shortages, post-war impoverishment and artificial socialist tax structures created cars like the 500, Bug and Mini… That’s one of the reasons I don’t like them, but I’ll readily admit that perhaps one-in-100,000 have had a similar thought.
Craig’s comments mention the high immigrant population in Iacocca’s Pennsylvania hometown. Demographically, if your family has been in the Detroit-area for about 3-4 generations, you’re likely German, Polish or Italian (I believe in that order). Yet only the youngest “wannabes” desire German or Italian cars. Their grandparents happily left those buzzy shitboxes (and the feudal systems that created them) behind.
There is a Car & Driver review of the 1981 Imperial which said the car would be popular with “short-armed, pinky-ring wearers”, so this kind of judgmental bias is nothing new.
What would be nice to see, then or now, is simply a recognition that an Imperial (or Mark, or Eldorado) is something akin to a nice suit. You don’t wear it to run a marathon, and you don’t drive any of the above in a rally.
In northeastern metro areas filled with traffic and potholes, 40-series tires and 180 mph speedometers are every bit as silly as a simulated convertible top or opera windows. Actually more so, because the former require a compromise (rim damage and legibility). So where are the critics?
Really, cars like the original 500 and Mini were driven less by taxation or austerity than simple poverty, certainly by contemporary American standards. Unlike, say, ’80s Japanese cars — which often were not cheap in equipment or appointments, but were delimited by fairly arbitrary regulatory boundaries — a Mini or a 500 or 600 was often all families could realistically afford. The U.S. after the war was much more affluent, thanks in no small part to the unions that car enthusiasts seem to so despise, which put ownership of big, lazy, comfortable cars within the reach of nearly anyone with a full-time job, even if it was in a factory.
Nobody here has implied that every car has to be a rally competitor or track star. That was of course the general tone of many of the buff books of this period, not least Car and Driver (whose Boomer editors had little tolerance for a lot of the previous generation’s tastes). And yes, I think everyone recognizes that a coupe of any stripe (whether it’s an Eldorado or a BMW 635CSi) is as much a fashion statement as anyone else. However, fashion statements aren’t to everyone’s tastes. I don’t deny that something like a Mark V or a mid-70s Thunderbird has a look, but it’s an in service of an aesthetic that, like a lots of ’70s fashions, I happen to find appalling.
In that regard, I think these Imperials are both more interesting and more perplexing because they really straddle the divide between the very different personal luxury car aesthetics of the ’70s and ’80s — if you set the Z10 Toyota Soarer or the original Nissan Leopard (which are both so ’80s it hurts) at one pole and the Mark VI at the other, the Imperial is about smack in the middle. Consequently, every time I see one (and I do every so often around these parts), I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s a more interesting shape in some respects than the 1979 Eldorado, but the Eldorado has much more cohesive exterior detailing, managing to feel of a piece whereas the Imperial ultimately seems schizophrenic.
(Before you start, I will say that I really rather like the 1979–1985 Eldorado as a piece of design. My objections to it, such as they are, are not about its exterior design or its road manners, but the generally unfortunate engine lineup and the sense of cheapness that pervades so many American luxury cars of that era. If it were built to the standard of materials and detailing of Cadillacs of the early Mitchell era, I’d be a lot more fond of it.)
I think the new VW beetle, Fiat 500 & Mini are a classic case of nostalgic recollections of the good time we never really had. As you wrote, they were cars that the buyers could afford, American cars at the time might as well have come from another planet, apart from anything else their appetite for fuel ruled them out for most small European car buyers.
The new retro models bear only a styling resemblance to their forebears, particularly the VW and Fiat have gone from simple air cooled rear engined cars to sophisticated water cooled front engined cars aimed slightly upmarket from similar sized cars in Europe at least.
None of the original designs would meet current safety standards or emissions requirements, but the makers don’t care about that, they sell well and no doubt BMW aren’t losing money on every new Mini they sell!.
If you approach ‘classic cars’ (however defined) primarily as fashion accessories, there’s certainly something to be said for retro cars — most of the style with less of the pain. (Even if they’re not flawlessly reliable, they will usually start consistently and won’t stall in the rain.)
the anti chrysler and imperial personel who put this tale of –the chrysler corp, 0f 1981 should fall on his sword—-bye the way the 1982 -1989 chrysler 5th ave rear drive 318 cars sold excellent and are still driving around today!!!!!!and so is my 83 imperial —-nuff said–gregory bosslet
I Was Fortunate Enough To Acquire An 83 Imperial About 5 Years ago, As Far As Condition Goes About As Close To Mint As You Can Get, Most People Who Have Seen This Car Remark That This Is The First One They Have Ever Seen. Its A Pleasure To Drive And I Consider Myself Luckey To Have Found It. By The Way This Car Was A Barn Find ! I Have No Intention Of Selling. I Have One Question, Why Are These Cars So Undervalued Considering The Rarity ?
Speaking of bustlebacks, I’d think the oddball Subaru XT would also qualify as having one of those. Not too dissimilar from the Imperial, just a smaller scale.
That’s an interesting take! I’m tempted to argue insofar as the first-gen Alcyone/XT doesn’t really have the vestigial trunkback shape of the Imperial or the second-generation Cadillac Seville, but the reverse cant of the XT’s tail and its odd off-roader stance do give that impression. I’ve always been more tempted to see the XT as a stylistic heir to the TR7, executed as a kind of fan art homage to Citroën, but I take your point.
With Japanese coupes of that era, the line between sports coupes and personal luxury coupes is sometimes muddy. Toyota and Nissan could afford to offer both: Toyota had the Celica and Supra for the sports coupe market and the Soarer for the hi-so personal luxury set, while Nissan’s equivalents were the Silvia/SX, Fairlady/ZX, and Leopard. In terms of style and orientation, I read the first-generation XT and the second- and third-generation Honda Prelude as an attempt to do both, a theory supported by the fact that the second-generation Subaru Alcyone (sold here as the SVX) was explicitly a personal luxury car in the same vein as the Soarer/Lexus SC300 and Leopard/Infiniti M30. So, the comparison to the Imperial is probably fairer than it might immediately appear.
I was in the Design studio when the Cordoba and Mirada were being finished (summer of 1977). What became the Imperial was a losing clay model proposal that was gathering dust. Management would not let Design break down the model but wasn’t going forward with it either. There was no Imperial program at that time.
The bustleback was a known aesthetic in the industry. It was something Bill Mitchell had wanted for the 1st gen Seville. Pictures of it as a proposal had been published in the Japanese publication Car Styling. All the designer knew these quasi-books and poured over them religiously whenever a new issue came out. Each issue showed the design development process of cars with their sketches, renderings and the clay models.
The Cordoba and Mirada were being directed by Hal Sperlich to be Chrysler’s version of the Continental Mark V. The product development Mark V was regularly brought into the studio for reference.
The Cordoba/Mirada/Imperial do a number of minimum radius sheetmetal bends for the character lines. Chrysler’s technique with the clay at that time was to use fishing line to define those bend and to not model the radius. I have always believed that this was a flaw in the design development since the model never fully represented the finished design. It also did not give Design the opportunity to decide if the size of the radius needed to mutate. The radius was applied by engineering to the body scan data.
GM’s techniques was to model fully in the clay.
The latter might explain a characteristic of Chrysler styling that I’d noticed but never been able to articulate, where finished designs, even ones obviously inspired by an earlier GM design, lacked the latter’s customary sense of precise draftsmanship. Not all GM designs of the sixties or seventies were necessarily great exemplars of that, but the better designs (some of the classic Pontiac designs under Jack Humbert, for instance, or the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado) had a sense that every line and curve was precisely where it ought to be. In contrast, Chrysler designs of the period, even ones that look pretty good in isolation, tended to lack that crispness of detail.
GM’s clay modelers were likely the very best in Detroit. This was combined with some senior Design managers that had a deftness for complex surfacing that was not allowed in the other studios around town.
As for Chrysler, their clay modelers were unionized. That was regarded as a hindrance.
Chrysler did ultimately become best of the group later on under Tom Gale. Good designer, intent on being the industry leader combined with Bob Lutz pushing that to happen.