The Last Emperor: 1983 Chrysler Imperial

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
the last emperor 1983 chrysler imperial

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It was the late 1970s. Following the oil crisis in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Japanese automakers were able to go from having a foothold on the west coast to being major players in the domestic American market. In 1976, Honda introduced the first generation Accord, a revolutionary package that combined outstanding fuel economy, front wheel drive, reliability, practicality, sprightly performance and a standard equipment list that included a stereo and air conditioning. At the time, Chrysler was headed by Lee Iacocca and in a changing automotive world, for some reason Iacocca decided that what Chrysler needed was a large personal luxury car. Burton Bouwkamp, who was director of body engineering for Chrysler at the time, recalled his boss barking “Where the hell is our Cadillac/Lincoln entry?” The result was the 1981-83 Chrysler Imperial, the last V8 powered Imperial to be produced.

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The decision was made to use the company’s B-body platform, originally developed for the Plymouth Belvedere and Dodge Coronet. That what was formerly an intermediate sized mass market middle class car was turned into a luxury car indicates the kind of wrenching upheavals the auto industry went through in the 1970s. By then the B-body had morphed into the Chrysler Cordoba (itself originally planned as a Plymouth) and Dodge Mirada. A design by Steven N. Bollinger from 1977 for a Chrysler with a formal grille and bustle back rear end named the La Scala was pulled down from the shelf and that became the 1981 Imperial. Bustle backed personal luxury cars were big in Detroit in the mid to late 1970s, with Cadillac and Lincoln both offering cars with that styling feature.

Though it was based on the Cordoba, the Imperial was not a case of badge engineering, having unique sheet metal and it’s own interior and instrument panel, an early Detroit experiment with electronic dashboards. Heavier gauge steel was used for some panels and the Imperial got more sound proofing than the Cordoba. Another use of electronics was the fact that the 318 cubic inch V8 powering the Imperial had Chrysler’s first modern electronic fuel injection system (the company experimented with fuel injection back in the 1950s, making it available as an option). Each Imperial, when assembled, also underwent a rigid post-production inspection and quality control check that included a five and a half mile test drive. Other QC checks done on every Imperial also included a high pressure leak test, electronics check, underbody bolt torque inspection, hot engine testing and front end alignment. The Imperial also came with Chrysler’s best warranty, bumper to bumper for 30,000 miles or two years. They were warrantied against rust for three years. Those short terms seem quaint today when low cost Korean cars come with 100,000 mile warranties but consumers had lower expectations then.

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Each imperial also came with a Mark Cross gift set including an umbrella, leather bound folder, a gold and leather key fob and a spare uncut ignition key made with Cartier crystal. A power moonroof was the only option, though customers could choose from wire spoke hubcaps or cast aluminum wheels, and between a cassette player, 8-track unit, or a CB radio. Standard equipment included thermostatic climate control, a built in garage door opener, electrically heated and adjusted rear view mirrors, the aforementioned electronic instrument cluster, power trunk release, 500 amp battery, rear window defroster, leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-beam map/dome lights, cruise control, power windows and locks, the extra sound insulation, and a 30-watt stereo.

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The electronic dash was Chrysler’s own, designed in their Hunstville, Alabama plant that dated to Chrysler’s participation in the U.S. space program. While the display used some fluorescent tubes, the indicators for washer fluid, oil pressure, engine temperature, door ajar, alternator and brake problems were normal incandescent light bulbs, so the system also included a test for bad bulbs.

The 1991-93 Imperial also featured an early example of a range indicator and microprocessors controlled displays for speed, time, distance, fuel level and transmission gear. Moving past mere buzzers as warnings, the Imperial featured a spectrum of chimes, beeps and tones to remind drivers about seat belts, or headlights and ignition keys left on.

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At a MSRP of $20,988, it was the most expensive production car offered by an American automaker in 1981. However, even at that price, it was a money loser. Some say that each Imperial sold ended up costing Chrysler $10,000 in warranty costs. As was the case with a lot of 1980s vintage electronics, the fuel injection system was not reliable. Complaints and lawsuits followed. Eventually Chrysler supplied dealers with a carburetor kit to replace the EFI. One complainant was apparently Iacocca’s buddy Frank Sinatra, for whom a signature model of the Imperial was made. The way the story goes, Sinatra was driving, perhaps to Vegas, in the car and high voltage transmission lines running next to the highway started to interfere with the fuel injection system. Just 278 of the Frank Sinatra Edition Imperials were made, reflective of the regular model’s lack of success, with less than 13,000 sold over the three years it was offered.

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Our colleague Murilee Martin spotted one of the FS Imperials at a San Francisco area junkyard not long ago. While it still had its Glacier Blue paint (to match Ol’ Blue Eyes’ blue eyes), platinum colored carpet, sky blue upholstery, Frank Sinatra emblems, and a custom console for holding the 10 Frank Sinatra audio cassettes that came with the car, the cassettes and their bespoke leather carrying case were gone.

In time, Iacocca would disclaim that the last real Imperial was his idea, having hired in at Chrysler in 1979, only 18 months before the model’s introduction. He said the car was former CEO John Riccardo’s idea. Iacocca, though, midwifed the Imperial and linked his and his buddy Frank Sinatra’s reputations to the car. J.P. Cavanaugh over at Curbside Classics thinks the embarrassing failure of the last RWD Imperial is the reason why Iacocca and Chrysler spent much of the next two decades churning out low risk variants of the K-car, including the 1990-93 Imperial. They even made a stretch limo on the K platform.

The 1983 Chrysler Imperial pictured here was photographed at the 2014 Sloan Museum Auto Fair in Flint, Michigan. The owner wasn’t near the car so I couldn’t check on it’s originality, but based on the dealer stickers that are still on the rear valence, my guess is that it’s a pristine survivor, not a restoration. It’s a great looking car (well, for the era) that didn’t give up anything to Cadillac and Lincoln in the looks department, even if its iffy electronics make it a poster child for the malaise era.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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  • Watch Carefully Watch Carefully on Mar 26, 2015

    It taks a special love for that model to enter it in a car show and park it beside a vintage sedan and a street rod.

  • Richard Richard on Mar 27, 2015

    This is the first time I have seen one of these. It´s shockingly bad. Generally, I assess a car by the standards of its peers. I am not criticising it because it´s so dated. The equivalent Cadillacs and Lincolns did a much better job of looking pricey and substantial and have a similar period vibe. My dislike is because this vehicle seems to be made of the same cheap material as car costing a quarter of the price only there is more of it from front to back. I can see why Chrysler has struggled. I wouldn´t mind being seen in a Cadillac Fleetwood from the same year. It´s big and American but dignified in its own way. Lincoln´s Town Car and Continentals come second - they seem too much like over-chromed Fords and appear generic . Then there´s this beast, a car that seems to channel Liberace´s incredible lack of taste. No, this is a even I who cherishes quite awful vehicles, could be bothered about. I am glad someone does though. No harm done and it reminds us of the dangers of excess.

  • Fred Remember when radios were an option? Do you know you can use your phone to listen to any radio station in the world? This is just a whole waste of time.
  • Pig_Iron ASTC 3.0 AM radio was successfully demonstrated at CES. It is a common standard shared with terrestrial television, so the audio equipment is commonized for broadcasters. And no royalty fees to pay, unlike HDRadio which has been a less than stellar success. 📻
  • Art Vandelay Crimes that are punished with fines encourage abuse by those enforcing them. If it is truly dangerous to the public, maybe jail or give the offenders community service. People’s time tends to be very valuable to them and a weeks lost work would certainly make a high earner think twice. If it isn’t a big danger why are police enforcing it (outside of raising money of course). Combine it with a points system. When your points are gone you do a week imitating Cool Hand Luke.
  • Cha65697928 High earners should pay less for tickets because they provide the tax revenue that funds the police. 2-3 free speeding tix per year should be fair.
  • Art Vandelay So the likely way to determine one’s income would be via the tax return. You guys are going to be real disappointed when some of the richest folks pay no speeding fine the same way they minimize their taxes