By on August 12, 2021

I’ve been meaning to cover the final Chrysler Imperial for some time now. The only Imperial featured in this series so far is a collection of the early Eighties version, which was a very expensive and complicated pet project failure of Lee Iacocca.

Today’s Imperial is the follow-up model to that boxy rear-drive PLC. Let’s check out the longest and most luxurious K-car variant ever made.

Imperial was a special name at Chrysler, the company’s flagship when it entered production in 1926. The nameplate was conceived by Mr. Walter P. Chrysler as a single-model competition to American luxury brands like Lincoln, Continental, Packard, and Duesenberg. The Imperial went through six iterations as a model within the Chrysler lineup before it branched out on its own in 1955.

That year, Chrysler wanted to up the Imperial’s cachet and told state license branches to register the Imperial as a separate marque. Imperial wore no Chrysler badges between 1955 and 1970. Chrysler labeling returned in 1971 and went away again in 1974 as the company backed off any brand association. After 1975 Imperial took a break, and the top Chrysler offering became the New Yorker Brougham. Iacocca brought Imperial back as its own brand in 1981 for a singular coupe offering linked above. That Imperial was more expensive than a Cadillac Eldorado and had very limited badging, angular styling, and a distinct lack of chrome. Buyers looked elsewhere, and Imperial ended once more in 1983.

Cut to 1990, and it was time to try Imperial again. With the super-extended Y-body version of the K, Chrysler felt it was ready to try big-time luxury again (though not as a standalone brand). Domestic manufacturers at the time were fielding several front-drive full-sizers. Imperial was a competition to the new front-drive Continental and the not-new Cadillac Deville.

Essentially a slightly lengthened version of the front-drive New Yorker Fifth Avenue Brougham, both cars rode on the same 109.6-inch wheelbase. For reference, the smaller but mechanically and visually similar Dodge Dynasty and standard New Yorker used the C version of the K-car platform, which had a 104.3-inch (later 104.5″) wheelbase. The Imperial had a couple of inches extra length on the New Yorker Brougham at 203 inches. That extra length was achieved via chunky trim on top of the longer front and rear clips. Imperial differentiated itself with a conservative heckblende tail lamp, many wreathed Chrysler and Imperial logos, a mandatory vinyl roof, and concealed headlamps. The name of the game here was formality.

Inside there were digital gauges galore, lots of power equipment, and overstuffed seating surfaces were mandatory. Bucket seats were not an option, as all Imperials were six-passenger sedans. Standard equipment was “velvet” velour, but Chrysler brought back the Mark Cross leather option from the previous Imperial. Almost everything was standard equipment, but two big options were the sun visor mounted car phone (interesting idea, bad in execution), and a six-disc CD changer for the trunk.

Examples at the debut in 1990 were powered by the 3.3-liter EGA Chrysler V6. That changed in ’91 when power shifted to use the 3.8-liter EGH V6 instead. Horsepower increased from 147 to a shocking 150, while the competition offered quite a bit more. The Imperial also had a unique electronically controlled air suspension that became a maintenance headache in short order, as parts were quickly unobtanium.

All this luxury, elegance, and excessive trim use didn’t come cheap. The Imperial asked a flagship base price in 1990: $26,655, or about $51,000 today. The car’s top sales year was at introduction, where Chrysler moved almost 15,000 examples. Blue-haired buyers shopped elsewhere for domestic luxury, and by Imperial’s terminal year in 1993, only 7,064 were sold. By then the MSRP had increased to $29,481 ($53,000 adj). Imperial was replaced the following year by the superior, cheaper LHS, and nobody missed the old Y-body. MotorWeek reviewed one, and even that usually complimentary program found few nice things to say.

Today’s Rare Ride is for sale in Detroit. In purple over burgundy, it asks $2,500.

[Images: Chrysler]

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43 Comments on “Rare Rides: The Superbly Luxurious and Gingerbready 1990 Chrysler Imperial...”

  • avatar

    That roofline is very good though.

  • avatar

    This was one the most delightfully opulent crapheaps of the last century. Truly one of my favorite cars, and I would love to drive a nice one today.

  • avatar

    My family had one these that eventually got as a hand me down for college. It was so comfortable inside, best seats, massive rear seat leg room, I remember easily falling asleep back there on road trips.
    Unfortunately it was also miserably unreliable with an awful transmission. It was prone to going into limp mode, and I got used to putting it into neutral while moving, killing the engine and restarting it, then putting it back in drive to get full use of all three gears and overdrive again!

    • 0 avatar

      I had a hand me down LeBaron with the same drivetrain and I had to drive it back from LA to Sacramento in 2nd. I was broke at the time and had a 90lb dog in tow. Made it though. Donated that car the next day.

  • avatar

    I was in my mid-20s when these came out and should have been coveting Corvettes, but cars like this topped my dream list. I still have a soft spot for domestic ‘luxury’ of the 70s through the early 90s.

  • avatar

    It appears that in 1990 the Lincoln Town Car cost the same as this and the Brougham (which now used TBI!) wasn’t much more. So other than retired Chrysler employees and super loyalists I’m not sure who was buying these Imperials.

  • avatar

    For 2021 Chrysler came out with the Pinnacle trim level–the highest–of its Pacifica.

    They missed the boat. It should have simply been called Imperial. Take the Pacifica badging off of it completely.

    Maybe they’ll do that to a Grand Wagoneer.

  • avatar

    Even when these were “new” they looked incredibly dated. And they just didn’t look “right”, like two different cars grafted together.

    I actually like them, especially the interior, but it was absolutely criminal such a high end luxury car had an anemic V6. Should have had a V8. As if anyone that buys a car like this obsesses over MPGs.

    Amazed they sold any of these, so many better choices for the same amount of money or less. A base 1990 Lincoln Town Car was right around the same price. Way, way better vehicle on every level if you wanted a big American boat.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, that strip of duct tape, er, chrome, around the midsection isn’t doing the car any favors. Agree about the motor, but I don’t think Chrysler ever managed to wedge a V8 into the K chassis, probably for good reason.

  • avatar

    I mainly remember this car for being ride of one of my favorite bosses of all time – a guy named Harvey, who owned the luggage store I worked at. Harvey was obese, had an amazing repertoire of dirty jokes (my favorite that could actually be printed here: “What’s good on bread and bad on p*ssy? Crust.”), smoked like a chimney, and drank at least two 2-liter bottles of Pepsi a day. Harvey was Jewish, and threw the best company Christmas parties I ever went to – after the luggage store went kaput, I worked for a company owned by strict Catholics (who were related to Phyllis Schlafly, no less), and they were dour affairs.

    We got along great. I once asked him why he bought his Imperial, and I remember him saying something to the effect of it being a silly car, but his brother the Chrysler dealer got him a screaming deal on it.

    Unfortunately, the Imperial proved to be Harvey’s Last Ride – literally. He had a heart attack in it one night while he was driving home, and died in the car. He was maybe 40-45 years old. His brother, the Chrysler dealer, took over the luggage company, and a few years later, he died of a heart attack as well.

    I’m thinking if I had to die of a heart attack in a car, it’d have to be something like a cherry ’79 Lincoln Mark V – checking out in this car would be no damn good.

  • avatar

    In the late 90s a buddy of mine had one (not sure if it was an Imperial or a 5th Ave but it had the air suspension all around, not just out back) and with the tufted velour and air ride, you’d never believe anyone could turn a K car into something so comfortable. Inevitably the air system was leaky so the car would be face-down-ass-up after about an hour of sitting.

  • avatar

    Bring Back Cornering Lamps.

  • avatar

    I think it was in the book “Comeback” (it’s on my bookshelf but I’m not digging for it) that described Chrysler’s attitude towards this car. Iacocca wanted this car so badly. He didn’t care that by this time, the K-car platform was so stretched, but not widened (would have taken more expensive tooling and testing) so the car ended up looking like a cigar. The younger management under Lee was insistent that this car should not be built. They saw it as an embarrassment – they wanted to focus their energy on the new platforms and make something that would compete with the Japanese and Europeans, not something to appeal to the War Generations.

    Well, Lee won that battle. And we have this last gasp of puffy luxury, floating suspension, numb steering, outdated powertrains, and made it grossly overpriced. And a couple of years later, the vastly improved LH platform cars were released.

    This car was just a rolling cliche of what people might have wanted as American luxury the decade before with the stuffed seats, vinyl roof, excessive badging, fake wood, and all of the “luxury” trappings on an old platform. But with Acura, Lexus, Infiniti, and the Europeans selling vastly better cars, the number of buyers for this…well, it was likely their last new car purchase ever.

    I also read that Iacocca was against the Viper with every inch of his body. But when it came out, he had no problems posing with it.

    • 0 avatar

      The problem isn’t even so much that this didn’t compete with import luxury, but it also didn’t hold up well in comparison to what Lincoln and Cadillac offered. A ’90 Electra Park Avenue was 20% less while offering more power/torque.

      • 0 avatar

        Agree totally. The Imperial really shouldn’t have been built. This was introduced around the same time as the Chrysler TC by Maserati debacle, the K-cars were really getting long in the tooth, the automatic was gaining a reputation for self destruction, and they needed a hit, and now. And then the Imperial comes out to compete with import and domestic luxury. All this did was show how out of touch with the average baby boomer buyer with disposable income (and likely with several pre-teen or teenage kids in tow) really wanted.

        I swear you can smell the muscle cream and stale Virginia Slims with the interior picture.

        • 0 avatar

          The *real* reason this shouldn’t have been built was that it was so redundant. What buyer of this Imperial wouldn’t have bought a similar New Yorker Fifth Avenue had the Imperial not been available? My uncle, a Mopar diehard, looked at both of these (and the then-new Concorde) and went with the 5th Ave., which was similar but more appealing. It looked better, inside or out. The trunk liftover was lower. The seats were much more plush, with loose-cushion button-tufted velour or leather (why not go all-in on the brougham look on a car like this?), more realistic woodgrain, a few inches shorter, and considerably less expensive. What advantage did the Imperial have? Nothing significant.

          I rode in that New Yorker several times and liked it. You’d never believe these were related to an early K car from the inside – much more refined, smooth ride, quiet, high quality fittings throughout with very little hard plastic. And please explain to me what’s “outdated” about the powertrain, which was a brand-new 3.3L V6 and one-year-old 4 speed automatic? The 3.3 (and later 3.8) were smooth, quiet, efficient, torquey, and have proven slant 6 level durable. Not so the Ultradrive trans unfortunately, but unreliable isn’t the same as outdated. The narrow width was mostly an asset, making it easier to get in and out of your car in parking lots. By the 90s center passenger space wasn’t a big issue; anyone that regularly carried more than 4 people bought an SUV or minivan.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    An uncle of mine owned the 90 New Yorker loaded in burgundy with Mark Cross leather and the 3.3L. Once the Ultra drive gave up the ghost he was reluctant to have it repaired because of the cost so he traded it in for a new 2nd generation Avalon, special ordered with the bench seat (I think he had to wait a few weeks for it) which he still owns to this day and is quite happy with.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Bench seats were not considered ‘luxury’ by the mid 70’s The 60/40 split bench was what most Lincoln and Cadillac buyers ordered/sat on.

    A nice big seat for a ‘big man’, the driver and passenger seats could be independently adjusted and yet it could be converted into a bench when needed.

    • 0 avatar

      The Imperial (and NYer/5th Ave.) had a 50/50 split bench seat, with separate fold-down armrests and (’90 or later) cup holders that slid out from them. Probably a better arrangement for a narrow car like this than 60/40; your armrest adjusts individually back & forth or up & down with your seat. If you have a center passenger, just move the passenger seat to similar position as driver’s to make the middle person comfortable. “Bench seat” used here meaning split bench as opposed to buckets/console.

  • avatar

    There’s gingerbread, and then there’s somehow stretching a K-car to 203 inches.

    Looking at this picture—where the car looks for all the world like a slight stretch of an Aries—I just can’t believe that it’s 4″ longer than the LS 460 I used to own.

  • avatar

    “Gingerbready”? That’s a new one.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Bill from Curious Cars released a video a couple of days ago on the 1981 Imperial.

  • avatar

    This is what I would consider “peak Imperial”

    • 0 avatar

      Tasty. Love the “tune here for the Apocalypse” civil defense markings on the radio too.

      This one would be my fave, though. It was even featured in one of my favorite TV shows.

      Any car driven by Don Draper works for me.

  • avatar

    “Today’s Imperial is the follow-up model to that boxy rear-drive PLC. Let’s check out the longest and most luxurious K-car variant ever made.”

    Wasn’t the 1980s Chrysler Limo longer? I know that vehicle was a stretched out K-car.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, the K-Car Limo was longer at 210 inches.

  • avatar

    Excuse me, but your K-car is very Imperial in appearance.

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