By on February 9, 2022

We return to the Imperial’s saga once again today, at a very low point for the brand. Though the Fuselage Look of 1969 had propped up Imperial’s sales and generated consumer interest, sales were in decline after the ’69s debut. Chrysler put less and less money into its flagship, as parts sharing increased while options and trims did the opposite. There was a second version of the Fuselage Look for 1972 that showed as longer, lower, and heavier than ever before. And though the new metal buoyed sales slightly, the U.S. car market as a whole saw record sales in 1972 and 1973. 1973 was the last such record year for America, and it coincided with the last Fuselage Imperial. Chrysler had a decision to make about its flagship brand.

The Imperial’s heady sales figures around 25,000 units in the mid-Sixties had fallen to 16,729 in 1973. Forecasting was bleak and showed a drop in overall auto sales in the U.S. market for the time being. The oil crisis of 1973 hit large, thirsty luxury cars especially hard and made for a lackluster economy. Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Chrysler knew that Imperial’s sales wouldn’t warrant a body style unique to the brand (even if some panels were shared with New Yorker).

While closing up shop and canceling the Imperial entirely would be the affordable and easy option, U.S. market prestige was not so cut and dry. If Chrysler gave up Imperial, it would leave Cadillac and Lincoln to sweep up all the dollars offered by domestic luxury car buyers in the years to come. A brand elimination would also make Chrysler look like the weakest of the Detroit Three, with its most prestigious offering as the New Yorker. Chrysler decided to spare Imperial from death and introduce a new fifth-generation flagship car. They planned to do it big on a budget, not an easy strategy to execute.

The Imperial that arrived for the 1974 model year was yet another remake of the C-body platform Imperial used since 1967. It resided under the other large Chryslers since 1965 and was used on the New Yorker, Town and Country, and Newport, as well as Dodge and Plymouth models. For its new outing, the then-aged Fuselage Look was replaced by something entirely different and more mainstream.

Elwood Engel was still in charge of Chrysler’s design studio, but this time he credited outside assistance for the Imperial’s new front end. Senior designer Chet Limbaugh penned the upright bechromed front clip, and Engel took a liking to it. Engel took it to the president of Chrysler at the time and persuaded that it should become the schnoz of the upcoming Imperial.

Mister president agreed, but there was a concession: Imperial would use the same body panels as the New Yorker in its fifth generation, save for the trunk lid and the front clip. The mighty had fallen, as for the first (and last) time as an independent brand, the Imperial wore the same metal as the positively plebeian New Yorker. Despite this, all “Imperial by Chrysler” badging was reverted to read Imperial. For 1974, advertising returned to a separate brand strategy, as Imperials were not mentioned in Chrysler materials. Perhaps because the New Yorker and much more expensive Imperial looked nearly identical and Chrysler was not eager to highlight that fact.

At the front end, Imperial went without the almost vertical front hood line of the year prior and swapped in a sculpted power bulge design like other domestic cars of the era. The hood no longer pulled over the front edge of the car, but instead had its shut line back a few inches; the Imperial’s front clip edged over onto the hood.

Gone was the Fuselage’s streamlined and inset mesh-style grille with its integrated headlamp doors. In its place was a waterfall grille split into two main sections by body-colored metal. Each main section was further split into four smaller sections, each divided by vertical grille veins. Headlamps were four in number as they had been before, concealed behind flip-up headlamp doors. The Imperial script still appeared on the driver’s side headlamp cover. A hood ornament appeared for the first time in a while and contained the Imperial eagle.

The bumper came to a much more pronounced point than before and had a heavier-handed use of chrome. Federally mandated impact bumpers concealed their energy-absorbing rubber blocks more thoughtfully. The battering ram front corners present for the prior decade went away, replaced by a creased fender look that contained integrated rectangular parking lamps. The lenses were imprinted with the Imperial eagle. The corner lighting was much more conventional than before, and the front end look was decidedly Lincoln Continental. The front side parking lamp grew narrower but taller and moved to a less prominent position lower on the fender.

Fender creases along the front end were softened from their Fuselage prominence, and no longer had chrome trim running their length. The fenders were more integrated into the side of the car and formed a character line that ran above the door handles but under the windows, and ended abruptly at the tail of the car. Handles changed from push-button to a dogleg style and were still fully chromed. At the A-pillar, buyers found chrome trim and a windshield that was much squarer than before.

Vinyl roofing no longer covered the A-pillar but was contained to the roof and rear pillar areas. The vinyl on the 1974 Imperials was used a bit more clumsily than before and looked less integrated due to its additional chrome surrounds. The overall look was taller and more upright than before, with a larger greenhouse. The Fuselage’s rounded window openings were replaced by decidedly more square ones, that came to a point at the back door (sedan) and utilized a separate vent window at the front.

Lower chrome trim along the Imperial’s side moved all the way to the lower rocker panel, and wheel arches became more pronounced. Still present was a fender skirt at the rear, which was now larger than before. Along the lower fender and all along the side of the Imperial, a new character crease appeared. It swept downward ahead of the rear wheel and tucked inward all along the lower edge of the body. Small Imperial script badging returned behind the front wheel, and at the rearmost pillar, an Imperial eagle appeared again. On LeBaron, it was a LeBaron script.

The long double character lines met at a rear end that was not as nicely integrated as before. Along the rear fender, the block Imperial lettering vanished, but the large red running lamp appeared as a carryover. The trunk lid was more pronounced in 1974, almost borrowing the ’73 Imperial’s strong front hood line. The trunk lid itself contained a rather chunky Imperial logo that covered the lock cylinder.

A requisite chrome bumper leaned more into a Cadillac look this year and lost the upswept curve of the 1973 Fuselage. Chrome extended around the brake lamps, which had larger lenses and were more Cadillac-like than the year before. The rear’s rubber impact absorbers were better concealed than before and smaller than the ’73’s.

With a new New-Yorker-Luxe generation C-body ready to go in 1974, Chrysler offered up its last-ditch Imperial effort to consumers. Unfortunately, even with new technology and a new prestigious trim, customers weren’t having it. Imperial dies next in our next installment.

[Images: Chrysler]

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36 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The History of Imperial, More Than Just a Car (Part XV)...”


  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Really enjoyed this series thanks again.

  • avatar
    Pianoboy57

    I really did like that generation especially in the Frosty Green Metallic with a white top. Of course as a young guy I had no use for a car like that. I always thought cars that large were difficult to drive in tight locations because one sits to low in comparison to the typical full size truck where one sits much higher. I think I would have had to keep some extra bumpers and fenders around just in case.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Well, I owned and drove a 1963 Chrysler Newport in the mid-1970s, and when visiting the east coast, borrowed my in-laws’ 1973 Newport. The ’63 was just a foot shorter, but the same width and nearly the same wheelbase (124″ vs. 127″). The ’73 was almost 1,000 lbs. heavier, but didn’t have the menacing dents of my ’63.

      You get used to driving a big car, and lanes and parking spaces were still big enough in the 1970s to drive and park easily. Tight spaces had to be avoided, but as far as collisions were concerned, other drivers stayed out of the way, especially young ladies in Toyotas and Datsuns. There were also over 100 million fewer Americans in 1975, so less traffic.

      I got rid of the 1963 Newport during the second oil crisis of 1979. Gas went up to over a dollar a gallon, and the 4bbl 361 V8 ran great at 12 MPG, but that was 25 cent gas level, never to be seen again. I’ll admit the 1980 Buick Regal V6 coupe that replaced the old Newport felt like a sports car by comparison. Going from 12 to 18 MPG was nice, going from 9.2 seconds 0-60 to 14 seconds wasn’t so nice.

  • avatar
    CaddyDaddy

    For all of its faults with the fuel delivery system and power output of the mill’, the M body in every aspect was a far superior automobile. Interior ergonomics, safety, comfort, climate control and build quality. Yes, the Fuselage was that bad.

    Imagine one of these with a 1996 Magnum 360, overdrive A518 and all the suspension and brake bits of a Police Spec. M Body. mmm.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I had an ’86 Diplomat SE for a few years and while it was better built than one might expect, the 318 (140hp/265lbft) with a 2.26 final drive 3A was quite slow.

      The 440 in this car was net rated at 235hp/350lb-ft with a 3.23 final drive so I expect it would feel livelier even with the added dimensions.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      “Yes, the Fuselage was that bad.”

      Meh, I don’t think it was much worse (or better) than a comparable GM full size car. I’d make a Cadillac comparison, but Cadillacs of that era weren’t much better or worse than other GM full size cars either.

      The squared-off “downsized” version, though? Ugh. Kill it with fire.

      • 0 avatar
        CaddyDaddy

        Freed Mike: I was comparing the Fuselage with the M Body, not other brands. As an ex long term owner of a very nice 73′ Fleetwood Brougham, I can attest the downsized “B” body GM cars 77′ on were far superior car in every manor. Also, roomerier with less body girth.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          Ah, makes more sense now. But I don’t think the Fuselage was bad either, particularly not in comparison to something like an Electra or Marquis. And, frankly, starting in the early ’70s, I don’t think Cadillacs were much better than an Electra/98 either.

          In any case, I think Imperial stopped being a true Cadillac/Lincoln competitor in the mid-’60s and became a Buick/Mercury alternative. In that context, it wasn’t bad at all.

          And agree 100% about the downsized GM full-sizers versus the half-a**ed “downsized” Chrysler models.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Love the waterfall grille.

    Overall, though, they weren’t bad cars per se – my step-grandfather and aunt had New Yorkers from this vintage, and they weren’t any worse than an Olds 98 or Mercury Marquis. The “downsized” next generation, though, was another story entirely – those were absolute garbage. Given that, maybe Chrysler ending the Imperial nameplate when it did was a mercy killing.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      Unfortunately Imperial was resurrected 2 times with the last the K car reiteration being the ultimate insult. This 74 Imperial was not that much different than the GM and Ford’s of 1974 and the look is not that bad but I prefer the early Imperials. My mother had a 72 Cadillac Sedan Deville which size wise would not have been that different and I had a 77 Monte Carlo the last big one and it would have been just a little shorter but not much. I also had a 84 Chrysler 5th Avenue although much shorter it still handled like a big car. I always thought that the M body 5th Avenues reminded me of the early Imperials and Chrysler could have easily made an Imperial out of it especially with the front grill and the rear (tail lights). That would have been a much better Imperial than the abominable K car derrivative.

      • 0 avatar

        Interesting side item.

        For 1980 only there was an M-body Chrysler LeBaron Fifth Avenue Limited Edition that wore Imperial badges. Why? Unsure.

        https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/bd/Grille_close-up_of_a_1980_Chrysler_LeBaron_5th_Avenue_Limited_Edition.jpg

        • 0 avatar
          la834

          At one point in 1980 Chrysler offered both an R-body New Yorker Fifth Avenue (now with the famous pillowy seats the ’79 model didn’t have) and a M-body LeBaron Fifth Avenue. After the former was prematurely discontinued in mid-81, the latter was reborn as the New Yorker Fifth Avenue (later dropping the “New Yorker” part so that name could be used on a stretched K car). Note the different, part-vertical taillamp treatment on the LeBaron 5th Ave compared to later versions which used Diplomat-based rear lighting. Note also the M-body LeBaron had always used the former Imperial eagle logo throughout its run.

          http://www.oldcaradvertising.com/Chrysler%20&%20Imperial/1980%20Chrysler/1980%20Chrysler%20Ad-02.jpg

        • 0 avatar
          Jeff S

          @Corey–I did not know that. Interesting. That 80 Chrysler looks a lot like my 84 5th Avenue.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Agreed, the K-car derivative was awful. But I have a soft spot for that 81-83 coupe.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          I have a weird soft spot for the K-Imperial just because I think stretching a K-car to 203 inches is a real achievement.

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          I also have a soft spot for the 81-83 Imperial coupe. In the early 90’s I came close to buying a Dodge Mirada with the Slant-6 which was also based on the M-body. Instead I went for a 81 Monte Carlo with the Chevrolet 229 V6 which was fairly ok and reliable.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    This car- the ’74 C-body- is responsible for Chrysler’s woes to this day.
    Introduced right before the Oil crisis, it never sold in enough numbers to pay for itself. This lead to Chrysler’s loan deal from the feds just a few years later, and it’s been all downhill since.

  • avatar
    SPPPP

    That is quite a cantilever, from the rear axle to the tip of the trunk.

  • avatar
    probert

    plebeian New Yorker?!!! I was told that it was a beautiful New Yorker, it was the talk of the town, and that people stopped and stared, because the Chrysler New Yorker was there!!! I was misinformed…

  • avatar
    cardave5150

    Thanks again, Corey, for the series! It’s been a great read so far, with a few bumpy chapters to go.

    Tis generation is what I think of when I think “Imperial”, for better or for worse. In 1974, I was 7 years old and my parents went shopping for a new car to replace the ’64 Impala in the driveway. We ended up with a 318 Valiant, which was the first car I drove once I got my license. But, spending all the time we did with the dealership buying that Valiant, I got to check out the other Mopar iron in the showroom, and this was the pinnacle of the time. I didn’t know any better….

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    That front end is absolutely gorgeous. And the tufted velour interior is to die for. Check the list of ‘luxury’ equipment and optional extras. Now standard equipment in economy vehicles.

    The Imperial in looks and comfort was in my opinion superior to the Coupe or Sedan de Ville and comparable to the Fleetwood of that era. But fell below the standards set by the Town Car, or if you could find one a Town Coupe. Lincoln during that period had superior sound deadening, road feel cancellation, one finger steering, and a more attractive instrument panel (clock by Cartier!).

    And yes I did spend time both riding in and driving all of the above. Actually took my drivers test in a Town Car that was nearly new (on the road for a few months) with a black exterior and red velour interior. Knew that I was going to pass when the tester got into the passenger’s seat look around and said “this is the nicest car that I have ever been in”.

  • avatar
    Rboz

    18!
    EIGHTEEN Colors to choose from!
    That is like 14 more than 2022, and I am not even going to start about the standard velour FUTON!

  • avatar
    RHD

    We have come a long way, baby. There are much, much better vehicles available now, but manufacturers are still trying to get us to buy something too large, too thirsty and too expensive.
    Those Imperials made pretty good smash-up derby cars.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    Besides this creaky (in four door hardtop, anyway) behemoth chassis essentially prodded about here and there from the ’65 full-sized cars, Chrysler also managed to completely mismanage their European operations at Simca and Rootes. Lost money hand over fist and had to sell them to prop up home operations and nobody missed them. PSA picked up the remains for a song.

    Gross incompetence abounded at the corporation. The most outward sign over here was the awful ’76 Aspen and Volare, cruel jokes compared to the Dart before it. Know several people who had these charmers and had all sorts of problems. The front suspension with parallel transverse torsion bars was out of a nightmare, and Lean Burn, well yeah, what nonsense all around. 318s that produced no power and overheated if pushed even a bit and pinged like crazy which a lean condition leads to. Smelled hot like too lean Harleys or snowblowers, metallic hot.

    It was left to hire Ricardo Montalban to croon about Corinthian leather in the Cordoba, which must have been goatskin-derived if it had anything to do with Greece, ha ha. Not many cows in that country I saw in several months travel. But hey, you’re selling to Americans who knew nothing anyway. The midsize cars were mere updates of the full but undersized ’62 Fury chassis, in some versions lacking decent rear suspension trvel. My VP boss had the Plymouth version of the Cordoba and wore a trilby hat — it did without the “leather” and it was a dire tinbox car of zero technical merit. Reminded me of an empty van for all the engine fan noise was (not) hushed.

    No wonder with crud like this, even the plebs noticed and stayed away. Remember, that was not a loan in ’79. It was a loan guaeantee — the feds co-signed a bank loan like Daddy does for daughter Elsie on her first job. At least Lee sold enough K-Cars to pay off the loan.

    A ’77 Caprice Classic was so far ahead of this Imperial in chassis and noise refinement and superior supple ride, it wasn’t funny. The Chryslers were out-of-date, creatures of an earlier era, tufted velour upholstery notwithstanding. Well, the ’78 Omni was a plus, look at it that way. They made a better car than the Simca people did with the same exterior styling. By then, however, Simca engineers knew that in general, Chrysler was clueless and likely to sell them and refused point blank to utilize the US chassis design. They were wrong, but hey, what were the odds?

    Good thing Mitsubishi held up their side of the deal with Chrysler and made half-decent Colts.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      You did know that the Corinthian leather was actually made in New Jersey.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Nicely written but not quite correct. Having owned/driven often many of the D3 luxury (Lincoln, Cadillac and Chrysler) and PLC vehicles, the Cordoba was more than competitive at the time. And the Chrysler ‘name’ still had prestige when the Cordoba arrived. Getting a Chrysler for not much more than a GM or a Ford PLC (with the exception of T-Bird, Toronado and Riviera which were ‘high end/near luxury) made the Cordoba a sales winner. And for the time it was a good looking car, with the requisite opera window, coach lights and half vinyl roof. Until they wrecked the front end by switching to the stacked rectangular headlights.

      I will agree that when GM released their ‘downsized’ fullsized vehicles in 1977 they were a revelation. However the 305 was something of a disappointment. Yes among the our vehicles in that era were first a 1975 Caprice Classic ‘big block highway queen’ and later a 1977 Caprice Classic.

  • avatar
    BobinPgh

    Were Chrysler Plymouth dealers have any incentive to “upsell” their customers to Imperial? It seems they could have easily done that for customers who wanted a lot of options on Newport and New Yorker, why not just get an Imperial? Or was it too much of price difference? Oh, and is the next one the Frank Sinatra Imperial?

  • avatar
    lakeview1002

    I have enjoyed your series about the perennial luxury underdog that never got the full attention it deserved. However regarding your comments about the development of the 74 Imperial, they had nothing to do with expectations of poor industry sales and fuel economy concerns. This car was conceived and developed years yearly, and when it entered production in the summer of 73, the industry and America were riding high. The Arab Oil Embargo hit in October of 1973, soon after the rollout of Chrysler’s C-bodies. This started the decline of the full size automobile’s dominance of the US market, the demise of the Imperial, another financial crisis at Chrysler… to name few.

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