By on February 25, 2022

In our last Imperial entry, we found the brand’s run came to an end. In production since 1926 and an independent brand since 1955, the Imperial fizzled out to nothing after 1975. Chrysler closed its luxury Imperial division, and the once proud two- and four-door Imperials were stripped of some standard features and rebranded into the Brougham trim of the New Yorker. The Imperial name had come a long way from its beginnings as a super luxurious coach built car for the wealthy, and ended up as a slightly nicer New Yorker with more formal front and rear clips. But 1975 was not the end of the Imperial’s story, as a particular Chrysler CEO had big Imperial aspirations. To get to that point for Imperial, let’s talk about Ford.

Between the 1976 and 1980 model years, there were no Imperials whatsoever. The most expensive Chrysler one could buy was the New Yorker, and that couldn’t really compete with offerings from Cadillac and Lincoln. We mentioned last time the price and sales chasm between the Imperials and the Cadillac Eldorado, and in particular the Lincoln Continental Mark IV. See, the luxury market was changing in those days, and the PLC (Personal Luxury Coupe) was all the rage. The sedan was no longer the stylish luxury choice, which isn’t too far removed from The Current Year, really.

The top of the PLC pile was the aforementioned Continental Mark IV, which commanded huge money in the Seventies, and cost much more than the Eldorado or the then-extinct Imperial counterpart. The man behind the transformation of the extinct Mark name into a new PLC was Ford president Lee Iacocca. An important force behind cars like the original Mustang and European market Ford Escort, Iacocca helped Ford to turn the unloved fifth generation 1967 Ford Thunderbird (that’s the one that had the Town Landau sedan) into the wildly successful Continental Mark III of 1968.

Continental Mark advanced to the IV in 1972, and continued in its big time PLC success. Said Mark IV was still on sale when Imperial shut down. Though Ford’s profits were big time impressive ($2B in 1977) behind the scenes things were not going so well: Iacocca couldn’t manage to get along with his superior, Henry Ford II. Tensions resulted in Iacocca’s firing in July 1978.

Iacocca found immediate reemployment over at Chrysler, where the struggling company appointed him as CEO. Chrysler’s product needed a do-over, and Iacocca was the man for the job. Particularly appealing on Iacocca’s resume was his success with the Mark III. Chrysler felt he could probably repeat the success of the Mark with a new flagship Imperial, as the company planned to go directly after the Lincoln Mark IV/V. It was Imperial PLC time.

For his part, Iacocca thought that a new flagship would show domestic customers that Chrysler had a promising future, and was no longer circling the drain. Said customers would need to ignore that Iacocca went to the US Congress as newly minted Chrysler chair in 1979, and negotiated a federally guaranteed loan in exchange for much financial streamlining. But surely the Imperial name had enough cachet to carry it off, considering it was a paragon of quality-built luxury a mere 25 years prior.

But what styling does one select for a flagship luxury coupe? Standard Chrysler M-body type looks wouldn’t cut it, so Iacocca went in a bold new direction: a bustleback. The styling trend was something the market hadn’t seen before, and meant to hearken back to the 1940s. It was a time when luxury cars like the Imperial or a Rolls-Royce had long sweeping fenders, and a trunk that looked like it was added on as an extension to the body. The Forties look was itself a callback to the early 20th century, when a trunk was literally a piece of luggage attached to the car. The modern adventure-lifestyle equivalent of this exterior storage is perhaps a Thule roof box.

Cadillac was first to do a bustleback look, which debuted on the new Seville for 1980. Chrysler was second with the new-for-’81 Imperial, and the third and final bustleback was in 1982 when Lincoln introduced the new Fox-body Continental. Though they all featured the same general angular rear styling, the Imperial was the only one that took the rest of the car in a new direction too. The Seville and Continental were both standard type sedan designs, with the bustleback added as an interesting rear end flourish. Iacocca made sure the entire Imperial had a new type of design.

And what a design it was. It didn’t look like anything else on the road in 1981, and was most definitely a bold choice for a new Imperial experiment. The front end featured a large, finely veined waterfall grille, similar in shape to the one found on the last Imperial. The wrap-over grille veining from 1975 was replaced by a blockier chrome top above the grille, like a Lincoln. Carried over were the bumper vents added on the final 1975 version of the Imperial, backed by grille inserts as before. The bumper came to a point in the middle, which was a familiar design queue to any living Imperial customer. Said bumper also wrapped around the front of the fender as before, though implemented a horizontal black trim strip in place of the bump stops of the Seventies.

Headlamps were concealed as they had been previously, though the new Imperial went without Lincoln-style vertical indicator lamps on the fenders. Instead, there were running lamps underneath the headlamps, always visible and generous in proportion. Strong fenders showed almost vertical edges at the front; swept back slightly for a more modern look. Front side parking lamps were of a similar amber and clear design as they were before, and were similar in size to Seventies Imperials. The power dome hood was of its time, and expected on this sort of luxury car.

A strong fender crease was an expectation too. It ran along the body, across the door above the door handle. Though it terminated before the C-pillar, the character line’s placement was similar to the extinct Imperial of the Seventies. There was a secondary character line that ran from below the headlamp and around the wheel well, accented by a rub strip in the middle of the car, and then extended around to the rear tail lamp. Chrome trim was minimal for the time, and was used much more sparingly than in other PLC competition. Aside from the grille, body chrome was limited to window surrounds, mirrors, the aforementioned rub strip, and around the wheel wells. That might sound like a lot, but one can be assured that in 1981 PLC land, it wasn’t. The B-pillar sported an opera lamp, a bit more modern in its interpretation than other opera lamps in period.

Wheels were similarly devoid of chrome, as Iacocca went for a polished snowflake alloy look. The wheels were almost Pontiac-like. In contrast to the traditional white walls, red center caps added a sportier look. For the traditional customer, real wire wheels were also available. They read Imperial on their centers, but were not commonly equipped.

The rear end of Imperial was its defining stylistic feature, and held all the bustleback goodness everyone was so eager to implement at the time. The D-pillar cut at a sharp angle from the roof, and formed a new character line that extended in a very defined way along the rear window, and down the rear 3/4 of the fender. Its terminus was a couple inches before the bumper, where it faded into the sheet metal. The rear bumper was very similar to the one up front, and came to a point in the middle. It wore a similar black trim strip, and was sparing on its chrome usage. The lower half of the bumper was body colored instead of chrome.

The trunk lid itself was prominent, and indeed looked like an add-on (as intended). It was very square, and featured a light rear slope that was less aggressive than the roof character line. there was a crease in the metal down the middle, interrupted by the chromed license plate mounting area. The up high plate location was likely chosen to avoid interrupting the smooth lines of the brake lamp and bumper, as the plate would taken much real estate on either. Underneath the plate were two thin horizontal chrome bands, which encased a full-width brake lamp and its integrated central reverse light. The continuous look was split by a centrally located thin vertical chrome band, and would have looked much better without.

Iacocca went for independent branding once more with the Imperial, which was signified by a distinct lack of badges. There was a Chrysler Pentastar up front, Imperial script badging behind the front wheels, and a small Imperial badge on the back. Chrysler appeared nowhere on the car. Marketing said simply, “Imperial.”

Though it was an all-new design outside, the stuff underneath and inside the Imperial was much less special than the exterior. And those two things were just the start of the coupe’s problems. We’ll get into that next time.

[Images: Chrysler]

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

  • avatar

    I remember reading somewhere that the ’81-’83 Imperial coupe was originally supposed to be the second gen Cordoba. The design they ended up using for the Cordoba, built on the same J-platform as this Imperial, ended up being a huge flop in the marketplace due in part to its underwhelming looks and smallish body, esp. compared with the ’75-’77 Cordobas that proceeded it. Not surprisingly this once red-hot model was discontinued after 1983. The more substantial looking design that ended up being sold with the Imperial nameplate would have made more sense as the 2nd gen Cordoba like originally planned.

    If Chrysler was so intent on reviving the Imperial moniker the M-body could have always been used for this generation, potentially allowing it to be offered in both four and two doors models like in years past and thus making it a more realistic competitor to both Cadillac and Lincoln, which were offering multiple body styles at the time. But then again there may have not been the Chrysler Fifth Avenue under this scenario, a car which ended up being by the mid ’80s a huge seller as a bargain basement alternative to Caddy/Lincoln, mostly b/c is lacked the cachet of bearing the name of a bonafide luxury car company.

    • 0 avatar

      There was a very limited run of M-bodies with Imperial logos but not the name, and I don’t know why.

      The LeBaron Fifth Avenue Limited Edition. 1980 only, 650 made. But why!

      • 0 avatar

        All of the 1978-81 LeBarons had Imperial-style eagle logos on them, usually as hood ornaments or on the taillights. The Imperial brand was discontinued years earlier, and I don’t think Chrysler expected to use that name again so quickly in 1978, so putting the old symbol on a new car (along with a name long used as an Imperial trim level) was a good way to transfer the Imperial’s luxury image to the new car. The LeBaron Fifth Avenue I assume was done just to have a smaller counterpart to the better-known R-body New Yorker Fifth Avenue, though being based on a three-year-older body and not being designed for the boxy roof made it look less inviting. But when demand for big plush V8/RWD American sedans unexpectedly returned around 1983, the R body was out of production. The best Chrysler could do to compete with the big Town Cars and Sedans de Villes was to bring back the Fifth Avenue package and rename the LeBaron (itself heavily based on the 1976 Plymouth Volare) the New Yorker. A year later, the NYer name was moved to the K platform and the larger, still-RWD M body was renamed just Fifth Avenue. Strangely, the nameplate on the car still read “Fifth Avenue Edition”, a remnant of when the 5th Ave was just a trim level on a New Yorker (or LeBaron) and not a separate model. Chrysler was too cheap to change the badges!

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Really have enjoyed this series Corey. Agree about having a 4 door model as well but the problem with this Imperial it was priced too high and it had problems with the fuel injection. It was bad enough when Frank Sinatra broke down in the Sinatra edition of this Imperial. I did not know before Corey mentioned it before that there was a LeBaron Fifth Avenue with Imperial logos. Funny thing is I always thought that the 82 thru 89 5th Avenue would have made a great Imperial. I had an 84 champagne colored 5th Avenue with wire wheels, tan leather seats, and a Boise cassette stereo for 8 years (it had been my mother’s car). Comfortable car with a 318 but terrible electronics and the computer controlled carb was troublesome. I did get 200k miles out of it and even though it still looked like new the engine needed an overhaul and the power locks and windows were going.

    I have always liked this 81 thru 83 Imperial and even though I was not a fan of the bustle back Seville the bustle back on this Imperial just seems to work with the design of the car. I think if this Imperial would not have had the fuel injection issues and if it wouldn’t have been plagued by Chrysler’s overall lack of quality it would have been more of a success and it would have gone on for a few more years. Chrysler had good powertrains and good engineering but their overall quality has been their Achilles Heel. Quality has been a problem for Chrysler since the 1957 models forward look that sent GM back to the drawing board and shook up Ford until these Chryslers leaked and rusted out and had other quality issues. After 57 the word was out and sales declined.

    • 0 avatar

      I also agree that the rear styling just seems to “work” here better than at Cadillac and Lincoln. First off, I don’t believe the trunk appears as shortened; but particularly in the case of the Seville, you have straight lines and angles and when you hit the back ¾ of the car that character line goes into a curve. It’s like it was left too close to the flame and started melting.

      With Imperial, it looks like the same stylist– or multiple stylists on speaking terms with each other– did the entire car.

  • avatar

    “It’s time that an American luxury car was styled clean and uncluttered.”

    In 2022, it’s time that any dam’ car, from any maker anywhere, was “clean and uncluttered”. How long until the pendulum swings back?

    • 0 avatar

      “It’s time an American luxury car had electronics engineered in the labs that started the space program.”

      Umm… errr… uhh…

      • 0 avatar

        [“It’s time an American luxury car had electronics engineered in the labs that started the space program.”

        Umm… errr… uhh…]

        The electronic dash cluster was built in Huntsville, Alabama which was a hotbed of NASA contractors. I worked at a Chrysler-Plymouth service department and replaced a lot of clusters under warranty. I also was the EFI tech- what goofy system that was! It’s a shame- it was a good looking car, but between the electronics problems and the wonky, wobbly, front suspension, that car was doomed.

  • avatar

    My dad was a service manager for a large Chrysler dealer in Cleveland when these cars came out. I loved the look of it, but he was always driving one, trying to figure out the issues that all that space age technology was causing under warranty. I figure that what we will hear about in the next episode…

  • avatar

    These, and the mid-60’s Imperials, are my favorites. So unique.
    I only in the past few years learned that there were a few 4-door limousines of this model, based on the R-body, and built by 1 or 2 coach builders.

  • avatar

    These looked the Business on the outside, but the interior was a gross disappointment with a dash and controls out of the much cheaper Dodge Mirada but fitted with basic digital readouts for speed and fuel. Worse yet, underneath they were directly related to the Cordoba/Mirada which dated back to the Aspen/Volare days. Torsion Bar up front, leaf springs in back on a live axle connected to a unit body couldn’t come close to the noise and road isolation of the full coils on a perimeter frame of the Lincoln or the Independent suspension of the Eldorado/Seville. My dad looked at one as a replacement for his ’78 300SD, a 10 minute test drive and he left and went directly to BMW and bought a 733i. In those days Chrysler half-assed everything they did and the Imperial was the most egregious example.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Corey–There was a Chrysler Imperial concept based on the Chrysler 300 shown at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show.

  • avatar

    > Though it was an all-new design outside, the stuff underneath and inside the Imperial was much less special than the exterior.

    Lee Iacocca’s fatal flaw. The massive success of the ’65 Mustang despite being a humdrum Falcon under the skin convinced him it was the sizzle that mattered, not the steak, and he spent the rest of his career championing flashy cars built on cheap, mundane, often behind-the-times underpinnings – why spend money upgrading stuff nobody could see? Thus the Mark III/IV/V, the Pinto-based Mustang II, the still Falcon-based Granada and Lincoln Versailles, the Torino-based T-Bird, and later the Chrysler K platform used for everything from sports coupes to limousines. The ’81-83 Imperial followed the script, being built on the 2nd gen Cordoba/Mirada platform, which was basically the Aspen/Volaré platform from 1976, leaf springs and all. The Imperial coupe’s interior was beautiful and very plush, but any impressions of it being a proper luxury car ended when you hit your first bump or pothole. Or when the fuel injection or digital dash failed.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      True but GM has been doing the same thing for years. The times GM went out the box like the Corvair and the Olds Jetfire it didn’t go so well. The Chevy II was designed and ready for production within an 18 months to competed with the Ford Falcon. With the exception of the Tornado and Eldorado GM for the most part has done platform sharing with the exception of Corvette. I think the main problem with the Imperial was more about overall quality as compared to competitors and a problematic fuel injection. Granted the suspension on the 81 thru 83 Imperial should have been upgraded but that was minor compared to the fuel injection and the problems with the digital dash. As for the K cars they were a success and that is why their platforms were shared with other Chrysler products. Not saying those platforms didn’t have their problems but their sales success and the need for Chrysler to cut costs were the main reasons for the sharing of the K platform. The Aspen/Voltaire platform contributed to the M platform the was used in the 5th Avenue, Diplomat, and Gran Fury which were all relatively successful. The 5th Avenue was a more affordable alternative to Cadillac and Lincoln. Even my own mother went from a Cadillac Sedan Deville to a 5th Avenue so not everything Iaccoca did was flawed. Iacocca started out as an engineer with Ford and then went into sales and marketing and then became Vice President of Ford and then President of Ford. At least he had a background in engineering and had a knowledge and interest in cars unlike many of today’s current CEOs of car companies. Iacocca was flawed but overall his successes far outweighed his failures.

  • avatar

    I’ve never seen a photo of this style Imperial with its trunk open. I’ve always wondered how much storage space was inside. Maybe Corey can find such a photo?

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Nice looking 83 and I noticed it had a 2 barrel carburetor. Same color as my mother’s 84 5th Avenue inside and out even with the brown dash and carpet. Her car had the more loose pillow leather seats and the wire wheel covers with a full size spare.

  • avatar

    I have been looking forward to this part in the series as this was one of my favorite cars of the early 80’s as a car enthusiast child.
    I think the lines of the car still hold up today. I went looking for one in my early 20’s but was impossible to find one in decent shape.
    If I had the financial resources, I would buy one today and sent it over to Dave Kindig to rip out the lean burn V8, put in a hellephant, upgrade the suspension (none of that air ride crap)and brakes, ensure the classic line are up to snuff and coat it Chrysler nigh watchman blue, with widened gold accented snowflake wheels.

    • 0 avatar

      wolfwagen – That would be simply gorgeous. I, too, have loved the looks of these since they came out (and I was 14 at the time). Saw very few of them on the road, but I swear I remember every one of them.

      The interior (mainly the instrument panel) was a bit of a disappointment (it was so similar to the Cordoba/Mirada). If the IP could be updated somehow, it could be a spectacular resto-mod.

      Corey, I’m loving these series, especially how in-depth you go (which gives us the 15-part series).

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Another great column by Corey. When I first saw one of these vehicles, I loved its looks. Tried to convince My Old Man to get one. He dismissed it. Said that the front 3/4 and top were from Lincoln and the back end was from a Seville. In his estimation better to buy ‘the real thing’ from a real luxury vehicle manufacturer. He had briefly switched from Lincolns to try an Eldorado but did not like the FWD dynamics and believe that the interior was ‘flimsy’ compared to Lincoln’s. Which was intriguing as he was one of the original purchasers of a Mini in Canada. So he switched back to Lincoln before returning to Cadillac and driving Seville (touring) and STS for the remainder of his life. Yes he did have a N* crap out on him with less than 10k. Puked its fluids onto a parking lot in Muskoka. The dealer flatbedded it away from where it died and replaced the vehicle.

  • avatar

    Another Chrysler car that looked promising but was entirely half baked. The public wasn’t fooled. Neither was Consumer Guide which called out this car for have a fancy exterior pinned on an old carry over lower end Chrysler product. That resulted in higher levels of noise, steering that felt disconnected and transmitted shudders, a suspension that trailed literally everything available at the time, sparce instrumentation and a dash borrowed from far cheaper Cordoba, sluggish acceleration and lack of an overdrive transmission and an interior that was borderline tacky.

    It was telling that in that issue of CG the tested Eldorado with it’s smaller less powerful HT 4100 making but 135 HP was a full 2 seconds quicker to 60 than the Imperial despite the big difference in displacement and available torque, a victim of higher curb weight and the highway 2.26 rear gears chosen. They didn’t even give it rear disk brakes!

  • avatar

    I thought that maybe Chrysler corp had too many models and if they just had fewer and did them well maybe they would not have been bankrupt. For example, Dodge could have Omni, Aspen, and Monaco, small, medium and large. Plymouth might have Horizon, Volare’ and Fury. Then Chrysler would be premium brand and have Cordoba and Imperial. But they must have had at least 4 times as many models as that.

  • avatar

    Interesting on this model it’s spelled “Gauges” on the dash fascia. I wonder if it’s spelled “Gages” on the warning lights.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Well the Stelantis does not have nearly the models for Chrysler and Dodge as the Chrysler of old. The Chrysler 300 will be discontinued after this year leaving it with the Pacifica and Voyager and Dodge will have the Challenger and the Charger. Ram and Jeep are the big sellers in the US. Not to put all the blame on Chrysler but GM had so much duplication across their brands and Ford did as well with Ford and Mercury the only difference is that neither Ford or GM went bankrupt in the 70s but GM did in the 00s. Rare Cars has a good series on the problems with the Big 3. Detroit was slow to react to changes in the market and the Japanese had the cost advantage due to the higher value of the dollar and that they had been making more efficient vehicles due to Japanese regulations. Planning a new product and taking 5 years before it is manufacturered when the competition has a shorter plan time. Chrysler should not have bothered with the Imperial at this time or offered a Imperial off the M body and not bothered with a digital dash or EFI which is basically what they did with the 5th Avenue which was not that much different than the Gran Fury or Diplomat but more dressed up. I would call the 83 to 89 5th Avenue the successor to the Imperial. The 5th Avenue was a success and very profitable for Chrysler.

    • 0 avatar

      I also wonder if the fact that Chrysler had the old Dodge manufacturing plant had anything to do with the quality problems. Would newer plant make quality better? GM and Ford had quality issues, but Chrysler seemed particularly bad.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    That might be part of it but Chrysler had some very cheap hardware on their vehicles and the electrics were sub par. Had some real problems with the power windows and locks on my mother’s 5th Avenue along with door straps and handles falling off. It’s a shame because much of the drive train was really good and their engineering was some of the best of any auto company. Chrysler had some great engines.

  • avatar

    XVII Imperial entries so far and not a single Star Wars reference in the comments? Disappoint.

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