By on March 7, 2022

In our most recent installment of our long-running Imperial coverage, the Eighties dawned with a resurrection of the Imperial name and the debut of an exciting new personal luxury coupe. Chrysler’s new chairman Lee Iacocca was determined to recreate the runaway success he’d had at Ford with the Lincoln Continental Mark III. But that meant a simultaneous ask that luxury coupe buyers ignore the very recent financial troubles that plagued the Detroit automaker. And while the exterior of the new Imperial coupe was all bustleback and new angles, its platform and mechanicals were not quite as exciting. Let’s talk about Mirada, Cordoba, and the reliability benefits of electronic fuel injection.

Underneath the new Imperial was Chrysler’s year-old J platform, which was used on Chrysler’s rear-drive coupes in the early Eighties. It debuted in 1980 on the new affordable personal luxury Dodge Mirada (Magnum replacement) and the second generation of the mid-market personal luxury Chrysler Cordoba. Cordoba made a very successful name for itself when it debuted in 1975 as a luxurious and baroque full-size two-door on the B-body platform. For 1980 its second generation was downsized and de-rococoed considerably, as was de rigueur at the time.

Though the J-body was labeled as a new dedicated two-door platform at Chrysler, those in the know realized it was actually a rebranding of the F-body that resided underneath the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré since 1976. In fact, the new trio of Js had the exact same 112.7-inch wheelbase as the K-body Volaré sedan and wagon. In prior decades, an Imperial that shared its wheelbase with a Dodge would not have passed muster. But it was the Eighties, and cash savings mattered!

The Mirada and Cordoba were distinguished from the Imperial not only by notable styling differences but also by their size. The Mirada was 209.5 inches overall, 72.7 inches wide, and 53.3 inches tall. As one would expect, the more expensive Cordoba version was slightly longer: 209.8 inches in its debut year. It shared the 72.7″ width of the Mirada, as well as its height. Unlike the Mirada, Cordoba changed its shape slightly from 1981 onward, and for the sporty LS variant. When it was introduced for 1981, the Imperial wore a larger suit than its siblings: 213.3 inches of overall length. Width was the common 72.7 inches, though Imperial was closer to the ground for a longer and lower look, at 52.6 inches.

Keen to illustrate the Imperial as a rebirth of the marque, Chrysler furnished this handy comparison image for 1981. In black were the dimensions and outline of the deceased and unpopular 1975 Imperial coupe. In front of it in white was the new Imperial, showing the tidier wheelbase, lower height, and much shorter overall length than the 1975 Imperial. Perhaps the goal was to show how the brand had moved on in its modern form. But advertising like this also reminded luxury buyers they were paying much more for a much smaller car than a few years prior.

Sixth-generation Imperials were all powered by the same engine: The 318 cubic inch (5.2-liter) LA V8. The 318 was good for 140 horsepower, and 245 lb-ft of torque. Its lesser siblings used this engine as an optional extra, but also offered a 225 cubic inch (3.7L) Slant 6 as their standard motivation, or an optional 360 V8 (5.9L), but only in 1980. Worth noting: The 318 made 10 fewer horsepower when used outside the Imperial, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment.

There was a singular transmission in all the J cars, the three-speed A904 TorqueFlite automatic. The A904 was a robust and long-lived transmission, which started out in life in 1960, was later borrowed by AMC, and was used in the Jeep Wrangler through 2002. For the Imperial, Chrysler used tall gearing on the three-speed and implemented a final drive ratio at a lazy 2.24:1. Top speed was a reported 103 miles per hour, but it took a long time to get there – 13 seconds. In fairness, that was an impressive .2 seconds faster than a 2.5-liter Chevrolet Citation in 1981.

The Imperial took a long time to stop, too. Though it was an expensive and high-tech car, all the luxury equipment meant it was about 500 pounds heavier than its Dodge and Chrysler siblings (Imperials tipped the scales at 3,900 pounds.) But Imperial used the same front disc, rear drum brake setup as found in the J- and M-body cars. While on the topic of parts sharing, it should be noted that the expensive Imperial borrowed its suspension directly from the Cordoba. That meant a front transverse torsion bar, and uneven length control arms at the rear with leaf springs and anti-roll bar. Chrysler threw in two insulated crossmembers to help differentiate the ride from a cheaper Cordoba. Everything was as soft as possible for a “luxurious” ride, but the cut-rate components meant the Imperial lost its composure easily, and frequently.

Though the 318 was shared with other Chrysler offerings, there was an exciting difference for the Imperial: electronic fuel injection (EFI). Lincoln and Cadillac brought out their own electronic fuel injection systems in 1980, and Chrysler needed to compete on technology. Chrysler had a history of developing electronic ignition systems and computer-driven engine management systems, both of which it implemented in its prior Imperial offerings. The new system was developed at a Chrysler tech center in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was the first electronic fuel injection system ever from Chrysler, and engineers obtained a whopping 24 new patents during the system’s development. The team who worked on the EFI were the same engineers who managed the electronics on NASA’s Apollo space program (1961-1972), a fact Chrysler was keen to recognize. But perhaps the guys accustomed to working on spacecraft were not so suited to something as practically applicable as an automobile.

The new Imperial’s fuel injection was different from a modern system. Where modern fuel injection manages fuel mixture based upon how long an injector is kept open via an electrical current, the Imperial system worked via the engine’s varying pressure. There were two different fuel pumps: A standard one in the fuel tank, and a secondary that controlled fuel delivery to the engine. The secondary pump used injector valves controlled by pressure, as mentioned. It was basically a mechanical injection system with electrics attached to it.

The EFI system had a wide variety of Imperial-specific components and was applied to the 318 via a newly redesigned intake manifold, where the EFI components were attached atop the manifold. Compared to a carbureted 318, the Imperial had a much sharper throttle response and was more thrifty with the fuel. Where a 1981 Mirada with a carbureted 318 managed only 17.5 miles per gallon on average, the larger and heavier Imperial was rated at 23 mpg. In the same year, a Cadillac Eldorado with the V8-6-4 (oh boy) was rated at 21.5 mpg.

Those aforementioned Imperial-specific EFI components made for a very complicated system. When an Imperial developed an EFI fault, mechanics at Chrysler’s dealerships were unfamiliar and not always trained to diagnose issues properly. And there was a reason domestic competition didn’t follow Chrysler’s mechanical approach to EFI: It wasn’t reliable. An issue Chrysler engineers neglected to consider with its EFI component placements was a big one: Temperature. Every electric component sat on top of the hot intake manifold where it was baked every time the Imperial was driven. The extreme conditions weren’t kind to the sensitive components. That caused parts to fail, and because the system was so complicated mechanics had a difficult time in diagnosis.

After the Imperial was on sale with its troublesome EFI for a short time, it was a common occurrence for dealers to chuck the entire thing and convert the coupe to the 318’s typical carburetor setup. It meant the loss of 10 horsepower and a couple of miles per gallon but kept well-heeled Imperial buyers out of the dealer’s service bay.

Not that there were many Imperial buyers anyway, though. The car’s incredible base price, electrical issues under hood and dash, and clear connection to both lesser contemporary and 1970s Chrysler products pushed PLC buyers toward the established brands at Lincoln and Cadillac. Next time we’ll move indoors and talk about fancy digital gauges and late Seventies interior styling.

[Images: Chrysler]

Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

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

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Great series Corey thanks again. I think if it wouldn’t have had the mechanical fuel injection an where it was placed and the excess of electronics this car would have been on the market more years even with it basically being a Cordoba. What would have made the Imperial more reliable would have been either a Bosch fuel injection or no fuel injection and less digital electronics which Chrysler is not known for reliable electronics. Having owned a Chrysler for almost 9 years the electronics and body hardware were the Achilles heel and the electronically controlled carburetor was also problematic. The 318 and the transmission were solid.

    • 0 avatar

      Didn’t Chrysler come up with a kit to turn Imperial back into a carbureted engine? I read it was $3000, a lot of money back then at the owner’s expense.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That car is longer than a minivan outside, but smaller than a compact car inside.

    “But perhaps the guys accustomed to working on spacecraft were not so suited to something as practically applicable as an automobile.”

    Yep – much different requirements for reliability and cost. In many ways, the car is harder to do.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      And I was told that the Scion Xb had more back seat space than an Escalade. Not sure about that but an Xb certainly seemed to have more space than a Hummer H3.

  • avatar

    “Top speed was a reported 103 miles per hour, but it took a long time to get there – 13 seconds. In fairness, that was an impressive .2 seconds faster than a 2.5-liter Chevrolet Citation in 1981.”

    Wow 0-103 mph in 13 seconds! I didn’t know they were that fast, puts most modern cars to shame.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    In the 1980’s when given a tour of their Newport-Pagnell production ‘centre’ by some senior Aston-Marton types we were told that they had scouts scour the USA for these transmissions. Shipped them back to the UK, rebuilt them and then installed them in brand new Astons.

    By 1981 Chrysler was no longer regarded as a prestige marque comparable to Lincoln or Cadillac. Furthermore the 1980s’ saw the emergency of ‘yuppies’ and their rejection of large domestic luxobarges in favour of European autos.

    Last night while watching Pillow Talk (1959 Doris Day and Rock Hudson), the truck drivers in the dinner identify Tony Randall’s character as being rich because “he is driving a big car”. Yes for decades size = luxury.

  • avatar

    The Imperial wasn’t the only car of this time that had EFI/electronics issues. My dad had an ’80 Eldorado with a electronic fuel injection/engine controls, and the system decided to peace out in Nowheresville, Indiana on I-70, on a 100-degree July day.

    But the Eldo looked rakish as it got hoisted onto the tow truck.

  • avatar

    First, thanks for explaining a bit about the Imperial’s EFI system. People generally just describe it as “bad” and move on. Having some experience with them now, I’ve become something of a defender on GM’s TBI implementation but I’ve never had a chance to crawl around an Imperial or any of Ford’s early efforts.

    “a final drive ratio at a lazy 2.24:1”. My 318 Diplomat (’86) had a 2.26 final drive and it was not enjoyable. 140hp/265lb-ft isn’t *that* bad but the 3-speed gearing was a killer. Same year one could get a 4.3L Caprice with TBI and 4A overdrive which IMO was a better setup for about the same money.

  • avatar

    You’re right on a technicality, Corey. This Imperial was Chrysler’s first attempt an an *internally developed* EFI. IIRC, the EFI installed in 1958 Chrysler cars was developed by Bendix.

  • avatar

    The idea of a 232.7″ coupe—the exact same length as a typical full-size crew-cab pickup—just proves that the car market of the ’70s needed to be blown up.

    The fact that this monster at 213″ looked diminutive next to the old version is just surreal.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      True. I remember when these first came out I thought they were small especially compared to my 77 Monte Carlo. I always liked these Imperials. The full size crew cab trucks of today are the new version of the land yachts of the past. I do like them even though they were big but for every day driving I would not want to drive one now. I am not the crazy about the jacked up full size crew cab pickups and having driven one I would not want one.

  • avatar

    Thanks for this series, Corey.

    While out driving several years ago, I saw an early 1980s Chrysler Imperial aggressively carving the back roads in the Philadelphia suburbs near where I live. The body design remains utterly distinctive: the alacrity with which the Imperial was moving makes me assume that it had the carburetor conversion and/or some other engine upgrade. It inspired me to write this blog entry:

    It strikes me that the Imperial is just one representative of the challenging engines personal luxury car makers put in their vehicles in the early eighties. There was also the V8-6-4, the GM V8 diesel, and the HT-4100. Only Ford seems to have been free of this—their 302s and 351s had little power, but they were (relatively) reliable.

  • avatar

    You mean the 80’s Imperial, including the Frank Sinatra version, was based on the Dodge Aspen? As Rex Harrison would sing, “Unbelievable”!

  • avatar

    Is this the end? Do we get to read about Frank Sinatra Imperial?

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • nrd515: Drive something with the ZF 8 speed. That’s a transmission done right. I don’t see how it could...
  • SPPPP: :) Nice.
  • Steve S.: Those ribbed bumpers are highly sought after by customizers, and could probably sell for a couple hundred...
  • detlump: Please change out that plastic fuel filter ASAP! They are fire hazards. Replace with a steel filter....
  • Frobig: The newest vehicle I owned that had crank windows and no AC was a ’93 Toyota pickup. I don’t...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber