By on March 25, 2022

Here we are, the 20th installment of the Imperial series. We’ve covered the Imperial’s inception as a coach-built car for the wealthy, through its Fifties rebirth as an independent brand with hand-built quality that rivaled the best luxury car makers had to offer. From there Imperial’s tale was ups and downs (mostly downs) as Chrysler’s luxury arm continually found itself less independent, and more tied to the New Yorker.

But after its sad Seventies cancellation, it was time for an Eighties rebirth under the direction of CEO Lee Iacocca. He was determined to make the best, most exclusive American personal luxury coupe money could buy. To date we’ve learned about the angular bustle back exterior, the J-body Cordoba platform underneath, and the Cordoba-plus leather-lined interior, by Mark Cross. Today we continue with Iacocca’s close personal friend, Frank Sinatra (or ‘FS’ if you’re talking badges.)

Iacocca and the folks behind Imperial felt their new coupe would be an easy success, given all its style, engineering, and technological prowess. People desired the Imperial, and so a lofty sales goal was set: 25,000 examples per year. Worth noting, no Imperial in company history had ever reached that sales figure. To aid in the luxury market’s recognition of such a stellar new car, Iacocca turned to one of the most recognizable Americans of the day, Frank Sinatra (1915-1998).

A friend to Iacocca, Sinatra agreed to put his name on a very special edition of the new Imperial for its 1981 debut. It was called the Frank Sinatra Edition and was branded simply as “FS” on the exterior of the very select few cars blessed with the package. It was one of the only times a production car wore a special edition named after a celebrity.

Aside from loaning his name and color scheme to the Imperial, he also wrote a song for the new Imperial used in ads, “It’s Time for Imperial.” It’s reputed that Frank took payment for his efforts in the form of a $1 bill and an early production example of a new Imperial. It’s also reputed that this example suffered the same reliability issues as the rest of the Imperials of the generation, and damaged the relationship between Sinatra and Iacocca.

Placed far above the Mark Cross designer edition, the FS was made to Sinatra’s exacting specifications, and in his image. There was only one color scheme available, a Glacier Blue Crystal exterior paired to a specially-colored Mark Cross blue velvet or Mark Cross leather interior. The Kimberley velvet upholstery was different from the “Yorkshire” cloth used by the base model Imperials. Leather and velvet were light blue, similar in tone to the powdery exterior. The paint and interior colors were exclusive to the FS, and the former was claimed to match old Frank’s eyes.

Aside from the color, the only way to tell an FS Edition was via the small gold badging on the fenders and rear. A square logo, the FS was about the size of a quarter; remember badging was a no-no generally on this Imperial. All FS Imperials used the sportier snowflake alloys and were not optioned with the wire wheel covers. Inside, special features were a bit more bold.

Across the glovebox was a plaque that displayed the full Frank Sinatra Signature Edition title, reminding an owner of his or her own personal relationship with Sinatra. Since they were certainly a Sinatra fan, included as standard in the FS was a Mark Cross cassette case. Made of leather, it contained a full 16-piece collection of Frank Sinatra’s music, all in terrible cassette clarity.

And cassette goodness didn’t end there! In the carpeted center console box molded over the transmission tunnel, there was another cassette holder. Within it, an owner could place eight of the 16 Sinatra cassettes for easy access. A very tempting package indeed!

The FS was marketed as a limited, one-time offer, and was supposedly only available only for the debut model year in 1981. More in that in a moment. In any event, all FS Editions asked $1,078 ($3,515 adj.) over the base $18,311 ($59,714 adj.) price in 1981.

To put both those asks in perspective, in 1981 a Cadillac Eldorado asked $17,550 ($57,232 adj.), while a Lincoln Continental Mark VI was $17,939 ($58,500 adj.). You see the Imperial was newer, more exclusive, more technologically advanced, and more desirable than its competition. Thus it was justified in asking a higher price! See how that works?

But it didn’t really work. Tom Pappert, Chrysler’s sales VP, made some strong statements about who the Windsor, Canada built Imperial was for and why they bought it.

He said, “It is designed to appeal to the personal luxury car buyer seeking the highest level of prestige, advanced styling, engineering and special features, extended warranty, and VIP recognition in both the showroom and service areas.” Unfortunately, that luxury warranty would turn out to be necessary.

For the part of the automotive journalists, they weren’t so positive about the new Imperial. It was a time of recession, of downsizing, of recent financial trouble at Chrysler. The Imperial was big, heavy, slow, and didn’t handle with finesse because of its aged roots and sloppy suspension setup.

Particularly in the PLC corner of the market, sales were way down. In 1981 Cadillac saw its sales fall by 40 percent, and Lincoln sold half as many Marks as it was accustomed to. With super high pricing and lukewarm media reception, customers generally stayed away from the Imperial, and just 8,113 were sold its first year. That figure included the FS specials.

But Iacocca was still on his Imperial high horse and set about in his free time commissioning something very special: An Imperial limousine. He called up ASC and asked if they might be able to build him an Imperial limo, based upon a 1982 coupe. The company obliged, accepted his check, and then started to chop up an example of the recently deceased R-body Dodge St. Regis. They took the large failed sedan and added 36 inches to the middle, then they applied the front and rear of the Imperial to the respective ends, and used the doors of the St. Regis. It was painted a midnight blue color.

There seems to be just a singular official Imperial limousine photo, the one above. Reports online indicate that aside from the Iacocca special, other people built 24-inch and 36-inch stretch versions. At least three were made. Burt Reynolds in particular liked the Imperial limo, and they appeared in three of his films. For his part, Iacocca gifted the Imperial limo to Frank Sinatra. Maybe it was an apology for the other Imperial that was always in the service bay.

Imperial was virtually unchanged in 1982, save for an edit to the cloth interior’s seat cushions: They were altered from their prior “floating” design to a simpler one-piece look. There was no longer an optional power moonroof this year. Still, even though sales were moving at a glacial pace and the PLC market was down in the recession, Chrysler felt they deserved even more money for the Imperial in 1982. And it wasn’t a small price jump; 1982 Imperials demanded $20,988 ($63,145 adj.), which was $2,677 ($8,054 adj.) more than before.

The cost increase was likely due to the inflationary environment at the time, but nosebleed pricing didn’t draw customers into the showroom. Sales dropped to 2,717 cars, which included 279 more Frank Sinatra Editions that were not supposed to be produced after 1981. The one-time special edition offer was extended, now two times. Chrysler took note of the sales plummet and realized it needed a rethink.

In 1983 the base price was dropped to $18,688 ($54,213 adj.), more in line with the times and the PLC competition. Of course, if Chrysler was going to let the Imperial go at a bargain price, something had to give: The Cartier hood ornament was no more and was made of simple plastic in ’83. Newly available was a Touring Edition package that was intended to upgrade the suspension to a sportier setup. Finally, there was no Frank Sinatra edition as the extended single-year special faded away.

But the Imperial still had divisive love-or-hate styling and was one of those cars whose diehard fans bought one the first year it was available. Sales fell to just 1,555 in 1983. Chrysler quietly canceled the Imperial at the end of the year and retired its independent branding strategy for good.

The decision to ax Imperial was probably more down to its J-body platform mates the Cordoba and Mirada, which also died that year after slowed sales. Chrysler got out of the personal luxury game, and would never reenter it. The closest thing to personal luxury it had from there on out were the various K-based LeBaron coupes.

And so it was that Imperial slumbered once more. But the name was not forgotten, and Iacocca would shepherd Imperial to its most gingerbready greatness ever at the dawn of the Nineties. We’ll get into super-extra K-plus luxury next time.

[Images: Chrysler]

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


  • avatar
    bullnuke

    A great series, Corey. Well done and great depth of research on the Imperial.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff S

        Yes a great series. Next will be stretching a K car and making it an Imperial in other words making a silk purse out of a sows ear. I still like this PLC version of the Imperial.

        • 0 avatar

          We may have to embark on Continental Mark next.

          • 0 avatar
            Jeff S

            That would be a great series. Look forward to reading the Mark series.

          • 0 avatar
            theflyersfan

            @Corey Lewis – this might be in the final part, or if this the last part, there’s a little more history. I need to verify this with a book I have, “The End of Detroit,” but (and I hope I’m remembering this correctly) Iacocca was not a fan of the LH cars or even the Viper. He wanted to stretch the K-car based New Yorker and Imperial even longer (one can imagine the overhangs) and continue catering to the older crowd by making a new Frank Sinatra edition of the stretched cars. Management below him was really upset by this stonewalling. They were seeing Iacocca as a man past his prime and catering to his older crowd while the LH cars were going after the younger Gen-X and younger Boomer crowd. His crowd still wanted the fake wood, puffy and overstuffed seats, wallowing suspension, and ornamental flair that wouldn’t be caught dead on the Japanese and European competition. Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti were miles ahead in getting new and younger buyers.

            When the “FS” edition of the current batch of K-car luxury was being forced due to Iacocca’s stubbornness, I think there was everything but a violent revolt by the rest of Chrysler management. Iacocca now realized that he wasn’t going to get the support he needed to have his cars built any longer and was allowed to slowly retreat into retirement. Only at the end did his smiling mug appear with Vipers and the LH cars which for those who knew the behind-the-scenes drama, was a slap in the face to everyone else.

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            Corey, You know that you ‘have to’ do a series on the Lincoln Marks!

  • avatar
    spookiness

    Its grotesque and ridiculous, but I love this imperial.

  • avatar
    redapple

    Beautiful one day. Fugly the next. I dont know what i think about this car.
    But, when I see this in a woman, I really dig her. A lot. Do I need help?

  • avatar
    redapple

    I ll second Bullnuke. Great series. Thank you for all you r hard work

  • avatar
    SoCalMikester

    what would be their next plc? the crossfire?

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Haters be damned…I like the styling of this car a lot. And reliability issues notwithstanding, I like that Chrysler tried it. Iacocca was nothing if not creative.

    Excellent series, Corey. Unfortunately, we know the sad direction this goes in next…

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I also liked the styling of these and in the early 90’s came close to buying the Mirada or Cordoba LS which was the sporty version with the angular facade and crosshair grill. Instead I bought a 81 Monte Carlo and then and 87 Thunderbird.

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        Throwing this out there but MRF 95 T-Bird has the perfect screen name for what the next series should be: The Ford Thunderbird. That and the Monte Carlo were what we think of when 70s and 80s (and for the T-Bird, 90s) PLCs were meant to be. All of the changes, back fighting, engineering blunders, styling risks, and reinvention in the 2000s has enough for, what, 10 entries?
        I remember reading that almost everyone was in awe and so happy when the 1989/90 Thunderbird was presented. The sleek styling and the SC model with the supercharger were show-stoppers. But I have to say “almost” because the guys at the top were livid because it came in grossly overweight and that impacted average CAFE scores and could cost Ford big $$$.
        @Corey Lewis – think about the Thunderbird for future entries. I’m sure quite a few of us here have some stories to tell in any model/year of Thunderbird…and I do miss that car (not the retro-cash-grab-parts-bin one, but the last of the full sized PLC one.)

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          Well I had 3. A last year ‘big Bird’. A downsized ’78. And the very rare FILA edition. They were at least always considered ‘good looking’ vehicles when released.

  • avatar
    la834

    Did Sinatra really write the Imperial jingle? He didn’t write most of the songs he sang.

    The cassettes were all the standard albums he recorded for the Reprise label, meaning about 1962 onward, except those that had gone out of print (which inexplicably included Watertown and both albums of Tom Jobim songs). No unique or special Imperial FS cassettes.

  • avatar
    Paul Alexander

    My internet brain read that as “It’s time for Imperial FFS”, which definitely be an aggressive slogan. Probably better used by Dodge.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    I wanted to paste the image of Buddy Arrington’s NASCAR Imperial of this vintage in the comments, but couldn’t do it. It’s a shame; this was Chrysler’s last NASCAR appearance for almost 20 years.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    They did it their way.

  • avatar
    Crashdaddy430

    I actually like the looks of this. Those wheels are absolutely fantastic. Kind of surprised they didn’t go with wire wheel covers.

  • avatar

    30k mile warranty ? Two years ? Five year rust warranty ? Now that’s standing behind the product ! Also, why the three year trade was a common thing back in the day….

    The Frank cassettes included show a target marketing bullseye. My parent’s friends were just this scotch and steak group, and Frank was the back ground music all the time…grated on this 80’s kid’s New Wave ears, but hey, we all get old. It was this, the Seville, or a few defectors got a Volvo or BMW, but those were still outliers.

    A bustle back lux car would be found, observing the 55 mph limit in the left lane. The driver would be wearing a hat, still of the old school that thought JFK was a radical because he didn’t wear a hat. The comment “I’d have been here sooner but there were too many hats” was well understood at the time.

    None of these folks exercised-smoking was still cool-and cholestrol wasn’t a thing. I now know why so many of them passed at ages we would consider young.

    Love the series. My grandfather had one of the early 60’s Imperials but my early memory was of his New Yorker, which he bought when they “stopped making them by hand”. I still pass the dealer in Warwick NY, formerly Dick Lytel’s…..on the way to my ski hill.

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      You have to remember that long warranties were not common back then. Until the mid-1980s, you would typically only get a one year/12,000 mile warranty that wasn’t very comprehensive. So the Imperial’s warranty was indeed a big deal.

      AMC was the first automaker to play up their “Buyer Protection Plan” in the mid-70s – mainly because their products were very dated and known for poor quality, so they needed to do something to draw people in. But even theirs was only 2 years, albeit with a lot of perks like normal wear items, loaner car, and even a food and lodging stipend.

      Chrysler Corporation had a pretty bad reputation for quality by 1981 so that’s probably why they did that here. But this car obviously did them no favors.

  • avatar
    BobinPgh

    I think that around 1987 Chrysler should have come out with a Rick Astley minivan, giving meaning to the term rick-rolled.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    A big chrome grille, hide-away headlights and a bustle back. What is not to like about the styling? The instrument panel is not one of my favourites. And Lincoln Mark Designer Series vehicles could also be delivered with a ‘gold’ plaque mounted on the instrument panel on the passenger side denoting that ‘this vehicle was made for’ with the name of the person who ordered it.

    Unfortunately by the time that this car arrived, Imperial had lost most of its prestige, despite The Chairman of the Board marketing.

    @KCFlyer wrote: “His crowd still wanted the fake wood, puffy and overstuffed seats, wallowing suspension, and ornamental flair”. That describes what I would still like in a vehicle.

  • avatar
    SPPPP

    I have never cared for this car too much, but I must say that the brochure designers and photographers did a great job with it (pictures 6-13 in this article). The spread of the Imperial posed in the upper left over the small photos of craftsmanship is a real beauty. Look at those whitewalls gleaming in the sunset (or is it sunrise). Nice!

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Is it just me or from the picture does the limo not look like the backend of a Daimler DS420 grafted to a front end from an Aston Martin Lagonda?

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