By on April 6, 2022

We find ourselves at the final two installments of the long-running Imperial series today. It’s been almost six months since the first Imperial entry, when a new model was dreamt up by Chrysler’s founder as competition for the likes of Pierce-Arrow and Studebaker. The Imperial name outlived most of the Twenties competition it was designed to beat, though along the way it drifted both nearer and further to the original mission. The concluding entrant into the Imperial lineage was definitely the weakest ever. K-car time, commence!

After Imperial took a Seventies brand hiatus, the all-new Imperial personal luxury coupe of 1981 was created by Chrysler’s chief commander Lee Iacocca. Though it looked modern and was technically advanced, it was also technically too complicated and reliability suffered. And seeing as Imperial was a standalone car (not badged as a Chrysler), Iacocca gave it a standalone, bespoke-type price that was higher than its well-established competition at Lincoln and Cadillac. It flopped, despite a Frank Sinatra trim.

The 1983 Imperial was the last ever to exist as an independent marque from Chrysler. Even though Imperial’s coupe outing was a failure, the contemporary K-car and its many variants (including the revolutionary Caravan) were not, and saved Chrysler’s hide. Iacocca was delighted and praised to high heaven for the K-car, and never wanted to let it go. So entranced by the K and all its platform derivations was he that he sought another resurrection of the Imperial name. The automotive world was moving on from the broughamed, excessively trimmed sedans of the Eighties but Lee would hear none of it.

Fortunate product timing at other domestic luxury brands helped make the case for a super luxurious K offering. Even the likes of Cadillac went majority front-drive in 1985, and Lincoln followed suit with the 1988 Continental which was front-drive and gasp had six cylinders.

And so development began in the latter part of the decade on another new Imperial. It was the first car with an Imperial badge since 1954 that didn’t carry its own marque: This Imperial was part of Chrysler’s lineup, to be presented with its standard and lesser wares in marketing materials and ideology. Let’s talk platforms.

As mentioned, the new Imperial was a version of the K that underpinned just about every front-drive Chrysler vehicle between 1981 and 1995. Among early developments in the platform were lengthening exercises, at the behest of Iacocca. Chrysler needed larger cars, and the easiest, simplest way to do that was to stretch the K a bit more, like Silly Putty.

There were always midsize K cars, but the term “midsize” kept getting larger throughout the Eighties. K turned into the E in 1983 with cars like the midsize E-Class and New Yorker and then was lengthened again in 1988 into the C. For reference, a K was a 100.3-inch wheelbase, while the E cars were 103.3 inches, and the C was 104.3″, then 104.5″ ultimately. And yes we do need a Rare Rides Icons piece all about K; it will probably run for a year or so.

On the C platform (renamed to AC in 1989) were the Dodge Dynasty and the Chrysler New Yorker. Worth noting, Canadians received the awful Dynasty with a different grille, branded as a Chrysler. The C cars sold well and remained on offer through 1993 if you can believe it. But Iacocca wanted a full-size luxury car. The company needed new content that was large and in charge at dealers, as the M-body Fifth Avenue was mercifully discontinued after the 1989 model year. Side note: There’s another series, Dodge Diplomat and company.

Thus, two new cars were developed on the new Y version of K, a platform sometimes labeled as AY. The volume seller of the two Y cars would be the Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue, while the exclusive halo version was the Chrysler Imperial. The Fifth Avenue was a direct replacement for the deceased M-Body, as the name had represented the most luxurious sedan Chrysler offered for some time.

The C’s 104.3-inch length was stretched quite a bit for Y-body duty, to 109.6 long inches. That figure actually trumped the wheelbase of the Lincoln Continental competition by about half an inch. The extra wheelbase supported an Imperial that stretched a full-size 203 inches, which was also comparable to the Continental’s 205.1 inches. But where the Imperial couldn’t compete was on width. Engineers were limited by Y’s compact basis on how wide it could go. Thus, the Imperial for 1990 was 68.9 inches wide, while the Taurus-based Continental spanned 72.7 inches. And those inches mattered when one was talking room for double-breasted suits and shoulder pads. Overall height for the Imperial was 55.1 inches.

Mechanically, the Imperial was the exact same as the Fifth Avenue. Both cars used Chrysler engines that were not Mitsubishi influenced. Base power came from the 3.3-liter EGA V6, while the upmarket option was the 3.8-liter EGH V6. Only the 3.3 was available for the Imperial’s introductory year, as the 3.8 was still in development. EG was a new engine family from Chrysler, and both engines were found in Chrysler minivans through 2010, and the Jeep Wrangler through 2011. The 3.3 was good for 150 horsepower, and the 3.8 made the same power but additional torque (213 lb-ft versus 180 in the former). The 3.3 engine was shared by the Dynasty and standard New Yorker, but the 3.8 was exclusive to New Yorker and the Imperial.

It’s important to talk pricing against the competition before we get to the beautiful exterior and interior of the final Imperial. The Eighties Imperial was launched at the start of a recession and inflationary period, and as consumers were moving on from both large cars and the personal luxury coupe ideal of the Seventies. The Nineties Imperial was launched against some stiff front-drive competition, but was at a big price and prestige disadvantage, both from the competition and amongst siblings. The call was coming from inside the house.

In 1990, the Dodge Dynasty asked $13,515 ($30,097 adj.) as a base model, or $14,915 ($33,215 adj.) as an LE. The more luxurious New Yorker started at $16,916 ($37,671 adj.) as a vinyl-roof-free Salon and stepped to $19,315 ($43,013 adj.) as a Landau. In long-wheelbase format with the Marc Cross leather package the New Yorker was $21,924 ($48,824 adj.), and the extra trim of the Fifth Avenue was slightly more at $21,945 ($48,870 adj.). Imperial arrived in one standard trim, loaded with everything except the visor-mounted car phone for $25,545 ($56,887 adj.). It was a hefty price to pay for the unique front and rear clips of the Imperial, on a car that was otherwise identical to the Fifth Avenue in trim, and shared most other things with the Dynasty.

Against the competition, the Imperial was cheaper than the V8-powered DeVille’s $28,090 ($62,555 adj.), while the Continental was dearer at $29,808 ($66,381 adj.) in base trim. But both the Cadillac and the Lincoln were a bit more in line with what the late Eighties luxury customer wanted and looked much more modern than the laden pontoon boat that was the Imperial. Not even positive MotorWeek had much nice to say about the Imperial.

So the 1990 Imperial was a discount luxury ride. But was it discounted enough? Maybe the allure of the name and special exterior looks that tied Imperial to its lineage would appeal to more customers than the modern, simplified offerings from other domestic competition. We’ll find out next time when we close out this series.

[Images: Chrysler]

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


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    “Thus, two new cars were developed on the new Y version of K, a platform sometimes labeled as AY.”

    I’d go with OY, personally…as in oy, vey.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    And this is why Chrysler REALLY needed the LH cars to succeed and for Iacocca to leave. These platforms were so old and played out and let’s face it, if your primary market are people buying their final car before checking out for good, that’s not a solid business model for repeat business. Really, in 1990, what 40 year old baby boomer moving rapidly up the corporate ladder would even consider a New Yorker or Imperial? It was something their aging WW2-era parents would drive straight to Golden Corral for the 4PM Senior Discount special and then rush home in time for the Matlock reruns.

    It seems like Chrysler seems to do its best in the moments of intense self-inflected crisis. After the LH cars played themselves out, they got their hands on some older but still good Mercedes pars and hit back hard with the 300 and Charger. But those are well past their sell-by dates. What ace in the sleeve do they have to play next?

    And those dimensions of this gen Imperial and New Yorker were just a mess. You can only stretch a car so far without widening it before it just looks slab sided and almost like a cigar. I don’t think Chrysler wanted to have to retool the factories that made these models because making a car longer is rather easy compared to widening one.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      “What ace in the sleeve do they have to play next?”

      Why, the Airflow! People are definitely going to line up to drop fifty large on an electric crossover from a zombie brand that has zero cred in the electric or crossover business.

      (I’m not hating on the Airflow per se – it’s actually decent looking. I just think they’d be better off “Jeeping” it and selling it that way; it’s the wrong play for Chrysler. If they want to revive Chrysler, I’d suggest an electrified Imperial or 300 that’s big, bad and in-your-face.)

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      SIGH. When a company targets the, um, mature demographic, their market doesn’t disappear when they die off. Old people, er, the mature demographic is continuously replenished.

      Their preferences are also replenished when that new cohort of the M-D finds it more difficult to get into low slung vehicles, and begins to prefer things like easier access, more comfortable seats, and simpler controls. The M-D also has a key factor that makes its members more attractive to automakers: accumulated wealth.

      While the sale may be the final one for some, and the final one they drive themselves, others in the family will continue to drive them for years. Eventually, younger family members will inherit them, sometimes as their first car, and if they keep them long enough, they’ll measure every car they own thereafter against that first one.

      Automakers should never abandon that lucrative M-D market, but take pains to give their offerings some youthful touches, to induce the inheritees to keep, rather than sell off the vehicle. That experience will then become the standard by which the inheritees judge later offerings, especially after they join the mature demographic themselves.

  • avatar
    CaddyDaddy

    In the MotorWeek Video, the K Car Imp. looks like 4 seperate cars spot welded together. ….. please don’t forget to mention Ultradrive. As I was watching the video, I saw the tester had 2,400 miles on the clock with hard press fleet use. My only though was that the Ultradrive must be just about ready shell its guts out into the bottom pan.

    In 91′ the Imp. got ChryCo.’s 3.8L. Compare that to the updated Deville Touring Sedan with the 4.9L, shorter final drive, 4T60E and stiffer suspension. This was definitely a low point for the Imp.

    Further, compare this to a 90′ Toyota Camry.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    Friend of mine had a Fifth Ave around 98 or so, and despite it being pretty comfy (despite front air suspension which would be collapsed after being parked for an hour), boy did it feel dated.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    While these Imperials seem really bad in retrospect, they weren’t that bad back in the day. I remember driving a few when a was a kid turning wrenches. The Imperial didn’t handle as well as the Conti, but it did handle better than comparable GM sedans. And to me it seemed a little faster than the Conti with the overstressed Taurus motor, but it couldn’t keep up with GM’s 3800 and HT V-8.
    This car was not as uncompetitive as you would think. The K-platform was well-sorted by this time, so this car was the perfect stop-gap measure to hold Chrysler over until the (really quite awesome) LH cars debuted.

    • 0 avatar

      So, if it was competitive why didn’t it sell better?

      • 0 avatar
        Mike Beranek

        When have Chryslers ever sold competitively? Almost never, even when theirs was the best product.
        It was 1.GM 2.Ford 3.Chrysler for over 50 years, and at no time did the quality of the cars change that.

        • 0 avatar

          The K cars sold well for the most part, as did the Omni. So did the vans. The Jeep Cherokee.

          This was not a competitive luxury entrant, in any way. It was styled for people who were mostly dead or finished driving. Even MotorWeek saw that at the time.

          • 0 avatar
            Mike Beranek

            Your last sentence is true, and is also true for the Conti, LeSabre, DeVille, 98, etc. Detroit was moving forward with more advanced vehicles, but still had a large customer base of “people who were mostly dead or finished driving”, and yes, these cars were for those people.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Ironically most of those worked while Detroit’s “advanced vehicles” did not.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I respectfully disagree with most of this comment.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      @Mike:
      “When have Chryslers ever sold competitively?”

      I think any number of them have, the most recent being the 2005 300.

      And, I’m going to disagree with you on whether this was “competitive”. No, it wasn’t, and it wasn’t even close, even by the lame standards of circa-1990 Cadillacs and Lincolns. Meanwhile, it was way uglier and more expensive than a “near-luxury” car like a Park Avenue.

      However, with the Mark Cross option, it did have really nice leather seats, and the sound system was very good.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      It’s just impossible for me to put this car next to a 1989 DeVille and see it as competitive in any area whatsoever.

      Then you put that 1989 DeVille next to a 1989 Cressida and it looks the same way. And that’s when you realize just what a deep hole Chrysler was in at the end of the K-car era.

  • avatar
    SavageATL

    I’m going to have to step up and defend this car. its existence is better justified also helps if you think of it as the ne plus ultra trim level of the New Yorker Fifth Avenue rather than a separate car. It DID sell well combined with New Yorker Fifth Avenue sales; 41,276 units from 1990-1993 on top of 416,440 New Yorker/new Yorker Fifth avenue sales from 1988-1993. You can argue about long term competitive effects on the company, but Iacocca knew who was likely to buy this car and who it would appeal to. As several people had mentioned, this was designed to appeal to my Granddad and the boys of Pointe du Hoc. It was for the kind of person who had lived through two huge cataclysms of the Depression and World War Two and had endured rationing and eating nothing but sweet potatoes and making tomato soup out of ketchup packets. What they wanted was to be cosseted with lots of plush button tufted leather, electric gizmos, silent ride, adequate power, room, winking electronic lights, and all the ostentations luxury cues possible. They could cruise down 75 from Michigan to Florida in buttony, climate controlled, silent comfort. If you could get a substantial discount, even better, and these things were HEAVILY rebated using that old trick of inflate the sticker price and then bring it down to make people think they are getting a bargain. There was no mistaking this for a plebian Aries/Reliant, at least until you drove it. Sure, it had lots of K car creaks and that thigh bone-not-connected-to-the knee-bone feeling and it was narrower than the GM and Ford Competition but Granddad absolutely loved it. I remember seeing these rebated to around 22K new and the New Yorker Fifth avenues rebated to around 17-19K new which got you into a somewhat upscale Taurus/sable or a very base lesabre. This was WAY more impressive for the money. Iacocca knew that previous Chrysler luxury cars designed to go head to head with Lincoln and Cadillac had not sold well, so why not at least make it cheap and profitable? Then the competitive LH New Yorker didn’t sell as well as this one.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Why would such a super traditionalist not buy a Panther or B/D Body car? One of my grandfathers was as you describe, but he drove an LTD Crown Victoria.
      It seems like if Chrysler wanted to court the “final car” buyers then sticking an overdrive in the M-body and keeping it around would work better than a Mega-K.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        @ajla:

        I think this may have had something to do with Chrysler closing down the Kenosha plant, where the M-body was made. The model was old as dirt anyway. But, yeah, I’d rather have had that car than this “Imperial.”

        • 0 avatar
          Jeff S

          I can see that but maybe if Chrysler would have updated the 5th Avenue and added an Imperial and kept it rear wheel drive with a V8 it would have done better. To me the 5th Avenue from 82 thru 89 should have been an Imperial it was equipped more like a Cadillac or Lincoln and a few extra touches like auto lights and auto dim could have been added. Maybe just made the full size Dodges and Plymouths front wheel drive.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      My Granddad passed away in 1989, as it happens, but I cannot imagine him choosing this car over a DeVille for any reason.

  • avatar
    SavageATL

    These were considerably less expensive and much more nicely trimmed than the B/D bodies or the Panthers, for one. To get all that button tufted leather in a Cadillac, you’d have to go all the way up to the d’Elegance level and those were EXPENSIVE. The M was a lot smaller than this inside and believe it or not the interior parts weren’t as well made and the M was REALLY a dinosaur.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Assuming the internet is accurate a well-equipped Caprice LS Brougham or Grand Marquis LS stickered at about $20.5k and I’m sure discounts weren’t $0.

      If button-tufted seats (over pillow-topped ones) were someone’s number #1 buying criteria then the Chryslers were the way to go but I don’t think it wins the “traditionalist” battle against a B-body just from that.

  • avatar
    islander800

    I remember my Mom buying a “new” (demonstrator) Aires in about 1985 to replace her 1969 Chevelle she bought new. The difference between the two was like night and day – as in, the Chevelle, even 16 years old, was tight and rattle-free with great ride and handling. The new Aires felt like it was held together with rubber bands, from the ride to the steering to the handling. It was then, and remains to this day, the absolute worst piece of crap I have ever had the misfortune to drive, foreign or domestic. That just cemented my impression that Chrysler was, and still is, the purveyor of the most horrible excuses for an automobile. It amazes me that Iacocca got so much mileage from that abominable platform.

  • avatar
    Old Man Sam

    Personal Taste and preference is a highly individual thing. I have always been persuaded by arguments which are founded and logic and reason. Being an old man, I remember vividly the first advertisements for the Imperial which I saw in a magazine. The Vintage of the vehicle was 1968. I was impressed then that the persuasive techniques used we’re logic and reason; after all, a car’s first and foremost purpose is to get people from point A to point B. Far more 10 Cadillac or Lincoln Imperial advertisements focused on the cars Superior abilities as a car. Consequently, my first real car was a 1968 Imperial Crown four-door hardtop, in sovereign gold with the antique green vinyl top and green Iliad cloth and silhouette leather. Purchased in 19 75 I most reluctantly had to part with it in 1982 while an undergraduate. Many years later to reward myself after graduate school, I acquired in 1997 a 1990 vintage Imperial. That car I loved deeply despite the various flaws alluded to in this article. Nevertheless, as noted that taste remains highly individualistic, I found the styling to be one of these things which pleased me most. The long and somewhat narrow body work I find reminiscent of the classic cars of the twenties and thirties. Paradoxically, the thirties through 1948 star Chrysler as the number two American automaker by volume. I found my 1990 to have probably been an early production example. The hood showed uneven panel gaps. However, the interior really made this car stand out. The mark cross leather was incredibly sumptuous. The seat comfort front and rear was unparalleled. The carpeting was exceptional inviting shoeless travel to wiggle one’s toes through the soft, deep pile. Sadly, mechanically the car suffered, and so did my wallet. New head gaskets where required, 2 new anti-lock brake master cylinders, replacements of the rear air Springs with coil springs, and several minor annoyances. And yet despite all that Isle of the silly thing all the more because of the sybaritic cosseting it invariably provided. I should note the clear coat finish in silver always looked new, but the vinyl half roof cracked overtime and didn’t reflect the same Elegance of the paint. Mileage, was not bad, she was quiet, and the front wheel drive left me never stuck in snow. I would still have her today had not my youngest son largely trashed her. And so today, I find once again and my garage for the sheer Joy of having it another 1968 Imperial Crown four-door hardtop nearly identical the one I had about 50 years ago. Strangely, this one is it an even better shape then the one I first had. And so with no Imperials being produced any longer, our daily luxury ride is a Lincoln m k s. The massaging seats alone justify it’s existence. But as I said, I’m an old man and probably have been one all my life I have had 5 different Lincoln’s, three Imperials, and 1 Cadillac as far as domestic luxury cars go. I cannot even remember all the dozens of other makes I’ve enjoyed.

  • avatar
    redapple

    Corey
    I had a Dynasty as a company car in the early 90s. I liked it.
    Smooth, quiet, good mpg and ‘right sized.’
    I put 500-700 miles /week on it visiting car plants. I still liked it when I turned it in.

    On my visits to the Mound Road Engine plant (since bulldozed and moved to Hecho), I saw a ton of the Imperials – employee lots and I wanted one. In deep red.

  • avatar
    Mike-NB2

    I know I’m in the minority, but I’ve always liked the look of these.

    And the “Rare Rides” for both the K lineup (even if it will run an entire year) and the Diplomat and friends get my vote. Start with the M-Bodies please!

  • avatar
    dal20402

    This was the installment I was waiting for. I’ve always seen this car as the single car that best encapsulates everything Detroit did wrong in the 1980s. From the poorly thought-out downsizing (why so narrow but so long?) to the awful powertrains that were 15 years behind the foreign competition to the refusal to abandon 1970s interior styling to the Flexi-Flyer structure to the execrable build quality, this car had it all in spades.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    iwasneverabigfanofiacocca

    (if you feel differently, i understand and that is perfectly fine)

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    Exhibit “A”, in the case of “How Quickly Can a Company Destroy a Brand”

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    Best part of these stretched K-cars was they introduced Chrysler’s new, 4 speed Automatic Transaxle with electronic controls, named UltraDrive. Coming from the company who developed the “Lean Burn System” in the ’80s and the self-immolating Electronic Ignition modules in the ’70s, no idea why expectations were high. The Ultradrives quickly displaced the GM transaxles as the most troublesome and self-destructive transmissions developed. The Ultradrive moniker was quickly dropped and Chrysler replaced thousands of these trans. in sedans, minivan’s and convertibles. My elderly aunt had the New Yorker Landau version, in the whopping 7000 miles she drove in 2 year in billiard table flat south Florida, the “Landau de’Elegance” as we named it ate two transmissions and she lost total confidence in her car. Remarkably she took another bite at the apple, replacing the faulty K-car with a new Chrysler Concorde, which was an exceptional car plagued with lots of first year faults but overall a pretty decent car. I’ll give Lido credit for saving Chrysler and paying back the loans he took out, but he milked that K-platform way too long trying to turn it into something it was never intended to be.

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