Rare Rides Icons: The History of Imperial, More Than Just a Car (Part XXII)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

Today we reach the 22nd and final installment in the Imperial series. In our last edition, we reviewed the development and birth of the final production car to wear the Imperial name: The super-extended K-car platform known as the Y-body. Lee Iacocca was keen on the idea of a full-size luxury sedan for the elderly customer, but Chrysler had neither the resources nor the platform to do it properly. Thus the Y-body appeared, and its angular and pencil-thin shape went on sale in 1990 alongside the similarly lengthened Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue. Speaking of angles, let’s talk about that sweet money-saving clip swap action.

The 1990 Imperial’s styling, like in decades before, started with the already festooned New Yorker and added additional layers of gingerbread trim. But Imperial also added some length to the bargain: It spanned 203 inches while the 1990 New Yorker Fifth Avenue was about 4.5 inches shorter, at 198.6 inches. Because the two cars shared a wheelbase and body panels, it meant the Imperial’s flagship status length was all made up of overhangs and additional trim.

For its part, the New Yorker Fifth Avenue wore largely the same styling as its smaller sibling. The New Yorker in turn was some additional trim on the basic box shape of the Dodge Dynasty. The group of sedans was almost a textbook definition of a conservative three-box. There were a lot of sharp angles, a very upright and formal greenhouse, and plenty of chrome trim. Hidden headlamps returned on the New Yorker for the first time since 1981. The rear end was punctuated by a thickly chromed bumper and two vertical tail lamps. The Fifth Avenue package came with a vinyl carriage roof around the C-pillar and rear window.

To this basis, the Imperial added much additional trim and length. Chrysler’s stylists turned to the ’81 to ’83 Imperial for inspiration and sought to bring the styling into the Nineties. They did so by designing a new front clip for the Imperial, which used the same hidden headlamp design as on the Fifth Avenue but added a swept-back waterfall grille into the bargain. The new grille on the Y-body Imperial was very similar to the thinly veined one found on the Eighties coupe. On the vinyl at the C-pillar and at the rear, the Imperial eagle returned after a hiatus that began in 1976.

Also carried over from the old Imperial were a set of driving lamps underneath the headlamps. They were wraparound in style and integrated into the front fascia. On the New Yorker, the running lamps were in the bumper instead. The Imperial’s bumper itself came to a point in the middle, a classic styling theme of the marque for decades. Corner markers were located largely where they were on the old Imperial but were now separate cornering lamps (white) and running lamps (amber).

The side profile of the new Imperial was not really comparable to the Eighties version, or indeed any of the Imperials before it. It was the same extra formal but general Chrysler look found on the Dynasty and New Yorker models. The Imperial script formerly found on the long front fender of the coupe migrated to the front door in 1990, as there wasn’t enough fender space behind the wheel to apply the lettering.

Side rub strips were body-colored and had little chrome ornamentation, though a chrome rocker panel strip spanned the lower edge of all examples. Unlike the Fifth Avenue, Imperial’s vinyl roof started at the B-pillar – which was more formal than at the C-pillar. It was implemented in the same way as on the New Yorker and used much chrome trim. The sporty snowflake alloy of the early Eighties Imperial was not revived, as all 1990 Imperials wore the same faux wire wheel covers. They were the same design as on the New Yorker, except they read “Imperial” in the middle.

Thick whitewalls were fitted as standard equipment because they were the most conservative option. The 1990 Imperial’s rear was treated to another clip swap, where again additional trim and length were added. The rear end treatment was again a callback to the 1981 Imperial’s looks, with a long horizontal tail lamp. The Fifth Avenue’s rear end was marked by a Chrysler Pentastar in the middle, and gold New Yorker script badging. Chrysler was written in block letters under the lower edge of the trunk lid.

On the Imperial, the Chrysler emblem was higher on the trunk and had the golden Imperial eagle within it. The rear badge wore a special wreathe to indicate its luxury status. The trunk read Chrysler on the left side in script, and Imperial was in block lettering in the center of the heckblende. The tail lamps were encased in a chrome trim strip, which was supplemented by some very thick chrome on the bumper.

The overall look on the Imperial was sharper and more formal and did stand out over the Fifth Avenue via its unusual tail lamp treatment. But there was another Chrysler vehicle with a formal rear end and a big heckblende: The basic C-body Dynasty. Uh oh.

The Imperial’s interior was part of the pricy model’s overall issue. It shared almost all components with the lesser New Yorker Fifth Avenue, and indeed the standard New Yorker and Dodge Dynasty. Whichever version a buyer chose, they sat inside the same overstuffed interior environment and faced the same airbag steering wheel found in every Chrysler product that year. The dash had little in common with the early Eighties Imperial, as time and safety regulation had forced styling forward.

There was an instrument cluster in front of the driver that included the gauges, climate control, stereo, and vents. All buttons were driver-oriented, and the instrumentation pod cut down sharply just past the climate and stereo buttons. To the left of the wheel in all versions were the light switches, and the small display panel that showed an overhead view of the car, and indicated if any doors were ajar (except Imperial, which removed that useful feature and had an Imperial eagle plaque instead). The front passenger in any of these cars was presented with a flat dash panel that had a strip of faux wood trim and a near-vertical glovebox. On Imperial vents were trimmed in chrome plastic, whereas on the Dynasty they were basic black.

The gauge clusters for Imperial and New Yorker Fifth Avenue were digital and provided onlookers a view of simulated gauges. Gauges reflected oil, fuel, voltage, and oil temperature, with a series of warning lights underneath. Imperial offered the most upmarket Infinity sound systems (CD optional) and used a single button directional equalizer rather than the multi-slider approach in the New Yorker Fifth Avenue.

Though cloth or leather were available on the other cars in the C- and Y-body lineup, the materials in the Imperial were stated to be of a higher quality. Cloth interiors on Imperial featured the more streamlined, less tufted seat design and were trimmed in Kimberley velvet like they were in 1983. Like the Mark Cross New Yorker Fifth Avenue, the Imperial’s most luxurious interior featured cow courtesy of the historical leather goods brand.

To differentiate it from the New Yorker Fifth Avenue’s Mark Cross interior option, the leather on the Imperial was of the same smooth design as the cloth interior. For button tufted and ruched goodness, one had to turn to the Fifth Avenue. That simpler seating in the Imperial seemed contrary to the car’s mission: To be as luxurious as possible. To that luxury end, an air suspension was an optional extra. It seems the system was fitted to most examples.

Other differentiation from lesser models came mostly via the aforementioned Imperial logos in a couple of places on the exterior and interior, as well as the Mark Cross lion’s head logo that was added to various bits of the wood trim inside. It was all very appealing to luxury car intenders, surely!

During Imperial’s debut year, Chrysler was experiencing plenty of problems with its new four-speed UltraDrive (as we learned recently). The advertising aimed to distract by hilarious comparisons of the Imperial to the finest cars Europe had to offer. Despite the high original price of $25,655 ($57,132 adj.) the Imperial moved 14,968 examples in 1990. However, that figure could be fairly compared to sales of the similar Cadillac DeVille that year: 134,155.

It turned out the initial year was a high-water mark for the Imperial, as sales fell to 11,601 in 1991. By that time, its price increased to $27,119 ($57,162 adj.), while ads touted the “automatic overdrive transaxle” instead of calling the UltraDrive by name. In 1992 yet fewer Imperials were sold, 7,643, as the price increased again to $28,453 ($58,454 adj.). The end couldn’t come soon enough for the Y-body, as the new cab-forward and revolutionary LH cars were on the horizon. Imperial had its last outing in 1993 (with LH cars already on sale), where 7,064 were sold at the highest-ever price for the generation: $29,481 ($58,655 adj.)

The following year, Chrysler enjoyed a wave of sedan sales for its LH -platform cars like the Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, and Chrysler’s new sedan flagship the LHS. Imperial slumbered for a while but was renewed as a new potential top-tier luxury sedan in 2006. Chrysler debuted the Imperial concept at NAIAS that year, where it rode on a lengthened LX platform from the new Chrysler 300.

Quite enormous, the concept’s proportions were more Rolls-Royce Phantom than Chrysler 300. Styling went for a retro-future look with design throwbacks to the Exner imperials of the past (like in the lamps). The interior was free of B-pillar (though there was one outside), a feature unlikely to make production. The rest of the inside lounge area was filled with tons of burl wood, lots of brown and cream leather, and switchgear and screens that were impressive for part of 2006 and at no other point. The concept was powered by Chrysler’s ubiquitous Hemi 5.7-liter V8.

Hope for a new Imperial lasted for about a year. The hammer came down in July 2007, when Chrysler declared it was dropping any development of the new Imperial. The company blamed escalating fuel prices and fuel-economy regulation; there just wasn’t a justification for the development any longer. Your author speculates that the enormous Chrysler with a high five-figure price tag would have been a sales flop.

There hasn’t been mention to date of another Imperial, and Chrysler chose the Airflow name for its new luxury EV instead. Not so sure that 1920s name will resonate with the public. Next up on Rare Rides Icons we’ll drive over to Dearborn, and take a look at the Continental Marks. Until then.

[Images: Chrysler]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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