Personal luxury cars were where it was at in the 1970s. Even in the era of new Government regulations, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (C.A.F.E.) Standards, and skyrocketing fuel prices American’s generally wanted big well optioned cars. No segment proved this more than the two-door personal luxury coupe market. It was a segment that the 1958 Ford Thunderbird had created. Robert McNamara (who would later server under JFK and LBJ as U.S. Defense Secretary) was the Ford Executive back in the 1950s who realized that there was an untapped market segment that every automaker had overlooked. The two-seater Thunderbird which debuted for the 1955 model year was Ford’s version of the two-seater sports car. It competed directly with the Corvette. McNamara had the insight to realize that by adding a backseat to the Thunderbird and changing its focus to a sport/luxury car, sales would increase. For the 1958 model year the new Thunderbird saw a nice bump in sales. GM realized that Ford was on to something, and soon jumped into the segment with the 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix. Soon to follow were the 1963 Buick Rivera, 1966 Cadillac Eldorado, 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, and 1969 Lincoln Mark III. By the 1970s even more cars would join this segment.
Chrysler which was caught napping when it came to this segment, finally jumped into gear and offered the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba which was its most successful new car offering of the 1970s. By the time the 1980s arrived, all the two-door personal luxury cars had been downsized, but they still remained popular. The Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme which by this time came to dominate this market segment was the bestselling car in America.
Chrysler’s Imperial brand had made a name for itself from 1955 through the mid-1960s as offering the complete unadulterated luxury package. Before 1955, the Imperial was a Chrysler model. Chrysler felt an Imperial brand name (verses an Imperial model) could compete better with Cadillac hence the change. By the 1970s the Imperial was only a slight notch above the luxurious Chrysler New Yorker. After the 1975 model year Chrysler decided to pull the plug on the Imperial.
Chrysler decided for the 1981 model year to introduce an ultra-luxury coupe to compete in this segment against the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark VI. Chrysler wanted to make its car the most ultimate luxury coupe and what better name for this coupe than “Imperial”. For 1981 the Imperial was resurrected in the form of a sporty personal luxury two-door coupe to be referred to as just the 1981 Imperial.
1981 Imperial was breath of fresh air for the Chrysler Corporation; it was an escape from the stogy cars it produced in the 1970s after its stylish Muscle Cars disappeared after the 1974 model year. Some of the names like Charger lived on after 1974 but the styling was too conservative and mundane to set any hearts on fire. The 1981 Imperial was edgy and bold yet very innovative. Ironically it was the type of car that Chrysler would make in recent years such modern classics as the Dodge Viper, “big rig” styled Dodge Ram, V8 powered Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Hemi powered rear-wheel drive LX cars. The Imperial’s styling was more modern than the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark VI which both looked very conservative in appearance by comparison. The Imperial had a traditional conservative grille which you expected of a luxury car of this era but with a twist – the grille was tilted back slightly to improve the aerodynamics of the front end. The end result was the front had a sporty look especially with its hidden headlights and sharp angular ends (on both sides of the car’s frontal area). The front end being in front of such a long hood, looked nothing short of menacing, as if it were ready to do battle with any takers. The rear roofline also helped to solidify the cars modern look. However it was the back that finished off the car nicely, it was a “bustleback” design which accented beautifully the modern rendition of the Imperial’s traditional full length rear taillights. The 1981 Imperial styling was what the Cadillac had been in 1966, a bold modern luxury car of its era. Interesting to note the aerodynamics on the 1981 Imperial was so good for its era that some NASCAR teams used the Imperial as race cars.
Chrysler was in dire financial straits when the Imperial was released. Lee Iacocca was at the helm at Chrysler at the time and Chrysler’s return to prominence was right around the corner. The 1981 model year was the first year of the successful K-car and all its variants. The K-car platform would be the platform that would save Chrysler and bring it back to financial stability. With this in mind it is hard to imagine that this would be the same year the Imperial would be released with all its luxury excesses. However Chrysler had a plan, with offering the most luxury for the money, it saw this leap into the luxury coupe market as a profitable endeavor. The Imperial brochure was a declaration of what a luxury car should be with such statements as “it’s time an American luxury car came one way: totally equipped… with more standard personal luxury features than any other American automobile.” Also stated in the brochure “it’s time that a quality built American luxury car was warranted for twice as long as any of its competitors” and “it’s time an American luxury car had electronics engineered in the labs that started the space program”. In effect this was a luxury car credo which ended with “it’s time for Imperial”. Chrysler had hoped this credo would make buyers realize that it was serious about its new offering.
The Imperial was smaller than previous Imperials however it was a fairly large sized car by 1981 downsized standards. The Imperial which was built on Chrysler’s J-body platform, weighed in at around 4,000 lbs. The wheel base of the Imperial was 112 inches and its total length was 212.3 inches which happens to be the same size as a full-size 2010 Mercury Grand Marquis.
Powering the Imperial was the reliable LA series (small block) 5.2 liter (318 CID) V8. Chrysler decided the reliable 2 bbl. version would not be used; instead a new electronic fuel injected version of the 5.2 liter V8 was standard. Since the Imperial stressed “space age” electronics, this seemed to be a wise move, but in practice it was a disaster. Due to failures in the engine management related electronics, the 5.2 liter fuel injected V8 was plagued with many problems. The problems were so bad that some dealers replaced the Imperial’s fuel injection system with a carburetor. The issues were almost as bad as Cadillac’s infamous V8-6-4 motor of the same era. Imperial’s fuel injected 5.2 V8 produced an adequate 140 horsepower and 245 lbs/ft of torque, providing smooth acceleration but like most of the V8 powered luxury cars motors of this era it was little too light on the horses to provide any inspiring acceleration.
The Imperial’s ride was what you expected from a luxury car, it provided the Imperial’s occupants with a smooth limousine like ride and was comparable to Eldorado and Mark VI. For a luxury car of its era the Imperial also handled the turns well.
Moving to the interior it was quite apparent Chrysler was making good on its luxury credo, the Imperial had every imaginable power and convenience option as standard. Only an electronic retractable moon roof was optional. The dash layout was 100% digital, the first in an automobile. With the wide array of buttons and computer generated information shown in the different displays it was almost information overload. The overall look of the interior was ultra-luxurious yet state of the art. The seats were very comfortable; the buyer could choose at no extra cost either the Mark Cross leather or plush velour seats. On some items Chrysler allowed the buyer to pick different options just like the seating at no extra cost. For instance a buyer could chose at no cost from four different car audio sound systems. The standard leather wrapped steering wheel which had a Cartier crystal Chrysler pentastar embedded in the hub was a very nice luxury touch and it matched the Cartier crystal Chrysler pentastar hood ornament.
Any Cadillac or Lincoln buyer who bought the Imperial would not in any way feel as if he/she took a step down in luxury. The Imperial even though it entered the game late, it was most certainly an equal of the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark VI in the sport luxury segment. In some respects with all the standard luxury, power, and convenience options on the Imperial, it appeared to be the superior when compared to the average Eldorado and Mark VI. However the luxury car market (like it or not) is about perception. Right before the 1981 Imperial’s release, the U.S. Government bailout of Chrysler dominated the news in 1980. There was even some talk of Chrysler not surviving. This kind of bad publicity did help to lure buyers into Chrysler dealerships to drop down $18,311 (Imperial’s base price) for a new luxurious Imperial. And even if a buyer was sure Chrysler would survive, it was a black mark to be driving a luxury car from a financial strapped company. Put another way; thirty years ago when someone went out and bought a luxury car it was a sign to all that this person had reached affluence. Driving a 1981 Imperial as luxurious as it was, did not relay this message as well as owning a Cadillac, Lincoln, or Mercedes during this time. This did not mean that Chrysler did not try; it used Frank Sinatra as a pitchman for the 1981 Imperial. Chrysler even made a Frank Sinatra edition called the Imperial FS for 1981 and 1982. All FS edition Imperials had the Glacier Blue exterior with a light blue Mark Cross leather interior, the blue scheme was a perfect tribute to Old Baby Blue Eyes. Unfortunately his endorsement of the car was not enough to secure good sales. Only 7,225 1981 Imperials were produced which was a paltry sum when compared to the Eldorado and Mark VI. Worse yet sales dropped to 2,329 and 1,427 for 1982 and 1983 respectfully. There is no doubt that the reliability issues of the electronic fuel injection and engine management related electronic parts caused sales to dive for 1982 and 1983 but another factor was the very bad U.S. recession.
It is a shame that such a beautiful and well appointed luxury car like the 1981 Imperial was a sales flop. Chrysler had the right idea with the Imperial, if there had not been: reliability issues, a bad U.S. recession, and Chrysler financial trouble in 1980 the Imperial may have been a smash success like the 1975 Cordoba. Needless to say Chrysler realized its mistake and cancelled the Imperial when the 1983 model year ended. Fortunately Chrysler’s front-wheel drive K-car related offerings proved to be very reliable, very popular with the buying public, and very profitable for Chrysler. Chrysler would later on release a newer electronic fuel injected version of the 5.2 liter V8 which proved to be very reliable in the Dodge Ram, Dodge Dakota, Dodge Durango, and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The sadness of the story is the 1981 Imperial was such an attractively styled car during a time when most luxury cars were so bland. Had the Imperial not been plagued by reliability issues and other factors, it may have been the 2005 Chrysler 300 of 1981. Barring the reliability issues, the 1981 Chrysler Imperial was one very luxurious and great looking car, it deserved a better fate.
Editor Note: this is the first article in a series about the 1981 Imperial, for Part 2, please see 1981 Imperial – I Love It, I Love It.
Written contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved