For the third and final installment of this series, we will look at some of the most expensive cars sold by the Chrysler Corporation. For much of its history, Chrysler had neither the resources nor the brand clout to sell any truly expensive cars like the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham or Continental Mark II. As a result, we’re going to have to set the bar a little lower than for Ford or GM, with almost all the adjusted prices under $100,000.
Still, what Chrysler lacked in raw dollars, they made up for with some of the most creative vehicles in this entire series.
1982 Imperial – $21,417 ($60,300)
Lee Iacocca struck gold in 1968 when he created the Lincoln Continental Mark III by slapping a Rolls Royce grille and a fake spare tire hump on a Thunderbird and doubling the price. Could his Midas touch work again in 1981 by turning the lowly Chrysler Cordoba into a luxury flagship to help Chrysler shrug off its sagging loan guarantee bailout image? Not so much.
The Imperial was launched in 1981 and included several then-innovative features, such as a digital dashboard, 24-months of free scheduled maintenance, and electronic fuel injection. It even had a high-profile spokesman in the form of Iacocca’s buddy Frank Sinatra, who agreed to promote the car free of charge, for which Iacocca rewarded him with the first Imperial off the line. Unfortunately, the EFI system would prove to be problematic and unreliable, stranding many owners (reportedly including ‘ol Blue Eyes himself) with frequent breakdowns. Chrysler was eventually forced to offer free carburetor retrofits to every Imperial owner.
The inaugural 1981 model sported a base price of $19,140, which was increased to $21,417 for 1982 in an effort to cut losses. To boost sales, the MSRP was cut to $19,117 in 1983, along with some minor decontenting (such as replacing the Cartier crystal hood ornament with a plastic one). For the purposes of this article, the 1982 model is the most expensive, with an adjusted price of just $60,300. A similarly optioned Cadillac Seville or Lincoln Continental could also crack the $20,000 mark in 1982, so this isn’t a particularly noteworthy price for them. But $20,000 was a stretch for a Chrysler (or even an Imperial) in 1982, especially for a car that was essentially a re-bodied Cordoba, which sold alongside the Imperial for about half as much.
2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10 – $45,000 ($64,723 Adjusted)
While a cast iron version of the Dodge V10 engine was available in a variety of heavy-duty trucks, the 2004-2006 Dodge Ram SRT-10 was the only way to get the genuine article aluminum block Viper V10 engine in a light-duty truck. As we shall see, this was also the cheapest way to get a vehicle powered by the Viper’s V10 engine.
2001 Plymouth Prowler – $44,225 ($67,886 Adjusted)
The 1930s hot rod inspired Plymouth Prowler is a car that to this day I still can’t believe actually got made. While the Prowler is not to my particular cup of tea, I’m glad that it exists, as they still bring a smile to my face every time I see one.
The Prowler launched in 1997 with a base price of $38,300, but the most expensive version in absolute dollars was the penultimate 2001 model, with a base price of $44,225 ($67,886 adjusted).
1991 Chrysler TC by Maserati – $37,000 ($73,809 Adjusted)
Ah, the TC, Chrysler’s attempt to fool all of the people all of the time by sprinkling some Italian fairy dust on what essentially was a LeBaron convertible. Unfortunately, as Cadillac would find out with the Allante, slapping a few Italian bits on an American car doesn’t magically turn it into a genuine Italian car. Paul has already mic-dropped the TC, so I don’t really have much more to add.
At least the TC has the dubious honor of being the most expensive variant of Chrysler’s ubiquitous K platform. The TC went on sale in 1989 for $33,000 increasing by $2,000 every year it was on sale (higher than the rate of inflation), making the final 1991 version, with an MSRP of $37,000, the most expensive model in 2021 dollars ($73,809).
2015 Dodge Viper GTS – $107,995 ($123,796 Adjusted)
The Dodge Viper made a huge splash in 1991 when it first debuted as a concept car, and then as a production model. The Viper is also the only Mopar model to crack the $100K barrier in either adjusted or original dollars.
At $53,000 ($103,731 adjusted), the original 1991 Viper was one of the most expensive domestic cars for sale at the time, more expensive than even a contemporary Corvette. The Viper was just as notable for what you didn’t get at that price (air conditioning, ABS, airbags, or even glass side windows) as for what you did (a 400hp 8.0L V10 engine).
Adjusted for inflation, that initial 1991 Viper was actually the cheapest Viper. The Viper’s base price would grow in excess of inflation during most of its 26-year run as it added capabilities, features, and additional models, like the GTS coupe. Of all the Viper models Dodge has sold, the 2015 GTS is the most expensive in adjusted dollars, with a base price of $107,995 ($123,796 adjusted).
Now do AMC and Studebaker!
I’d imagine AMC’s top would be some sort of variant of Grand Wagoneer, no?
You got this one in right under the wire, Tom, as I note that the configurator for the new Jeep Grand Wagoneer is up but haven’t seen any for sale yet – starting price for the “Grand” (as opposed to the regular Wagoneer) seems to be $87,590 which is the base of four trims, the highest of which starts at $104k…Regular Wagoneer is in the upper 60s.
The ’91 (last year of the original Grand) started at $29421 which I think puts it at around $70k in today’s money, about midpack in your examples.
I’m surprised that Yee-ha (or however it’s spelled) Imperial didn’t make the list.
Ghia Imperial was priced around 15 grand in the late ’50s, back when a dollar was a …ehh, well, 60 cents. Lol
The Ghia-made Crown Imperial was $18500 in 1965. That would be $150k now.
The classic Imperials in the early ’30s maxed out at $3500 with semi-custom bodies, which would be $70k now by CPI, or about 4 years of median income at the time. Nowhere near the typical Lincoln K or Caddy V16.
So right up there with some Vipers?
Does seem like the Crown Imperial limo merits a mention here. It was extremely low production, but so was the Eldorado Brougham. And where are the Demons/Hellcats?
I just saw a light blue Imperial at the Iola Car Show a couple weeks ago. It caught my eye, because even from a distance I could tell it wasn’t a Dodge Mirada. It was quite striking even with all the other cars around it and was under a tent shared with some other “more important” autos. Not mentioned above was that the Imperial interior had a Frank Sinatra badging either on or above the glove compartment and embossing on the center console as I recall. Not my cup of tea, but certainly fun to see something new to me.
The most surprising thing in this article is the picture of Frank Sinatra behind the wheel of the Imperial. That seat is pulled just about all the way forward. I never knew Frank was so short.
“I never knew Frank was so short.”
He’s 5’7″ ’cause of of Italian ancestry.
This reminds me of a quote attributed to Ava Gardner, when she stated the singer was “only 110 pounds, but 10 pounds of it is c**k!”.
I think the Crossfire SRT6 roadster ($45,000 MSRP in 2006) would be close to qualifying as well.
Typo – actually $49470.
Talk about lipstick on a piggy! $till, given the money Chrysler didn’t have at the time their new “Imperial” wasn’t too bad if you accepted the cliched rear! I haven’t seen one of these in years, butt (!!) it certainly was more visually presentable than the FoMoCo Versailles!! 🙂
I wonder what the Chrysler designers who worked on the Imperial project thought about the concept?? DFO
There are still a few of these running around Indianapolis.
There’s a black one I see every once in a great while, which always makes me happy. I loved these back when they were introduced and I still love them today…however, being 11 years old in 1981, purchasing one wasn’t really a possibility! And of course, never having to deal with their EFI problems keeps the memories positive too.
I think they are much more attractive in the metal than they are in photographs. The razor-edged lines are quite stunning in person.
That picture’s from Flint! Must have been from the Sloan Auto Fair. My opinion is the same as Eric’s – this is one car that looks better in the metal than it does in pictures.
What about the Jeep Trackhawk $88,890, Challenger Demon $86,090 or Charger Hellcat Redeye at $80,090? Chrysler is playing in a deeper end now than ever before. Most any model above a Scat Pack is above the Imperial, too.
Yeah, the Trackhawk/Demon/Hellcat should probably be on the list, but the jury might still be out on whether those are succesful or not. Seems like another qualifying characteristic of these über-expensive vehicles is that none of them can be considered a typical success.
And, as someone else pointed out, the Ghia Crown Imperial limousine would seem to qualify for the list, as well, with a total of 132 Imperial Crowns being manufactured for Chrysler by Ghia over 1957-65.
In a way, Chrysler’s lack of any really pricey vehicle throughout their history may have been a reason they, somehow, managed to stick around to this day. Just about all of the other, smaller manufacturers, at some point in their history (usually toward the end when they were desperate), came up with some high-dollar, custom job, with one of the best examples being Studebaker and the ill-conceived Avanti.
With that said, the ’81-’83 Imperial is a sad one. It was a pretty car that could have been a contender during a time when GM and (especially) Ford’s PLCs were lacking if it weren’t for the Imperial’s progressive (but poorly engineered) engine control module. IIRC, the issue was the placement on the engine air cleaner, which meant it was subject to the engine’s vibration. On top of that, overhead power lines had a detrimental effect, as well.
One interesting Chrysler specialty car are the ’69-’70 wing-car NASCAR specials. It’s been said that Chrysler lost money on every one they sold and I wonder what the MSRP might have been if they’d been priced according to what it really cost the company to build these cars that were essentially custom jobs (and when equipped with the optional, expensive 426 Hemi engine).
Here is a link to more information and pictures of Lido’s Imperial:
Iacocca was really in a no-lose situation with the Imperial. If it was a success, he could claim credit for it. If it bombed (which it did), he could claim it wasn’t his fault since it was too far along for him to stop it (which isn’t exactly true).
The fact is, the Imperial was exactly the type of car Iacocca loved (effectively a clone of his beloved 1969 Lincoln Mk III), and he was more than happy to hawk it with the likes of his buddy, Ole Blue Eyes. He simply couldn’t lose. Well, except for the warranty costs due to the Imperial’s faulty ECM…
One wonders how the Prowler would fare in the current IIHS “25% small offset frontal impact” test. Rip off one of the half bumpers and the front wheel/suspension, and leave the rest of the car essentially unscathed?
Wow! I don’t know if I’m more astounded by the adjusted prices of these vehicles (especially the Ram SRT-10), or that things have inflated *that much* since the Aughts. Great overview.
My mother grew up in a small Ontario town in the 20s and early 30s. She used to tell me about her aunt Sophie visiting from Toronto, about a 200 km trip. She would arrive in her huge Chrysler Imperial and create quite a stir. It obviously made quite an impression on my mother as a young girl for her to remember the car, but she was also a favourite aunt. I guess it was also unusual for a woman to be driving herself in such an automobile. I am not sure what year it would have been, but it was probably a 30 or 31. I thought it might rate in this list, but I found an ad from the US for the 1930 model and they were only just over $3000. I am not sure what that would be in current dollars.
Aunt Sophie’s early 1930s Imperial has the classic dignity of Art Déco’s functionalist frankness, but I’m here to sing praises of the Prowler. It has the simple candour of returned men’s DIY sportscars, immediately postwar, simple light flathead V8s with modified factory valley covers carrying 2 or 3 Strombergs or original carbs, cut & channeled for lower c.g. and air resistance, no absurd towering supercharger such as obscures the latter day show shams’ driver vision and helps them handle like shopping trolleys on ice. I’d give Prowler the ultimate Aussie accolade “FAIR DINKUM”, drive one, & proudly park it with my MG, Jag & Alfa angels.
I’m surprised one of the ’70s long black Imperials didn’t make the list.
I had both a 1980 Cordoba Crown and a 1989 LeBaron Coupe and both times I would have chosen them over the Imperial or the TC. What loses the Imperial for me is the rear body treatment with the awkward placement of the licence plate over the tail lights and bustleback body line coming down the quarterpanel. Other than that, I liked the Imperials okay, since it was basically my Cordoba with thicker sheetmetal.
One day, I parked my LeBaron Coupe next to a TC that had its porthole roof attached and it was no contest, vastly preferred the LeBaron in every way. It might have been just my individual car being better cared for but the TC looked like it had re-entered the atmosphere one time too many.
It’s been forever since I’ve seen a J-body Cordoba but I know of three or four Imperials around with for sale signs attached to most of them. Only see the very occasional LeBaron convertible (haven’t seen a coupe in years) but maybe one other TC in the last ten years. All of the convertible LeBarons nearly pristine and the last TC looked even worse than the one I parked next to about fifteen years ago.
There’s something of an ironic, perverse kinship between the Imperial and TC, and that’s how their failures bookend Lee Iacocca’s rise and fall at Chrysler.
As is well known, when it became apparent what a bomb the Imperial was going to be, Iacocca tried to disown the it by claiming he arrived too late to stop it. The Chrysler board bought that malarky and Iacocca escaped the blame for the Imperial, with it being laid mostly at the feet of his predecessor, Gene Cafiaro.
But there was no escaping the blame for the TC by Maserati. By then, Iacocca was believing his own hype of being an automotive genius who could do no wrong. So, he came up with a scheme of shipping Daytona chassis’ to his old Pantera buddy, De Tomaso, to be rebodied in Italy as the TC, then returned back to the US for resale prior to the release of the next generation (and quite similar) production Lebaron convertible.
The only problem was De Tomaso suffered labor issues which put the TC by Maserati far behind schedule. Iacocca was in a real dilemma: should he pay to have the now aging Daytona chassis shipped back to the US (where they would be of dubious use) or wait it out and hope for the best whenever the TC finally arrived. He didn’t have any good options so he left De Tomaso with the chassis and hoped for the best.
As is now well known, when the cars were finally built and arrived in dealer showrooms, very few people paid twice the price for a car that wasn’t all that much different from the domestic version that was already there. The ‘halo effect’ doesn’t work when the halo car arrives well after the car the effect is supposed to rub off on.
This time, unlike the Imperial, Iacocca couldn’t escape the blame for the TC, and he retired just a year after the final new TC arrived at a Chrysler dealership. The TC wasn’t all that bad; it was just way too expensive and arrived way too late.
Last night I got an email saying that bids were starting at the consignment auction yard where I bought our F-150. Surprisingly or not they have a 1989 TC with 58k on the clock. Unfortunately no shot of the rear area to see if it has the porthole window caused burns. I may just have to go and take a look at it. Its not a car I would expect to do well at this auction so if it can be had cheap ($2500 or so) I may just bring it home just to be able to say I once owned a Maserati.