(first posted 2/5/2015)
“Chrysler Corrrdoba. Corrrinthian leather.” Forty years ago, a one minute advertisement with these words made Ricardo Montalban the most memorable automotive pitchman of all time. Ricardo Montalban, the Cordoba, and Corinthian leather all became instant pop culture icons, as recognized in 2015 as they were in 1975. Yet most do not remember that Ricardo Montalban had a successful career as Chrysler’s flagship advertising spokesman for almost 15 years, far exceeding the lifespan of the Cordoba with which he has gone down in history. In fact, his longest-lasting series of ads owed nothing to the Cordoba and everything to his most famous cinematic role. So let us take a trip down memory lane to remember the late Ricardo Montalban’s many Chrysler ads that entertained us during the Malaise Era of the 1970s and 1980s.
Ricardo Montalban’s signature commercial needs no introduction here. The 1975 Cordoba ad portraying him as a pensive Spanish aristocrat with flamenco music following him around is what we all associate with him.
Chrysler had a winning combination of car and spokesman, and it wisely continued to feature Ricardo Montalban in its Cordoba ads for the rest of the decade. Most were similar in style to the 1975 original, although shorter and with their distinctiveness gradually watered down, as in this 1977 version. (Mopar enthusiasts will get a laugh out of another 1977 ad, in which he makes Chrysler’s oft-cursed Lean Bean system sound good: “An engine that thinks. Remarkable!”)
By 1980, the Cordoba had run its course after two restylings (1978-79, 1980-83) that made it unrecognizable from the original, and the ads reflected it. Ricardo Montalban was still there, synonymous with the Cordoba, but although he delivered his opening line “Wait ‘til you see what they did to my car!” with his usual smile, a frown may have been more appropriate.
By the end of the 1970s, Ricardo Montalban had gone from a successful actor limited to Latin and other ethnic roles (such as his role as Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically engineered Sikh from India, on Star Trek – more on that later) to a full-fledged star. Fantasy Island, which ran from 1977 to 1984, was of course his most famous and successful TV role, and in it he made “I am Mr. Rourke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island!” even more famous than “soft Corinthian leather.” (I can remember when saying that line in a Spanish accent was a popular way to tell people that they were acting weird and out of touch with reality, identical to saying “You trippin’” today.) Playing a faux Spanish aristocrat in car ads did not really fit his stature any longer, so it is unsurprising that his persona in the Cordoba ads disappeared during the 1980s.
The equity that Ricardo Montalban had built with the American public clearly was too valuable not to continue using in Chrysler advertisements, however, as the public continued to identify him with Chrysler, as shown in this 1982 Bloom County comic strip. The question was what his identity would be.
The answer came in 1982 as resoundingly as a hit by a photon torpedo, when he performed his most famous acting role as Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. Ricardo Montalban warp driving through star fields as Khan, in the unmistakably K-Car-themed USS Reliant, gave Chrysler’s advertisers exactly what they needed.
Ricardo Montalban now appeared to the American public as the Space Age spokesman for Chrysler’s top of the line models, the New Yorker and LeBaron. The combination was ideal: Chrysler’s popular pitchman turned superior man from the future, extolling the virtues of the modern, front wheel drive luxury K-Cars. This 1983 New Yorker commercial, in which he appears among the stars and proceeds to present the New Yorker from an alien planet, shows the theme perfectly. We may scoff now (and most likely scoffed then) at such an ad for a K-Car with a vinyl roof and talking alert system, but it was in step with the times during the early 1980s.
In all of these ads, he presented a sophisticated image, wearing a tuxedo and equally at ease in either outer space or a billionaire’s mansion. When not from the future, as in this 1983 ad for the full LeBaron lineup, he was now an elegantly dressed, affluent-appearing American with an accent.
“Turrrbo power” did not become embedded in the public’s heads as “Corrrinthian leather” had, but in the turbo-obsessed 1980s, it was a prominent feature of Chrysler’s ads as the company turned to turbocharging to give its four cylinder K-Cars more power. In this 1985 ad, Ricardo Montalban did his best to convince the public of the merits of the high technology of the turbo New Yorker.
The full 1980s Ricardo Montalban Chrysler commercial experience comes through in this 1986 LeBaron ad. Holograms, a set straight out of a Federation starship, the American-ness of Chrysler, turbo power – in only 30 seconds the commercial covers considerable ground in striking fashion, even though the tagline (“Because the competition is good, Chrysler had to be better”) did not really catch on.
By the end of the 1980s, though, the theme had played out. This 1988 New Yorker commercial starting with a meaningless line about Corinthian leather shows that the writers had no idea what to do with his character any longer, other than to rehash earlier themes by dressing him in his 1980s tuxedo and having him recite a line from the 1970s. Ricardo Montalban again bowed out of Chrysler commercials by the end of the decade.
For well over a decade, as the Spaniard of the 1970s Cordoba commercials and then the non-wrathful Space Age man of the 1980s New Yorker and LeBaron ads, Ricardo Montalban made the normally bland world of automobile advertising a more interesting and characterful place. It was an important part of his work in the 1970s and 1980s, which made him so popular that in the 2000s he made a second acting career out of essentially or actually playing himself, in movies such as the Spy Kids films and TV voice actor appearances as himself in The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad. So at any time when you think about the Cordoba or Corinthian leather, remember that the man who made them famous did much more for Chrysler, inspired by KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!
Speaking of KHAN, now I want to see William Shatner do a Chrysler commercial. You had Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy do Dodge commercials, “Why not?”
Shatner and Nimoy did Oldsmobile ads together
Yes but (in best dramatic Shatner voice) “That was a… long… time… ago.”
Nimoy is in very poor health due to lung cancer. He smoked for many years although he quit later in life.
He doesn’t have cancer, he has COPD. My mom had it for about the last 8 years she was alive. Not a fun disease. She died of something totally unrelated, but I don’t think she could have lasted much longer anyway.
Nimoy also moved up to an Audi:
Correct you are. I saw a photo of him at an airport in a wheel chair using oxygen. I understand these days he is getting the word out about the risk’s of smoking.
I recall thinking during the ’80s that he seemed a bit played out as early as the downsized Cordoba. But, Chrysler seemed to think he worked, and maybe he was the guy to lead the Chrylser loyal out of their 360 and 440 equipped Cordobas and New Yorkers into the world of turbo 4 poppers. If he could do it with a smile, so could you.
I wonder what celebrity had the longest association with a car company? Montalban has to be up there. I believe Bob Hope also had a long association with Chrysler, but that was well before my time. Aurthur Godfrey may have filled the gap at Chrysler between Hope and Montalban. Dinah Shore had a run with Chevrolet. It seems like most associations lasted just a few years at most.
That T-Top Cordoba in the last photo really is a car to lust for. No wonder these carried Chrysler through its rather dark days in the late ’70s.
Didn’t Chrysler (Division, not Corporation) sponsor Bob Hope’s specials and golf outings? If I recall correctly, in his mid-1960s movies, his character almost always drove a Chrysler.
Customized car plates are all the rage with science fiction fans. I have seen all manner of seven characters from ‘ferengi’ to ‘bajoran’ to ‘strmtpr’, ‘firefly’ and ‘ncc1701’. I’d love to see a Reliant with an NCC1864 plate.
The tragic origin of the music in the Montalban Cordoba commercials isn’t well known. It is the second movement of the Concerto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999)…the best-known, most popular guitar concerto ever. Rodrigo was a Spanish composer who was awarded Spain’s highest musical award, the Premio Nacional de Música, in 1983. In 1991, Rodrigo was raised into the Spanish nobility by King Juan Carlos; he became the Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez. In 1996 he received the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award—Spain’s highest civilian honor.
Rodrigo never revealed during his lifetime the inspiration of that music. Only after his death did Mrs. Rodrigo tell the story…that after their first child had died he sat, grief-stricken, for hours at the piano, first playing the main melodic theme, then developing it. The composition of that music was how Rodrigo handled his deepest grief.
It all takes on a somewhat different feel when one knows about how the music came to be.
I have that piece in various forms. Thanks for the backstory, I’m dropping the needle on Miles’ version tonight.
Oooh! “Dropping the needle on Mile’s”…I feel you!! LOL 🙂
If it’s Thursday, it must be Cordoba Day!
Seriously, thank you Robert for these two interesting posts on the car and the man.
The Cordoba also reminds me of a widower (WWII vet) neighbor I had in the late ’80s with a Caramel Tan 1978 model. Good times.
My wife has an interesting Ricardo Montalban story. She was at the airport coming home from DC quite a few years ago, and she was right behind Montalban and his wife coming through the security checkpoint. She didn’t feel right about accosting him though, so she didn’t. After she returned, her real estate partner at the time, who had been a cameraman in Hollywood, told her that he had been Montalban’s cameraman on Fantasy Island, that Montalban had been a complete gentleman and very easy to work with, and that if she’d told Montalban she knew him he would have had her sit with them.
Until she saw them at the airport that night she didn’t know that he had a limp. Her partner said that they had always taken care not to let that show in production, but that it had been part of the story in The Revenge of Khan.
I like stories like these. Many celebs are stuck up aloof A-holes nowadays, but when you hear that one is a down to earth kind of person…that’s a good thing.
I liked Montalban in The Naked Gun.
I just watched The Naked Gun for the first time a few weeks ago. Some much needed laughs.
Montalban had been thrown by a horse and trampled on set early in his career. The injury aggravated a congenital spine condition and caused him to limp. When he was late in his career, he underwent a lengthy operation in an attempt to relieve the injury to his spine, but unfortunately was left paralyzed from the waist down. He had to use a wheelchair to get around after that.
He always seemed to be the gentleman and a class one at that.
Great post. I enjoyed these!
Ricardo Montalban was not the original spokesperson for the ’75 Cordoba. It was Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). He worked on other Chrysler commercials as well at the time.
Our neighbors, who had a daughter my age, had a 1975 Cordoba. It was maroon with a white vinyl roof and wire-wheel covers. They were originally from the Detroit area, and supposedly the father was able to buy it in Detroit at a fairly significant discount. (They still had relatives in Detroit, so they visited there regularly.) I remember thinking that the car was quite sharp.
I also remember thinking that the poor Dodge Charger was completely overshadowed by the Cordoba. The Charger went from being one of the stars of the Chrysler Corporation line-up to a Cordoba-clone that hardly anybody wanted. The corporation should have figured out a way to offer the Magnum – or offer the Charger with distinctive Magnum-like styling – from day one.
I guess the Charger would had been less overshadowed if the Cordoba was launched originally as a Plymouth instead of a Chrysler.
Khan would have made great Hellcat commercials…
Around 1993 in North Hollywood I was standing in line at a Bank to cash my paycheck during lunch and Herve Villechize (Tattoo) was in front of me. He had a huge body guard with him. Every finger had a large diamond or other jewel ring on it, and he had gold chains and bracelets on and a was wearing a really nice light blue suit. He was shaking like a leaf, and as he walked up to the teller he pulled a huge roll of $100.00 bills and started to count them out, his bodyguard right next to him. It wasn’t long after that I heard he had committed suicide. I always like Ricardo Montalban. he seemed to be a real class act. In high school in the early 70’s we used to watch anti drug films in health and safety class featuring Ricardo that were made in the late 60’s.
He committed suicide because he blew all his money and was broke.
According to his obituary in the NY Times, though Mr. Villechaise had been having financial problems due to difficulty finding work, his suicide note mentioned health problems. Some forms of dwarfism are accompanied by disproportionate growth of bones and organs, which causes chronic pain and difficulties with mobility.
It obviously worked, so not challenging why Chrysler asked Montalban to pitch for them. I couldn’t quite figure out why though. Not like average American buyers in the ’70s looked up to Mexican, or Mexicans had a reputation for automobile designs, or any kind of industrial designs.
Montalban was born to Spanish parents, which is a big social bonus in Mexico. Mexico, like the US, is very diverse; it even has ethnic Germans, but Americans too often assume they’re all mestizos or Indians because these are the most common immigrants we see.
Look up Limpieza de Sangre, it helps explain why Mexico is largely run by White Men. Now these aren’t necessarily smarter than anyone else, but logic has nothing to do with it.
His older brother, Carlos, was for decades “El Exigente” in a series of coffee advertisements for Savarin Coffee.
The Cordoba still looks good, something that really can’t said of competitors, like the popular contemporary cheapened TBird.
btw, that was not Corinthian Leather in the first commercial. Someone inserted that graphic at the point Montalban talks about its availability. That was fabric shown. My Dad had a 1996 and I know what the leather looked like It looked like the last picture above.
We had an exchange student from France at about that time and he thought the Cordoba was a very expensive car, which I told him it was not – not inexpensive, but not expensive.
Make that not 1996, it was 1976 Cordoba.
Perhaps time has changed. In ’70s Spanish looking man with foreign accent means exotic, sophistication. Today, it translate into illegal alien, etc.,
Automobile also no longer enjoy names, bye bye Cordoba, hello 200.
Agree. And what about today`s car commercials? Unshaven hipster-yuppie types driving overpriced American and foreign cars. That`s sophistication? Not “sticking up” for the Malaise era,but car commercials were better then.
Montalban had a very elegant aristrocratic persona. The name Cordoba was from Spain, not Mexico but his image was of an European aristrocrat. This obviously translated to the perception that the Cordoba automobile was a special, classy vehicle of good taste. Obviously buyers thought that ownership of Cordoba reflected well on them. Montalban’s voice was pure gold.
Well said Jose. Montalban has been one of my favorite actor for decades.
Back to the ads. Could it be that back in the days, to 98% of American public, anything Spanish was just one big “whatever”? Therefore, elegant lookin’ Montalban with an accent = European aristocrat?
Somehow I think all my friends in Spain are ROFL at the above statement.
The confusion of Spanish vs. Mexican still afflicts Americans today;.
Castilian Spanish doesn’t even sound like Latin American; I met some Spanish engineers who had trouble understanding Southwest Spanish.
I just saw a ’78 or ’79 Cordoba today while out cruising around in the Deville. Never would have guessed I was going to be seeing that!
I always thought that Mr. Montalban or Mr. Sinatra knew little about cars- these Chryslers weren’t terrible, but no way would either of them have owned a Chrysler product- aside from a real Imperial.
They did build a special extra-pimpy one just for him, how much he actually drove it, that’s another story.
It would’ve ironic if this had the velour option and not the “leather”.
I almost hate to say it-corinthian leather.I would have loved to see him plug `75 thru `78 New Yorker coupes-my favorite Chryslers of all.
Very nice post – there are few Chrysler products of the mid/late 70s that I care for – but the Cordoba would be at the top of the list.
Speaking of Mr Montalban, I think it’s quite well known he began his career as an MGM contract player in the 40s and starred in a number of big features. He moved to TV and other roles in the 50 and 60s, always working. In fact, that was one of the attributes his fellow actors most admired, he enjoyed acting and would take almost any role and deliver a gifted performance, even in some cheaper productions, such as the later Planet of the Apes movies.
He was fortunate be to cast in the Fantasy Island series – and related being employed and constantly working for that 7 year period was the most enjoyable of his life.
Not to hijack the discussion, but I sure miss Opus and Bloom County. That cartoon, and Bob Seger, were two of the few good things to come from the seventies.
Boy oh boy, I am so mad at Farrah Fawcett-Majors. She is so conceited. She has never called me once. And after the hours I’ve spent holding up her poster with one hand! Geez! – Steve Martin (back when he was actually funny).
And “Star Wars”
My had the opportunity to meet Ricardo Montalban during a press event at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, circa 1985. He brought with him a ’79 Cordoba brochure which Montalban autographed “To My Muy Bueno Amigo [my name], Ricardo Montalban. I need to get it framed and on display.
Dad said he was a very nice, down to earth guy. Glad to see that fits with what has already been written above. I’d trade a dozen Mergio Marchionne’s, Alpo Romeos and Alec Baldwins just for a one Lee Iacocca, Cordoba and Ricardo Montalban.
The SCTV geek in me remembers someone doing a fake Chrysler commercial, perhaps Eugene Levy, and “Ricardo” ranting about the car company making it Cor-DOH-ba, instead of COR-dah-ba, like the actual Spanish city.
Every so often, americans get fascinated with spanish things, like in the 1920s when fake spanish/moorish architecture, like the yaarab shrine or the fox theater in atlanta or the baby jane house, became popular and then got repopularized in the 70s as a look back at the 20s. I don’t know why, those high walls, tiny barred windows, and all that heavy dark wood seem oppressive to me but people liked it? So each automaker came up with their Spanish named car, granada, seville, and cordoba. Who better to shill a spanish named car than an aristocratic sounding spanish actor?
He chews the scenery in the first cordoba commercial almost as energetically as he did in Khan. But heck, it makes.me want a Cordoba. I haven’t seen a commercial since the 90s which made me want a car.
I remember at the end of these commercials, the Cordie was billed as “The New Small Chrysler”. Even now that makes me chuckle. Only in the 70’s could an overweight personal luxury land barge be considered “small”!
Well, up until the Cordoba, all Chryslers were full-sized cars. The irony would be that the truly big, traditional Chrysler wouldn’t last but another three more years.
The front end of the Cordoba in the first picture is a dead ringer for the Australian Ford LTD (P6 generation)
I had a 1980 Cordoba and it was blessed by being exempt that year from having Lean Burn and had the standard electronic ignition. My Allstate agent back when I had the Cordoba was from Brazil and his accent gave Ricardo a run for his money. When he saw that I had a Cordoba, he went nuts over it and recited all the lines from the commercials. He kept saying “Corinthian leather” over and over. I laughed and told him it was the only thing my Cordoba didn’t have! He also said Americans mispronounce Cordoba.
Someone earlier in the comments asked for a William Shatner Chrysler commercial, I don’t know about Chrysler but here Shatner is advertising a 1971 Plymouth Fury and also a ’71 Satellite. Appropriate as I always thought of my ’67 Sport Fury and ’68 Fury VIP fast tops as being “starship class” automobiles.
Lido may get all the credit for saving Chrysler, but Ricardo deserves his share of praise as well.
He helped push iron thru the showroom doors in both good times and bad times. My hat is off to Ricardo.
Montalban remarked tartly about having to mispronounce Cordoba—it’s actually KOR(rrrr)’-də-bə. He still pronounced it the way Chrysler wanted, and so they paid him the way he wanted.
“The best-built, best-backed American cars” isn’t awful as a slogan; I still remembered it immediately as soon as I saw this post’s headline. But I think Chrysler de México did better with Ingeniería Chrysler (“Chrysler Engineering”).