(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!