Curbside Classic: 1978 Chrysler Cordoba – The Fine Little Chrysler

(first posted 4/6/2011)   Hard to imagine now, but the word “compact” was actually used in early Cordoba marketing materials. Weighing in at two-plus tons and measuring 215 inches makes that a bit of a stretch. But that’s what these cars are all about: stretching our credibility. As if there really was such a thing as “Corinthian Leather”; or even a place pronounced Cor-DOH-ba. Who cared? People bought them, and some are still family heirlooms, like this one. The original owner was offered any new car in the world to replace her then fifteen-year old Cordoba, and turned it down.  Now that is a stretch, but unlike Chrysler’s marketing, quite true.

What really made GM hum in its golden years was its its five distinct divisions, that never had to share with another one. Poor Ford and Chrysler could never quite get out of the trap they set for themselves with their Lincoln-Mercury and Chrysler-Plymouth pairings. While Chevrolet kept the low end fires burning, B-O-P romped freely all over the market, from stripper four cylinder Tempests to near-Caddy 98s and Electras. It was their killer formula.

Meanwhile, Chrysler and Plymouth fought against each other, which resulted in the death of one and Chrysler still trying to find its way today. The Cordoba was the first major step in that final battle: it was originally supposed to have been a Plymouth. Just think; popular culture might have been so much less rich without Ricardo Montalban extolling the Cordoba’s soft Corinthian Leather.

Chysler’s pairing with Plymouth meant that it was relegated strictly to big cars, really big ones. Chrysler just stayed away from all the compact and mid-sized offerings that GM was spewing on the market, in its perpetual identity crisis. That strategy was devastating when the first energy crisis hit in late 1973. Chrysler had painted themselves into a corner, and was in desperate need for something smaller.

The Monte Carlo and the Olds Cutlass Supreme were the hot thing in the early seventies, and Plymouth was working up its own version, along with a revised Dodge Charger. But very late in the game, the Plymouth coupe was transferred to Chrysler, on the (correct) assumption that it could be sold with a higher profit margin on the strength of the Chrysler name.

Cordoba, “the small Chrysler”  arrived in 1975, along with the much less successful Charger, and it did the trick. It was a pretty handsome job, given that lead designer Allan Kornmiller still had to work with the basic B-Body from 1971, as is so clearly evidenced by the A-pillars and windshield. The formal front end is one of the better ones of the era, especially the original from ’75 – ’77. The change to stacked quad rectangular headlights was the latest trend, and a mighty stupid one at that. Pretty effectively destroyed the Cordoba’s Jag XJ-6 face.

The Cordoba accounted for no less than 60% of Chrysler’s sales in 1975, and it managed to outsell the Grand Prix. Undoubtedly, it also stole from the similar but “sportier” Charger; the luxury look was in and the Cordoba had it in spades.

The mispronounced Cor-DOH-ba bristled with facsimiles of an old Spanish coin, and offered buyers “a safe haven from the harsh reality of today’s traffic.” Yes, that’s what these cars were all about; smog, traffic, crime and paranoia were all up substantially in the seventies, and it accounts for the huge success of these affordable luxury coupes.

This particular Cordoba has quite a bit of family history too: it was given to the current owner’s mother by her husband as a 10th anniversary gift. And on their 25th anniversary, her husband offered to buy her any car of her choice. She turned him down to keep the beloved Cordoba. And the current owner continues to use it as a daily driver.

It came pretty fully loaded, including a sun roof and the combination stereo-CB radio, a nice vintage touch.

The Corinthian leather is holding up pretty well too. Cordobas came with a variety of the usual MoPar engines, from 318’s through big blocks. The owner of this one said it has the “small V8”, probably the 360. It doesn’t exactly exude a luxury car aural ambiance at start-up; more like that of a pickup truck.  Or my 360-powered Chinook.

The Cordoba may have been Chrysler’s first smaller car, but it was hardly the last. In 1977, the Aspen-based Le Baron arrived, and within a few years, all sorts of baby Kryslers would be dominating the brand. Meanwhile, it Cordoba was one more coffin nail in Plymouth’s eventual demise.