Curbside Classic: 1981 Imperial by Chrysler – It’s Time For You. Or Not.

(first posted 2/17/12)     What do you get when you cross the marketing savvy of Lee Iacocca, the star power of Frank Sinatra, and an attractive personal luxury coupe with tried and true Mopar mechanicals?  You get a beautiful and intriguing car that became a failure of epic proportions.  Is there a better recipe for a Curbside Classic?

Lee Iacocca is best known for the Mustang.  His most profitable car, however, was probably the 1969 Continental Mark III, along with the Mark IV (CC here) and Mark V (CC here) that followed in the series.  An off-the-shelf platform which was dressed up in its country club finest turned out to be the next thing to gold for the Ford Motor Company during the 1970s.  The Marks were priced high and sold in numbers that finally made Lincoln a contender in the luxury market.  Although the big Continental never caught its traditional Cadillac rival, the Lincoln Mark series owned the personal luxury segment during that decade.

When Lido came to Chrysler in 1979, the company was in worse shape than anyone knew.  It had fled the luxury market after the 1975 Imperial (CC here) finished its annual drubbing in the marketplace by selling fewer than 9,000 cars.  Lee certainly knew that there was no money available for another full frontal assault on Cadillac.  But why not skip the meat-and-potatoes sedan and go right for the sweet, creamy dessert that was the personal luxury coupe?

The starting point was there – the new J-body platform of the 1980 Cordoba and Mirada could provide a modern midsized coupe platform, that was really a pretty nice car.  So, the decision was made to authorized a fresh, stylish new suit, plenty of expensive trimmings.  And, because everybody knew that Chrysler was an engineering company, there would be a brand new electronic fuel injection system that would appeal to buyers in the demographic that Iacocca craved.

Make no mistake.  The 1981 Imperial was nothing like the cynical Super K that would pretend to be a luxury car a decade later.  This one was a serious attempt at a premium car.  First, the price.  The new Imperial would come fully equipped and would be priced at over $18,000.  The only option was the power sunroof, which added about another $1,000.  This was serious money in 1981 (≈ $45k adjusted).  Second, the car would be built on its own assembly line, and would use an extra-thick gauge steel in the bodies.  This car would be the first available with full electronic instrumentation, including a trip computer.  Genuine Mark Cross leather would be available for the seats at no extra charge, and the hood ornament was a pentastar made of genuine Cartier crystal.  This car was meant to go head to head with the Continental Mark VI and blow it into the weeds.

The Imperial was the car that should have hit the target smack dab center.  Several of the people involved in the design of this car were veterans of the Mark program at Lincoln and knew what was expected in this segment.  The lush carpet, the jewel-like trim details and wide choice of exterior and interior colors (six in velour and six in leather).  You want a designer edition?  How about the FS, named after Frank Sinatra and painted blue to match his famous eyes.

Old Frank himself crooned for an ad for this car and was prominently featured in the promotional materials.  His fee?  As a personal favor to Iacocca (and possibly out of his lifelong tendency to root for the underdog) he charged Chrysler $1 plus one of the first new Imperials off the line.

The timing seemed right, too.  By 1981, this market was ripe for the right car.  The 1980 Continental Mark VI was an abomination.  Its ungainly proportions certainly never massaged the brain’s pleasure centers the way its predecessors had done, and the sales showed it.  The King was dead, and the throne was open to any luxury coupe that could win over those trading their Mark Vs.  Over at Cadillac, a perpetual also-ran in this market, the 1979-80 Eldorado was a legitimate contender, but it was quite conservative and hardly the kind of car that set a luxury buyer’s heart aflame.

In sum, this was an attractive, sumptuously trimmed, well built and well appointed car that did everything required of a car in its price class in 1981.  So what could go wrong?  Only one little thing.  All too often, it just wouldn’t run.

Flashback to 1958.  Chrysler adapts the Bendix Electrojector in the first American application of electronic fuel injection.  Epic fail.  The crude electronics available in 1958 were simply not up to the job of providing a reliable fuel metering system.  There is a fascinating article at Allpar on this system and the single known example of one in operating condition, that can be read here.

But by 1981, shouldn’t all of those lessons have been learned?  Evidently not.  The system was designed and built almost completely in-house by Chrysler’s electronics unit in Huntsville, Alabama.  Lee Iacocca was undoubtedly proud of this system.  He had spent a career at Ford being envious of Chrysler’s engineering prowess.  Chrysler had been his favorite target for poaching engineers during his Ford years.  Now he had the keys to this kingdom and was ready to make the most of Chrysler’s latest technological breakthrough.

But then the calls started coming in.  Sometimes the cars would not start.  Other times, they would stall at random places, often the victim of electromagnetic interference from wires, signs and other fixtures of modern life, much like the Electrojector-equipped cars of a quarter century earlier.  People in 1981 who could afford a car that cost in the neighborhood of twenty grand were not people who would quietly accept such a shortcoming.   These Imperials resulted in a lot of unhappy customers, one of whom was reportedly FS himself.

So, after several attempts to fix the injection systems, Chrysler did what it did with the Electrojector cars – it provided a kit to dealers to yank the injection and retrofit the car with a carburetor.  But the process in 1981 was so much more complicated than it had been in 1958.  According to Allpar’s extensive piece on this car, the retrofit kit cost $3500 and the job required 50 man-hours of labor.  The process involved replacing the fuel tank, the exhaust system, the instrument cluster, and a host of other things.  All in all, it is reported that the 1981-83 Imperial cost Chrysler $10,000 per car on warranty expenses.  It soon became clear that the new Imperial was an unqualified disaster.  To this day, Chrysler has never made another attempt at building a legitimate premium car.

By the time the 1983 models were out, the decision had been made.   Far from the splash of 1981, color choices were down (this car’s Manilla Cream was gone, some would say thankfully) and interior color choices were now down to four leathers and two cloths.  After about 7200 were made in 1981, it took the final two years to bring the total to about 11,000 cars.  Then it was over.

This is a hard car for me to write about.  I have shared here before that during my college years, I was a huge Mopar-head.  When this car came out, I fell for it, and fell hard. The Imperial featured some really high-tech stuff in 1981, and we Mopar faithful reveled in Chrysler’s re-emergence as a technological leader in its flagship car.  To me and others like me, the re-born Imperial screamed “Chrysler is BACK, baby!”

I have always considered the car to be drop-dead gorgeous.  The English bustle-back look is certainly the most controversial feature.  This fad was riding a wave in the early 1980s, and this Imperial did the look as well as anyone.  It was a graceful, expensive looking car.  More than once, I sat in one in a showroom.  Every time I did so, I would furtively look around, fearful of a gruff salesman turning to me and declaring “Hey, Kid – Get out of that car.  That’s an IMPERIAL, you knucklehead.   Let me show you a Horizon or maybe a nice used Duster.”  The car seemed that special to me.

If anyone ever wonders why Lee Iacocca spent the rest of his career at Chrysler building K cars and their variants, this Imperial is probably the reason.  This is pure supposition, but I would guess that there is no car ever championed by Lido that earned more of his scorn, bitterness or even hatred than this one.  He pushed it.  He gave it every chance.  He backed it in a very, very public way.  And it embarrassed him.  Badly.  Is it any wonder that the entire platform was killed by the end of 1983?  I would not be surprised if Lee personally pushed the big red button to crush the tooling and kill this cruel, cursed car (and everything else that shared its platform).

As I was finishing this piece, I stumbled across a nice piece on this car at Ate Up With Motor (here).  In it, Aaron cites evidence that Iacocca denied the Imperial’s paternity.  Iacocca evidently claimed that the Imperial had been authorized by his predecessor, John Riccardo, and that by the time he took over, the car was too far along to stop.  I’m not buying.  Lee arrived at Chrysler in the spring of 1979, about eighteen months before its introduction.  When an expected disaster in the making is already rolling out of the station, you let the car appear, then watch as it slowly sinks below the surface.  You do not plaster your face all over the ads and ask Frank Sinatra to put his star power behind it.   The Old Chrysler may have first conceived the idea of the J based Imperial, but all evidence suggests that Iacocca is the guy who enthusiastically ran that football the rest of the way downfield.

For all their failings, I still love these cars.  I consider it one of the best looking “traditional” cars of the 1981-83 time period.  When I was driving my daughter home from a friend’s a couple of weeks ago, I immediately recognized this Imperial as it sat at a gas pump.  (How fitting.)  It took some traffic maneuvering, but I caught up with it, idling unattended.  I waited for the owners to come out as I snapped pictures.  They never did, and I had to go.  Even in this car’s dilapidated condition and in this least-flattering of colors, one thing kept running through my mind: Frank Sinatra singing “It’s Time for You.”  And for just a moment, I imagined that I was the guy he was singing to as he tossed me the keys.  But back to reality, because instead of it being “Time for Imperial”, it was really time for a Honda Fit.  Which, fortunately, is not pale yellow and missing a window.