(first posted 12/4/2014) In 1992, Lee Iacocca practically had to be dragged out of his office at Chrysler. Presumably he got shoved into his Imperial, and told never to come back, although he tried once or twice. He had folded, spindled and mutilated the K-car platform that he inherited upon his arrival in 1979 into every possibly permutation, and this Imperial was the last one, a cynical and desperate last-ditch attempt to rekindle the old Iaccoca-mobile magic as well as that storied name. It was the end of two eras, both for the Imperial and Iacocca. And not a very pretty one for either of them.
In 1926, Walter Chrysler proudly announced his new Chrysler Imperial 80, designed to take on Cadillac, Lincoln, and other luxury cars of the time. The “80” stood for the speed it would comfortably and quietly attain; quite the accomplishment for a car in its price class at the time.
The very first Chrysler, a brilliant all-new car had only just appeared in 1924, and was the most successful launch of a new automobile brand. Now two years later, the Imperial was the crowning achievement of Walter Chrysler and his new company. The Chrysler Imperial was off to an auspicious start.
We’re not going to recap the Imperial’s whole long, rough ride through the decades here. But from 1955 (above) though 1975, Imperial was elevated to a brand of its own, but it just couldn’t compete against Cadillac and Lincoln, never mind the import luxury brands. The name was put to rest, presumably forever.
But not once Lee Iacocca showed up in 1979. In 1981, he staged his first Imperial comeback, which turned out to be an embarrassing dud on many levels, most of all because of its electronic fuel injection.
Lee had pushed the Imperial hard, and when it blew up in his face, he was embarrassed and angry. And he killed it pronto. Later, Lee even had the gall to claim that he wasn’t responsible, even though one of the Chrysler execs has quoted him as saying: “where the hell is our Cadillac/Lincoln entry?” right after he arrived,and ordering up the Imperial. Anyway the ’81 Imperial has all Iacocca-mobile hallmarks. JPC’s full ’81 Imperial story here.
You’d think he’d had enough egg on his face from that debacle. But Lee was utterly addicted to his perpetual formula for success: the classic “Ford-Iacocca face” that first appeared on the 1968 Lincoln Continental Mark II, with a faux-classic grille flanked by hidden headlights, half-roof padded vinyl tops, chintzy wire wheel covers, opera windows and carriage lights, and of course, bordello interiors. It had worked so well at Ford in the seventies, right? Ummm, yes, until it eventually took Ford to the brink of bankruptcy. Oh never mind that…Lee was lucky to get fired by HFII just before all that shit hit the fan.
Chrysler was a perfect fit for Lee: finally he was now the real boss, and quickly burnished his image as the One True Savior of the company. And just as soon as Lee got the government loan guarantees to see Chrysler through its near-death in 1979, thanks to showing the key members of Congress pictures of the K-Cars, he set himself to creating a steady stream of K-based genuine Iacocca-mobiles.
It’s come to be known as the Kreation story, and goes like this.
In the beginning was the letter K, and that letter K was with Chrysler’s engineers. And then the great Savior Lee arrived, just in time to take credit for it. And the letter K was made steel, and drove amongst us, even if rather modestly. And Lee said: “It is good, but it reminds me way too much of the 1960 Falcon. I must do something about that”.
So on the first day (1982), Lee said “let there be the LeBaron”, something that I need not be so embarrassed about”. But it was just a start, and looks almost demure compared to what was to come. Of course it was bestowed the ubiquitous Iacocca “cap” and of course the other trappings of Iaccoca-mobiles.
On the second day (1984), Lee said “that’s just not ambitious enough”, so he kreated the New Yorker. Still mostly the same basic K-Car body, but now with a 2.7″ wheelbase stretch for a bit of rear seat legroom, a more flamboyant “cap” along with a crappy little carriage light on it, and fake louvers on the front fenders. Lee had gone on a shopping spree at Pep Boys, and lavished the New Yorker with every cheap little trick in his holy book.
On the third day (also in 1984), Lee said: “What’s a proper American car company without a proper limousine?” So he waved his cigar at a Lebaron coupe, its front and rear ends parted, and a middle section appeared magically to unite them. Lee was impressed. Nobody else was.
On the fourth day (1988), Lee said “It’s been seven years of plenty, so let the the top-tier K-Cars have a bit of freshening up, but not enough to ruin their basic boxy proportions. Ford’s new potato-cars, the Taurus and Sable, are destined to be a huge flop. I, and only I know what Amerikans really want.” Thus was the 1988 New Yorker and Dynasty, the K-Cars Reinkarnated.
On the fifth day (1989), Lee said: “Let there be…a Maserati of K-Cars“. And as odd as that decree seemed, it did come to pass, although not nearly as quickly as it was supposed to. Was his power slipping a bit?
On the sixth day (1990), Lee said: “That 1988 New Yorker is just not long enough; let it henceforth be stretched even further. And let it bear the storied ‘Fifth Avenue’ name. Yes, that’s better; longer always is.” The TC fiasco certainly proved that.
In the creation story in Genesis, God called it quits after six days and took a well-deserved break on the seventh. Not so Lee; he was now feeling so expansive from all of his kreations, and was now ready for the ultimate expression of his swelling powers. So on the seventh day (1991), his krowning achievement arrived: the resurrection of his second most beloved name (after Mark), the Imperial. Here was the chance to redeem himself, after having to kill it back in 1983.
In typical Iacocca-mobile fashion, the Imperial’s cost benefit equation clearly favored Lee, not the buyer. What exactly did one get for that massive 30% premium over a New Yorker Fifth Avenue? Some different plastic and plasti-chrome on the front end, obviously. Imperial badges.
To put the Imperial’s price in perspective, in inflation adjusted dollars it cost a mighty $55K. For a dolled-up K-Car. That’s actually even more than the 1981 Imperial coupe, which had completely unique styling and sheet metal, as well as interior. This Imperial’s pricing is right up there with the Cadillac Cimarron in terms of unabashed cynicism.Comparing the Imperial’s interior to the New Yorker’s, it appears that the plasti-wood on the doors was rearranged, and that elegant door pull added. Hey, that’s got to be worth a couple of thousand right there. Other than that, it looks mighty similar, inside and out. But it’s wearing that Imperial nameplate.
In gold, no less. Not surprisingly to anyone except Lee, sales were decidedly mediocre. The first year (1991), the just barely topped 10k. Then it was down to 7k for each of the subsequent years. In 1994, a very different New Yorker/LHS replaced the Imperial.
One might think that after the 1981 Imperial fiasco, Lee might have been willing to let it go. But that was just not in the nature of the man. Just like he couldn’t let the boxy neo-classical flim-flam go, and just had do it one more time, forever sullying that once-storied name, so could he not let his power at Chrysler go. The Imperial is an almost perfect analogue to Lee’s career at Chrysler. The Iakokka Era was over, thankfully. It was an ordeal at the time, and it’s becoming one again reliving it in writing. Enough.
The only question is this: did Lee see the light and drive himself home that day in 1992, or did he have to be tied up and thrown into the trunk of his Imperial?