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|What Were They Thinking? The 1990-'93 Chrysler Imperial|
|Written by Jim Brennan|
|Friday, 16 April 2010 14:48|
How a luxury car competing directly with Cadillac and Lincoln met its demise in the form of an elongated "K" car
Chrysler sold a strange brew of models in the late 1980s, almost all based on the front-wheel-drive "K" car architecture. The exception was the "M"-bodied Fifth Avenue, itself nothing but a Plymouth Volare in a tailored suit. Yet in 1988, Dodge introduced the Dynasty, based roughly on the "K" car but with a grander mission. This was the first of the AC/Y-bodied cars that would eventually take over when the "M" cars were discontinued in 1989. And it wasn't a moment too soon, because these rear-wheel-drive models had been in production since 1976! Stretching the basic FWD platform for all its worth, Chrysler was able to introduce four separate models within the AC/Y family: the New Yorker Salon (a Dynasty with a Chrysler name), the New Yorker Landau, the longer New Yorker Fifth Avenue, and the Imperial. Should they have built the Imperial--a name with a long and significant history--into what was essentially a "K" car?
The Imperial nameplate has been designated as the top of the line in the Chrysler hierarchy since 1926--with varying degrees of success. Many of the pre-war Imperials rivaled the luxury models then being offered, including the likes of Packard, Cadillac, Pierce Arrow, Marmon, Lincoln, Duesenberg, and Auburn. You could equip a Chrysler Imperial with custom coachwork from such prestigious companies as Murphy and LeBaron, just to name two. The vehicles were true classics in every sense of the word, stately automobiles that oozed luxury, attainable only by a fortunate few. The era was about to end, however, which was only fitting since the country was in the grip of the Great Depression.
The next Imperial was both modern and stately, with the introduction of the Imperial Airflow. The Imperial version of the Airflow design was the longest model available and proved controversial. Period advertising proclaimed it the car of tomorrow--and, in all reality, it was. This eight-passenger sedan rode more smoothly, handled better, and was an all-around stronger vehicle than its immediate predecessor, but it never sold well. The more conventional Chrysler Airstream models outsold all Airflow models (including Chrysler, DeSoto, and Imperial versions) by more than three to one. Yet while the general public didn't take to these Art Deco wonders, they were the wave of the future.
After the Airflow was discontinued, the Imperial nameplate basically served as a designation for the top-spec Chrysler. In the latter part of the 1930s, the Chrysler Royal shared major components with the Imperial, except for the limousine models, where they were exclusive to the Imperial designation. After the Second World War, the Imperial was only offered as an eight-passenger sedan and a town limousine. By the 1950s, the line gained separate convertible and sedan models (including the eight-passenger sedan) with some interesting engineering additions: fully functional disc brakes in 1949, industry-exclusive power steering in 1951, and a 12-volt electrical system in 1953, along with Chrysler's own Power Flite automatic transmission.
1955 was the breakthrough year for the Imperial. The vehicles were no longer known as Chrysler Imperials, as the Chrysler Corporation broke the Imperial out into its own separate marque. The move was an attempt to compete directly with the Cadillac and Lincoln luxury divisions of General Motors and Lincoln. No longer would the Imperial be just the "fancier" Chrysler that competed with Buick, Oldsmobile, and Mercury. The decision was not entirely successful, with the buying public unconvinced that the Imperial was all that different from the Chrysler offerings. Some exquisite Imperials were produced between 1955 and 1975--including the Ghia limousines, Crown convertibles, and the Crown Mobile Director coupe--but they encompassed only about 10 percent of the luxury car market during any given season. The writing was on the wall for the Imperial, and the line was discontinued right after the first OPEC oil embargo.
A valiant attempt (pun intended) was made to revitalize the Imperial in 1981, with a Personal Luxury Coupe model derived from the Chrysler Cordoba and Dodge Mirada. The style was dramatic, including a "Bustle Back" rear end that both Cadillac and Lincoln introduced at the same time with the Seville and Continental sedans. The front fascia was just as dramatic with a "Rolls Royce"-styled grille (though somewhat sloping in this iteration) and hidden headlamps. It was both modern and stately and offered Chrysler's first electronic-fuel-injection system in the hopes that luxury-car buyers would consider buying it over the Cadillac Eldorado or Continental Mark VI. Chrysler even offered a "Frank Sinatra Edition" of the Imperial Coupe, featuring a collection of Sinatra cassette tapes for your enjoyment. Only 12,385 were produced during its three-year run, however, with 66 percent of that total the 1981 models. It seemed time to put the Imperial out to pasture. Or was it?
Chrysler was once again profitable by 1990, and the company embarked on a wild spending spree, diversifying into defense, jet aircraft, and other non-automotive ventures. It also acquired American Motors, with two significant crown jewels: the Jeep line of off-road and sport utility vehicles and the very modern AMC plant in Brampton, Ontario. The acquisitions would be two of Chrysler's cornerstones during the 1990s. But that was the future, and Chrysler needed a replacement for the "M" body (the long-in-the-tooth Chrysler Fifth Avenue, the Dodge Diplomat, and the Plymouth Grand Fury). Their replacements were once again derivatives of the "K" platform, which was itself almost a decade old by this time. Yet was it wise to reissue the Imperial moniker for the top-spec "K" car?
Styling for the Imperial "K" cars was traditional 1980s, with "Landau" vinyl roof treatments, stylized grilles, hidden headlamps, "wire" wheel covers, and a stand-up "Crystal" hood ornament. Inside was 1980s tech: digital instrumentation combined with fake wood accents, overly complicated audio controls, and the first factory "cellular" phone (mounted within the driver's sun visor). Chrysler did all it could to build value with these cars, with equipment levels that rivaled anything on the road and included such key features as four-wheel ABS, a new electronic four-speed automatic transmission, and a driver-side airbag. Yet most of these features were available with the Imperial's stable mates at extra cost. The buying public saw right through the thinly disguised, pedestrian Dodge, even if it was dressed in a tuxedo--and sales figures proved it. The 1990 model year saw almost 15,000 sold, while the remaining three years of this iteration of the Imperial saw steady declines: 11,600 in 1991, 7,643 in 1992, and 7,064 in its final year of 1993. By this time, the list price for the fancy "K" car had ballooned to almost $30,000!
Chrysler came to its senses by then, bringing to market some exciting new products. The AMC acquisition was also slated to play a major role in the company's success during the 1990s. The 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee had just been introduced, which solidified Jeep's role in the growing SUV market. And then there were four new, full-size sedans that replaced the AC/Y "K"-car derived models. These cars used the ex-Renault factory in Brampton, Ontario, and included the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, Eagle Vision, and the Chrysler New Yorker. These models were fresh and quickly overshadowed the vehicles they replaced, which seemed as stale as week-old bread. Looking at the last Imperial, it is clear that it was outdated--and probably should have never been produced. The new "LH" cars had a fresh design philosophy and a new style designation, the "Cab Forward." They didn't rely on "jewelry" or embellishments to make them look good, gimmicks like vinyl-covered roofs, upright grilles, hood ornaments, and opera windows. What they did was condemn the last Imperial to a place reserved for automotive atrocities, right next to other infamous designs like the Lincoln Versailles, the Chevrolet SSR, and the Edsel. Too harsh? I don't think so.
For more Imperial images, visit the Automotive Traveler Image Gallery. Jim Brennan would like to thank the members of the Imperial Club for their assistance in preparing this article and for the images provided.