Imperial’s story, more than just a car (Part XVII)

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In our last Imperial entry, we found that the brand’s run was over. In production since 1926 and an independent brand since 1955, the Imperial collapsed after 1975. Chrysler closed its luxury Imperial division, and the once-proud two- and four-door Imperials were stripped of some standard features and rebadged in the New Yorker’s Brougham trim. The Imperial name had come a long way from its beginnings as a super luxurious car built for the wealthy, and eventually evolved into a slightly nicer New Yorker with more formal front and rear clips. But 1975 was not the end of the Imperial story, as one particular Chrysler CEO had high Imperial aspirations. To get to this point for Imperial, let’s talk about Ford.

Between the 1976 and 1980 model years, there were no Imperials. The most expensive Chrysler you could buy was the New Yorker, and it couldn’t quite compete with the offerings from Cadillac and Lincoln. We mentioned the price and sales last time chasm between the Imperials and the Cadillac Eldorado, and in particular the Lincoln Continental Mark IV. You see, the luxury market was changing at that time and the PLC (Personal Luxury Coupe) was all the rage. The sedan was no longer the elegant luxury choice, which is not too far from the current year, really.

The top of the PLC stack was the aforementioned Continental Mark IV, which cost a lot of money in the 70s and cost a lot more than the Eldorado or its then extinct Imperial counterpart. The man behind the transformation of the extinct Mark name into a new PLC was Ford President Lee Iacocca. A significant force behind cars like the original Mustang and European-market Ford Escort, Iacocca helped Ford transform the 1967 fifth-generation Ford Thunderbird (it’s the one that had the Town Landau sedan) into the Continental Mark III from 1968 which was a huge success.

Continental Mark switched to the IV in 1972 and continued its great PLC success. Said Mark IV was still for sale when Imperial closed. Although Ford’s profits were impressive ($2 billion in 1977), behind the scenes things weren’t going so well: Iacocca couldn’t get along with his superior, Henry Ford II. The tensions resulted in Iacocca’s dismissal in July 1978.

Iacocca found immediate re-employment at Chrysler, where the struggling company named him CEO. Chrysler’s product needed a makeover, and Iacocca was the man for the job. Particularly attractive on Iacocca’s resume was his success with the Mark III. Chrysler felt it could likely repeat the success of the Mark with a new Imperial flagship, as the company planned to go directly after the Lincoln Mark IV/V. It was Imperial PLC time.

For his part, Iacocca believed that a new flagship would show domestic customers that Chrysler had a bright future and was no longer hovering around the drain. Said customers should be unaware that Iacocca went to the US Congress as the new Chrysler president in 1979 and negotiated a federally guaranteed loan in exchange for a big financial rationalization. But surely the Imperial name had enough cachet to win, considering this was a quality-built paragon of luxury just 25 years before.

But what style should you choose for a flagship luxury coupe? Chrysler’s standard M-body appearance wouldn’t cut it, so Iacocca went in a bold new direction: a bustle. The styling trend was something the market had never seen before and aimed to return to the 1940s. This was a time when luxury cars like the Imperial or a Rolls-Royce had long, wide fenders and a trunk that appeared to be added as an extension of the body. The 1940s look was itself a throwback to the early 20th century, when a trunk was literally luggage attached to the car. Perhaps the modern adventure lifestyle equivalent of this outdoor storage is a Thule roof box.

Cadillac was the first to make a restless look, which debuted on the new Seville for 1980. Chrysler was second with the new Imperial for 1981, and the third and final restlessness came in 1982 when Lincoln introduced the new Fox-bodied Continental. Although they all featured the same general angular rear styling, the Imperial was the only one that also took the rest of the car in a new direction. Both the Seville and the Continental were Standard sedan-like designs, with the bustleback added as an interesting rear flourish. Iacocca made sure the whole Imperial got a new type of design.

And what a design it was. It was unlike anything else on the road in 1981 and was certainly a bold choice for a new Imperial experience. The front featured a large, finely veined waterfall grille, similar in shape to that found on the later Imperial. The 1975 wraparound grille veining was replaced with a thicker chrome top above the grille, like a Lincoln. The bumper vents added on the final 1975 Imperial, supported by grille inserts as before, were carried over. The bumper came to a point in the middle, which was a familiar design queue for any living Imperial customer. Said bumper also wrapped around the front of the fender as before, although it did feature a horizontal black trim strip in place of the ’70s bump stops.

The headlights were concealed as they had been before, although the new Imperial lacked the vertical Lincoln-style indicator lights on the fenders. Instead, there were running lights below the headlights, which were always visible and generous in proportion. The strong fenders showed nearly vertical edges at the front; set back slightly for a more modern look. The front parking lamps were a similar amber and clear design to what they had been before, and were similar in size to Seventies Imperials. The power dome hood was of its time and expected on this type of luxury car.

A strong wing crease was also an expectation. He ran along the body, through the door above the doorknob. Although it ended before the C-pillar, the placement of the character line was similar to the extinct Imperial of the 70s. There was a secondary character line that ran from below the headlight and around the wheel arch , accentuated by a rubbing strip down the middle of the car, then extended to the rear light. Chrome trim was minimal for the moment, and was used much more sparingly than in other PLC contests. Aside from the grille, body chrome was limited to the window surrounds, mirrors, the aforementioned rubbing strip and around the wheel arches. That may seem like a lot, but we can be sure that in 1981, the PLC land, it was not. The B-pillar sported an opera lamp, a little more modern in its interpretation than other opera lamps of the time.

The wheels were also bare of chrome, as Iacocca opted for a polished snowflake alloy look. The wheels looked almost like Pontiac. Unlike the traditional white walls, the red center caps added a sportier look. For the traditional customer, real wire wheels were also available. They read Imperial on their centers, but were not commonly equipped.

Imperial’s rear was its defining styling feature and contained all the bustle goodness that everyone was so keen to implement at the time. The D-pillar cut at a sharp angle to the roof and formed a new character line that ran very defined along the rear window and along the rear 3/4 of the fender. Its terminus was a few centimeters from the bumper, where it faded into the sheet metal. The rear bumper was very similar to the front and came to a point in the middle. It wore a similar black trim strip and spared its use of chrome. The lower half of the bumper was body colored instead of chrome.

The trunk lid itself was prominent and indeed looked like an add-on (as expected). It was very boxy and featured a slight rear slope that was less aggressive than the character line of the roof. there was a crease in the metal in the middle, interrupted by the chrome license plate mounting area. The placement of the plate high up was likely chosen to avoid interrupting the smooth lines of the brake light and bumper, as the plate would take up a lot of space on either. Beneath the plate were two thin horizontal chrome strips, which encased a full-width brake light and its integrated center reverse light. The continuous look was divided by a thin vertical chrome strip located in the center, and would have looked much better without it.

Iacocca again opted for an independent brand with Imperial, which resulted in a distinct lack of badging. There was a Chrysler Pentastar on the front, an Imperial badge behind the front wheels, and a small Imperial badge on the rear. Chrysler did not appear anywhere on the car. The marketing simply said “Imperial”.

Although it was an all-new design on the exterior, the elements under and inside the Imperial were much less special than the exterior. And those two things were just the start of the coupe’s problems. We will address that next time.

[Images: Chrysler]

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