Celebrity endorsements of products weren’t anything new when morning re-dawn’d in ‘Murica in 1981. However, there was heightened trust put in old white dude celebrities where, perhaps, there shouldn’t have been. We had former actor Ronald Reagan as President that year. Reagan beguiled us with tales (perhaps too familiar 35 years into the future) about using traditional, conservative family values to return America. It was bought by the majority of voters still slumbering in a long term malaise that had dominated most of the 1970’s.
We also had Frank Sinatra providing a little blue light special to a gussied up Cordoba. Using the cachet that a regal name had, Lee Iacocca hoped for a lil’ Black Magic and inspiration to distract potential customers from Mopar’s Bankruptcy woes.
Once among the crowned luxury boats docked in Country Club parking lots during the 1950’s and 60’s, the Imperial name forever struggled to break out of being forever bonded to the image of being a “Chrysler”-Imperial. Even at their most unique, they still shared a befinned wonder with a bevy of Mopar products during Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look” years. Where Cadillac design traits trickled down as costume Jewelry for Oldsmobile Ninety Eights and Chevrolet Caprices, too often trends from the latest Plymouth Fury of Dodge Monaco pushed up into Imperial design language, if Imperial bothered to keep the family resemblance at all (Hi 1964-66 models).
The name went into hiatus in 1976, and found more glory as a New Yorker as GM downsized and those raised during the depression saw these bargain bauble barges as being better for less. However it left Chrysler without the premium profit margins it could sorely use that GM had in spades with Cadillac, Lincoln slightly lesser for Ford. Personal coupes, long a segment Mopar floundered in or didn’t bother with, finally became a target zone. Given the success of the “Small” Cordoba during the second half of the 1970’s, Chrysler decided the perfect plan for the 2nd generation cars would be to mimic General Motors structure of E-Body personal coupes.
The issues with the plan might highlight the reduced resources Highland Park worked with during these dismal days. These J Platform coupes in Miranda (Dodge) Cordoba (Chrysler) and Imperial flavors may have looked up to date with their chiseled looks, and might have still worked the bigger is better ethos better during the stumble of Ford’s personal coupe downsizing.
Underneath the new suit were tired old bones however, as the basic chassis design went back to the original Plymouth Valiant, introduced some 20+ years earlier. The Imperial came along at a point where both GM and Ford’s Miss Piggies in evening gowns Nova based Seville and Lincoln’s Granada (which in reality meant 1960 Falcon) based Versailles were put out to pasture for more modern offerings.
Iacocca, fresh from making silk purses out of sows ears at Ford knew the right lights and mirrors can help distract cynical buyers. Richardo Montalan’s accented voice helped sell the first generation Cordoba. So Iacocca called on an institution, the epitome of Mid Century Cool, the head of the Rat Pack, the wily Sagittarius Frank Sinatra. Better yet, befitting the Italian swagger, yet all American charm of Old Blue Eyes, Frank sold a special FS package on the new Imperials.
The problem was, all the slathering of new often, literally, just did not work. Primitive Electronic Fuel Injection meant the $20,000 + re-birth of the cool often just didn’t start. Fine and dandy if you wanted another living room in your garage to listen to the included Frank Sinatra tapes, but not exactly conducive to getting anywhere useful.
It proved a failed experiment. Where the M-Body Fifth Avenue would defy all odds and become a beloved anachronism through the rest of the 80’s (and becoming Judge Wapner’s chariot in the opening credits of “The Peoples Court), the J-Body Imperial lived a short 3 seasons. Only 2,329 of these 1982 versions came out of factories. They’re an interesting tale of what can be sold of past accomplishments in the present. With the right balance, the right execution, and a bit of luck people will still buy old ideas. Try a little too hard, shoot a little too high, and it might come crashing down in flames, forever slandering a good name.