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1981 to 1983 Imperial cars: Cordoba based luxury


In 1981, the final traditional V8-powered Imperial was introduced.

Past Imperials had been based on Chryslers, with top of the line engines, and this one was no different, except that the basic body had not been designed with Chrysler in mind; it was an adaptation of the B-body, popularly sold in prior years as the Plymouth Belvedere and Dodge Coronet.

mark cross interior

Burton Bouwkamp wrote:

I remember the 1981 Imperial well because I was Director of Body Engineering from 1979 to 1983.

The 1981-1983 Imperial two door model was by command of Lee Iacocca after he asked, "where the hell is our Cadillac/Lincoln entry?" The 1981 model was derived from the Cordoba platform and had its own sheet metal, instrument panel, etc. It was a pretty good looking car. We built it but we couldn’t sell it - so it faded out of production in 1983. I think we built a total of about 17,000 over the three years. (It seems that every time we got a new CEO we resurrected the Imperial. We had buried the previous one in 1976 or 1977. Lee came to Chrysler in 1978.)


I also remember too well other times that we tried to be competitive in the luxury car market because I was Director of Product Planning from 1968 to 1975. It took more merchandizing and manufacturing and product commitment than the management was willing to spend to penetrate the luxury car market. Part of the problem was selling and servicing Imperials from the same dealerships as Plymouths. Imagine waiting in line behind several Plymouths to get your Imperial serviced — or being approached in the showroom by a "what do you want?" Plymouth sales person

1981 Imperial

The second generation Chrysler Cordoba — originally meant to be a Plymouth — and Dodge Mirada formed the basis for the Imperial, the highest nameplate ever assigned to a Chrysler Corporation vehicle. This final Imperial-brand car (as opposed to the final Chrysler Imperial) ran the economy 318, fitted with an early electronic fuel injection system, rather than the traditional big block engines.

1983 Chrysler Imperial

diagnostic gearThe Imperial was billed as “a new kind of personal luxury car — smaller, more fuel efficient, technologically advanced, and built to a remarkably high standard of quality.” 

While each car went on a five-and-a-half mile test drive and had numerous checks by technicians before they were shipped out, most of these claims could be disputed by owners; the electronic fuel injection system, Chrysler’s second (the first appeared in 1958 and was very similar in design), was not known for its stalwart durability.

Fuel efficiency was a matter of perspective; the Imperial used a mere 318 cubic inch V8, which may have gotten better mileage than the fire-breathing Hemis or 440 V8s of past Imperials, but was not in quite the same class of power, while still not being able to claim to be fuel-efficient in the presence of 30-mpg front-drivers.

The modern look of the grille and the almost-unique trunk area had been penned back in 1977, when it was expected to be eighter the next-generation Cordoba or a new Chrysler called LaScala.

Mark Cross gift set with umbrellaEach new 1981 Imperial came with a Mark Cross Gift Set, with a leather bound folder (including an embossed Mark Cross emblem), an umbrella with the emblem, a gold and leather key fob, and a spare uncut Cartier crystal ignition/door key. The CEO of Mark Cross appeared in advertisements for the car.

The Imperial was sold only as a two-door hardtop, two feet shorter and 800 pounds lighter than the 1975 Imperial two-door. It had a single factory option (unless you counted special editions): a power moonroof.

Included with the Imperial were numerous features which, at the time, were unusual and definitely high-end: thermostatic temperature control, a garage door opener, electrically heated and adjusted rearview mirrors, electronic instrument cluster, power trunk release, 500 amp battery, rear window defroster, leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-beam map/dome lights, cruise control, power windows and locks, extensive sound insulation, and a powerful (for the time) 30-watt stereo.

Buyers could choose between chrome-plated wheel covers designed to look like wire wheels, or a cast aluminum road wheel; and they could choose between a cassette player (with Dolby noise reduction, of course), an 8-track, or the ever-popular CB radio, complete with microphone, digital tuner, and strength meter.


The Imperial was upgraded beyond the comfortable Cordoba with more acoustic control, heavier-gauge steel for the hood, deck, roof, and quarter panels, and a high trim level. Aerodynamic styling brought 14% lower wind resistance than “previous Chrysler cars of this class,” for a .7 mpg gain over “these cars” as well as a quieter interior. (One can assume the “previous cars” refers not to the 1975 Imperial but to the 1980 Cordoba.) 


Imperial was tested far more than most Chrysler Corporation cars, with a high pressure leak test, electroncis check, underbody bolt torque inspection, engine check (while warm), front end alignment, and other tests and checks done to each and every Imperial coming down the line. These included a five and a half mile road test over varying terrain.

water testThe warranty was also better than just about any other car — it covered every part, other than tires, for two years or 30,000 miles, whichever came first. The rust warranty lasted three years.

Electronic instrument clusters would become commonplace, eventually — indeed, even cars with “analog” displays are now electronically driven. The Imperial’s, though, was unique, and showed off using digital readouts. Engineered by Chrysler and made in the Huntsville electronics plant (sold to Siemens under Daimler), the system was designed to provide reminders for washer fluid, oil pressure, temperature, door-ajar, brake problems, and low voltage; because these used ordinary lights, the cluster automatically checked for dead bulbs. Digital display graphics used blue-green vacuum-fluorescent tubes, with what may have been the first “square around the gear” PRNDL.

Imperial interior

The gas gauge could read in terms of the expected range (miles left before empty), and the whole panel could be switched easily between English and metric. A microprocessor controlled displays for time, speed, distance travelled, fuel level, and gear, taking its information from a quartz crystal (for time), a reed switch in the speedometer cable, a fuel flowmeter and sending unit in the tank, headlight switch, and driver’s seat switch. The fuel reminder was set to light when just two gallons were left in the tank. When the display switched to 0 gallons, there was still a reserve of around 5 liters. A trip feature showed the gas mileage since the last manual reset, or the instant gas mileage; both relied on the fuel flowmeter.


The electronic odometer read up to 199,999 miles; a trip odometer could go up to 2,500 miles. The digital speedometer was limited to just 85 mph (137 km/h) in the US and Canada, and up to 120 mph (193 km/h) elsewhere; speed was updated twice per second by a sensor that took readings every eight inches of vehicle travel.

Sinatra Edition seatsThe electronic chronometer was accurate up to 80 seconds in 30 days, within a temperature range of -40°F to 185°F; most auto clocks at the time were only accurate to 30 seconds per day. The chronometer could report on the month, day, and date, and had a 99 hour, 59 minute timer; it could be set to run only when the car was running.

The Imperial provided passengers with a perhaps more useful change from past vehicles: instead of merely buzzing as a warning, the Imperial provided chimes (for seat belts unfastened), beeps (for keys left in the ignition), or a continuous tone (headlights on while the driver's door is open).

The Imperial should have been a profit-maker, as an expensive luxury coupe based on an economy-car chassis and architecture, regardless of how many extra acoustic panels were installed. It may not have broken even, but, since two other vehicles were made on the same basic structure, it still helped to cut corporate losses; Cordoba sales were falling fast, and the Mirada wasn’t a breakout success. Had the fuel injection system worked properly, the car may have been a boon to Chrysler’s balance sheets; at $20,988 (list) it was the most expensive standard production car made by an American automaker in 1981. The power moonroof added $1,044.


The 1981-1983 Imperial may have been the first to run officially at NASCAR; Buddy Arrington (number 67), who also drove Miradas, used a 1981-83 Imperial on superspeedways, due to its more aerodynamic body. However, the company that was first to the wind-tunnel and computer-aided design had not done enough drag-reduction to make up for the lower power and lack of Richard Petty, and the car’s showing was lackluster.

Frank Sinantra edition: 1981 - 1982 Imperial FS

Sinatra edition Imperial

cassettesBurton Bouwkamp wrote, “To try to stimulate sales we even did a ‘Blue Eyes’ special model that was the color of Frank Sinatra's eyes [Glaciar Blue paint]. The buyer also got a console full of Frank Sinatra cassettes with the car. (Frank and Lee were buddies then and called each other ‘Chairman.’)” The Frank Sinatra edition was made in 1981 and 1982, costing a stunning $2,000 more.

The “FS” Imperials also included platinum-color carpet, sky-blue leather or velour, emblems, a console that held 10 cassettes, and a leather cassette carrying case. 278 of the special-order cars were made, a decent number considering the added cost of the car and the ready availability of Frank Sinatra cassettes.

1981 Imperial

Sales and product planning

imperial salesUntil 1979, the Cordoba had sold an easy six figures each year, but in 1981, with its new body and styling, just over 20,000 left the factory; times had changed and rear wheel drive was out of fashion. The similar Mirada didn't do much better, with fewer than 12,000 selling in 1981.

Imperial’s first-year 7,225 sales sound better in that context; but in 1983, its run over, just 12,385 Imperials had been sold.

The later front wheel drive Chrysler Imperial sold over 13,000 cars in its first year alone, and it, too, was considered a failure.

As with the Volare, Mirada, and Cordoba, the Imperial had a transverse torsion-bar suspension and leaf springs in back.

Product planners originally intended the Imperial to be either the new Cordoba or a new model called the Chrysler LaScala, projected for introduction in late 1980; Steven N. Bollinger’s styling was essentially complete by 1977, including the bustle-back trunk later assumed to be an imitation of Cadillac’s 1980 Seville. When the car was first put into clay, the big-car nameplates had just been brought down and re-applied to B-bodies, which were spruced up to match the names.

Imperial’s unique electronic fuel injection system

While Volkswagen had started putting multiple-point fuel injection into its humble Rabbit in 1979, Chrysler engineers may have been leery of the system due to the disastrous 1958 DeSoto Electrojectors and their Chrysler-branded brethren; certainly the high cost of the system, $100 or more over the cost of a carburetor, would have given the executives pause. But it was hard to deny that a good fuel injection system, such as Volkswagen’s (which was an evolution of the one Chrysler had tried in 1958!), greatly improved driveability, adding power, smoothing the idle, cutting fuel use, making life much easier in cold weather, eliminating the choke and carb tuning, and slashing pollutants.

J-body ImperialUnfortunately, the Imperial did not have a good fuel injection system, at least not in terms of reliability.

The system used a single, electronically controlled throttle-body fuel injector; sensors provided information on fuel and air temperatures, throttle position, air and fuel flow, antifreeze temperature, engine speed, oxygen in the exhaust, and idle switch position, and the computer altered fuel flow and spark advance. Most components were made in Huntsville, and the system was designed and built by Chrysler. It was very different from the system that would eventually be used in all four-cylinder engines.

The 318 gained some horsepower, boosting it to an even 140, but due to repeated problems, Chrysler once again ended up replacing many of the systems with a two-barrel carburetor and manifold assembly similar to the 5th Avenue and other M-body cars, or providing repeated service until the warranties ended at 50,000 miles.

garage door opener

Garage door receiver (Stuart Suede photo)

Stuart D. Somers wrote, “The throttle body fuel injection gave a lot of trouble. Chrysler soon discovered that someone who could afford a $20,000 car could also afford an attorney! Instead of repairing the fuel injection, Chrysler replaced them with a carburetor. The kit included a new gas tank, complete exhaust system, and a new digital dashboard, and, of course, the intake manifold and carburetor.”

Paul noted that many of the cars would run well until 25 mph, at which point they would stall; he said, “under the car, under the passenger's seat, is an assembly of fuel filters. It's just two regular filters connected in parallel with a metal Y at each end... the fuel system pumps a lot of fuel to cool the pump in the air-cleaner. Also, the engine computer is very picky about any air leaks.”

Paul added, “Even with all the quirks of the 'hydraulic support plate' (that throttle-body fuel injection creature living under the air cleaner) it was, and still is, a head turner.”

Ted Wozniak, owner of the Imperial dragster, wrote that each Imperial produced in the three-year run reportedly cost Chrysler over $10,000 in warranty claims. The free factory carburetor conversions were a $3,500 kit plus 50 technician hours, per car; Chrysler extended the EFI system warranty to 50,000 miles for all owners.

Imperial dragster

Ted himself bought a used 1983 model with 47,000 miles that would sometimes shut down at random places, or fail to start; other times, it would be very smooth. Chrysler’s Imperial EFI guru suggested taking the car to Marietta Chrysler Plymouth and letting Chuck, their foremost Southeast U.S. tech, check it out. The dealer had the car for three days and changed virtually every component in the system — for no charge. Unfortunately, that didn’t fix the problems.

Richard Samul wrote:

In the late 1970s, I worked on Chrysler's first attempt [since 1958] at electronic fuel metering, to replace the carburetor on engines.  The project was started in a large tent, built at the north end of the Highland Park Engineering complex.  This was the old outdoor styling department, a fenced-in area that had been used for publicity photos shoots in the past.  ...  Because this project was new technology -- and deemed a possible fire hazard -- initial testing took place outdoors.

The 1981-83 Chrysler Imperial production run used the electronic fuel metering system.  This system was prone to magnetic fields generated by power lines along roadways.  This caused the fuel system to go rich at partial throttle and affected drivability.  ... Frank Sinatra was one of the “customers” not pleased.  

1981 imperial

Marcos wrote that the Imperial used a unique fuel injection system, in some ways unlike the 1958 Electrojectors or the later Chrysler TBI and MPI systems:

The Imperial fuel injection was a continuous-flow, electronically controlled system. A low pressure electric pump in the tank supplied fuel to a high pressure control pump inside the air cleaner assembly. The speed of the control pump determined the quantity of fuel injected and was controlled by the computer by varying the voltage supplied to it.

Fuel was injected by a spray bar assembly. The output from the control pump fed a regulator assembly that had 2 tubes coming out of it on each side, which jutted out over the throttle openings, and each bar had 2 fuel openings over each throttle plate (for a total of 8) There was a "low-speed" spray bar which worked up to about 30psi, and the fuel openings had brass nozzles on them to promote a fine spray. Above 30psi, the regulator opened to send fuel to the "high-speed" fuel bar. The openings were just pinholes, and delivered fuel in a stream, but it was said that the velocity of the air going through encouraged enough atomization.

In principle, it was a very simple system. A mass air (not manifold pressure) sensor determines the quantity of air being ingested. The computer drives the pump and an optical flow meter on the outlet provides a feedback signal to control the air fuel ratio. The o2 sensor provides further feedback for fine tuning, and a means of calibration for open loop modes. These three sensor inputs were the main ones. Temperature sensors for the air and fuel provided adjustment as needed, and the distributor pickup, and throttle position sensors (with separate closed-throttle switch) provided for certain modes of operation.

fuel injection

Inside the computer are two separate boards. One is basically the electronic spark control computer as used on other models, with a second board for fuel control. Since there is no manifold pressure sensor, the fuel board calculates this and sends the load signal to the spark board. (A third smaller board is a calibration circuit for the fuel ratio, what we know today as long term fuel trim.)

throttle bodyThis system was plagued by electrical issues, mainly due to the somewhat primitive design and crude components. The biggest complaints were stalling or no-start. The auto shutdown relay was its own module with its own inputs and was prone to being tripped by electrical noise. Also, due to being mass-air-sensed through the air cleaner snorkel, it was very sensitive to vacuum leaks. Corroded connectors and grounds caused lots of issues over the years.

When they run, they run very well, much better and smoother than the 2bbl 318s of the time. They incorporated several physical features around the throttle butterflies and throats to improve fuel atomization. These cars were capable of pretty decent fuel economy.

1981-1983 body codes

This Imperial was a J-body, the same as the Cordoba and Mirada, but the carline was Y, standing for Imperial in the VIN (Y was used instead of I because an I can be confused with a 1). Gil Cunningham of the Chrysler 300 Club wrote that “As far back as October 5, 1978 the Y carline was included in the J body area of the [internal Chrysler] Model Chart. The name Imperial was added sometime between January 25 and September 10, 1980.”

The 1981 service manual confused the issue somewhat by listing the Y as a separate body from the J (Mirada-X, Cordoba-S). If the service manual was correct, the Y-line Imperial was given a Y-body designation in 1981-83. Also see The Imperialist (Dave Duricy's site) and:

Also see: 1969-1973 Imperials | 318 V8 engines | TorqueFlite automatics | Cordoba | Magnum | Volare-Aspen

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