Collectible Classic: 1981-1983 Chrysler Imperial

Bob Merlis
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Patrick M. Hoey

After convincing the federal government to stave off bankruptcy with passage of the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979, Lee Iacocca was on a roll. The company was getting back on its feet and readying the launch of the monumentally successful K-car and its many profitable derivatives.

Front-wheel-drive compact cars were obviously the wave of Chrysler’s future, but the tastes of traditionalists (read: older folks) had to be addressed. The company’s M-body platform, the basis for taxi and police fleets, was reborn as the J-body for the Cordoba and Mirada “personal luxury” coupes. The ne plus ultra J-body was the Imperial. The nameplate had been a top-of-the-line Chrysler model until 1954, when it was launched as its own marque until the plug was pulled twenty years later.

In 1981, the Chrysler Imperial was reborn and available only as a two-door, long-hood coupe with razor-edge slantback styling, akin to the second-generation Cadillac Seville. The Imperial’s take on the bustle back was less clumsy than Cadillac’s; the shape is refreshingly angular, the posture taut. The new Imperial line consisted of just one model, equipped with everything that could be imagined, all standard except a moonroof.

The Chrysler Imperial had it all: A remote trunk release. Concealed headlights. A fully electronic digital dashboard—odometer, speedometer, clock, fuel mileage monitor, gear indicator—was viewed via vacuum fluorescent display. Cruise control, power door locks, an integrated garage-door opener, air-conditioning, and power seats, not to mention a Mark Cross gift set with umbrella, were also part of the package.

Iacocca pal Frank Sinatra was enlisted to act as the car’s spokesman, and the two were featured in a magazine ad under the heading: “The Chairman of the Board tells ‘The Chairman of the Board’ why it’s time for Imperial.” That supposed conversation serves as the basis for Irish artist Gerard Byrne’s recent “Why It’s Time for Imperial, Again” video-installation piece that the New York Times called “a meditation on consumerism, urban decay, the energy crisis, and the automobile industry.”

The dialogue between the two “chairmen” was artful enough to spawn a special Frank Sinatra Edition Chrysler Imperial, available only in glacier blue to match Sinatra’s eyes. It carried special gold badging, a console with sixteen Sinatra cassettes from Reprise Records, and a cassette carrying case by Mark Cross. The interior is as sumptuous as any car of the era. The blue carpet that crawls up the door panels is closer to faux orangutan fur than deep pile; seats were trimmed in either Mark Cross leather or velvet. It even came wearing jewelry: the pentastars on the hood ornament, the steering wheel, and the B-pillar were real Cartier crystal.

When Chrysler put in its initial order for the Sinatra cassettes, Lou Dennis was the sales director at Warner Brothers Records, the parent company of Reprise. Dennis, exercising fiduciary caution, refused to fill the order for such titles as September of My Years, Sinatra’s Sinatra, and It Might As Well Be Swing without full payment in advance. Federal loan guarantees notwithstanding, he thought Chrysler could still fold, so cash up front was the only way he’d ship to the carmaker.

Bruce Balasky of—where else?—Las Vegas owns this ’82 Imperial FS Edition that is “as new” with just 21,000 miles indicated on the display. It’s stock as stock can be with original Goodyear Arriva radials mounted on rims wearing wire wheel covers (pictured) or, if Balasky so chooses, on “snowflake” cast-aluminum wheels. As with the upholstery, customers had a choice; he has both.

Those Arrivas make for a very smooth ride, and the car handles effortlessly, if somewhat somnambulantly. It doesn’t have a whole lot of grunt but that’s not really the point; cushy luxury and Sinatra music on the stereo is what it’s all about. The car had just 7000 miles on it when Balasky bought it in 2001, and no effort was spared to bring it up to snuff in every way. He went so far as to obtain a bolt of the original “Kimberly Velvet cloth” and had it matched “stitch for stitch,” he says, and hand-pinstriped the body after it had been repainted. There’s simply no detail left unattended. “I plan to own this car until the day I die,” he emphatically insists.

What’s technically not original to the car is a two-barrel carburetor setup. Imperials came with electronic fuel injection, which had been developed by Chrysler’s Electronics Division in the wake of the conclusion of the Apollo program. That space-age EFI turned out to be problematic, though, with owners reporting cars gasping for breath and stalling out. As a “make good,” Chrysler underwrote carburetor conversions, whence cometh Balasky’s.

Scuttlebutt has it that Sinatra’s personal car embarrassed its namesake by stalling out in public. As Balasky understands it, Ol’ Blue Eyes demanded that his initials and, one assumes, the library of cassettes be disassociated from the car. The Imperial’s last model year was 1983, but no FS Edition was offered. A case of “riding high in April, shot down in May”?

The Specs

Engine 5.2L (318 cu in) OHV V-8, 140 hp, 240–245 lb-ft
Transmission 3-speed automatic
Drive Rear-wheel
Front Suspension Control arms, torsion bars
Rear Suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Brakes F/R Discs/drums
Weight 3950 lb

The Info

Years Produced 1981–1983
Number Produced12,385 (427 were 1981 and 1982 FS Editions)
Original Price $18,311 (1981; the FS Edition cost an extra $1078)
Value Today $4000–$6000. FS Editions typically carry a premium of about $2500.

Why Buy?
Because, like The Man noted, “it might as well be swing.” Even if you aren’t able to score an FS Edition, any Imperial of this era is uniquely conversation-worthy. Driving one is actually a pleasant experience (think down-filled dampers), especially on freeways, but as Sinatra might have said or sung, “Take it nice and easy” and enjoy the ride. Even at the time of its introduction, the ’81–’83 Imperial skewed retro. In light of this, you may wish to think of it as a well-tailored, tufted time machine. This is what unbridled luxury looked and felt like thirty-five years ago. And it kinda swung, baby.

Scott Ballew
I love mine. With all due respect, not a piece of junk.  http://www.pinterest.com/ballesco/chrysler-imperial-for-1981-1982-and-1983-the-luxur/
johncarync
My father looked at the Imperial when it came out in 1981. What turned him off was the size of the gas tank--its capacity was only 13 gallons. With a 16 MPG rating in the city, it meant you would be stopping to refuel every 200 miles. Not as big a deal today since you wouldn't use it as a daily driver.
andyoo
piece of junk.

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