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Image: 1976 Imperial LeBaron 2-Door Hardtop

1976 Imperial: a case of mistaken identity?

1976 Chrysler

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Pity the Poor Imperial!—Part Two

Image: 1976 Chrysler Imperial brochureSo the death notices had been published, dealers had been notified of the demise, and the Imperial nameplate was carefully put aside for the time being. So why then did an Imperial appear on the cover of the 1976 Chrysler brochure? Why indeed!

In a rather brazen move, Chrysler's product planners made the Imperial magically reappear in a New Yorker Brougham! The car sure looked like an Imperial, but the Imperial and LeBaron nameplates, Eagle emblems, and formal backlight were nowhere to be found. Some standard items on the Imperial were moved to the options list, so the base price could be lowered. On the rear quarter panels, the shield-shaped Imperial side marker lights were replaced with unadorned rectangular lights. New Yorker Brougham script, emblems, and wheel covers were fitted. Viola! It was done. In the blink of any eye, Chrysler's finest motorcar, the Imperial, was reborn as a New Yorker. (See the real 1976 Chrysler Brochure cover; link opens in new window or tab.) To some, it would have been like seeing someone that you knew had died walking down the street. Robert McCurry, group vice president for U.S. automotive sales stated that "This was accomplished by combining our strongest name, 'New Yorker,' with our best-styled car, 'Imperial.' We thought [this] would give us the best of two worlds, and it did."

There's little doubt that the more than $2,000 reduction in base price would help increase sales, and it did. One only wonders what might have been had Chrysler cut the price of the Imperial by this much, by doing the same thing. This move would not be unprecedented, as Lincoln reduced its level of standard equipment in 1966 and 1976, in order to keep prices down, and presented this move to the public as a way of making sure Lincolns could be tailored to the specific requirements of individual customers. That move didn't seem to hurt Lincoln in any way.

So, there it was...the Imperial with the New Yorker name and emblems tacked on. Items like four wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, tinted glass, cornering lights, illuminated visor vanity mirror, and automatic height control got bumped to the options list, but many of the Imperial's other luxury amenities remained, such as the rear seat reading lamps, C-pillar foam pillows, lavaliere straps (on the 4-door hardtop), pillowed 50/50 divided seats, etc.

Ultimately, this decision was a good move for Chrysler, as 39,837 New Yorker Broughams were built in 1976. This reflected an increase of more than 16,000 units over Imperial's production for 1974 and 1975 added together. Why the car didn't sell as an Imperial, but was a success as a New Yorker is beyond explanation, other than perhaps people thought an Imperial was just too exclusive for them.

Image: 1983 Chrysler ImperialThe premium luxury car market in America was changing at this time, and by 1977 Cadillac would downsize most of its cars in an attempt to offer better fuel economy, and be able to compete better with the luxury imports that were taking customers away from the traditional American luxury makes. By 1980, Lincoln would also downsize. Unknown to many in 1976, the Imperial would return for 1981. This time it would come back as a premium luxury two door coupe, and would include a lengthy list of standard equipment, with just a few options. It's nice to know that Chrysler hadn't given up completely on the Imperial, but even this generation would not sell well. Technically complex, they had problems with the electronic fuel injection, which necessitated a factory program to retrofit a carburetor in its place. Early deck lids didn't drain water properly and were prone to corrosion. Problems such as this tarnished the Imperial's reputation, creating yet another objection to be overcome by dealers attempting to sell Imperials. Once again, the Imperial was beautiful, elegant, and worthy of consideration by anyone seeking luxury transportation...but the new Imperials sat on dealer lots waiting to be sold.

This Imperial body style would be built for just three years, 1981-1983, after which it would be discontinued again. But still it would not die. Another Imperial, this time a four door model, would be introduced in 1990. Built on the same front wheel drive platform as that year's New Yorker, the Imperial was priced several thousand dollars higher at $24,995. Sales of 13,882 cars were the high point, dropping off each year until the Imperial was once again discontinued in May 1993, with sales of just 6,233 cars and a price of $29,381. It was an unacceptable ending for a motorcar of Imperial's stature, but in all honesty the final series wasn't worthy of the Imperial name in the first place.

Image: 2006 Chrysler Imperial Show CarA beautiful Imperial show car (left) hit the auto show circuit in 2006. It was based on the production Chrysler 300, but had completely different styling, center-opening rear doors, a highly styled bucket seat interior, and a massive, powerful appearance. Eva Longoria of Desperate Housewives fame appeared with the car at its introduction, and told the press she was "desperate for an Imperial." While the car drew raves from some, others didn't care for it. Originally planned for a 2010 introduction, at the time of this writing (June 2010), it's doubtful that this car will be built given the difficult economic climate around the world. Chrysler has been through difficult times in recent years, but seems to be gaining traction again. We hope Chrysler as well as the other American car makers survive and prosper again in the future. They have built some incredible machines over the years, and we have every reason to expect they will do so going forward.

Automotive Mileposts cannot explain with any degree of certainty why the Imperial failed to achieve better sales over the years. Automotive magazines and writers of the time loved the car. It consistently received high marks when compared to Cadillac and Lincoln, but both outsold the Imperial virtually every single year. 1957 was Imperial's high water mark, when it introduced soaring rocket ship tail fins to the world. The 1957 Imperial, along with other Chrysler products that year, set the pace for automotive styling for the next few years. And while the Imperial had everyone's attention in 1957, it was not a good year for quality control at Chrysler, which certainly was not helpful in moving Imperials out the door.

Over the years, events that would make it more difficult to maintain Imperial's exclusivity occurred. At times, budgets seemed to be very strained, likely due to slow sales. This resulted in years when Imperial print advertising was in black and white when almost all other car makes were using full color ads. This did little to enhance Imperial's exclusive image. Then, to cut costs, Imperial lost its manufacturing facility at the end of the 1961 model year, next went the body on frame construction when the 1967 Imperial switched to a unit body, Imperial's unique body disappeared in 1969, as Imperial was now forced to share with other Chrysler models. The Chrysler name was put back on the Imperial in 1971, the first time since the mid-fifties that the car was officially identified as a Chrysler Imperial.

All of this tended to work against the image Chrysler had tried to establish for the Imperial. That was one of quality, exclusivity, supreme comfort and convenience, as well as performance and handling, which was often overlooked on luxury cars. Perhaps all of these elements are what make the Imperial what it is. Could it be that whatever eluded Imperial buyers over the years was also responsible for defining the Imperial?

Imperial's story is one of the most interesting in automotive history. Thousands of Imperial enthusiasts today understand the Imperial's unique qualities. As always, there's nothing quite like an Imperial, and each and every one still demands the respect, attention and admiration of all who are fortunate enough to see one.

Editor's note: To date, Automotive Mileposts has published sections on the 1960-1968 and 1974-1975 Imperials. We will be adding additional information and pages to these sections in the future, so they really aren't "complete." We still look forward to publishing the 1955-1959 and 1981-1983 Imperial sections, which are scheduled for future publication. We do not have plans to cover the 1990-1993 cars. The 1955-1978 Chrysler New Yorker has been suggested by site visitors to be added to the site, and as of this writing these New Yorkers have been approved for future publication.

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