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

Imperial's story, more than just a car (Part XVIII)

In our latest installment of our long-running Imperial coverage, the 80s began with a resurrection of the Imperial name and the debut of an exciting new personal luxury coupe. Chrysler’s new president, Lee Iacocca, was determined to recreate the runaway success he had had at Ford with the Lincoln Continental Mark III. But that meant simultaneous demand that buyers of luxury coupes ignore the very recent financial troubles that have plagued the Detroit automaker. And while the exterior of the new Imperial coupe was all choppy and new angles, its platform and mechanics weren’t quite as exciting. Let’s talk about Mirada, Cordoba and the reliability benefits of electronic fuel injection.

Beneath the new Imperial was Chrysler’s year-old J platform, which was used on Chrysler’s rear-drive coupes in the early ’80s. It debuted in 1980 on the new Dodge Mirada from Affordable Personal Luxury (Magnum replacement) and the second generation of the mid-range Chrysler Cordoba Personal Luxury. Cordoba made a very successful name for itself when it debuted in 1975 as a luxurious and baroque full-size two-door on the B-body platform. For 1980, its second generation was scaled down and de-rococo considerably, as was strictly at the time.

Although the J-body was labeled as a new dedicated two-door platform at Chrysler, connoisseurs realized that it was actually a rebranding of the F-body that resided under the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré since 1976. In fact, the new J’s trio had the exact same 112.7-inch wheelbase as the K-body Volaré sedan and wagon. In previous decades, an Imperial that shared its wheelbase with a Dodge wouldn’t have passed. But it was the 80s, and cash savings mattered!

The Mirada and Cordoba differed from the Imperial not only in notable styling differences but also in size. The Mirada measured 209.5 inches overall, 72.7 inches wide and 53.3 inches tall. As you might expect, the most expensive Cordoba version was slightly longer: 209.8 inches in the first year. It shared the Mirada’s 72.7″ width, as well as its height. Unlike the Mirada, Cordoba changed shape slightly from 1981 and for the sporty LS variant. When introduced in 1981, the Imperial wore a larger suit than its siblings: 213.3 inches in overall length. Width was 72.7 inches, though the Imperial sits closer to the ground for a longer, lower look, at 52.6 inches.

Keen to illustrate the Imperial as a rebirth of the marque, Chrysler provided this handy comparison image for 1981. In black were the dimensions and outline of the deceased and unpopular 1975 Imperial coupe. Ahead of her, in white, was the new Imperial, showing a neater wheelbase, lower height and much shorter overall length than the 1975 Imperial. Perhaps the point was to show how the brand had evolved in its modern form. But an ad like this also reminded luxury shoppers that they were paying many Continued for a much smaller car than a few years ago.

Sixth-generation Imperials were all powered by the same engine: the 318-cubic-inch (5.2-litre) LA V8. The 318 was good for 140 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque. Its lower siblings used this engine as an option, but also offered a 225 cu in (3.7 L) Slant 6 as standard motivation, or an optional 360 V8 (5.9 L), but only in 1980. Note: the 318 made 10 horsepower less when used outside of Imperial, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment.

There was a unique transmission in all J cars, the A904 TorqueFlite three-speed automatic. The A904 was a heavy-duty, long-life transmission, which started life in 1960, was later borrowed by AMC, and was used in the Jeep Wrangler until 2002. For the Imperial, Chrysler used high gears on all three gears and implemented a final drive ratio at a lazy 2.24:1. Top speed was 103 miles per hour, but it took a long time to get there – 13 seconds. In fairness, it was 0.2 seconds faster than a 2.5-liter Chevrolet Citation in 1981.

The Imperial took a long time to stop too. Although it was an expensive, high-tech car, all the luxury equipment meant it weighed around 500 pounds more than its Dodge and Chrysler siblings (Imperials tipped the scales at 3 900 lbs.) But Imperial used the same front disc, rear drum brake setup as found in the J and M body cars. While on the subject of parts sharing, it should be noted that the dear Imperial borrowed its suspension directly from the Cordoba. That meant a transverse torsion bar up front and unequal-length control arms in the rear with leaf springs and an anti-roll bar. Chrysler added two insulated crossmembers to help differentiate the ride from a less expensive Cordoba. Everything was as smooth as it gets for a “luxury” ride, but the discounted components meant the Imperial lost its temper easily and frequently.

Although the 318 was shared with other Chrysler offerings, there was one exciting difference for the Imperial: electronic fuel injection (EFI). Lincoln and Cadillac released their own electronic fuel injection systems in 1980, and Chrysler had to compete technologically. Chrysler used to develop electronic ignition systems and computer-controlled engine management systems, both of which it had implemented in its earlier Imperial offerings. The new system was developed at a Chrysler Technical Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was Chrysler’s first-ever electronic fuel injection system, and engineers were granted 24 new patents during the development of the system. The team that worked on the EFI were the same engineers who handled the electronics for NASA’s Apollo space program (1961-1972), a fact Chrysler was keen to acknowledge. Corn may be guys used to working on spacecraft weren’t as suited to something as practically applicable as an automobile.

The new Imperial’s fuel injection was unlike a modern system. Where modern fuel injection manages the fuel mixture based on how long an injector is held open via electrical current, the Imperial system operated via variable engine pressure. There were two different fuel pumps: a standard one in the fuel tank and a secondary one that controlled the fuel supply to the engine. The secondary pump used pressure controlled injection valves as mentioned. It was basically a mechanical injection system with electrical components.

The EFI system featured a wide variety of Imperial-specific components and was applied to the 318 via a newly redesigned intake manifold, where the EFI components were attached to the top of the manifold. Compared to a carbureted 318, the Imperial had much crisper throttle response and was more fuel efficient. Where a 1981 Mirada with a carbureted 318 only managed 17.5 miles per gallon on average, the larger, heavier Imperial was rated at 23 mpg. The same year, a Cadillac Eldorado with the V8-6-4 (oh boy) was rated at 21.5 mpg.

Those Imperial-specific EFI components mentioned above made for a very complicated system. When an Imperial developed an EFI fault, Chrysler dealership mechanics were unfamiliar with and were not always trained to properly diagnose problems. And there was a reason the domestic competition didn’t follow Chrysler’s mechanical approach to EFI: it was unreliable. One issue that Chrysler engineers neglected to account for with its EFI component placements was a significant issue: temperature. Every electrical component rested on the hot intake manifold where it was baked every time the Imperial was driven. The extreme conditions were not favorable to the sensitive components. This caused parts to fail, and because the system was so complicated, the mechanics had a hard time diagnosing.

After the Imperial was on sale with its troublesome EFI for a short time, it was common for dealers to throw everything out and convert the coupe to the typical 318 carburetor setup. This meant the loss of 10 horsepower and of a few miles per gallon, but kept well-heeled Imperial buyers out of the dealership’s service bay.

Not that there was numerous Imperial buyers anyway, though. The car’s incredible base price, electrical issues under the hood and dash, and a clear connection to the two less contemporary and Chrysler products of the 1970s drove PLC buyers to the established brands of Lincoln and Cadillac. Next time we’ll go inside and talk about the fancy digital gauges and late ’70s interior styling.

[Images: Chrysler]

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