Car of the Week: 1981 Imperial


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By Brian Earnest

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Larry Mayes likes to joke about how he always hounded his mother not to put many miles on her luxurious 1981 Imperial coupe. Mayes sort of figured he might own the car himself one day, and he didn’t want Mom banging it up and wearing it out.

“I didn’t want a lot of miles on it when I inherited it,” said Mayes, a resident of Mooresville, Ind., just southwest of Indianapolis. “Dad didn’t want her driving it to the store and parking it too close and he didn’t want her smoking in it — she smoked back in those days. And he didn’t want her to drive it in bad weather.”

“Finally, she just said ‘This car’s too good for me. I’m not going to drive it.’ She had a [Plymouth] TC3, and she loved that car, and she drove that everywhere. The Imperial had a blind spot that she didn’t like, so she just drove the TC3.”

Mayes’ badgering appears to have paid off because today the Imperial has only traveled about 15,000 miles in its lifetime. Everything on the car is original except the carburetor – it was swapped in as a factory-install deal for a balky fuel-injection unit — apparently a common practice at the time. Even the tires are original on this Chrysler timepiece. “Yeah, I like to say I’ve even got the factory air in the tires,” Mayes laughed. “But it’s getting to the point where I’m afraid to drive it because those tires are 30 years old now.”

While Larry’s mother may have preferred her little Plymouth, it was certainly a far cry from ritzy Imperial, which turned out to be a unique and mostly unsuccessful attempt by Chrysler to bring back the Imperial nameplate while at the same time making a splash in the shrinking world of expensive, high-end luxury cars. Chrysler had discontinued the Imperial nameplate after the 1975 model year, but from 1981-’83, they brought back the name for a fancy, bustle-back coupe that was a radical departure from anything else in Lee Iacocca’s world at the time.

Consider the Chrysler pricing scale in 1981. The only car in the Chrysler lineup that came within $10,000 of the Imperial’s $18,311 base price was the big New Yorker sedan, which carried a $10,463 base MSRP. The Imperial was even more expense than most of the Cadillacs of the day – eclipsed only by the Seville and Fleetwood Limousines. Chrysler simply loaded up the Imperials with everything it had, hung a big price tag on them and hoped for the best.

The results were mixed. For 1981, the company built 7,225 of the cars. After that, production tailed off badly to 2,329 assemblies in 1982 and 1,427 cars in ’83.

While that may have been bad news for Chrysler at the time, it’s probably good news for collectors like Mayes, who have managed to preserve these lovely experiments. Not surprisingly, Mayes doesn’t see many other early ’80s Imperials around — and he keeps a sharp eye out for them. “This one has 15,000 miles on it, and it’s as nice as I’ve seen anywhere and I try to look at any one of them that I hear about,” he said. “So far I haven’t seen one any nicer.”

Mayes’ father worked for Chrysler at the time, but he’s still not totally clear why is parents opted for the Imperial. The car was actually his mom’s company car, “but for that much money they could have had a Corvette” Mayes noted. “Between her and her boss and my dad, they chose the Imperial, I really don’t know why. My dad worked at Chrysler and it was supposed to be the best thing they had, so they bought it.”

The Mayes took delivery of the car on Oct. 21, 1980, after agreeing to shell out more than $19,700. “That was more than they paid for their house in 1963,” Larry recalled.

For that investment, a buyer got a big, luxury cruiser with a curb weight of 3,870 lbs., wheelbase of 112.7 inches and an overall length of 213.3 inches. The cars were propelled by an electronically fuel-injected 318-cid V-8 rated at 140 hp. The transmission was a three-speed automatic. The transverse torsion bar suspension and special unibody construction combined for what the company called “the quietest car in Chrysler history.”

When it came to amenities and looks, the Imperial screamed class and sophistication. The dash featured cutting edge digital instrumentation. Power steering, seats, brakes and windows were all standard. Ditto with air-conditioning, tilt steering and cruise control. The opera lights, hood ornament, wheel covers and even the key were decorated with fancy “crystal” stones. The cars also came with a fancy, leather-bound book/owner’s manual that was mean to be a keepsake. No-cost options included a special Mark Cross leather interior, a choice of stereo systems, spoked or “snowflake” wheel treatments and clearcoat paint. The only “for sale” option was a power moonroof, which tacked $1,044 onto the price tag.

Frank Sinatra was hired to be a pitchman for the reinvented Imperial brand. To celebrate the Chairman of the Board’s involvement, a total of 271 special “Frank Sinatra” edition cars were built in each of the first two years. The cars were offered in Glacier Blue with different interiors than the regular Imperials. They also included a selection of 16 Sinatra cassette tapes for new owners to listen to. Clearly, Chrysler was willing to try anything to impress perspective buyers.

Mayes said his mother had only put 9,926 miles on the car before its fuel-injection unit was pulled off in favor of a carburetor. “They had a problem with fuel injection on those cars, so in March of ’88 the car was converted over,” he said. “At the time we couldn’t re-set (the odometer) … I think it’s got about 5,300 showing on it now.”

In 1991, Mayes said his parents decided to park the Imperial in his garage, and following his father’s death a few years ago his mother transferred the title over the Larry. “But it will always be her car,” he said. “I’m just the caregiver at this point.”

Mayes has become so attached to the car, and to the early ’80s Imperials in general, that he now owns three of them. “I bought one out of a junkyard with 31,000 miles on it,” he said. “It was fuel-injected, that’s all there in one piece, and the car is really straight and in pretty good shape. I bought it just to have the wheels off it, and I always wanted a clone to the other one so I could have a driver.

“The other one I got out of ‘Kenny’s Klunkers’ A guy over in Illinois had one and he said he was going to send it to the scrapyard. Somebody had taken the drive train out of it for a street rod, so I bought the body and interior so that if anything happened to my other one I’d have body parts for it. Those three years are very hard to come by for parts.”

Mayes also has a 1999 Plymouth Prowler, a modified 1967 Dodge Dart convertible and a lovely all-original 1974 Cadillac Coupe DeVille in his fleet, so it’s not always easy to find time to get his pristine Imperial on the road. “Well, I’ve only put a little over 5,000 miles on it, so you can tell I don’t drive it much,” he said. “The problem is I’ve got too many cars to drive. It’s usually the one that gets put in the back and covered up.

“I start it up and run it every spring, and then again in the fall before I put it away again. And drive it a couple of times every summer … I enjoy getting it out and driving it, but I would like for it to be someplace where it could be seen more than just in my barn. I’ve shown it some. I’ve taken it to a few shows at the Chrysler plant, and I’ve had it in the Survivor Tent at Carlisle [Pa.].”

Mayes said he has a few small fixes on the Imperial that he needs to get around to at some point. The radio doesn’t work right, the headliner glue is starting to give out and the radiator drips, but the Imperial is more than roadworthy.

“It’s a really nice car. It’s a luxury car,” he said. “It’s a car to take out on a Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon, or something like that. Not a rocket ship, that’s for sure. It will get 20 miles a gallon on the Interstate … but it doesn’t get there quick by any means.”

He’s also hoping to get a reproduction window sticker for the Imperial. He says it is the only thing that is missing from the car’s past. “Dad took that window sticker to work one time after they got the car, I’m not sure why,” Mayes said. “And then he didn’t know what happened to it. He looked everywhere for it and couldn’t find it … I haven’t found anybody yet who makes those for ’81.”

At one point, Mayes considered giving the Imperial a shiny new coat of pearl white paint. Today, he cringes at the notion.

“I’m really glad we didn’t do that,” he said. “Because it’s only original once.”

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