1981 Chrysler Imperial FS Edition; photo by Mark Holdsworth
1981 Chrysler Imperial FS Edition; photo by Mark Holdsworth . Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance

Over the years, the Imperial name has represented Chrysler’s finest model, and from 1955 to 1970 it was even split off by the corporation as a separate marque. From the straight-eight-powered classics of the 1930s to the gigantic models of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the Imperial name has denoted a special upscale Chrysler.

The Chrysler Imperial that arrived for the 1981 model year was, out of necessity, a change from the big Imperials of the past. When Chrysler decided to revive the Imperial after an absence of six years, the corporation was in dire financial straits. Some out-of-step models, two oil crises in the ’70s, and heavy expenditures to meet fuel economy and emissions legislation had sapped the corporation’s resources.

The K-cars (Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant) were just arriving but it was not clear yet whether they would turn out to be corporate saviours. Bankruptcy was still seen as a distinct possibility.

The new Imperial was part of Chrysler’s quest to return to prosperity and project an upscale image. In view of the economic circumstances it’s not surprising that it was based on an existing platform. Cadillac, after all, had used the Chevrolet Nova, albeit heavily camouflaged, as the structure for its successful Seville.

Chrysler decided to base the two door Imperial on the compact Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare platform. It had the same 2,863 mm (112.7 in.) wheelbase as the Aspen/Volare, as well as its somewhat unusual transverse torsion bar front suspension. The solid rear axle was suspended on leaf springs.

It was 5,418 mm (213.7 in.) long, not a midget to be sure, but a far cry from the 5,911 mm (233 in.) over-all of the giant ’75 Imperial, which rode on a hefty 3,150 mm (124 in.) wheelbase.

Under the hood was the corporate 5.2-litre (318 cu. in.) overhead valve V8, now fitted with electronic throttle body fuel injection. Fuel injection was a feature shared only with Cadillac on gasoline-engined American cars, although Cadillac’s was the superior port injection. The Imperial’s modest 140 horsepower drove the rear wheels through Chrysler’s three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission.

The 1,814 kg (4,000 lb) Imperial was geared for economy (2.24:1 final drive), so performance was modest. Car and Driver (1/’81) recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 13.0 seconds and a top speed of 166 km/h (103 mph).

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