Too Marvelous for Words
As we celebrate Frank Sinatra’s birthday on December 12, it’s also the perfect time to remind ourselves about the exclusive 1981 & 1982 Imperial Frank Sinatra Editions.
Yep, Old Blue Eyes had his very own luxury car.
And it was a 1980s Mopar.
The Best is Yet to Come
The Imperial nameplate can trace its roots way back to the 1920s, and was typically assigned to Chrysler’s top-tier luxury models. (It was so prestigious that Chrysler tried for years to establish “Imperial” as a standalone luxury branch on the Mopar family tree.)
While various Imperial models endured through the years, the 1970s hit the American luxury car market hard, and the Big Three scrambled to make its large luxo-barges run cleaner and more efficiently—with mixed results (see: Cadillac’s 190 horsepower 8.2L V8).
Alas, by the end of the decade, the Imperial had disappeared.
But the Imperial came back in 1981, this time riding on the downsized Chrysler J-body (which was very similar to the F-body platform underpinning cars like the Dodge Aspen).
As an upscale version of the Cordoba Coupe, all Imperials got Chrysler’s trusty 318 V8 with modern, though finicky, electronic fuel injection too. All told, the combo made about 140 horsepower.
As alluded to above, the Imperial was only offered as a two-door coupe in the distinctive bustleback styling that was popular for the era. The “Imperial” name was featured prominently, with slight nods to Chrysler in marketing materials. Up front rode a crystal Pentastar hood ornament—made by Cartier, no less.
Doing it His Way
The J-body Imperial wasn’t a huge success and only stuck around from 1981 to 1983. The car would largely be forgotten today if it hadn’t been for one Special Edition in particular.
Turns out, Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca was good friends with legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. (Frankie actually sang at Iacocca’s retirement party, but we digress…) As a result, they came up with the idea of a Sinatra-badged special edition for the nascent luxury car.
And it was going to be top-shelf, baby.
All or Nothing at All
For starters, the custom interior was finished by the luxury leather goods designer, Mark Cross. It even came with a unique leather bag filled with cassette tapes of Sinatra’s favorite jams. You listened to them in the Imperial’s AM/FM stereo cassette player, perched atop a locking wood veneer cassette storage cabinet.
The Imperial also boasted a fancy electronic instrument cluster that did some space-age stuff, like calculate fuel range and mileage. The car was fully loaded from the factory, and the only thing on the option sheet was an available sliding moonroof. Special badging adorned the interior and exterior of the car.
And, of course, the car came in blue. “Glacier Blue Crystal,” to be exact.
Before the Music Ends…
While originally planned as a one-year-only 1981 offering, there was enough demand to warrant a 1982 issue. Slumping sales forced the Frank Sinatra Special Edition to be dropped in 1983 and the Imperial itself was discontinued after that year. Over its two-year production run, only a few hundred Frank Sinatra Edition Imperials were made.
But it’s important to realize that Sinatra didn’t just lend his name to the car, he drove one. The very first one off the assembly line in fact—a gift from his good buddy, Lee Iacocca.
One last thing to point out: The Chairman helped market the car too, cutting all-new custom music for radio and television ads. You can hear a snippet of the tune in this commercial from 1981:
I saw one for sale in Hemmings a year or so ago. As I understand it, the fuel injection system was often replaced by dealers with a carburetor, probably because it was new technology and their mechanics didn’t know how to work with it. The one in Hemmings still had its e.f.i. system intact though.
I have a 1982 FS. Only 279 were made. It has 14k original and the EFI works just fine.
Way cool. I had heard these were pretty rare–Was 279 for the entire production run or just 1982?
I’ve got two! I restored the efi in both and one is a Sinatra edition. You should check out the group I started “it’s time for you the 1981-1983 Imperial Group” on Facebook we are nearly 900 strong
That’s awesome, Wes! It’s always great to hear about cars with a strong enthusiasts community behind them. Here’s the link to the FB group if anyone’s interested.
The problematic Imperial EFI took special factory training for service personnel to diagnose/maintain, plus I believe a purpose-built diagnostic “machine” was necessary to trouble shoot/calibrate it. Sold in such few numbers, the techs didn’t get much experience working with this generation of Imperials. As time passed and dealer personnel changed, the availability of techs who were well-versed in servicing them dwindled. For a time, Mopar offered a carburetor retrofit under warranty for the units that seemed to defy suitable drivability in spite of repairs. The ECU for the digital dash was problematic, too.
…hey, Paul…great retrospective of the often maligned ’81-’83 “bustle back” Imperial…
…it’s too bad that Chrysler financials were in such bad shape at the time…and though Frank and Lee were pals…the marketing budget for the Imperial (aside from this Sinatra dpecial edition) was nearly non-existant…
…at the advent of the electrical gizmo mad ’80’s (boom box/Walkman/everything digital), this car was overloaded with more buttons than Carter had pills…
…and, though based on the Cordoba platform…its pricing was stratospheric…almost Fleetwood 60 and 75 territory…
…if they’d had a sedan, things may have turned out differently…
I bought an 1983 Imperial new, just before my graduation. Still have it and it is as it rolled out of the factory in January 1983.
The car was, as typical for Chrysler in the 50s, 70s, and again in the 80s, and continuing to today, rushed to market before it was ready. Though engineering said they needed a little more time to finalize the EFI system, though under certain, limited conditions the EFI would cause the engine to produce emissions that were outside EPA standard, and though the system was not 100% reliable, management pushed it into production.
The company sought a waiver for the emissions issue from the EPA, but when granting it was refused, the EFI was reprogrammed to stay in compliance, no matter how poorly the engine ran. The “solution” was, and still is, to shutdown the engine and restart.
The digital dash has two CPUs with one handling the data updates and the second handling the display and responding to the 9 buttons set in the dash above the stereo unit. These buttons controlled the various displays of the digital instrument cluster. One button switched the system between US and metric measurements, two controlled the clock display, two more buttons controlled odometer options, and three provided range and fuel economy readouts. The last button zeroed the resettable counters for average fuel economy, elapsed time, the trip odometer, and average speed.
Pricing was a little less than a comparably equipped Eldorado or Mark VI. By the time you added options to those cars to include a leather interior, cassette stereo with power booster, etc. they priced a bit more then the 20k list of my Imperial. I know this because I priced them. …as a 22 year old kid not yet graduated from college. To say some of the dealers were rude… I’ll never buy a cadillac, for example.
The EFI system is maintainable. The dealership diagnostic tool is helpful, but it really doesn’t do much that anyone competent in electronics and mechanics really needs. It was made for Chrysler by Sun. There were a few floating around about 20 years ago. I almost bought one from a fellow who had a stash of Chrysler remanufactured EFI parts and diag testers, but the infamous windows blue screen of death corrupted my peecee and I lost the guy’s email.
I was a Chrysler mechanic back in 1981, we sold eight of the 81 to 83 Chrysler imperial‘s. They sent me to imperial school in Chicago for a week. They told us then testers were junk they had about 30 of them sitting in the back room we used the stands for a battery charger . I retrofitted all eight of the ones that we sold, first one took me three days the last one took me six hours. They were a beautiful car just poorly engineered
I have been an 81-83 Imperial fancier since I first laid eyes on one in the show room. I drove up in my yellow 73 Imp sunroof coupe and the sales man was sure he had a sale. It was not until 1988 I was able to buy a poor running 81 sable brown EFI. Replaced the fuel pressure sender and drove until 1991 when I found a EFI 82 Frank on the back row of a Toyota dealer. After getting it up and running ,I drove till 2009 when I purchased my current EFI 81|Frank. Again in poor running condition. It has the only two options available in 81, The Frank Sinatra package and the one year only sun roof option. Making it one of approximately 50 of the 148 Franks built in 81 with a sun roof! My brown 81 which is still owned by my friend 30 years now has over 200K miles and its still EFI!!
[…] paired with a newly developed electronic fuel injection system that proved to be troublesome. The Frank Sinatra Edition had all the bells and whistles you’d expect in a luxury car like the Lincoln Continental Mark VI […]
to anyone interested , I drove a used 81 from 1991 to 1996 …. I am an ASE master tech since 19 years of age , I have over a million miles driving Chryslers 1950s-1999 , here is what i learned about the 83-81 Imperial …. this was the first car I diagnosed with a DSO or digital storage oscilloscope . I used it to record the data from the MAF sensor and injection pump operation . These cars had “computer” trouble similar to the Lean Burn era problems ….in my case , cracked solder joints on the board , and a bad capacitor or 2 …….this cured a stalling /no restart problem when hot at very low speeds . Another problem of course was the potting substance oozing from every unit it was supposed to protect . The injection pump power supply oozed right into the throttle body , sticking the throttle. I put a walker dynomax muffler on it to replace the rotted original . The in tank fuel pump I replaced for maintenance with a Delco for a Chevy truck….I had 235/60 Dunlops on it …26 mpg at 65 mph , I put 50000 mi on it with no other issues …It is the quietest car I have ever been in ………..oh , the paint was bad , i did have to paint it……
I had a 1983 model Chrysler Imperial, it was Midnight Blue in color with a Midnight Blue leather interior. The car was absolutely beautiful….., the only problem I ever had was with the EFI / fuel injection system. For some strange reason on some mornings when I would try to start it, the car would backfire with a loud bang and blow the air cover completely off of the car! It got to the point where I would just go under the hood, hammer the air cover back into shape and put it back on the car….. and then it would start perfectly. And needless to say it ran so smooth and so comfortable it almost made me forget what a pain in the neck it actually was! Of course it was problematic as I was working in an office building where we had our cars valet parked by the employees, and of course I would wait for the employee to come down from the garage level and tell me that they couldn’t start the car…..and I knew exactly why. The car finally gave up the ghost one day and I bought a Lincoln Town car. And although I was so relieved to not have to go to that EFI system nightmare (even one garage attendant told me about the Lincoln “that’s MUCH better!), I did miss, and still do, miss that Imperial.