The 1977 Cordoba featured opera windows and an
illuminated slender band of light across the roof.
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Nobody bats a thousand, but Chrysler Corporation has had more than its share of wrong cars at wrong times. Perhaps the two best known examples are the advanced but awkward Depression-era Airflow and the ill-timed 1962 Dodge and Plymouth intermediates that failed to pass as "full-size" cars.
But there was also 1974, when fully redesigned big Chryslers, Dodges, and Plymouths ran smack into an unprecedented national gasoline shortage. While that winter's OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo hurt big-car sales throughout Detroit, the Chrysler brand was hit harder than most, dropping more than 50 percent for the model year from a fairly healthy 1973 total of nearly a quarter-million units.
Chrysler Corporation goofed plenty more in the 1970s, enough to be knocking at bankruptcy's door by 1980 -- which only makes the Cordoba seem a surprisingly good stroke. Indeed, had it not been for the high early success of this one luxury coupe, Chrysler might have gone to the brink even earlier.
For more on the first model year of the Cordoba, 1975, continue on to the next page.
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1975 Chrysler Cordoba
The 1975 Chrysler Cordoba was introduced for the model year in a cascade of curlicued advertising headlines. The Cordoba ostensibly broke Highland Park's early 1960s vow that "There will never be a small Chrysler." But that's really only half-true. In fact, the Cordoba began not as a Chrysler, but as a Plymouth: a new iteration of the "Gran Coupe" idea applied to the big Fury and Barracuda ponycar.
The 1975 Cordoba's sculptured pods above the
headlights and large parking lights add distinction.
Actually, Plymouth already had a "premium" middleweight coupe in its new-for-1971 Satellite-based Sebring Plus, but that was no sales match for two hot General Motors products.
First, Pontiac's languishing Grand Prix shrank to intermediate size for 1969 -- and sales soared nearly 400 percent. Then came Chevrolet's similar Monte Carlo, which scored 130,657 orders for 1970, and 128,600 for 1971. By contrast, the Sebring Plus managed only 16,253 debut-year sales, and Plymouth's entire 1971 coupe lineup, including the muscular Road Runner and GTX, barely topped 80,000 units.
Dodge did scarcely better with its counterpart Chargers despite no fewer than six 1971 models, the most ever.
These glum results prompted Highland Park to embark on a direct reply to the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix. Though still based on the corporate "B-body" mid-size platform, it would look far more formal than the "fuselage-styled" Charger/Sebring, with long-hood/short-deck proportions and numerous "classic" design cues inspired by custom-bodied prewar greats like Duesenberg and Packard.
Work was underway by August 1972 in the B-Body Studio headed by Allan Kornmiller. Introduction was targeted for 1975. First thoughts involved a mere evolution of the swoopy "fuselage" look, at least for the planned Dodge version, but this was gradually toned down into a notchback shape that was still quite smooth despite knife-edge fenderlines.
Long doors were deemed essential for rear-seat accessibility and the sporty, close-coupled roof line desired. However, numerous roof treatments were mocked up and tested in consumer clinics before designers settled on smallish rear-quarter "opera" windows in semi-rakish C-pillars.
Ultimately, Kornmiller's crew completed full-size models badged Charger and Sebring (the nameplates were probably just for convenience) -- identical except for trim. The body side treatment, chiefly the work of studio designer Stan Bollinger, featured a slightly down-sloped beltline above discreetly bulged flanks suggesting classic separate fenders.
Bollinger also contributed a formal "face" comprising a large rectangular grille flanked by round parking lights inboard of single headlamps. Each of the four lights nestled in its own sculptured pod jutting out from vestigial "catwalks" between the fenders and a crisply domed hood -- not unlike that of Jaguar's svelte XJ6 sedan. This theme was faintly echoed at the rear, where a modestly bulged deck lid nestled between simple rectangular taillamps.
Everything was fine until managers decided that the "Premium Plymouth" would sell better as a Chrysler. As Kornmiller recalls: "After the car was finished, they went into a meeting and made a complete switch of the ornamentation, because they thought they would upgrade [that car] ... and we sort of felt, gee whiz, we spent all that time designing one as a Plymouth and one as a Dodge, and then we get a reversal on it."
Actually, it wasn't a reversal so much as a name-and-image shuffle. Thus, the would-be Plymouth became "the new small Chrysler," gaining all the trim elements planned for the Dodge version, save for the small horizontal bars on the opera windows, which were retained for the production 1975 Charger SE.
The source of the Cordoba name is more obscure, but the pronunciation reportedly rankled studio designer Raul Bravo, who hailed from COR-do-ba, Argentina, and bristled at the Americanized "Cor-DOH-ba." Regardless, it was a good name for a luxury liner, relating not only to faraway places but the coinage of certain realms.
The latter suggested heraldry: a gold-finish circular medallion reminiscent of an old Spanish doubloon. "Fabricated of aluminum forgings," it ended up on front fenders, decklid, steering wheel -- and in the stand-up hood ornament then all-but-mandatory for upscale Detroiters.
Chrysler later said the name referred to the capital of caliph Haroun-el-Raschid, but most people surely thought of the romantic city in southern Spain once ruled by Rome and the Phoenicians.
Glossy announcement ads trumpeted Cordoba as "a totally new car," which it wasn't. Aside from richer-looking trim and more standard equipment, it was basically the same as Dodge's restyled 1975 Charger SE, and the chassis under both was a continuation of the 115-inch-wheelbase platform that had supported all of Chrysler's B-body intermediates since 1971.
Still, the Cordoba was small for a Chrysler. Its wheelbase was shorter than anything the make had offered since the early 1930s, and a 215.3-inch overall length made the new coupe a good foot trimmer than full-size Chryslers.
With that, ads also termed Cordoba a "compact," but it wasn't that either. However, with memories of long lines at the gas pumps still fresh, "compact luxury car" no longer seemed a contradiction in terms, and Cordoba proved it.
Despite having just one model, the freshly minted small Chrysler accounted for no less than 60 percent of the brand's 1975 model-year output: a rousing 150,105 units -- more than Chrysler's entire 1974 line. Even better, Cordoba outsold Grand Prix nearly two-to-one. On the other hand, the Monte Carlo, also in the third year of General Motors "Colonnade" styling, managed close to 260,000 units.
Yet, with the market fast-recovering from the oil doldrums of 1973-1974, most Cordoba sales represented welcome "plus" business for Chrysler-Plymouth dealers. As a result, the Chrysler brand ended up 130,000 units ahead of dismal 1974. Unfortunately, some of that gain came at Dodge's expense, because the 1975 Charger attracted just 30,812 buyers, versus 74,376 copies of the 1974s, which admittedly came in three models instead of just one.
Nevertheless, Cordoba's success suggested the Chrysler name could still exert considerable sales magic. Helping the cause was a $5,072 starting price, about $120 below Grand Prix, though a sizeable $823 above the basic Monte Carlo.
That money bought a lot of stuff: split-back front bench seat with fold-down center armrest, "Chronometer" digital clock, 24-ounce shag carpet, a fully carpeted trunk (including spare-tire cover), bumper guards, whitewall tires, and full courtesy lighting. Power steering and front-disc brakes were included, too.
Powerplants were familiar corporate fare. The standard engine was a 360 V-8 developing 180 horsepower (SAE net). For the mileage-minded, the long-running 318 was available as a credit option, though it reduced horsepower by 30. Topping the chart was a four-barrel 400 with dual exhausts and 235 bhp -- a relative muscle-motor for 1975. All three engines predictably mated with Chrysler's ever-excellent three-speed Torque-Flite automatic.
Typical of period luxury wannabes, the Cordoba interior was ornate, almost overdone. Imitation walnut was slathered across the dash, three-spoke steering wheel, and an optional console. Rich "Verdi" velour covered the seats, which ad writers represented as "a safe haven from the harsh reality of today's traffic." Door panels were upholstered to match, and borders of "finely tooled filigree metal edging" appeared in numerous places.
To learn more about the 1975 Cordoba's styling, continue on to the next page.
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1975 Cordoba Style
The 1975 Cordoba style appeared to the thirty-somethings of the time, for whom the Cordoba was conceived. What they wanted was the comfort and ambiance of a traditional big car, plus at least the perception of greater operating economy in a fashionably smaller, lighter package.
Whatever we may think now of 1970s tastes, the Cordoba was right on target for its intended audience. Indeed, early consumer research showed that people viewed it as "substantial looking," "strong and protective," and, perhaps most tellingly, "a car for a successful person."
Alas, the Cordoba was also contemporary in skimping on back-seat space. However, it boasted the industry's longest doors -- a massive 58.5 inches -- which at least helped rear entry/exit, though it did nothing for any passenger in tight parking places.
But in the 1970s, such practical matters took a back seat to image, and the Cordoba had plenty of "visual dimension." For starters, there were three available wheel treatments: standard stainless-steel covers with "doubloon" centers, optional wire-wheel covers, and handsome urethane road wheels.
Buyers could also opt for a "halo" vinyl roof covering the entire top or a trendy, retrograde "Landau" style on just the rear third. Paint colors numbered 20, of which 13 were metallics. Interior options began with front buckets, genuine "Corinthian leather" in a choice of six colors, brocade upholstery in five hues, or the de rigueur velour in four.
Also optional was what Chrysler claimed as the industry's first Jacquard print upholstery. Dubbed "Castillian," this giant stride in fabric technology came only in a red/silver pattern.
Of course, expected extras like power windows and door locks were also on the list, but some features were newly promoted to suit the sober new post-energy-crisis market mentality. For instance, automatic speed control, once a mere luxury, was now a "help to better fuel economy."
In the same vein was "Fuel Pacer," an optional warning light in the left fender-tip turn-signal indicator that glowed reprovingly if you tread too heavily on the accelerator.
Yet despite that big 400 V-8 option, the Cordoba made no gesture toward "performance." Nor was it a "handler" even by 1975 Detroit standards, though it was competent despite the ultra-soft suspension settings specified to give the all-important "big-car ride."
Credit torsionbar front suspension, now dubbed "Torsion Quiet Ride" and a Highland Park staple since 1957, but also standard radial tires, which helped mileage as well as readability.
The Cordoba will be forever remembered as the car that made "fine Corinthian leather" a national catch-phrase, thanks to the efforts of Mexican-born television/film star Ricardo Montalban, who promoted the car in TV commercials starting in early 1975.
Ever black-tie attired, Montalban appeared in suitably upscale settings (like those in Cordoba print ads) to extol the hide upholstery and other features with an elegant accent that could make even "Chrysler" sound exotic. It was a highly effective campaign, and Montalban would remain in Chrysler's employ well into the 1980s.
Follow the Cordoba story through 1976 and 1977 on the next page.
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The 1976-1977 Cordoba mostly rested on its laurels, but demand remained strong. The 1976, touted as "... nothing short of superb," tallied 120,462 units -- second only to the Monte Carlo in the "specialty" coupe class. The 1977, billed as "The Most Successful Car Ever to Wear the Chrysler Nameplate," set Cordoba's all-time record: 183,146.
The most obvious change for the 1976 Cordoba was
the grillework, with its thin, tight vertical bars.
Options proliferated for 1976 to include tilt steering wheel, manual steel sunroof, space-saver spare tire, and a 60/40 front bench seat with dual backrest recliners. Minor trim changes occurred for 1977, when the optional tilt wheel could be newly rimmed in ... yes, fine Corinthian leather.
"But above all," cooed the 1977 brochure, "is your choice of unique optional roof treatments available this year. There's the Crown roof in padded elk-grain vinyl, with unique opera windows and rear window treatment, illuminated by a slender band of light that extends across the roof. Totally distinctive. Then there's the choice of Halo or Landau vinyl roof with elegant opera windows and slender opera lamps. There are two 'convertible' treatments -- the choice of either a sun roof or the exciting new T-bar roof, with lift-out tinted glass panels, for open-air driving pleasure."
Sadly, the Cordoba's early success went unrewarded. Though a total restyle had been scheduled for 1978, Cordoba had to wear a mere facelift instead, a reflection of Highland Park's fast-deepening cash crisis. Ricardo Montalban purred, "Look what they've done to my car," but the result was a shade tacky.
Headlights doubled to four rectangular bulbs stacked astride a hatched grille, giving an uncomfortably close resemblance to recent Monte Carlos. In addition, the new flat-lens tail-lights looked cheap compared to the previous design.
For more on the 1978 Cordoba, see the next page.
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New options for the 1978 Cordoba included forged-aluminum wheels and low-back bucket seats. Engines were given Chrysler's computer-controlled "Electronic Lean Burn System" to achieve lower emissions. As a result, horsepower on the 318 dropped to 140, on the 360 to 155, and on the 400 to 190.
The 1978 Cordoba had stacked dual headlights
flanking mildly revised grillework.
There was another new power option, though: a regular-tune 318, also with 155 bhp, and TorqueFlite gained a lock-up torque converter. And there was a second Cordoba, too, a detrimmed "S" model priced $200 below the regular $5,811 offering.
For all these changes, the 1978 Cordoba was not well received, with sales diving by nearly 60,000 units to 124,825. Part of the problem was that Cordoba wasn't the "small Chrysler" anymore, having been supplanted as such at mid-1977 by a trio of new compact LeBarons.
Though derived from the humble Dodge Aspen/ Plymouth Volare, and duplicated at Dodge as the Diplomat, LeBaron offered a seemingly more prudent alternative to the ostentatious Cordoba. The line even included a snazzy two-door, itself a worthy personal-luxury choice.
By now, Lee lacocca had arrived in Highland Park, and though he would eventually save the day, even he could not effect instant cures for Chrysler's many troubles. As a result, the Cordoba struggled for sales in 1979, saddled by few meaningful changes and an inflation-fueled price hike to $6,337.
The most surprising development that year was the return of the fabled Chrysler 300, in name if not spirit. It took the form of a $2,040 option package exclusive to Cordoba. Included were Spinnaker White paint (an echo of the 1955 original), red-white-and-blue striping, front-fender louvers, aluminum wheels, engine-turned dash applique, and a nostalgic cross-hair grille (with black background) instead of shiny latticework.
Buyers also got bucket seats, "300" quarter-window decals, a firmer "handling" suspension, and a reinstated four-barrel 360 V-8, though it delivered just 195 bhp. Only 3,811 of these pretenders were built, along with 84,204 standard Cordobas. Clearly, the "small Chrysler" had finally come a-cropper.
Cordoba would soldier on, but the much-trumpeted "downsized" 1980 model was merely a restyled LeBaron two-door without the classy distinction of 1975-1979. Though the "300" concept also continued for a few years as the LS, the 400 V-8 was axed and the 360 vanished after 1980. That left the 318 as the sole "power" option, Chrysler's venerable Slant Six having taken over as standard.
Sales slid fast to nowhere: 46,406 for 1980, just 20,295 for '81. After little interim change and 1983 sales of fewer than 14,000, the most popular Chrysler in recent memory was killed off by a "New Chrysler Corporation" staking its future on front-wheel drive, turbos, and minivans.
Is the 1970s Cordoba a future collector car? Well, the decade of disco, Watergate, and Mary Tyler Moore has already slipped into the realm of nostalgia, so there's a chance that at least some buyers might covet the cars one day -- assuming there are any left. Perhaps the Seventies Preservation Society could help? Don't count on it.
Ever wonder about design ideas that didn't make it to final production? See the next page to explore two such Cordoba model ideas.
Our sincere thanks to Allan Kornmiller, former chief designer of Chrysler Corporation's B-Body Studio and Truck Design Office, for his generous assistance in preparing this article. Grateful acknowledgment is also made to author, historian, and Chrysler designer Jeffrey Godshall, and to retired staff designer Jack Crane, currently chief designer at Chrysler's Advanced Packaging Studio.
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Canceled Cordobas: Two That Didn't Make It
Interesting ideas invariably crop up along the new-model development path, only to be cut down. But while there were plenty of such notions surrounding the Chrysler Cordoba, two of the more intriguing ones have come to light through the good offices of Allan Kornmiller, who proposed them as head of Chrysler's B-Body Studio where THE Cordoba was designed.
One idea was for a "Cordoba Salon." As outlined in a memo for a "discretionary design project," it would have started with the inner structure and 117.5-inch-wheelbase chassis of the B-body Dodge/ Plymouth sedan then being restyled for 1975.
To that, Kornmiller proposed adding "'Cordoba' windshield, cowl, hood, front fenders, grille, front and rear bumpers, [and] rear deck as carryover components," plus "new quarters, end die castings, front and rear doors (inner and outer) and greenhouse structure. ..."
The obvious intent was a smaller sedan "carrying a Chrysler price tag," a notion Kornmiller said had "considerable support" from his staff. He also wrote that "Product Planning sees [this model as] 'a sedan to step down to,'" though that presumably included what we'd now call "Chrysler intenders," as well as existing Chrysler owners.
Though Kornmiller was unable to provide photos, the Salon idea was fully explored in both sketches and clay models. But as we know, the car never appeared. Though it would have been interesting, management doubtless wanted to avoid possible sales interference with high-line mid-size Dodge/Plymouth sedans -- and maybe to conserve cash.
Kornmiller made a more fanciful suggestion in a March 1974 memo to Design Office Director Richard Macadam. Though Cordoba's introduction was then mere months away. The Great Gatsby was the year's big hit movie, and Kornmiller had just read a Time magazine article on selling the film.
Quicker than you can say "promotional tie-in," he proposed a limited-edition "Gatsby" Cordoba coupe. Naturally, it would be all-white: paint, vinyl roof, body moldings, upholstery -- even carpeting and "wide white" tires. He also envisioned a "white gold" hood ornament and "gold on white" body striping with "white [bumper] guards and nerf stripes to match....
"Our Legal Department could clear use of the name," Kornmiller wrote. "If refused, [we] could still refer to the 'Gatsby Image' or the 'Gatsby Tradition.' From a free advertising point of view, even a 60-second spot on national TV would be worth the cost of putting such a car together."
But again, the public would be denied. Though this notion was also well developed, thanks to considerable, frenzied design work by studio manager Bob Gale, planners likely feared confusing or diluting the image of the standard product. And in the end, a "Gatsby" simply wasn't needed -- the Cordoba sold just fine as it was. Besides, it would have looked silly with "wide whites."
For prices and vehicle specifications of the Cordobas that did make it to production, see the next page.
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1975-1979 Chrysler Cordoba Prices and Specifications
One of Chrysler Corporation's few successes in the 1970s was the Chrysler Cordoba personal-luxury coupe. Although the Cordoba's success was fleeting, it perfectly captured the spirit of the late 1970s. Here are the specifications for the 1975-1979 Chrysler Cordoba:
By the time this 1979 Cordoba came out, buyers
were looking for smaller, sleeker models.
1975 Chrysler Cordoba Models, Prices, Production
1976 Chrysler Cordoba Models, Prices, Production
1977 Chrysler Cordoba Models, Prices, Production
*Combined production numbers
1978 Chrysler Cordoba Models, Prices, Production
|SS22 "S" Coupe
*Combined production numbers. The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1976-1986 reports that the 1978 "S" model accounted for 7.7 percent of total Cordoba production, or about 8,700 units.
1979 Chrysler Cordoba Models, Prices, Production
|SP22 "300" Coupe
**The "300" was officially a package option.
1978 Chrysler Cordoba Specifications
|Overall length, inches
|Overall width, inches
|Overall height, inches
|Track, front/rear, inches
|Curb weight, pounds
|Fuel tank, gallons
|Trunk, cubic feet
||16.3 with standard Space Saver spare tire; 14.7 with full-size spare
|Head room, front, inches
|Leg room, front, inches
|Hip room, front, inches
|Shoulder room, front, inches
|Head room, rear, inches
|Leg room, rear, inches
|Hip room, rear, inches
|Shoulder room, rear, inches
||unit-body "Unibody" construction with more than 4,000 welds plus 7-step rust and corrosion protection
|Engine (standard Cordoba)
||ohv 90-degree V-8
|Bore × stroke, inches
||4.34 × 3.38
|Horsepower @ rpm
||190 @ 3,600
|Torque (pounds/feet) @ rpm
||305 @ 3,200
|Engine (optional, standard Cordoba S)
|Type||ohv 90-degree V-8|
|Bore × stroke, inches||4.00 × 3.58|
|Horsepower @ rpm||155 @ 3,600|
|Torque (pounds/feet) @ rpm||270 @ 2,400|
||4-bbl, 170 bhp
|Type||ohv 90-degree V-8|
|Bore × stroke, inches||3.91 × 3.31|
|Horsepower @ rpm||140 @ 4,000|
|Torque (pounds/feet) @ rpm||245 @ 1,600|
|Carburetor||2-bbl Carter or Holley
||4-bbl, 155 bhp
||TorqueFlite 3-speed automatic with lock-up torque converter
||torsion bars, calibrated shock absorbers, anti-roll bar
||asymmetrical leaf springs, oval spring-eye bushings, rubber-isolated clamps, calibrated shock absorbers, anti-roll bar
||power; 3.5 turns lock-to-lock
||power, front disc, 10 × 21/2-inch self-adjusting rear drums, split hydraulic system
|Rear axle ratios
||2.4:1 or 2.7:1
||2.7:1 or 3.2:1
||2.7:1; optional Sure-Grip differential ratios the same
||12-volt; 60-amp alternator; 325-amp (318 V-8) or 440-amp (360 and 400 V-8) battery; Electronic Lean Burn Ignition System; transistorized voltage regulator
||FR78-15 (318 and 360 V-8) or GR78-15 (400 V-8) glass-belted radial-ply
||GR60-15 aramid-belted radial-ply, GR78-15 steel-belted radial-ply, HR78-15 steel-belted radial-ply
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