Ralph Michaels chuckles because he knew the question was coming. Yes, he remembers Ricardo Montalban. And yes, his 1975 Chrysler Cordoba has “rich Corinthian leather”!
Well, sort of.
“There is no such thing as rich Corinthian leather [laughs]. That was a marketing ploy!” says Michaels, a MoPar-loving car guy from Milwaukee, Wis. “As soon as somebody sees it, the first thing they say is, ‘Does it have the rich Corinthian leather?’ I’m thinking about finding a cardboard cut-out of Ricardo Montalban that I can put up next to the car when we take it to shows.”
For Michaels, the memorable TV commercials from the ‘70s make owning his Cordoba even more fun, and he knows the famous “Corinthian” connection will never go away. What’s more important to him is that he knew Montalban was pitching a darn nice car, and Michaels wanted one almost from the first time he saw one up close.
He was working for a Milwaukee car dealer back in the day when he first laid eyes on his beautiful yellow survivor.
“I used to change the oil on it and put plugs and things like that in it … and I told the guy I gotta have this someday. If you ever want to sell it, call me.”
The car had apparently been used for a time by the wife of a car dealer in Milwaukee, then was sold once before Michaels finally got his hands on it.
“It had 3,000 miles on it … 20 years later he called and said the car was for sale, and I’ve had it ever since,” Michaels says with a grin. “I was a young kind, 20-some years old. I’m 60 now so I’ve had it quite some time… At first it was just an ugly car, now it’s one of the coolest cars I have. It drives fantastic. You can set the cruise control and open the sunroof and roll down the freeway.”
Indeed, in hindsight, there was plenty to like in the fully loaded yellow Cordoba for a young car fanatic like Michaels. It carried a 400-cid V-8 in an era of quickly diminishing cubes. It could probably match any Cadillac of the time when it came to amenities, and it had a Monte Carlo-esque design and silhouette that made it when of the most intriguing debut cars of 1975.
“I just thought it was fast. It’s a 400 two-barrel, and when I test drove it after changing the oil and doing some service on it, I thought, ‘This thing’s kinda quick!’ It’s not, but I thought it was at the time… I was driving a 1970 Ford LTD at the time, and a ’70 Coronet wagon, so it was just a cool car, I thought.”
CHRYSLER’S ‘ROOKIE OF THE YEAR’
For many, the Cordoba will be remembered most for Ricardo Montalban’s unintentionally funny punchline, but the car turned out to be a serious hit for Chrysler. Rarely has the right car come along at a more opportune time for a U.S. auto builder. With 150,105 sold, the debut Cordoba was the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for Chrysler and accounted for about 60 percent of all the company’s sales.
The Cordoba was the first new Chrysler car built on the B-body platform — the same used on Dodge Chargers. The Cordoba’s biggest calling card that year was that it was smaller than other Chrysler offerings, using a 115-inch wheelbase that made it shorter and lighter than the company’s 124-inch-wheelbase models, which included the Newport, Imperial and New Yorker. It was clearly designed to fill a niche that had been missing at Chrysler — the personal-luxury market — and compete with the likes of the aforementioned Monte Carlo, Olds Cutlass Supreme, Buick Regal, and Ford’s Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar, among others.
Chrysler decided to give the new model a more exotic, stylish appeal, naming it after a city in Spain and enlisting the sophisticated Montalban as the pitch man.
The new hardtop was truly a luxurious ride and had classy looks from any angle. The front grille was mostly similar in appearance to the other Chryslers of 1975. However, there were two horizontal bars, which divided numerous fine vertical bars. Single headlamps were located in pods and smaller pods contained the parking lamps. The hood and deck lids were highly sculptured and vertical rectangular tail lamps were suggestive of the Newport-type. A Cordoba nameplate graced the front fenders and distinctive medallions were set into the tail lamps and the stand-up hood ornament. Cordoba seats were upholstered in brocade trim. One optional interior was a combination of leather and vinyl. Opera windows were seen in the rear quarter roof pillars.
The 400-cid (6.6-liter) V-8 with either a two- or four-barrel carburetor was standard, with the 360-cid (5.9L) and 318 (5.2L) both optional. All of the cars carried a three-speed automatic transmission, either on the column or a console. Buyers could choose either bench or bucket seats. In addition, there was a long list of options, including a manual sunroof, tinted glass, AM/FM radio, heavy-duty suspension, remote trunk release, air conditioning and power seats and windows. Upholstery came in a variety of materials and colors. Two different vinyl roof options were offered. The “halo” covered the entire roof, while the more popular Landau style was often sold as part of a luxury package that included air conditioning, tinted glass, remote driver’s side mirror and other goodies.
The big 25.5-gallon gas tank could get you a long way down the highway, especially if you had the 2.45:1 standard axle ratio, which was standard on the 360 V-8. The 2.71 axle came standard with the 400 and 318. Stopping was done by 11-inch rear drums and 11.6-inch front discs.
Ultimately, the Cordoba is credited with helping saving the ‘70s for Chrysler Corp., but it didn’t survive the ‘80s. The nameplate was redesigned for the 1980 model year on the new J-body chassis, and became shorter and lighter than any of the first-gen cars. After the 1983 year, Chrysler pulled the plug on the Cordoba and basically withdrew altogether from the personal-luxury car business.
‘I CAN’T SAY ENOUGH ABOUT IT’
Michaels uses his fabulous coupe as both a weekend driver and a show car. He insists he’s as happy driving the big yellow Chrysler as he is behind the wheel of any of his impressive fleet of collector cars. And he doesn’t mind taking the Cordoba to big shows either, such as last summer’s Iola Car Show in Wisconsin, where it was right at home in the Blue Ribbon Corral.
The Cordoba has 41,000 miles on the clock these days, and Michaels is happily adding as many to that number as he can.
“I love it. I’ve got Chargers and Roadrunners and Dusters, and I’ve got some Pontiacs. This is just a driver. It’s got weird options and just a nice car. I can’t say enough about it. It’s super clean underneath. Never been restored. Everything works on the car but the air conditioning, and I’m a mechanic so that will work soon. I’ve serviced the differential and the trans, put some new exhaust on it. Tune-up, carb rebuild, radiator, belts, hoses, things like that. I kept all the original clamps on there. I’m in the process of restoring the air conditioner.”
“It’s got the 400 two-barrel. It’s got the Fuel Pacer system, sunroof, power seat, power windows, TUF wheel, clock, trunk dress-up package… cruise control.”
“The Fuel Pacer is kind of cool. When you turned the key on, fuel mileage back in the ‘70s was an issue, so the left front turn signal lights up. If you step on the gas too hard while you are driving the left front turn signal lights up to tell you are driving aggressive or using too much fuel.”
Not only is Michaels’ Cordoba ritzy, it’s in fantastic shape. The white interior leather still looks great, and all the fancy stuff on the outside — pinstriping, bodyside moldings, vinyl roof, hood ornament — all look like they belong on a restored car. A restoration, however, is not in the plans.
“I’m leaving it the way it is. I have some things I need to do to other cars. I have five kids, and they can decided what they want to do with it,” laughs Michaels. “I’ve got a ’66 Charger …. In 34 years I have not driven that car, so that needs my attention. This one, it’s so original. Not that I think about what’s the car worth, but I think [a restoration] would hurt the car’s value. Not that I’d ever sell it. I always said I would sell it, but I enjoy the car too much and it’s just fun to have.”
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