The Most Difficult Classic To Restore: Chrysler Cordoba Purist Guide

In the car collecting world, what is the most difficult classic car to restore? If I said a Chrysler would you believe me? I am writing this for the purists out there who want to turn their mopar back to the way it looked from the factory. This is information I have collected from traveling the country.

In the year 2015 I bought my first Chrysler Cordoba, and ever since it has been a bumpy learning curve. I traveled seven hours from Boston, Massachusetts to Burlington, Vermont sight unseen. I bought it on the spot with cash for $3500 even though it had rust, and I don’t regret it.

There was once a time when these cars were commonly found driving on the roads of America up until the end of the 90’s. However they were never considered to be valuable or worth saving. So many good examples were lost to the scrap yard when somebody’s grandfather retired from working. Today these cars are extremely rare, and because of that there is absolutely no aftermarket support for these vehicles. Even if you want to replace your windshield, you are going to have to buy another Cordoba.

The Chrysler Cordoba is perhaps one of the most iconic cars in history, and yet you will rarely see them at a car show. Chrysler was going bankrupt, and this car is what saved them from bankruptcy. Thanks in no small part to Ricardo Montalban. Do you remember those groovy advertisements?

In their first year Detroit manufactured 150,000, and they shared the same body style as the 1975–1978 Charger. Needless to say they were a huge hit. They even tried to be different from the pack by offering psychedelic prints on their seats. The largest engine that was offered was a 400 block, and 1975 would be the only year the 400 block would be manufactured without electronic emissions control systems introduced on the ’76 model. For the ’78 and ’79 models all engine options included emissions control.

It was nicknamed “lean burn”. They looked like this above, and came equipped with a Carter Thermoquad. They were sometimes labeled “spark control” or “fuel control”. Chrysler pioneered a first of its kind technology in 1976 that we now use in all modern vehicles. When working you could get up to 25mpg with a high gear ratio. However the 1976 model used sensitive analog computers with dual pickups in the distributor, which were prone to overheating and causing timing issues on your early morning. For the ’78-’79 models the computer was upgraded to a solid state board which was more reliable. If you want one of these, avoid ’76 model 400 blocks. If you want to remove these entirely, this involves buying a new 4bbl carburetor like an Edelbrock 1406, a new 4bbl manifold, and new electronic distributor with weights and springs to replace your point ignition.

What Fuel Do I Need To Run A Cordoba?

The Chrysler Cordoba represents an interesting time period of cars, that only happened for a span of about five or six years. That is it’s a car that was built for a carburetor, but it also has to take unleaded gasoline. That’s where you run into a huge problem. Fuel Injection on vehicles started getting popular by the mid 80’s. Fuel injection systems have no problem handling modern gasoline that has ethanol in the mix, but carburetors hate ethanol with a passion. Okay, then I will just use Haffner’s racing fuel.

Not so fast. Yes Haffners will sell you racing fuel but it’s leaded racing fuel. Fine for classics built before 1975, but it will destroy your engine on a Cordoba. The Chrysler Cordoba was the first Chrysler that ever required a catalytic converter that will clog if you run leaded fuel. Not only that but the gas tanks on these Cordobas are not coated on the inside. If you allow gasoline with ethanol to sit in your Cordoba’s tank, it will begin to rust out after only a period of one or two years as moisture gets in. That is exactly what happened to my gasoline tank from the previous owner. This model year will not be exempt in your state from running a catalytic converter.

So the answer really is unless you can find gas station that sells both ethanol and lead free at the pump, is to buy mid grade gasoline (89 octane) and separate the ethanol yourself. This is what I do in my driveway and it is very simple to do. The reason you want mid grade and not regular, is that separating the ethanol drops the octane rating by 3–4 points. You will avoid issues. If you don’t do this and let your Cordoba sit for more than three days, it will not start up on modern gasoline. Your carburetor will be clogged.

What I do is pour 1 cup (240 mL) of water per 1 gallon (3.8 L) of gasoline into a safe container. I mix five gallons at a time so I use 5 cups of water that I dye with food coloring green or blue. I then pour it into the gasoline and mix it around. I then let it sit for about six hours so the ethanol that has binded to the water I poured into settles to the bottom. It settles because it’s heavier. I then siphon the pure gasoline out from the top and stop when I get close to the ethanol that will stay at the bottom if you don’t rock the container. For this you’re going to want some form of siphoning device.

In this way you can drive you Cordoba twice a month and never have to worry about clogging up your carbereator. Again if you had bought a car that was made a year earlier than Cordoba, or six years after the 1970’s you would have lucked out. You really lucked out owning a Cordoba though.

So Your Doba Needs Bodywork?

You just brought your “new” Cordoba home. You are excited to get that puppy in your driveway and start driving it around your neighborhood. It’s going to be your new show car, your pride and joy, your ice cream getter.

Then you notice the dirty four letter word, RUST. A Chrysler Cordoba is one of those cars where if you see rust on any panel of the car when you go to buy one, run the other way and tell the seller no thanks.

If you chose Pontiac, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Ford, or just about any other make or model out there this would not be an issue. It just so happens that Chrysler Cordobas and Dodge Chargers have an extremely limited following of car enthusiasts who are willing to put money in them to restore them. The resale value on these cars are worth less than a rusty 1998 Honda Civic.

Unfortunately this means there is less aftermarket support for these cars than a 70’s Jaguar. If you were hoping you could order a replacement fender, quarter panel section, doors, wheel wells, trunk lid or hood online then think again. You will have to buy another Cordoba to find parts even for a windshield. Make sure you don’t crack any glass on this car. Sometimes NOS panels will pop up for sale. I highlighted an online posting I found on eBay. So if I wanted to replace two rusty quarter panels, I could easily spend four grand plus the cost of labor unless you do it yourself. You will quickly realize why many give up on these cars.

Even the interior rugs were special. When Chrysler made these cars in the 70’s, they equipped them with shag carpets which were all the rage. It just so happens that no one makes a shag carpet for these anymore, and I tried sourcing many samples from carpet factories. So your options are to make your own carpet, or buy another Cordoba if yours is damaged. The original carpet was not just for looks either. Chrysler did not use sound deadening on their floors during these years. The thick shag carpets acted as sound barriers from road and engine noise, so if you cut your own carpet out of thin material you will need to coat your floors with Dynamat.

Another thing to watch out for is leaking from the rain. Cordobas were prone to many problem spots where rust could gather, that was fixed by the ’77 model. Rick Gebhard who has been working on Cordoba’s since the 70’s had this to say about them. “Due to the way the quarter panel was stamped at the factory there’s about 1/2" in the corner where there’s no real lip for the glass to lay against. On all pre 1977 models I recommend taking out the rear windshield and putting extra sealer. Be careful not to break it though.”

Rust on Cordoba with quarter removed. (Photo by Rick Gebhard)

“The other spot that leaks is through a stud for the vinyl top trim. Most of the that trim is held on with clips on body studs. The small L shaped pieces that roll over the body line has a stud that goes through the quarter panel on the top side with a speed nut on the inside of the trunk. Kinda exactly like how the tail light buckets mount. Take the nut off, pry the trim up 1/2 an inch, caulk up that hole. Notice where the rust trail leads on this one (no vinyl top). The owner had removed the vinyl covering from the roof.”

Back to your host for the evening. On a side note be careful of the front and rear of your Cordoba if you want to do bodywork. They are not steel they are fiberglass. It’s like a Camaro and Corvette all in one. I’ve included a photo of a crashed front end as an example for your enjoyment or misery.

Giving Your Doba A Fresh Paint Job:

Now just when you thought even Chrysler wouldn't make painting your Cordoba difficult, think again. If you want your Cordoba to look factory, you might want to think twice before driving to a bodyshop for a paint job. You have to understand three parts. The body, the vinyl, and the decals.

When Cordoba debut, part of the charm that differentiated them from Chargers was the trim. This is what separates bodyshops that know what they’re doing when it comes to these cars, from those who have no clue.

I will give you a good example. I have put two photos on top of each other. The top photo is a bodyshop that sanded away the original pinstripes, painted over the chrome mirrors, and ripped off the vinyl roof and painted over that. The bottom is how a Cordoba would have looked from the factory. The original stripes went over the quarter, wrapped under the door line and made it’s way to the end of the fender. Stunning isn’t it? I’ve even seen bodyshops paint over the chrome bumpers instead of getting them rechromed because they are too hard to find. This is of pure laziness.

What you have many people actually doing if they want a new paint job, is taping off the decals before spraying base, and then clearing over them. Another option is to have a custom shop paint new pinstripes on. The third option I have seen owners do is find unopened NOS stickers on eBay, make new tracings out of them or adding new glue residue after opening them. NOS stickers can go for hundreds of dollars on the used market.

Now in order to paint the roof it is special. Some bodyshops will very easily cut off the studs that hold the vinyl roof together, seam over it with bondo and paint it. Then sell it on the used market by calling it “restored”. From the factory the roof was not painted with clear coat. You need to use single stage. The glue needs something course to bond to that keeps the vinyl down. Again this is not just for looks. The vinyl roof shields rain from seeping through the stud holes and rusting out your quarter panels like shown above. You’ll also want to find a reputable company that knows how to put vinyl tops on these cars. Luckily they do sell replacement kits online, but again it’s going to add thousands of dollars to the cost from labor. Choose your color wisely. Once you choose one there is no going back.

Look At Those Wheels:

This is another nightmare you can run into. When Cordobas came from the factory, maybe their biggest attraction was their wheels. They were sold with a total of eight different style hubcaps. Their most popular style was the spindle wheels that can be shown above. It really looks classy. However if you come across a Cordoba today, chances are the original owners tossed those hubcaps away because they were hard to keep clean. Water would get behind the urethane face and corrode the metal rim.

“I removed these from my ‘77 Cordoba in the 90’s because the valve stems always leaked due to the corrosion. They were very common wheels when these cars were new.” — Scott Gresser

So most owners bought replacement aluminum wheels when they went out of style, and made them easier to maintain and clean ever since. Unfortunately that means not only have original hubcaps become hard to find, the original size wheels that were designed to hold the Chrysler hubcaps have almost disappeared from the face of the earth.

This moves to the discussion of ride height. Cordobas were originally designed to hang low in the rear but not too low. Many of the wheels restoration shops are putting on Cordobas and Chargers today are way too large, because they are trying to compensate for sagging springs. It’s not uncommon to see Doba owners putting larger wheels in the rear, which results in the rear sitting up way too high and making the car look uneven. Not only do you need new suspension bushings, you need rear leaf springs replaced. This is not only for cosmetic purposes. If the car is not sitting correctly the springs can give out and rip through your trunk. I have seen it happen, and it will ruin your day and your beautiful Cordoba.

It’s better to use the correct size wheels Chrysler intended. The factory size was 15X5.5, but you can use 15X6. You’ll want steel wheels that will fit the original hubcaps. For a Cordoba or Charger you’ll want a 5X4.5 wheel bolt pattern, and 4.25 backspacing give or take. I’ve read the reviews on some of the cheaper wheels out there, and you don’t want your rare hubcaps falling off on the highway. Good quality wheels are important for proper balance. I recommend the 63 Chrysler Series from Wheel Vintiques.

Let’s talk about tire size. The original stock tire size was 207/78/15. In modern terms that translates to roughly P205/75R15. However if you want the original look you are going to want white walls. This is going to add to the cost, but really you can’t go without white walls on a Cordoba.

Vintage Tire Size Conversion Chart

So after all that, it’s not uncommon for owners to spend thousands of dollars on making their wheels look original, because of the rarity of the parts. It’s not like any old muscle car where you can buy a lift kit on Summit Racing with giant racing wheels and call it a day. You can make your own, but you won’t be hitting the drag strip with your Cordoba anytime soon.

Are You Ready To Own A Doba???

So yes the Chrysler Cordoba produced from 1975–1979 in it’s first incarnation, and then from 1980–1983 are today some of the rarest cars out there. With parts that are impossible to find, community support that is almost non existent, and values that are not going to rise in the near future.

However after they are restored, in my opinion they are one of the best looking cars of the 70’s. You have to admit they are sharp and classy.

Here are some more Doba pictures to drool over…

Cheers, and happy Cordoba hunting.

- Ben K.

Independent writer outside of Boston.

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