The Most Difficult Classic To Restore: Chrysler Cordoba
*Before reading this I am going to put my usual disclaimer. This is not a fact based article. My automotive articles are always geared towards stories about my personal life in the form of a blog, and the incidences I personally run into as a first time owner who is a non professional. About the frustrations I have personally felt owning one as a consumer. Your experience may completely differ from mine. This article is purely subjective to my own personal taste you may disagree with. This is not an article giving professional advice or suggestions. It’s not to be taken as history or fact. This is a total opinion piece just to give a fair warning. So without further ado, let’s jump into the world of the Doba.
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.
“Back in the day these things were everywhere. Around 1980 I had an after school job that I walked about 1.5 miles to. One day I decided to count how many I saw parked along my walk. I think it was about 12. I can’t tell ya the last time I saw one on the street or where I’d go looking for one.”
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. For that reason the 1975 model 400 block is one of the more wanted setups.
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 for 1976 model year that we now use in all modern vehicles. It worked by adjusting the spark timing to create a “smooth”, “even running” and “truly responsive acceleration”, to permit the burning of leaded or unleaded fuel without the need for a catalytic converter like Ford and GM had adopted.
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 commute. For the ’78-’79 models Chrysler upgraded the computer to solid state board that was not affected by engine heat and position of the computer was changed so it could stay cooler. It’s very rare to find a first generation lean burn system still working the way it should. Many 400 block owners for that reason opt to get them removed. If you want one of these, avoid ’76 and ’77 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 to replace your 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, unless of course you have a technically working original lean burn system in your engine and your state is crazy about enforcement.
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. Again this is my personal preference I do with my classics that run carburetors and I am a fanatic. I know there are majority of very experienced professionals in the field who will tell you that running pump gas causes no damage, and no it probably won’t cause any immediate damage if you drive it weekly. My Cordoba though I only drive it maybe four or five times a year. It really allows me to let it sit for a month or two without worrying about having a problem starting it. 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 carburetor. Again if you had bought a car that was made a year earlier than Cordoba, or six years after the 1970s you would have lucked out. You really lucked out owning a Cordoba though. Many reading this may feel this is going over the top, and yes it is. However you cannot run leaded fuel in any 70s or early 80s car for that matter just because it has a carburetor. These cars are meant for catalytic converters.
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 than 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. Just checking eBay in the year 2021 for the keyword “Chrysler Cordoba” brings up just two results. I really find that incredible and it begins to explain why really almost no one goes to the expense to completely restore one of these obscure 70s boats.
“How may guys have you ever met that are dumb / crazy / committed enough to do a full on resto job on a Doba?” — Richard Gebhard (Chrysler collector)
There is very little chance that aftermarket companies will ever get panels re-popped because zero chance of making your money back. If you search for Camaro, Mustang, or Challenger panels for that matter you can find decent quality metal for hundreds of dollar. The same panels you can still find kicking around for Cordobas, Chargers, and Magnums will cost you many thousands. You would have to ask AMD for a ball park number on what the tool and die cost is and how many panels you have to move at a reasonable cost to turn a profit on the effort. Let’s assume a stupid low number like 100–200. Even if you were just trying to put a fresh tail on an otherwise solid driver, you can probably find a clean survivor for less than the body shop bill. There is an argument to be made that nobody is going to buy one with the usual tail rust because no way to get the panels. There’s a better argument to be made for that you really don’t have to when you can still buy one without the rust for cheap. Hell, you can buy 2–6 to get get the body / interior / drive train / options you want in one car for less than what you will put got into restoring Daytona or Magnum. That used to be the case though. The days of finding pristine and rust examples of these Mopars will soon be over, as most see no value in keeping them around, part them out send them to the scrap yard.
Richard Gebhard a Chrysler enthusiast told me that he met a few muscle car era guys that have some appreciation but they’re few and far between and generally only the result of accidentally owning one. A couple decades ago there was a short lived movement toward starting with a late B or early M and bolting on some power. Didn’t last very long and I attribute it to entry level guys giving up and moving on to ricers when a carb swap and loud mufflers didn’t result in big gains. There is and always has been a small segment of owners that know how to make them get up and move. The “typical” buyer for “most” of these things is somebody that wants an unmolested survivor with a wrenching interest limited to routine maintenance of waking up something that’s been parked for a decade or two. The occasional full on resto that is usually seen is always about sentimental reasons — been in the family since new and the option list doesn’t really enter in to it. The thing he’s seen over the last decade or so is people that never knew they existed and stumbling across them for the first time. Too early to say where that’s like to go but so far seems like they want to put them back like they were, add a little grunt and some curb appeal tweaks. He kind of expects it be short lived in part due to trouble finding parts.
Even the interior rugs were special. When Chrysler made these cars in the 70s, 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.
All together it took a total of seven years tracking down all of the panels to replace the rust from a New England auto. Mine was a 1975 400 block. I couldn’t get myself to send it to the scrapyard after I had drove ten hours to find it and had already purchased it for four grand. Sometimes when working on project cars especially Mopar, all you can do is breathe deep and count your blessings. I just meditate, rub the magic lantern, and Chrysler parts rise out of the ground. Mine needed a new battery tray on both wheel wells, two new quarter panels, and a new trunk lid as mine was bashed in and rusted. The quarters I got a very nice deal on from a scrapyard out in California, but it cost me including shipping $2400 to get them to my driveway. In order to obtain the wheel wells I had to buy a second Cordoba.
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 70s 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.”
“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 are familiar with these cars from those who are not familiar with classic restoration. Also for a disclaimer I chose the photo below as an example. Someone may actually prefer the way it looks. Again it is all personal preference. I just bring this up to discuss the history of how these cars originally looked.
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 its way to the end of the fender. It was also located on the trunk. 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 sometimes 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 color of the pinstripe always matched the interior too. So on a black car with a red interior the pinstriping would be red. On a white car with a blue interior, the pinstripping would be blue and so on. Except on double or triple color options where the color had to be different from the exterior paint. Then you would commonly see gold or white on black or red. 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.
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.
if anyone is confused what is agrees with what I’ve written, here’s another well written article that showcases the same sentiment about the frustration amongst Cordova and Charger owners. I am not tjr only one.
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.