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Corinthian Leather – The Material with a Surprising Story

It is helpful to know about different types of leather when choosing one for a project or buying a product. What I learned about Corinthian leather was quite surprising.

Corinthian leather is not an actual type of leather at all, it is a marketing term. The Chrysler automobile company introduced it in 1974 to describe premium leather seat material. Celebrity Ricardo Montalban helped popularize the term in Cordoba car ads, leading to years of increased sales.

Despite not being an exotic material, there are some interesting things about how Corinthian leather got its name, where it came from, how it became to be so popular, and where to buy it. It’s even garnered a following and place in pop culture.

Where Did Corinthian Leather Come From?

The term, “Corinthian Leather”, was developed by an advertising agency. Bozell, based in Omaha, Nebraska, was working for the Chrysler Corporation. They were founded in 1921 and grew at one point into one of the largest advertising agencies in the United states.

A copywriter for Bozell coined the phrase “Corinthian Leather”. It was intended to brand the leather in some of Chrysler’s cars as a premium, luxury upholstery material. The goal was to set the leather apart from competitors by implying an association with something rich in quality, rare, and luxurious.

The first marketing campaign to use the term was for the 1974 Chrysler Imperial Lebaron. The Lebaron was a 5,000lb, almost 20’ long car that came with velour upholstery standard. An optional upgrade was for tufted, Corinthian leather. This is the first car that offered the material, though often isn’t remembered as the most famous; that, was the Chrysler Cordoba.

1974 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron - Corinthian Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
1974 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron

Introduction of Corinthian Leather in the Chrysler Cordoba

In 1973, a global gas crisis began to drive fuel prices up. As a result, automobile sales were beginning to decline. To save money, customers were also looking for smaller cars that would be more fuel efficient.

In response, Chrysler designed the Cordoba. It was a 4,000lb, 18’ long personal luxury coupe aimed to enter into the growing luxury car segment. It was also smaller than Chrysler’s other offerings, aiming to help it appeal to evolving customer preferences.

1977 Chrysler Cordoba - Corinthian Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
1977 Chrysler Cordoba

In 1975 Chrysler began sales of the first model of the Cordoba, it was an instant hit. There were more orders for the car than there were cars made. For each model, there was an optional leather trim package that used their premium Corinthian leather.

Where was Corinthian Leather Made?

Contrary to popular belief, Corinthian leather wasn’t imported from an exotic location or steeped in history or rarity. Corinthian leather was made in New Jersey. It was actually just the regular leather Chrysler would source for all of it’s vehicles.

At the time, a major leather supplier in Newark, New Jersey was producing the “Corinthian leather” in the 1970s. They were the Radel Leather Manufacturing Company, and had been in business since 1907.

Radel Leather Manufacturing Company in 1912 - Corinthian Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Radel Leather Manufacturing Company in 1912

In 1979 they were doing about $5 million in annual business with Chrysler. That surely is a lot of leather! Some of it, Corinthian. Leather used in cars is usually processed with a protective coating to help ensure the longevity of the leather. So if you’re curious what the of leather “Corinthian” leather is made of, think a common auto leather, processed to a smooth finish, colored, and coated.

Here’s a fun video that takes you through through the Corinthian Leather story:

How Corinthian Leather Became Popular

When planning to launch the new Cordoba automobile, Chrysler created a spokesman relationship with popular Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. He was of Spanish origin and had a smooth, majestic speaking voice. The way he talked breathed richness into the Cordoba brand.

“I request nothing beyond the thickly cushioned luxury of seats available even in soft, Corinthian leather.” – Ricardo Montalban

Here is the very first Chrysler Cordoba commercial, from 1975, that features Corinthian leather:

Later that year in the winter of 1975, two other commercials were released. One was titled, “Tradition”:

The Other was titled, “Pride”:

So is it Soft, Fine, or Rich Corinthian Leather?

There is often debate as to wether Ricardo Montalban refers to the leather as soft, fine, or rich Corinthian leather. He actually says it all three ways, almost.

In the very first commercial from 1975, he refers to it as “soft”. In the two commercials from later in 1975, he refers to it as “fine”. Ricardo had so much success working with Chrysler, he remained their spokesperson for 15 years.

So later on in 1988, he did a commercial featuring a different car that offered Corinthian leather. It was the Chrysler New Yorker. In this, he mentions “Corinthian leather” in one sentence, and later on mentions “rich leather”. So while not spoken in the same sentence, an association can be reasonably implied.

So everyone fondly reciting the lines either way is just about right 🙂 Here is that 1988 commercial:

Did Corinthian Leather Have Any Special Meaning?

It seems, no! 🙂 Mainly a marketing approach to inspire a feeling of richness and luxury in a leather that was soft, pliable, and durable. The term otherwise has no real meaning in reference to leather or the origin of the product.

Here is Ricardo sharing as much with David letterman during an interview on the Late Night show in 1987:

Well, that answers that!

Where Can You Buy Corinthian Leather?

Corinthian leather is most commonly associated with the Chrysler Cordoba. While the Imperial Lebaron was the first car to have it, the leather was also available in later years well into the 1980’s on cars such as the Chrysler New Yorker and Chrysler Fifth Avenue.

If you’re interested in buying an earlier Chrysler with Corinthian leather, here are the first models to have it:

YearMakeModelOverall Model Production
1974ChryslerImperial Lebaron14,426
  • In 1975, its first year, Cordoba production made up 60% of Chrysler’s total cars produced (250,000 cars)
  • 1977 was the peak production year for the Cordoba
  • In 1980, the Cordoba even featured a special “Corinthian Edition” model in the car lineup, with unique luxury touches and amenities. This special model offering continued through the 1981 production year

How Can You Clean Corinthian Leather?

Since Corinthian leather is standard car upholstery, they can be cleaned using the common cleaning process:

  • Vacuum the seats to clean up any large dirt/debris
  • Apply a cleaner (preferably leather cleaner) to a microfiber cloth and wipe over the seats to loosen/remove any layers of dirt
  • Lightly brush the seats with a leather-safe cleaning brush (applying cleaner to the brush as needed)
  • Wipe the seats clean with a soft microfiber cloth
  • Repeat monthly or as needed based on use
Car Leather Seat Upholstery - Liberty Leather Goods
Car Leather Seat Upholstery

How to Care for & Condition Corinthian Leather?

Corinthian leather is common car upholstery leather, and can be conditioned as such. Here’s how you can help keep it in tip-top shape:

  • Regularly clean the seats as needed based on use
  • Once clean, apply a tiny bit of high-quality leather conditioner to a small spot os the leather that is not easily seen. This will allow you to test and ensure the conditioner will work well on the leather, and not have any adverse reactions to the material
  • If the leather conditioner is safe based on the test, lightly apply more in small sections to the rest of the seats. Generally, a microfiber cloth will work well for this. Definitely check the specific directions that come with any conditioner that is used, for best results
  • Ensure the car is parked out of direct sunlight while the conditioner is drying (the direct sun could affect the conditioning and even discolor the seats)
  • After about an hour (or the recommended time based on the conditioner instructions), use the microfiber cloth to gently buff the seats and remove any excess conditioner
  • Conditioning is generally done less than cleaning, so based on how often you clean it, plan to condition your Corinthian leather seats a few times per year

Corinthian Leather in Pop Culture

The approach the Chrysler commercials took, and the energy the Ricardo Montalban infused into them, have left lasting impressions of Corinthian leather on popular culture. It is talked about often by car aficionados, trivia fans, and has even been referenced in TV and movies. A few examples include:

  • The 2016 Deadpool movie includes a line, “…rich, Corinthian leather”.
  • In the TV series Burn Notice (S4 E9, “Center of the Storm” – 2010), the lead character, Michael, mentions, “You know, and I’m a big fan of corinthian leather…”
  • In the animated series Archer (S3 E7 – “Drift Problem” – 2012), when receiving a new car the character mentions “rich, Corinthian leather”.
  • In the TV series Parks and Recreation (S4 E22 – “Win, Lose, or Draw” – 2012), character Ron Swanson mentions in reference to a chair, “That’s a nice chair. Corinthian leather, solid mahogany frame with what I believe are hand cut mortise and tenon joints pinned with oak.”
  • The extremely successful and popular Dos Equis “Most interesting man in the world” campaign (2006-2018) is said to be based on the style of Ricardo Montalban in the Chrysler commercials

A Wildly Successful Corinthian Leather that Never Existed

So there you have it, the story of a luxury leather that never really was. A brand idea spun off into a marketing campaign that boosted Chrysler’s sales, elevated an actor’s fame, and has been fondly remembered ever since. Chalk it up to clever thinking.

If you’re eager for more leather, click here for an article I wrote about all the great leather types out there.

Related Questions

How old was Ricardo Montalban?

Ricardo Montalban was 55 years old in 1975, when the Chrysler Cordoba commercials were first released.

Where is Ricardo Montalban from?

Ricardo Montalban is from Mexico City, Mexico. He grew up in Torreón, Mexico, a city in the Mexican state of Coahuila.

Other Resources: