Despite today's virtual worship of the 1957 Chevy, 1957 was truly Chrysler's year. The dramatic, low-roof, high-fin creations of Virgil Exner and his talented styling team on the 1957-1959 Imperial blew the doors off the competition, winning Chrysler its highest post-1953 market share and causing the venerable GM Styling staff to throw out the designs it had been working on for 1959 and start over.

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1958 Imperial Crown
The mid-level Crown series pushed into the lead as
the most popular range for the 1958 Imperial. See more classic car pictures.

The new Plymouth fairly screamed, "Suddenly it's 1960," along with the dramatic Swept-Wing Dodge, and the proud-tailed DeSoto and Chrysler. Yet standing above even these sensational new cars was the Imperial, justly and proudly proclaimed "The Finest Expression of the Forward Look."

In 1957, for the first time in its checkered history, Imperial had everything -- styling, engineering, and a full model lineup -- necessary to make a serious run at Cadillac for America's luxury-car crown, at least in spirit.

Though the Imperial name was associated with Chrysler from its very beginning, it suffered through some circuitous convolutions. Even after World War II, establishing Imperial as a luxury marque separate from Chrysler wasn't direct, smooth, or evenly planned.

At first, small batches of block-long Crown Imperial limousines and eight-passenger sedans constituted Chrysler's top series. It was not until quite late in the 1949 model year that Chrysler planners made another tentative step toward a personal-use Imperial, ordaining 50 specially equipped six-passenger sedans on New Yorker chassis under the supervision of Ray Dietrich, a famed custom body designer and former head of Chrysler styling.

After this toe-in-the-water experience, mid-1950 saw yet another Imperial sedan, a production job this time, offered in standard and deluxe interior trim. This was a precursor to a full line of Imperials for 1951 -- sedan, club coupe, Newport hardtop, and convertible. These new Imperials reeked of "old money," a look Cadillac had abandoned in 1948 to pursue the "dollar grin" and cheeky tailfins.

Yet despite this impressive beachhead, Chrysler planners vacillated again. In the 1953-1954 redesign, the image-enhancing convertible was absent just as Cadillac introduced its Eldorado and Packard its Caribbean.

In 1955, for the first time, Imperial was registered as a separate marque -- no more Chrysler Imperial. The 1955 Imperial was a grand turnout: big, bold, and handsome. Under the inspired leadership of styling director Exner and his alter ego, Cliff Voss, Imperial was outfitted with full wheel openings (often stuffed with chrome wire wheels), sculpted sides, and snooty "gunsight" taillights, all cues from Exner's first "idea car," the K-310.

1959 Imperial Crown convertible
The essentials of the Virgil Exner-directed design
persisted to the 1959 Imperial.

The 1955 Imperial looked every inch a luxury car. But the two-model lineup still lacked a convertible. And Imperial soon lost some of its newly won styling identity when its divided box-check grillework was appropriated for the first Chrysler C-300, contradicting the message that the Imperial was indeed a separate marque. The following year Exner's famous fins arrived together with a third body type, a four-door Southampton, as Imperial hardtops were now christened.

All of this advance and retreat was mere preamble to 1957, when Imperial emerged gloriously radiant and fully equipped to make a major assault on Cadillac. For the first time, Imperial's styling and body shell held nothing in common with the Chrysler. So different were the two cars that separate Chrysler and Imperial body and assembly lines -- including segregated paint and body trim operations -- had to be erected at the adjacent Kercheval Body and Jefferson Assembly plants on Detroit's east side.

For more on the 1957 Imperial's styling, continue to the next page.

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