While other Chryslers shifted to unitized construction for
1960, Imperial retained body-on-frame assembly.
See more pictures of Imperials.
1960 was a critical year for the Chrysler Corporation.
Although styling vice president Virgil Exner's high-finned 1957
offerings had shocked the competition, wowed the public, and boosted
Chrysler's market share to nearly 20 percent, the gains were only
Build quality was lamentably haphazard, and owner dissatisfaction with indifferent workmanship, snapping front torsion bars, and rusting bodies caused the corporation's overall market share to sag to just 11.3 percent in 1959.
To regain lost momentum and recapture lost customers, Chrysler's 1960 models were completely restyled and re-engineered at a tooling cost of $350 million. Even the way the cars were built was changed; most of Chrysler's new models employed unitized body construction, abandoning the conventional body-on-frame approach in the expectation that building more durable products -- billed as "The Quick, the Strong and the Quiet" -- would reassure customers who were still driving the rust-plagued '57s.
There were also major marketing and product-planning changes afoot. As part of a long-term goal of developing a Plymouth-only dealer network, the Plymouth franchise was withdrawn from Dodge dealers. They instead received a new low-priced car named the Dart. The corporation was also introducing its initial entry in the burgeoning compact class, the Valiant.
Almost lost amidst the hoopla of the corporation's 1960-model press preview at Miami Beach's Hotel Fontainebleau was the fact that the company was also bringing to market a restyled Imperial, the "third wave" in its effort to gain a secure standing in the American luxury-car market. The true significance of this newest Imperial was, however, both unnoticed and unappreciated by the automotive press of the day.
From 1955 through 1959, Chrysler had carefully nurtured and groomed the Imperial. After testing the market for a standard-wheelbase Imperial in the early Fifties, Chrysler made its move. As the 1955 "Forward Look" Imperials were being introduced, the corporation sent letters to the licensing registrars of the various states informing them that beginning in 1955, the Imperial was to be registered as a separate make, and no longer as a Chrysler.
This "inaugural" Imperial was appropriately impressive, causing assemblies to double over what they had been in 1954. As good as these cars were, they were still umbilically linked to Chryslers, sharing the same basic body substructure, roof, windshield, backlight -- even the same instrument panel. Moreover, the Imperial's distinctive divided grille had, in mid 1955, been appropriated for use on the Chrysler 300.
But in 1957, everything changed. Designed by former Briggs Body stylist Bill Brownlie and Exner's alter ego, Cliff Voss, the '57 Imperial, had nothing in common with Chrysler save the drivetrain. Like a butterfly emerged from its cocoon, every bit of exterior sheetmetal, every piece of interior trim was unique to Imperial, including roofs that employed curved side glass, a first for an American car.
With its long, tapering fins rising majestically over a sloping "Flight Sweep" decklid, the '57 Imperial was a real stunner. A full line of body types, including a swanky convertible, and a choice of trim levels was now available.
Bringing this unique Imperial to market was an expensive and risky undertaking, but Chrysler felt it had to make the move if it wanted to compete successfully with archrivals Cadillac and Lincoln. The effort was amply rewarded as Imperial production well more than tripled to 35,793 for the model year.
Encouraged by this meteoric rise, Chrysler began making big plans for Imperial's seemingly promising future. The corporation committed to an Imperial-only assembly plant, a separate facility that could be dedicated to producing luxury automobiles for demanding and well-heeled customers. Given that Imperial now had little in common with Chrysler, a cogent argument could be made for manufacturing the Imperial in another plant.
The company chose to refit the DeSoto engine and body plant on West Warren Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside the Detroit city limits. Built in 1925 for Jewett assembly by the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Company, the plant had been acquired by Chrysler in 1946 from that company's successor, Graham-Paige.
Since the plant had not assembled complete automobiles since erecting the final Cord-bodied Graham Hollywoods in September 1940, everything inside the plant had to be redone. This included the installation of a modern assembly line, nearly four miles of conveyor systems, an up-to-date body shop, and six paint ovens.
With an enclosed area of more than 1 million square feet and a work force of 2,000 employees, the revamped plant had a capacity of a leisurely 27 cars an hour -- about 52,000 units a year based on a single eight-hour shift. Beginning with the 1959 model year, Imperials began rolling out of Warren Avenue.
Imperial's prospects looked good; production, however, was faltering. Just 16,133 units were built in the 1958 model year, followed by an equally discouraging 17,269 cars in 1959. The weak showing in '58 was attributed to the economic recession, and production of '59s was hindered by strikes at steel and glass suppliers. But sooner or later, Imperial had to make good on its promise.
The 1955-56 Imperials established the nameplate as a separate marque; the 1957-59 Imperials gained more distinction in styling and manufacturing; the "third wave" for 1960 and beyond would have to build successfully upon this foundation.
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