1961 Imperial

Amid the turmoil, it is clear that much of Exner's attention was concentrated on the Imperial. While roofs and doors remained unchanged from 1960, both the front and rear of the car were extensively altered. According to an internal corporate publication, the objectives of the new styling were to establish model-year identity, shift styling focus from the rear to the front, and achieve "a striking classic-car look."

1961 Imperial
The '61 Imperial reached back into auto history with its Cord
 810/812-inspired grille and bullet-shaped headlights.

It was this last goal that caused controversy. To achieve it, Imperials were fitted with individual headlights placed in elliptical chrome-plated shells atop short pedestals mounted to sheetmetal just past the bumper. In classic car fashion, Imperial now had separate headlights as well as separate taillights -- but why?

At least we have an idea how it happened. According to Hudson's letter, "Then came what to do for '61. Cliff [Voss, chief of exterior design] came to me and said that 'Ex' would like to see a proposal including a Cord-like grille, gullwing fenders, and freestanding headlamps ... so I connected the points and it went into production."

Dave Cummins, a retired Chrysler design executive, recalls it differently. "There was a greasy garage on John R Street near Chrysler's Highland Park campus that sold classic cars. One day on his lunch hour, Fred stopped by when there was an 810 Cord for sale. Hudson was captivated by Gordon Buehrig's wraparound coffin-nose grille, and after returning to the Imperial Studio, in one afternoon he put together a sketch that became the 1961 Imperial."

Chet Limbaugh, who began working on the 1961 Imperial as a fledgling stylist in the Imperial Studio in 1958, remembers Fred's idea sketch hanging on a wall. "Schmidt (second in command under Exner) had no interest in the sketch," Limbaugh remembers, "until Exner himself spotted it one day and said, 'That's what I want!'"

Whatever you think of the 1961 Imperial's front end, it was masterfully worked out by Hudson. The central radiator-width grille was a truncated variant of the Cord's coffin nose, with delicate horizontal bright bars wrapped around the sides, capped by a broad chrome header with recessed, gray-painted letters spelling out "IMPERIAL." As an accent, on the driver side, a small eagle with uplifted wings was set into a shadow box, gold-framed on LeBarons and red-framed on lesser Imperials.

On either side of the grille, the fenders were rakishly undercut to provide a "stage" for the headlamps. At the top, the fenders' undersides were canted slightly upward, these "eyebrows" forming a stylistic link with the 1957-1960 Imperials and also housing the park and turn lamps. The "bullet" headlamp shells were set off by finely ribbed diecast rings into which the headlamps themselves were recessed. For added protection, thin horizontal guards were placed in front on the headlamp shells, affixed to a new and simpler horizontal bumper.

Philosophically, Exner had long been a proponent of centered grilles, first on his earlier "idea cars" like the Chrysler K-310, D'Elegance, and Falcon roadster, and recently on certain of the company's production cars. This explains his keenness for replacing the 1960 Imperial's full-width grille with something more exclusive. Additionally, the individual headlamp shells were a way of achieving a distinctive headlamp treatment without taking on the trouble-prone mechanics of disappearing headlights.

The whole ensemble -- grille, headlamps, fenders -- must have cost a pile of money. Consider that the grille had three sides instead of the usual one, while the four headlamps had their own individual shells instead of being inexpensively tucked into the grillework. Especially tricky -- and costly -- were the fenders, which had to provide a horizontal sheetmetal plane for the headlamps shells to sit upon, a vertical closeout wall behind them, and overhanging brows above them. It's too bad we can't all go back to the Warren Avenue plant just to marvel at how they put the things together. And washing the 1961 Imperial's many front-end surfaces must have been a protracted procedure.

The new, longer hood, bisected by a chrome-accented windsplit, was a hatch-type design; it ended forward of the windshield and several inches behind the grille. The only visible cutline was that of the hood itself, which seemed to float within the expanse of front sheetmetal. The effect was achieved by filling and hand-smoothing all the construction seams, once again a costly undertaking.

A concerted effort was required to blend the undercut section of the front fenders with the carryover doors, achieved by having a rolled section sweep up and over the front wheels, diminishing as it moved rearward toward the doors. The new bodyside molding, on the other hand, grew wider as it moved rearward, with the quarter-panel portion accented by a stylized chrome Imperial eagle on a gold backplate (a Limbaugh touch) that mimicked the new fin shape. The fins themselves were reworked, the main difference being that they were undercut in side view. But they didn't start out that way.

"Originally," Limbaugh relates, "the fins were more vertical, like the '60. But Bill [Brownlie] liked my sketch of a 'hanging' taillight, so we actually scalloped back the fins to accommodate them." The individual ringed taillights were attached to the underside of the fins by short chromium arms. Decklids continued to be offered with or without the circular tire impression.

The LeBaron roofline was modified, with a new cross-car crease added just above the limousine-style backlight for a carriage-roof effect. At the same time, the welded intersection between the roof and the horizontal "Dutchman" panel just below the backlight was concealed by a diecast molding that wrapped around the base of the wide C-pillars. This change was undoubtedly at the request of the assembly plant inasmuch as it eliminated all that expensive hand-finishing employed in this area on the 1960 LeBarons. While a new sloping six-window hardtop roof was briefly considered for Customs and Crowns, in the end, the existing roofs were carried over (though four-door sedans were cut from every series).

Exemplary exterior details included new deep-dish wheel covers in chrome and satin finish, with LeBarons fitted with a "floating-ring" center overlay. On the Custom and Crown series, a bold, self-assured vertical Imperial script, chrome with a gold-anodized background, appeared on the front fenders.

LeBaron flanks were nameless save for a silver plaque at the base of each C-pillar reading "LeBaron Coachwork," set off by a cloisonné Imperial crest and three-pointed gold crown. In order to get the desired color, real gold was used in producing this part, for which Chrysler had to pay the 10-percent federal excise tax required on fine jewelry!

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