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How Imperial Cars Work


The Imperial LeBaron
The 1961 Imperial LeBaron is one of the gaudier Imperials, with oversized tailfins, "gunsight" taillights and individual bullet-shaped headlamps.

Though other Highland Park cars adopted "unibody" construction for 1960, Imperial retained a separate body and frame, mainly because it was more amenable to isolation from noise and road shock, necessary for the level of smoothness and silence luxury buyers demanded. Returning unchanged was a lone 413 wedgehead V-8, whose 10:1 compression required premium fuel.

Imperial model choices were also unchanged, but styling became cartoonish for 1960, with swollen fins, a florid grille, and an even larger windshield. Interiors were ornate, dominated by an impressively bright, complicated dash with a plethora of pushbuttons; a squarish steering wheel was merely odd. Emphasizing comfort was a new high-back driver's seat padded in thick foam rubber.

Options by now had grown to include adjustable "spot" air conditioning, six-way power seat with single rotary control, "Auto-Pilot" cruise control, and automatic headlamp dimmer. Customs were upholstered in pretty crown-pattern nylon. Upholstery for Crown was wool, leather, or nylon and vinyl. Wool broadcloth lined LeBarons. Model-year production held at the '59 level.

The new 1960 bodyshell was considerably changed for 1961 -- and not for the better. Fins were the most blatant ever to appear on an Imperial -- high and gull-like, with the trademark gunsight taillamps suspended from them. And there was a new gimmick: freestanding headlamps, individual chrome bullets on tiny pedestals pocketed in severely concave front fenders -- another of Exner's "classic" throwbacks. This strange idea would persist through 1963, but rear styling became much more tasteful.

Four-door pillared sedans were eliminated for '61, but other offerings returned along with an unchanged powerteam. Sci-fi styling; Chrysler's now-widespread reputation for indifferent workmanship; and a handsome, more-compact new Lincoln Continental conspired to dampen demand, and model-year production dropped to around 12,250 -- less than half of Lincoln's total. Unfortunately that wasn't enough to justify a separate factory, and '62 Imperial assembly rejoined Chrysler at Jefferson Avenue.

Exner left Chrysler during 1961, but not before fashioning a completely new, truncated "S-Series" Imperial as part of an entirely downsized corporate line for 1962. It didn't reach production, which was fortunate because his downsized Dodges and Plymouths did -- and met a poor reception.

Instead, the '61 Imperial was reissued but with the ugly fins planed off, leaving straight-top rear fenders capped by cigarlike gunsights. The 413 was detuned by 10 bhp, and would continue in this form through 1965. Production rose to a bit over 14,250, but was still only about 50 percent of Lincoln's. Cadillac remained far ahead of both.

Another facelift gave the '63s a new grille insert composed of elongated rectangles, plus a crisper rear roofline and restyled rear deck. The stylist responsible for much of this revision was Elwood Engel, who'd come over from Ford -- where he designed the aforementioned Continental -- to replace Exner in mid-1961. The lineup was again unchanged, and model-year production was about the same as for '62.

Clean, all-new Engel styling completely banished the old Exner silhouette for 1964 as Imperial became very much like his square-lined Continental. The beltline was edged with full-length bright moldings, a divided grille appeared (recalling 1955-56), and the freestanding headlamps gave way to integral units within the grille.

One Exner touch remained, however: the simulated trunklid spare, though it was also squarish now, carried down into the bumper as on the 1956-57 Continental Mark II. A less-contrived dash with strong horizontal format was featured inside.

Modelwise, the slow-selling Custom was eliminated along with the Southampton name for pillarless styles, leaving Crown convertible and hardtops, LeBaron hardtop sedan, and the Ghia Crown limo. Model-year sales were exceedingly good at over 23,000, a level that wouldn't be approached again until 1969.

Good sales and the big '64 redesign dictated a stand-pat 1965. The only significant changes were prominent crossed grille bars on a mesh background, glass-covered headlights, and prices bumped up $100-$200.

Displayed at that year's New York Auto Show was the exotic LeBaron D'Or, a customized hardtop coupe. The "D'Or" part referred to gold-tint exterior striping and interior embellishments, as well as special "Royal Essence Laurel Gold" paint.

Ghia stopped building Crown limousines in 1965, but 10 more were constructed in Spain using '66 grilles and rear decks. When Imperial finally went to unit construction for '67, Chrysler worked out a limousine program with Stageway Coaches of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Built through 1971 at the rate of about six per year, these cars, simply called LeBaron, were much larger, riding an unbelievable 163-inch wheelbase, by far the longest in the American industry. Prices ranged from $12,000 to $15,000, depending on equipment.

Regular Imperials again saw mostly detail changes for 1966. The grille now carried an eggcrate motif, each "crate" containing tiny elongated rectangles, and the decklid was cleaned up by deleting the fake spare tire.

A literal big change involved boring the wedge V-8 to 440 cid, which returned horsepower to 350. Model-year production went the other way, though, dropping from 1965's 18,500 -- itself a considerable decline from '64 -- to fewer than 13,750.

For more on defunct American cars, see: