1931-1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight

The 1931-1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight marked a milestone for Chrysler's flagship automobile. As Walter P. Chrysler's automotive empire quickly grew in the 1920s, it perhaps inevitably expanded into the luxury-car market with the Imperial. Beginning with the Chrysler Imperial Eight in 1931, the Imperial took major steps forward by wrapping its new straight-eight engine in bodywork of classic beauty.

1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight CL phaeton side view
The 1931-1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight models were
classics. Here's a 1933 Imperial Eight CL phaeton.

Those who knew Walter Percy Chrysler all remembered the passion and magnetism of a vivid personality. Raymond H. Dietrich, the noted coachbuilder and Chrysler's first design chief, once said, "There was fire in his talk, his walk, and his sparkling blue eyes .... [I]f only those engineers had let him alone, he'd have lived longer and done even more." (Dietrich refers to the Fred Zeder-Owen Skelton-Carl Breer triumvirate that dominated Chrysler Corporation's early years.)

Said Joseph W. Frazer, the Chrysler sales executive who later helped create the Willys Jeep and cofounded Kaiser-Frazer: "W. P. was always looking for finest hours, and if one wasn't immediately available, his impulse was to manufacture it." Veteran designer Alex Tremulis recalled: "He had as good an eye for line and style as Edsel Ford" -- as the photographs in this article easily prove.

Chrysler's life was the archetypal American success story. Born in 1874 on a Kansas farm, he loved machinery more than crops, and apprenticed himself off as a machinist. He went to work on the railroads -- the Great Western, the Atchison Topeka, and Santa Fe -- while taking correspondence courses to further his engineering knowledge.

In less than a decade, he moved from a 10-cents-an-hour laborer to a $350-a-month plant super­intendent for the American Loco­mo­tive Company.

An early love was the horseless carriage. In 1908, Walter went out on a limb to buy a $5,000 Locomobile, tore it apart to see how it worked, reassembled it, then promptly crashed it because he had not yet learned to drive.

He took a 50 percent pay cut to join General Motors, where he rose to become president of Buick before slamming the door on GM President Billy Durant ("and slam it he did," as Beverly Kimes wrote). In 1920, W.P. Chrysler struck off on his own.

After bailing out Willys-Overland, where he made a million a year turning the old company around with a new product mix, Chrysler took control of ailing Maxwell-Chalmers. With the help of talented professionals he'd brought over from General Motors and Willys, he stanched the red ink and turned Maxwell into Chrysler Corporation by 1925.

The year before, he built the first car bearing his own name, the Chrysler Six: good looking, fast, priced below the competition (Buick, of course), and equipped with novel four-wheel hydraulic brakes. It was an instant success.

The Chrysler Six helped to build a new automotive empire. In 1928, Chrysler bought Dodge Brothers, another old-line firm in need of new blood. That same year, he announced the low-priced Plym­outh and created DeSoto, first to plug the Plymouth-Dodge price gap and later to bridge Dodge and Chrysler.

Almost overnight, Chrysler had a General Motors-like price hierarchy -- "a car for every purse and purpose," as GM president Alfred P. Sloan put it -- the prerequisite of empire. By the time Walter Chrysler died in 1940, the corporation he had built was number two in the industry, a position it would hold until 1952.

Despite his goal to compete in every market sector, it wasn't until 1929 that Chrysler seriously addressed the one market he had not yet fully exploited: the luxury field. At the time, luxury cars accounted for some 10 percent of the U.S. market. No one could know that the coming Depression would reduce that by a factor of 20. Nevertheless, the Imperials built between 1931 and 1933 were the finest Chryslers up to that time -- maybe of all time.

"Imperial" as a designation for upper-end Chryslers had been around since early 1926 and the six-cylinder Series 80. But the 1931-1933 generation stood apart, riding the company's longest wheelbases yet and powered by its first eight-cylinder engines.

Eight cylinders was a clear need if Chrysler wanted a luxury image, and when W.P. Chrysler went for something, he went whole hog. For the 1931 Chrysler line, he launched no fewer than four straight eights, ranging from 240 to 385 cid. The largest, running in nine main bearings and exclusive to Imperial, made 125 bhp with standard 5.2:1 compression. An optional 6.2:1 "Red Head" raised horsepower to 135.

It was a smart move. Cadillac's V-8 aside, straight eights dominated the high-price segment. Although Chrysler was about to improve the smoothness of all its cars with rubber engine mounts (a key element of "Floating Power," premiered by Plymouth in mid 1931), an eight or twelve was what luxury buyers were looking for.

With the Zeder-Skelton-Breer trio's traditional thoroughness, the new eights were painstakingly developed and extensively tested by Toby Couture, chief experimental engineer. Prototypes ran as disguised 1929-1930 models or with badges reading "Eagle Special."

Chrysler historian Don Butler has described how these cars were thrashed for 200,000 miles on all kinds of roads, from deserts to mountains, "open-throttled on lonely highways, thumping the bumps of rough side-roads ... challenged to come apart." By the end of this torture, the new engines were bulletproof.

Some of the most memorable Chrysler Imperials of the time were LeBarons. Continue to the next page to learn more about the creation of the LeBaron.

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