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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Imperials with Body by LeBaron

­A Chrysler Imperial with LeBaron coach work was the height of 1930s luxury and style. The 1931 Chrysler Imperial CG model was the first Imperial with a custom body by LeBaron. But that wasn't the only thing that made these Imperials special.

1931 Chrysler Imperial Eight CG series Custom convertible sedan with body by LeBaron
This 1931 Chrysler Imperial Eight CG series Custom
convertible sedan has LeBaron coachwork.

Imperials all came with a four-speed transmission, invented earlier but improved for 1931. Not a four-speed in the modern sense, it was basically a three-speed with an "emergency low" that allowed the normal first-gear ratio to be numerically higher than on most cars. It also boasted synchromesh on the top two gears.

The resulting powertrain delivered remarkable performance. A stock Imper­ial Eight could do 0-60 mph in 20 seconds, achieve 100 mph, and cruise at 90 -- impressive at a time when most roads were dirt and most cars traveled them at 30 or 40 mph.

At Indianapolis, a racing Eight dubbed the GNH Special (for owner-driver George N. Howie) qualified at nearly 103 mph and finished 11th overall. Imperials even entered two celebrated endurance races in 1931, LeMans in France and Spa in Belgium. They failed to finish the former but won their class in the latter.

At Daytona Beach, an Imperial sedan driven by Harry Hartz set 12 American Automobile Association speed records. Today's owners say these Imperials are not only wonderful to look at but great to drive, which is not always true of big Classics.

If styling makes the car, Chrysler came up trumps, thanks to a young designer named Herb Weissinger and the efforts of coachbuilder LeBaron. What the one created, the other perfected.

Weissinger spent almost his whole career at Chrysler, though he later produced memorable work at Kaiser-Frazer, where Joe Frazer hired him after World War II. In 1928, he was the most promising member of Chrysler's fledgling Art & Colour studio.

"Art & Colour was inspired by the studio of the same name, which Harley Earl established at General Motors," Weissinger said. "Ours was only a branch of the all-powerful Engineering Department, but W. P. Chrysler and K. T. Keller had a high aesthetic sense, and they encouraged us. My chief inspiration -- and that of Mr. Chrysler himself -- was the L-29 Cord. But we couldn't quite get the profile Cord had."

The L-29, radically low with front-wheel drive, had arrived in 1929 to the raves of body engineers. "Fred Zeder ruled out the possibility of a front-drive Chrysler," Don Butler wrote, and "also vetoed Herb's rear-engine suggestion as a means of attaining lowness."

The Cord stood barely five feet tall, a figure Weissinger found impossible to match with a conventional chassis. Still, he got sedan height down below 70 inches, which for those days was remarkable. And he successfully duplicated the Cord's beautiful vee'd radiator and long, sensuous fenders.

Introduced as the Series CG in mid 1931 (Chrysler didn't observe model years until 1933), the straight-eight Imper­ials started at $2,745 for a five-passenger four-door sedan. All used a stout double-drop girder-truss frame spanning a massive 145-inch wheelbase.

There were four "factory" body styles: standard and close-coupled five-passenger sedans, seven-passenger sedan, and eight-passenger sedan limousine. All were crafted by Briggs Manufacturing Company, Chrysler's mainline body supplier. Six wire wheels were standard; traditional wood "artillery" wheels were optional.

Considering how few people had $3,000 to spend for new cars in 1931, sales were quite good: some 2,100 sedans, almost 700 seven-passengers and sedan limousines. But as worthy as these cars were, they paled next to the LeBarons.

Ray Dietrich had founded LeBaron Carrossiers in 1920 along with Tom Hibbard. Both left within a few years for other pursuits, yet their company thrived. In 1930, at the urging of Walter Briggs, remaining principal Ralph Roberts moved the firm from New York to Detroit to be the custom-body arm for Briggs Manufacturing. When Chrysler purchased Briggs in 1953, it inherited the LeBaron name, which, a quarter century or so later, was debased to a sad degree.

In 1931, however, LeBaron meant a premier custom coachbuilder renowned for its work on chassis from Packard to Pierce-Arrow, Mercedes-Benz to Rolls-Royce. Some of its most stunning bodies were created for CG Imperials.

Some­times described as "Custom Eight" models, they included a dramatic sport phaeton, a roadster, a rumble-seat coupe, a convertible sedan, and convertible coupe. Though technically semicustom cars, they were quite rare. Only 320 were built. The convertible coupe, looking as long as a freight train on that huge wheelbase, saw a mere 10 copies. The coupe was most numerous at 135.

Chrysler also supplied 95 CG running chassis for full-custom bodywork, domes­tic and foreign. A few received town car bodies by LeBaron and Water­house. The latter also produced six convertible victorias, majestic cars with blind top quarters and a built-in trunk.

Perhaps the most beautiful of these made-to-order Imperials was a special LeBaron speedster, basically the regular roadster style with the running boards lopped off, the windshield raked, and the top hidden beneath a flush-fitting panel. Its design opposite may have been a cabriolet by Drauz, of Germany, which clumsily piled the entire fabric top behind the rear seats.

Of course, by the mid-1930s, economic trouble was brewing across the country that would have a great impact on the auto industry. For more on the effects of the Depression, see the next page.

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The Effects of the Depression

The Chrysler Imperial Eight was not immune to the effects of the Great Depression, which were felt far and wide across America, especially in the automotive industry. Since cars were luxury items, they were the first things to be cut out of budgets. The Chrysler Imperial, including those with bodies by LeBaron, felt the pinch.

The poor sales of the 1932 Chrysler were caused by the Great Depression.
A 1932 Chrysler Imperial CL model like this was a
relative  bargain during the Great Depression.

It was a shame that economic conditions allowed so few buyers, because the LeBarons, priced from $3,150 to $3,995, had to be the bargains of their field. Hugo Pfau, who worked for LeBaron and wrote about the company, thought so: "It was not that the bodies were any less expensive than any others we were building at the same time, but rather a policy decision on Chrysler's part. I'm sure they took a substantial loss on each of those cars they sold."

Losing money on a few grand luxe cars probably didn't bother Walter Chrysler. Losing money in general, so soon after going all-out to build a full-line empire, was something else again. But lose it he did, along with every other auto manufacturer, as the Depression deepened. Pro­duction of Chrysler Corporation's flag­ship make bottomed out at around 25,000 in 1932.

As a man of humble origin, Walter Chrysler thought first of his employees. "He loved to be down on the floor with the men," Ray Dietrich recalled, "and he felt their pain as much as any man." When the government began closing banks, Chrysler hired out-of-work tellers to man a Detroit facility stocked with money drawn from reserve accounts, enabling his workers to cash their paychecks.

By the end of 1931, the luxury market for which the Imperial Eight had been so carefully planned was decimated. Cheap cars sold modestly, expensive ones barely at all. Cadillac's Sixteen and Twelve, and Packard's Twelve, after impressive debuts, likewise fell off precipitously.

The 1932-model Series CL Imperial Custom, which replaced the CG on a one-inch-longer wheelbase, accounted for only 220 sales, most of them LeBarons, against 3228 CGs. The "high-volume" CL was the close-coupled sedan -- at 57 units.

See the next page for more on the 1932 Chrysler.

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1932 Chrysler

­For the Chrysler corporation as a whole, 1932 was the year of "Floating Power," Chrysler's newest idea: engines cradled on strategically placed rubber-lined mounts. W.P. Chrysler himself modestly called it the industry's "fourth milestone," after the electric starter, enclosed body, and four-wheel brakes.

The 1932 Chrysler boasted a smooth ride thanks to
The 1932 Chrysler Imperial Eight CH series was
smaller, lighter, and sportier than the CL models.

Also new in 1932 were "silent" gear shifting through a free-wheeling transmission, activated by a dashboard button; squeak-proof springs with the leaves separated by discs of Oilite, an oil-impregnated sintered metal; and "Cen­tri­­fuse" brake drums, which gave a longer lining life.

Floating Power was not necessary for an engine as smooth as the 385, but it gave Chrysler's finest just a little more advantage to compete with rival twelves and sixteens.

On the styling front, the Chrysler Imperial Eight CL models introduced for 1932 were even more attractive than the CG model they replaced. Hoods now swept almost to the windshield and louvers were replaced by cleaner vent doors. Convertible windshields were newly vee'd, and the massive bumper with its central "dip" identified the car at a glance. Weight went up, with all but the convertible coupe tipping the scales at more than 5,000 pounds.

The CL's paltry sales were leavened slightly by a new, smaller Imperial, the Series CH, mounted on a 135-inch chassis and priced from just under $2,000. A coupe, sedan, and convertible sedan were offered, and Chrysler built 1,400 of them, mainly the sedan.

All shared the CL's huge front bumper and some body-design features, plus the 385 engine. But being up to 500 pounds lighter made CHs more vigorous performers. It was another smart move. Chrysler avoided being left high and dry with a separate make, like some of its rivals, while not significantly compromising the big CL's prestige.

The 1932 racing scene was less noteworthy. George Howie went back to Indianapolis with another GNH Special, qualifying at more than 103 mph, but this time it wasn't enough to make the starting field.

An Imperial driven by Argen­tine Juan Guadino, the Golden Seal Special, qualified at 107.47 and started 36th, but dropped out after 71 laps with a burned clutch. Still, it was amazing that a racer derived from a car this big and luxurious could compete at all at Indy.

To learn about the 1933 Chrysler, see the next page.

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1933 Chrysler

For 1933, the Chrysler Imperial Custom CL models returned with an unchanged chassis and drivetrain, but the Chrysler Imperial Eight CHs were replaced by even smaller models designated CQ. The Chrysler Imperial Eight CQ models used a 299-cid eight of 108 bhp (with 100 bhp as an option) and rode a nine-inch-shorter wheelbase -- really a glorified version of the previous year's Series CP Chrysler Eight.

The elegant 1933 Chrysler Imperial had style and grace to spare.
The elegant 1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight CL
continued atop the Imperial line.

The CL retained its stalwart prices and managed only 151 sales. The CQ offered five different models starting at just $1,275, a record low price for an Imperial. It wasn't really a grand Classic in the now-accepted sense, but it did sell, picking up 3,800 buyers.

Like that year's mainline Chrysler models, CQs boasted a new, three-speed, "all-silent" transmission, but also vacuum power brakes like the Customs. Both Imperial lines added an automatic choke and manifold heat control to improve cold starting, plus high-tungsten-content exhaust-valve seats to reduce the frequency of valve grinding.

A semi-custom LeBaron roadster paced the 1933 Indy 500. In the race itself, a new Gold Seal Special, shared by Guadino and fellow countryman Raoul Riganti, qualified 27th at 108.08 mph and finished 14th with an average of 93.24 mph. It would be Chrysler's last racing appearance at the Brickyard.

Just six bare Imperial chassis were built in 1933. The fate of four is known: a close-coupled four-door landau by LeBaron for Walter P. Chrysler; two convertibles bodied in Switzerland by Jean Gygax and by Langenthal; and a dual-cowl phaeton for Marjorie Merriweather Post, a noted collector of the decorative arts.

And decorative arts is surely what they were. In 1934 they vanished as quickly as they had arrived, eclipsed by another new idea of Walter Chrysler's, predictive but less magnificent: the Air-flow.

The Classic Car Club of America, arbiter of true Classics, includes the CG, CL, and CH (but not the CQ) on its list of the finest cars built during the Golden Age of the automobile. And, in a very real sense, they were. Nobody should ever forget that.

To find more information, including the models, prices, and production of the 1931-1933 Chrysler, see the next page.

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1931-1933 Chrysler Imperial Models, Prices, Production

The 1931-1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight models helped Chrysler establish itself as a true member of the luxury automobile market. Unfortunately for Chrysler, their introduction coincided with the depths of the Great Depression, so sales were always tough to come by. Here are specifications for the 1931-1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight:

The 1933 Chrysler is truly a classic car.
The 1933 Chrysler Imperial Eight CL is a true classic
car. This is a LeBaron-bodied  phaeton.

1931 Chrysler Imperial CG Vehicle Specifications

All models

Wheelbase, inches
145.0

1931 Chrysler Imperial CG Models, Prices, and Production

ModelWeight, pounds
Price
Production
Custom roadster, 2/4-passenger 4,530$3,220100
Custom phaeton 4,6453,57585
Custom coupe, 2/4-passenger 4,6053,150135
Custom convertible coupe 4,5703,32010
Custom convertible sedan 4,825 3,995 25
4-door sedan
4,7052,745909
close-coupled 4-door sedan
4,6852,8451,195
4-door sedan, 7-passenger
4,8252,945403
limousine, 8-passenger
4,9153,145271
chassis
----95
Total 1931 Chrysler Imperial

3,228*

1932 Chrysler Imperial CH Vehicle Specifications

All models
 
Wheelbase, inches
135.0

1932 Chrysler Imperial CH Models, Prices, and Production

ModelWeight, pounds
Price
Production
coupe, 2/4-passenger 4,480 1,925 239
4-door sedan 4,645 1,945 1,002
convertible sedan 4,890 2,195 152
chassis
-- -- 9
Total 1932 Series CH Imperial


1,402

1932 Chrysler Imperial CL Vehicle Specifications

All models
 
Wheelbase, inches
146.0

1932 Chrysler Imperial CL Models, Prices, and Production

ModelWeight, pounds
Price
Production
convertible coupe 4,930 3,29528
phaeton 5,065 3,39514
close-coupled 4-door sedan 5,150 2,89557
convertible sedan 5,125 3,59549
4-door sedan, 7-passenger 5,295 2,995 35
limousine, 7-passenger
5,3303,29532
chassis
--
--
5
Total 1932 Series CL Imperial


220
Total 1932 Chrysler Imperial


1,622

1933 Chrysler Imperial CQ Vehicle Specifications

All models
 
Wheelbase, inches
126.0

1933 Chrysler Imperial CQ Models, Prices, and Production

ModelWeight, pounds
Price
Production
coupe, 2/4-passenger 3,734 1,275364
convertible coupe 3,754 1,325243
coupe, 5-passenger 3,754 1,295267
4-door sedan 3,864 1,2952,584
convertible sedan 4,144 1,495 364
chassis
----16
Total 1933 Series CQ Imperial


3,838

1933 Chrysler Imperial CL Vehicle Specifications

All models
 
Wheelbase, inches
146.0

1933 Chrysler Imperial CL Models, Prices, and Production

ModelWeight, pounds
Price
Production
convertible coupe 4,910 3,295 9
phaeton 4,890 3,395 36
close-coupled 4-door sedan 5,045 2,895 43
convertible sedan
5,1353,39511
coupe, 5-passenger
----3
4-door sedan, 7-passenger
5,2402,99521
limousine, 7-passenger
5,2453,29522
chassis
----6
Total 1933 Series CL Imperial


151
Total 1933 Chrysler Imperial


3,989

*Includes production of CGs from July 1, 1931, which Chrysler considered to be 1932 models. Sources: Encylopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide®, Publications Inter­national, Ltd., 2002; 70 Years of Chrysler, by George H. Damman, Crestline Publishing Co., 1974.

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