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.
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.
This 1931 Chrysler Imperial Eight CG series Custom
convertible sedan has LeBaron coachwork.
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.
For more information about cars, see: