1957-1959 Imperial

Despite today's virtual worship of the 1957 Chevy, 1957 was truly Chrysler's year. The dramatic, low-roof, high-fin creations of Virgil Exner and his talented styling team on the 1957-1959 Imperial blew the doors off the competition, winning Chrysler its highest post-1953 market share and causing the venerable GM Styling staff to throw out the designs it had been working on for 1959 and start over.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

1958 Imperial Crown
The mid-level Crown series pushed into the lead as
the most popular range for the 1958 Imperial. See more classic car pictures.

The new Plymouth fairly screamed, "Suddenly it's 1960," along with the dramatic Swept-Wing Dodge, and the proud-tailed DeSoto and Chrysler. Yet standing above even these sensational new cars was the Imperial, justly and proudly proclaimed "The Finest Expression of the Forward Look."

In 1957, for the first time in its checkered history, Imperial had everything -- styling, engineering, and a full model lineup -- necessary to make a serious run at Cadillac for America's luxury-car crown, at least in spirit.

Though the Imperial name was associated with Chrysler from its very beginning, it suffered through some circuitous convolutions. Even after World War II, establishing Imperial as a luxury marque separate from Chrysler wasn't direct, smooth, or evenly planned.

At first, small batches of block-long Crown Imperial limousines and eight-passenger sedans constituted Chrysler's top series. It was not until quite late in the 1949 model year that Chrysler planners made another tentative step toward a personal-use Imperial, ordaining 50 specially equipped six-passenger sedans on New Yorker chassis under the supervision of Ray Dietrich, a famed custom body designer and former head of Chrysler styling.

After this toe-in-the-water experience, mid-1950 saw yet another Imperial sedan, a production job this time, offered in standard and deluxe interior trim. This was a precursor to a full line of Imperials for 1951 -- sedan, club coupe, Newport hardtop, and convertible. These new Imperials reeked of "old money," a look Cadillac had abandoned in 1948 to pursue the "dollar grin" and cheeky tailfins.

Yet despite this impressive beachhead, Chrysler planners vacillated again. In the 1953-1954 redesign, the image-enhancing convertible was absent just as Cadillac introduced its Eldorado and Packard its Caribbean.

In 1955, for the first time, Imperial was registered as a separate marque -- no more Chrysler Imperial. The 1955 Imperial was a grand turnout: big, bold, and handsome. Under the inspired leadership of styling director Exner and his alter ego, Cliff Voss, Imperial was outfitted with full wheel openings (often stuffed with chrome wire wheels), sculpted sides, and snooty "gunsight" taillights, all cues from Exner's first "idea car," the K-310.

1959 Imperial Crown convertible
The essentials of the Virgil Exner-directed design
persisted to the 1959 Imperial.

The 1955 Imperial looked every inch a luxury car. But the two-model lineup still lacked a convertible. And Imperial soon lost some of its newly won styling identity when its divided box-check grillework was appropriated for the first Chrysler C-300, contradicting the message that the Imperial was indeed a separate marque. The following year Exner's famous fins arrived together with a third body type, a four-door Southampton, as Imperial hardtops were now christened.

All of this advance and retreat was mere preamble to 1957, when Imperial emerged gloriously radiant and fully equipped to make a major assault on Cadillac. For the first time, Imperial's styling and body shell held nothing in common with the Chrysler. So different were the two cars that separate Chrysler and Imperial body and assembly lines -- including segregated paint and body trim operations -- had to be erected at the adjacent Kercheval Body and Jefferson Assembly plants on Detroit's east side.

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1957 Imperial Styling

The 1957 Imperial styling was pure Virgil Exner. "A feeling of arrested motion is created by body lines in the general shape of a sleek wedge, a basic design incorporating the feeling of stability poise and direction," effused the press release that accompanied its introduction.

1957 Imperial
Classic Cord themes like front fender caps and
biplane front bumper appear in the 1957 Imperial.

"Mass is concentrated at the rear. The eye is led forward by the convergent lines of the wedge, the design concept of advanced aircraft, racing cars and racing boats." The catalog went on to add, "Following a personal preview of the Imperial for 1957, an artist and designer of national prominence said the Imperial was 'the most consummately designed and superbly styled automobile' that he had ever seen."

Like the 1955 before it, the 1957 Imperial was very much Exner's car. Bill Brownlie, who came to Chrysler from Briggs Body and who was intimately involved in designing the 1957 Imperial, recalled, "The Imperial was [Exner's] favorite. 'Ex' spent more time in the Imperial studio than any other; he seemed to live there." Others who were present talk of the tremendous enthusiasm in Chrysler's styling studios during the creation of the 1957s, feeling that these cars would put Chrysler "ahead for keeps."

In retrospect, Exner's design philosophy at Chrysler can be divided into two distinct periods: "pure automobile" and "the wedge." In the former, Exner celebrated the functional parts of what made an automobile an automobile like strong fender forms, open wheel cutouts, and lovingly-detailed individual elements like radiator grilles and taillights.

In the latter period, Exner strove (via his famous fins) to imply forward motion. And indeed, the aerodynamic wedge was the signature shape of high-speed jet aircraft and Gold Cup racing boats.

Photographs dated August 10, 1954, of a 3/8-scale clay model titled "Ghia Program Car A-496" reveal where Exner was going. It is unknown if Chrysler's gifted idea-car builder, Carrozzeria Ghia, of Turin, Italy, ever turned the A-496 into a full-size car. But the clay, with its big wedge-shaped fins towering over a severely sloped deck, captured the essence of Exner's thinking, although other variants were considered, including a bodyside with more abrupt, rudder-shaped fins.

Ghia A-496 concept car
Ghia concept car A-496 exhibited key features
of the 1957 Imperial.

In the 1957 Imperial, Exner achieved his purest production interpretation of the aerodynamic wedge. On all of the other Chrysler products that year, the trailing edge of the fins leaned rearward. But on the Imperial, the fins leaned forward, elegantly delineating the wedge for which Exner was striving.

Rising majestically from mid-car and tilting outward, Imperial's fins were an integral part of the design. It is impossible to visualize the car without them (as one can do on, say, a 1959 Cadillac). And whereas the fins on all other Chrysler products were "sheared off," ending in an opening for the taillights, the fins on the Imperial were complete forms in themselves; the taillights were incidental to the shape.

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1957 Imperial Design

Set into, but not atop, the fins were the 1957 Imperial design's signature "gunsight" taillights. Brownlie explained why Exner chose to abandon the distinctive freestanding fendertop lamps used on the 1955-1956 Imperials. "Ex admired the integration of form found in jet aircraft," he said. "He was emphatic that the taillights be integrated, not just stuck on, as in 1956."

1957 Imperial
The optional dummy spare tire cover on the deck lid
of the 1957 Imperial was a classic touch.

Thus on the 1957-1959 Imperial, the projectile-shaped circular taillight lens led into a similar elongated form that was faired into the fin. The gunsight look was astutely implied by fitting diecast chrome half-rings to the outside and inside surfaces of each fin.

As tall and elegant as the fins were, their drama was enhanced by contrasting them against a low deck lid which sloped gracefully down to the bumper. The sloping deck was an extravagance that dictated a space-robbing horizontal spare tire mounting and limited the height of items that could be carried in the trunk, but the look was well worth any loss of flexibility.

That deck lid could be ordered up plain or fancy. The standard job was nicely accented by a crisp peak down the center. But for a mere $39.60 additional, which more than two-thirds of Imperial buyers spent, came the Flight-Sweep deck lid, into which was stamped a tire impression. Outlined in chrome, its center was accented by an attractive brushed aluminum cap topped with a small circular medallion whose black center showcased a gold crown.

Inspiration for this bit of visual derring-do came from Exner's K-310 and D'Elegance, where the actual spare tire was set into the decklid. On the Imperial, it permitted Exner to add a touch of "pure automobile" styling to his beloved wedge.

The finishing touch, set low on the right side of the deck lid, was a bold but elegant "Imperial" script nameplate whose flowing strokes revealed that someone at Chrysler had excelled in Palmer-Method penmanship during his school days. Similar scripts graced the front fenders of most Imperials.

Side ornamentation was discreet: a chaste bright rub strip along the lower body that traveled above the rear bumper and on around to the other side. Exterior door handles were flush-mounted and fitted with "drawer-pull" grips.

Up front, the new Imperial presented a thoroughly modern luxury appearance, yet a careful analysis reveals Exner's love of design elements from the classic era. The forward fender-top surfaces, for example, echoed the "upside-down tablespoon" fenders of the L-29 Cord and imitative classic Chrysler Imperials of the early 1930s.

The illusion was enhanced by a bright molding that wrapped around and trailed along the fender. In side view, the bright-edged fender ends were rakishly cut back to expose the headlamp bezels and grille ends, furthering the illusion of a fender top thrust forward over the bumper, which itself was another design element that echoed the first Cord.

Massive yet delicate, the Imperial's front bumper featured a depressed center section housing the license plate, which, like the L-29, was flanked on each side by long dual horizontal bumper bars, one seeming to float above the other, connected at their outer ends by the parking lamps as they wrapped around the sides.

Unfortunately, the bumper's uniqueness and handsome appearance were achieved at great production costs. Additionally, the "biplane" bumpers proved notoriously vulnerable in parking lot scrapes. They were gone after the 1957 season.

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1957 Imperial

It is important to appreciate that the classic design elements incorporated into the 1957 Imperial's front end were subtle and did not force themselves into the viewer's consciousness as did Exner's later efforts, like the individual headlamp pods of the 1961-1963 Imperials. To the thousands of Imperial customers who knew nothing of L-29 Cords, the front end appeared as futuristic as the rest of the car.

1957 Imperial
Curved side glass and a compound-curve
windshield were shared by all 1957 Imperials.

In 1957, headlights, for the first time since the switch to sealed beams in 1940, suddenly emerged as a major headache for stylists, engineers, and, yes, lawyers. All who saw the spectacular Cadillac Eldorado Brougham show car at the 1955 GM Motorama knew that quad headlights would be the next big thing. Trouble was, quads were illegal in some states and weren't likely to be legalized in time for the 1957 model year. What to do?

GM and Studebaker-Packard each took a pass, delaying quads until 1958 (with the notable exception of the limited-production 1957 Eldorado Brougham). Plymouth and Dodge cleverly mimicked quads by placing large circular park-and-turn lamps adjacent to the seven-inch headlights, while Lincoln attempted a four-light look by offering supplementary five-inch "driving lamps." Nashes in this, their final year, boasted vertically stacked quad lamps only, trusting that registrars in states that still had restrictive rules wouldn't object. (They didn't.) Mercury, Chrysler, and most DeSotos offered the customer the option of either duals or quads.

So did Imperial, whose quartet of five-inch headlamps were nestled into bright oval pods snuggled up under the fender crowns. The setup was a no-cost option on Crowns and LeBarons; otherwise, they were available at $34.65 extra where laws permitted.

On twin-headlamp Imperials, the traditional seven-inch headlights were each encased in a massive and elaborate chrome-plated circular casting. Each approach, incidentally, mandated its own unique grille, making the availability of quads or duals an expensive one from tooling and assembly standpoints. Of course, all this became academic when quads became standard in 1958.

Stretched between the lamps was the Imperial grille, a blend of wide and narrow anodized aluminum bars formed into an eggcrate pattern that bore a pale resemblance to the prior bold box-check. The divided grillework of 1955-1956, so distinctive and, more importantly, so easily adaptable to serve as an evolving trademark, was regrettably abandoned.

The new front suspension, which substituted long horizontal torsion bars in place of tall vertical coil springs, together with redesigned paper-element engine air cleaners, permitted the broad hood and cowl to be dropped even with the fenders. Mounted to the hood front was a new, more abstract interpretation of the Imperial eagle, elegantly modern with slim, delicate wings. For those desiring a traditional look, a hood-topping eagle ornament was available for $4.85 extra.

As sexy and futuristic as the Imperial's body styling was, even more innovation was apparent above the belt in the "greenhouse" where lovely roof designs and an expansive use of glass gave Imperials their distinctive silhouettes. For the first time in an American production car, the side glass was curved, accenting the tumblehome of the pillars and allowing the body to curve naturally into the roof.

See the next page for more on the 1957 Imperial's exterior styling. 

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1957 Imperial Exterior

As long and as sleek as the 1957 Imperial exterior looked, in many dimensions it was actually smaller than the previous year's. Wheelbase diminished from 133 to 129 inches -- shorter than any previous postwar Imperial -- and overall length dropped from 229.6 inches to 224. But the new car was also 2.4 inches wider and nearly four inches lower.

1957 Imperial Southampton hardtop
1957 Imperial Southampton hardtops incorporated
rooflines unlike any in the Chrysler family.

Imperial was now so low that an average man could look down on the roof, which the stylists viewed as a new opportunity. Roofs on two- and four-door Southamptons employed a unique canopy design in which wedge-shaped C-pillars arched up and over the rear of the thin-section roof panel, meeting to form a vee in plan view.

The canopy was framed by bright moldings and stepped above the plane of the roof, the forward portion of which could be specified in a different color. (It was originally intended that the canopy itself be available in either a black or white textured finish, but that had to wait until 1959.) Inside, the canopy motif was cleverly repeated via moldings on the headliner. On both Southampton styles large, curving backlights imparted a light, airy look, but for the benefit of rear-seat passengers, "sun-shaded" glass was a prudent option.

Somewhat incongruously, the raciest of the new roof lines appeared not on the hardtops, but on the four-door sedans. On the Southampton hardtops, the roofline was nearly horizontal from windshield to canopy, but on the sedans, the roof surface and drip rail arched gracefully downward to nestle between the soaring fins. In common with the corporation's other new sedans for 1957, a six-window configuration was used, with the door uppers framed in satin-finish extruded aluminum.

As a finishing touch, each body type employed a compound-curve "Super Scenic" windshield that not only wrapped around the sides, but also wrapped up over the top. Its 1,622 square inches of glass -- a 48-percent increase over the glass area of the 1956 car -- permitted better visibility to overhead traffic lights. Brownlie was always quick to credit Chrysler engineer Les Parr (who worked with Chrysler glass supplier Pittsburgh Plate Glass) with being "very creative in helping to achieve the curved (side) glass, the big backlight, and the compound windshield."

Imperial was equally new inside, too. For the first time, it boasted an exclusive instrument panel. Lavishly padded top and bottom surfaces bracketed a car-wide concave sweep of brushed aluminum interrupted by an instrument pod under whose overhanging brow sat two enormous, chrome-plated circular bezels. One housed the speedometer, the other, the four auxiliary gauges. Each had bold, oversize pointers and graphics, and were illuminated at night by glare-free black light.

Arrayed vertically along the left side of the pod was a bank of transmission pushbuttons that terminated with a rocker switch to activate the turn signals. The stylists reasoned that if banishing the shift lever from the steering column was a good idea, why not zap the turn signal lever, too? Nice try guys, but the new switch location was both unfamiliar and, worse, inconvenient. Customer complaints led to a new vertical twist-type switch (still at the base of the pushbuttons) for 1958 and modified again in 1959.

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1957 Imperial Interior

Another ergonomic misstep in the 1957 Imperial interior was the location of rearview mirror. Forced onto the top of the instrument panel by the low roof, the mirror was moved to a left-of-center position in 1958 in order to give the driver a better view rearward with a full complement of passengers.

1957 Imperial convertible interior
Two-tone leather upholstery covered the
1957 Imperial convertible's interior.

Field of vision was improved by 30 percent, but this location remained awkward at best. Original plans called for two car-wide sun visors designed to check unwanted sunlight formerly blocked by a header-mounted mirror, but this feature never made production.

More successful was Imperial's new steering wheel with its handsome, shallow, boomerang-shaped padded leather center intersecting a two-tone rim embellished with chrome-plated thumb depressions. Interior door handles were lever-type and on all but the base models, the front door armrests flipped up for access to handy built-in storage bins.

Seat fabrics were suitably luxurious, with names like "Silver Ripple Boucle," "Snowflake Brocade," and "Basket Weave." Interesting options included the under-dash Highway Hi-Fi record player with its seven-inch, 162/3-rpm discs ($77.35, but you also had to order the $158.15 Touch-Tuner radio).

Of course, the entire interior sparkled with myriad of chrome accents that wouldn't pass federal safety muster today. Buyers could choose from 21 exterior colors and 121 exterior and interior color combinations.

Underneath its spectacular body, Imperial shared two of Chrysler Corporation's most significant engineering advances. One was the new Torsion-Aire Ride: "Torsion" for the new front torsion-bar suspension that delivered superior handling, reduced body roll, and high-speed float, and offered flat, no-dive braking; and "Aire" for the new 14-inch tires, the wider cross section and lower air pressure (22 pounds cold) of which were designed to absorb more road shock.

The other advance was Torque-Flite, the benchmark pushbutton three-speed automatic transmission that had been fitted to 761 Imperials built in mid-1956. Tucked under the hood was Chrysler's famed FirePower "hemi" V-8, newly enlarged to 392 cubic inches via increases in bore and stroke. Horsepower was upped to 325 from 280. As such, the Imperial engine was larger than those offered in 1957 by Cadillac and Lincoln, and was matched in output only by the twin-carb mill optional in Caddy's Eldorado.

Learn about the model options offered for the 1957 Imperial on the next page.

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1957 Imperial Models

Together with the cutting-edge styling and innovative engineering, the fact that the 1957 Imperial models finally fielded a full range was an important part of the marque's coming of age.

1957 Imperial Crown ragtop convertible
Prices for 1957 Imperial Crown ragtop convertibles
began at $5,598; orders came to 1,167 cars.

In addition to the six-window sedan and two- and four-door hardtops, a convertible was added to the line. It was everything an Imperial convertible should be: big, luxurious, powerful, and drop-dead gorgeous. For sheer sex appeal and visual impact, Lincoln and Cadillac convertibles paled in comparison.

Equally important, instead of a single price level, these four body types were for the first time arrayed in three series. The Imperial customer now was offered a broad choice of body types and equipment levels, just as king Cadillac had been doing all along.

Interestingly, final selection of series names and model availability took place quite late. According to a descriptive internal engineering booklet current as of May 18, 1956, only two series were released for 1957. One was simply "Imperial," with the sedan and the two Southamptons available in two levels of interior trim and equipment-standard and deluxe-and one price level for the convertible.

By announcement time, however, the standard and deluxe equipment levels had been spun off into two distinct series. The entry-level sedan and Southamptons remained "Imperial" with no modifier. The originally conceived deluxe-trim cars, including the convertible, were dubbed "Imperial Crown."

They featured upgraded interiors and were identified on the exterior by three-pointed gold crowns on the fender tops and adjacent to the external Imperial scripts. The name was an inauspicious choice.

Since 1940, Chrysler's biggest, most luxurious limousines had all been labeled "Crown Imperial" and the name remained on a magnificent limited-production long-wheelbase limousine custom built by Ghia in Italy. Its continued existence gave the series lineup a tongue-twisting confusion, including as it did an "Imperial Crown" for the owner-driver crowd together with a "Crown Imperial" for the chauffeured set.

Per the original two-series scenario outlined in the May 1956 document, the new top of the standard-wheelbase line was to have been called Crown Imperial. By that time, Chrysler had already decided that a conventionally tooled, domestically built limousine had become prohibitively expensive and, indeed, the booklet states, "Neither the Crown Imperial limousine nor the eight-passenger sedan are available for 1957."

Believing the limousine dead but not willing to abandon the honored name, the planners stood ready to place the Crown Imperial tag on a standard-wheelbase car for the first time since 1941, when a Crown Imperial town sedan was offered alongside the limo.

But when the decision was made to go ahead with a 1957 limousine program executed in Italy by Ghia (a story worthy of its own telling), that vehicle by definition had to bear the honored Crown Imperial name. A search was hurriedly begun for another appellation for the premium standard-wheelbase car.

The winner was "LeBaron," which resurrected an even more revered name from Imperial's past. During the 1920s and 1930s, some of the finest custom-built bodies mounted atop classic Imperial chassis were designed and built by the coachbuilding firm of LeBaron, Inc., which became a Briggs Body subsidiary in 1928. When Chrysler acquired Briggs in December 1953, it gained the rights to the LeBaron name.

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1957 Imperial LeBaron

It was Bill Robinson who suggested reviving the LeBaron name for the 1957 Imperial LeBaron. Bill, who retired from Chrysler Styling in 1980 to begin a second career teaching automotive and transportation design at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, came to Chrysler from Briggs in 1955.

1957 Imperial Crown Southampton
The four-door 1957 Imperial Crown proved to be
a better seller than the LeBaron.

To sell the name, he and fellow designer Pete Loda prepared a formal presentation set in a 30×30-foot area between studios. The presentation illustrated LeBaron's storied legacy, especially as it related to Chrysler. "We had to prove to the division people the value of the name," recalls Robinson. "I was always amazed that people in the automotive industry were so ignorant of its history."

A genuine attempt was made to put the classic name on a worthy modern candidate. Drafting records reveal that in early 1955, Chrysler was considering giving the LeBaron an exclusive 133-inch wheelbase, but in the end, LeBaron emerged on the same 129-inch chassis as other Imperials. The revered name was restricted initially to single body type, the four-door sedan.

Seeking to build an image as discreet as one could given those flamboyant fins, the LeBaron's exterior was available only in solid colors. Moreover, in an era when two-tone interiors were de rigeur, LeBaron interior selections were also limited to single colors with soft woolen broadcloths in blue, medium green, medium gray, or tan; the seats conservatively tailored in narrow vertical ribs or "fales."

The series nameplate, too, recalled LeBaron's rich heritage -- a variation on the classic LeBaron script, in gold, on a discreet black shield, set low on the front fender just about where it had been placed in the classic era. Special wheel covers with fluted outer rings and white sidewall tires completed the image.

With the revived LeBaron, the Imperial team was betting that there was a distinct luxury-car clientele for an expensive yet tasteful sedan in contrast to the ultra convertibles like the Eldorado and Packard Caribbean, or the Continental Mark II hardtop coupe. This policy proved just a bit too exclusive, however. By mid-year, with customer orders showing a decided preference for four-door hardtops in both the base Imperial and Crown series, a four-door LeBaron Southampton was quietly added.

Sedan prices indicate the level of separation maintained by the three series. The base four-door began at $4,838, the Crown sedan at $5,406, and the LeBaron sedan at $5,743, the last $145 more than even the Crown convertible.

Continue to the next page to find out how the 1957 Imperial did in the sales race.

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1957 Imperial Sales

All Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms did not undertake 1957 Imperial sales. Since the Imperial was no longer a Chrysler, selling rights were not automatic. Of the 2,854 Chrysler dealers in the U.S. as of January 1, 1957, only 1,834 held an Imperial franchise, the division seeking to retail its luxury car through carefully selected dealers willing to pamper Imperial customers.

1957 Imperial convertible
At nearly 36,000 assemblies, 1957 was the best year
Imperial ever had in its era as a separate make.

Introduced October 30, 1956, this brilliant new Imperial proved to be a runaway success. By February, production had outdistanced that of the previous year, and by the end of the 1957 model year, a record 35,796 Imperials had been built. Even more impressively, Imperial accounted for nearly 24 percent of Chrysler Division assemblies in model-year 1957, compared to 7.5 percent in 1956. As Chrysler President L. L. "Tex" Colbert optimistically put it, "Chrysler in 1957 aggressively established Imperial as a volume automobile line."

Of course, compared with the production of nearly 147,000 Cadillacs, Imperial's numbers seem less impressive, but remember 1957 was the first year that Chrysler had fielded a credible standalone competitor to Cadillac. Imperial's new production record was more than three times the number produced in 1956, and within hailing distance of Lincoln, whose 1957 assemblies totaled 41,123. On a calendar-year basis, Imperial actually outproduced Lincoln.

To add to the good times, Imperial finished first in its class (at 20.9465 mpg) in the annual Mobilgas Economy Run. Piloting the winning Imperial was Hollywood, California, Chrysler-Plymouth dealer Mel Alsbury Jr., whose four-door Crown Southampton was, incredibly, also the overall sweepstakes winner on a ton-miles per gallon basis.

1957 Imperial Southampton convertible
The most popular car of the 1957 Imperials was the
Southampton; 7,429 were built.

And the good news kept on coming. Praising the new torsion bars as the industry's "most significant achievement of the year," Motor Trend awarded Chrysler Corporation its coveted Car of the Year Award. Virgil Exner garnered double honors: a promotion from styling director to vice-president, and, together with four of his chief designers, the gold medal from the Industrial Designers Institute for the outstanding design of his 1957 cars, including Imperial.

Unlike today's designers, whose creations are marketed for several years without obvious change, stylists in the 1950s were under tremendous pressure to change designs every year. The annual model change was still a sacred tenet of the American automobile industry. To their credit, Exner's stylists resisted such pressures, feeling their radical 1957 cars were still far ahead of any competition. Consequently, Chrysler's 1958 offerings exhibited minimal changes.

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1958 Imperial

Rightly billed as "The Triumphant Imperial," the 1958 Imperial's most obvious difference was its new extruded aluminum grille. Composed of six banks of slim, open rectangles stacked six high, the new visage had actually debuted on the 1957 Crown Imperial limousine when it was announced mid-year.

1958 Imperial
A segmented grille motif on the 1958 Imperial
replaced the eggcrate look of the 1957.

The new grille was set over a simpler, though still multi-piece, bumper, a filled-in variant of the previous biplane style, bolder and less fragile, with awkward-looking circular park and turn lights set into small add-on bezels at the outboard ends of the bumper.

That said, other trim changes were minimal. The diecast molding streaming back from the fender crown was longer and acquired a curious indented section, wheel cover center rings changed from black to white with crown centers, and rear bumper inserts went from ribbed to plain.

The Flight-Sweep "tire" acquired an attractive new eagle center, but the standard deck lid was defaced with unnecessarily large block letters to spell out Imperial and a fussy bright molding covering the windsplit, ending in a new crest-type lid handle.

1958 Imperial
The four-door sedan was the most popular of the
1958 Imperial base series, selling 1,926.

Engineering changes also were limited. The engine compression ratio was upped to 10:1, horsepower to 345. All 1958 Imperials also employed the lower, shorter, and lighter four-barrel carburetor and off-center, spool-type front engine mounts released as running changes during 1957. The power steering gear was new, too.

New options included electric door locks, a remote-control outside rear view mirror, Sure-Grip limited-slip differential, run-flat Captive Air tires, and the precursor of today's cruise control, Auto-Pilot.

Developed by supplier Perfect Circle, the Auto-Pilot not only automatically maintained a constant cruising speed, it also could be set to act as a speed reminder, applying back pressure through the accelerator to warn the driver that he was at his preset speed.

Division officials claimed Auto-Pilot saved up to 15 percent on gas, a statement given credence when an Imperial Crown again took top honors in the 1958 Mobilgas Economy Run. This marked the third straight year Imperial had won the event, making Imperial the first three-in-a-row champion since the six-cylinder supercharged Grahams of 1936-1938. As we shall see, Imperials and Grahams would soon be linked anew.

1958 Imperial Crown
The most affordable 1958 Imperial Crown was the
two-door hardtop, which stickered for $5,388.

After the Herculean effort in 1957 to pull Imperial ahead of the competition, Chrysler officials were confident that their lightly tweaked luxury car was up to any challenge in 1958. GM fielded a heavily reworked Cadillac, while an ambitious thrust from Ford resulted in the massive, angular Lincoln and Continental Mark III twins.

But 1958 was a terrible year for the American automobile industry. It was the "Eisenhower recession," a time of plunging sales summarized by that desperate plea, "You Auto Buy Now." Industry leaders even got Ike to say it.

Chrysler was hardly immune. The corporation lost money ($33.8 million) for the first time since 1933. Imperial production plummeted to just 16,133 cars. This, however, was a still-impressive 20 percent of division output and Chrysler officials, sure they had a winning formula, pushed on.

The buzz in Detroit was that Chrysler's 1958 troubles came in part from mildly face-lifted cars that hadn't been "new enough." Well, the 1959s would be more obviously different. An aggressive "tail-lift" was considered for Imperial. Involved were all-new rear doors and rear-end sheetmetal, with a fin and rocket taillight treatment startlingly similar to what appeared on the 1959 Cadillac. In the end, though, the still-handsome carryover sheetmetal was retained.

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1959 Imperial

Most changes to the 1959 Imperial were neutral. Some were improvements; others were not. For one thing, 1959 Imperials sported considerably more brightwork, including a heavier bodyside molding that faired into a new chrome gravel shield covering the lower rear quarter.

1959 Imperial
Box-like headlight bezels frame a narrowed grille
of fine horizontal bars on the 1959 Imperial.

The slim molding that flowed off the fender crowns now went the full length of the front fender; on LeBarons, it continued onto the door as well. The fender tops themselves sprouted miniature V-shaped eagles, surmounted by gold crowns on all but the base models, now designated Imperial Custom. Hoods and most fenders bore block letters that spelled out the marque name, while LeBarons received a new gold script and crown, plus a crest on the gravel shield.

Out back, the standard deck lid boasted a boldly oversized eagle-in-a-ring ornament while the Flight-Sweep insert was again altered. Both decks benefitted from the striking new rear bumper, an elegant ellipse outlining a concave brushed aluminum insert that mimicked the instrument panel, a design so right it should have been there all along.

Up front was another matter. Set over the carryover bumper was a massive horizontal grille bar intersected by five verticals. To align with the new grillework, the dual headlights were lowered, the gap between them and the fender cavities filled with yet more chrome. The whole effect, while bolder and with more "road value," lacked the grace of previous efforts. Perhaps it is sufficient to note that all of Chrysler's 1959 models were styled during a period when Virgil Exner was recuperating from a heart attack and could not oversee the design process.

Exner's absence might also explain why, a few months after initial production, Imperials mysteriously began sprouting twin sets of taillight rings, with an additional set inexplicably added forward of the usual ones. Inasmuch as 1959 Imperial Customs used one set of rings and Crowns and LeBarons another, and since each individual half-ring was different to fit the fin form, build complexity was staggering.

1959 Imperial Crown coupe
Despite a slight Imperial sales upturn in 1959,
demand for the Crown coupe declined.

Former Imperial stylist Gerry Thorley explained that the idea was to add rings to the taillights every year so you could identify the model year, much like counting the rings in a tree trunk to determine its age. Sensibly, Imperials reverted to a single ring set for 1960.

Above the belt, in addition to solid colors or two-tones, two- and four-door Southamptons could be specified in three new and quite attractive iterations. Check the Silvercrest Landau Roof option and the rear canopy of your new Imperial was painted black in a textured Scotch-grain finish while the forward portion of the roof was elegantly capped in brushed stainless steel. (An Imperial hardtop had been experimentally fitted with an aluminum roof insert. It looked great, but after the first hailstorm left it pockmarked, dent-resistant stainless steel wisely was substituted.)

On the Silvercrest roof, the front portion was stainless steel while the canopy remained body color. Or if you ordered a Landau roof, the front portion was body color, with the canopy in the textured black finish. All three electives were tasteful and innovative; neither Lincoln nor Cadillac offered anything remotely similar.

See the next page to learn about the interior features offered in the 1959 Imperial.

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1959 Imperial Interior

The 1959 Imperial interior featured an instrument panel with bold circular instrument bezels regrettably replaced with a strip speedometer and diminutive rectangular gauges. On the plus side, the cluster pod gained a row of transmission-matching pushbuttons to the right of the driver for control of the climate-control functions.

1959 Imperial interior
The 1959 Imperial instrument cluster was redesigned
and swivelling front seats were a new option.

LeBaron interiors were now offered in 23 combinations of wool broadcloths, heavy silks, and supple metallic leathers, all featuring a new biscuit pattern on doors and seats. On the LeBaron sedan, simulated wood inserts embellished the door trim panels, marking a return to the warmth of wood-grain as an interior accent.

Individual front seats that swivelled outboard to ease entry and exit were the trick new option, tempting 10,830 buyers. Other new goodies included electronically controlled rearview mirror dimming and a headlamp beam changer.

Underhood, the expensive-to-manufacture hemi-head engine was gone (except in the scant seven 1959 Crown Imperials made), replaced by a 350-horsepower, 413-cubic inch "wedge" engine that was 101 pounds lighter and delivered more torque.

Though Imperials could now be ordered with optional self-leveling air suspension (rear only), few were. Midyear, there was an apparent change back to 15-inch wheels and tires; ads show revised wheel covers with slots to improve brake cooling.

But the biggest change for 1959 wasn't the styling or the new V-8. In its greatest commitment yet toward building a true luxury car, Chrysler transferred Imperial production in the summer of 1958 from its Jefferson Avenue plant to an exclusively Imperial assembly site.

1959 Imperial
New 1959 Imperial Silvercrest variations introduced
stainless steel panels to the roof's forward section.

Containing more than 1 million square feet on one floor and occupying 48 acres on West Warren Avenue in Dearborn, just beyond the Detroit border, Imperial's "new" assembly plant already had a long history. Originally erected in the mid-1920s by the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Company to build Jewetts, the greatly enlarged complex became home to Graham-Paige Motors Corporation in May 1927.

When Graham-Paige vacated the facility in 1946 to move in with its postwar partner, Kaiser-Frazer, at Willow Run, Chrysler purchased the property, converting it to build DeSoto bodies and, later, Firedome V-8 engines in addition. But profound changes in DeSoto's operations made the Dearborn plant available.

That same summer Imperial assembly was moving west, DeSoto assembly was headed in the opposite direction, back to the Jefferson Avenue plant, where DeSotos had been built prior to 1936. The switch made sense; DeSotos and Chryslers shared virtually all sheetmetal components, whereas Imperials and Chryslers shared none.

Having spent more than $5 million installing special equipment, the division moved quickly to let the corporate world know that Imperial was now its own car with its own facilities. In February 1959, Imperial's refurbished plant was featured in a special supplement in Fortune magazine.

According to the article, each Imperial underwent 700 different hand-crafted operations during assembly, where line speed was a leisurely 27 cars an hour. Every seam in Imperial's "Royal Coach Body," for example, was filled with pure solder and sanded smooth prior to painting.

The assembly process was overseen by a 75-man staff of quality control sleuths at 38 quality monitoring stations. When completed, each car received both water and road tests before it was cleared to ship. New Chrysler and Imperial Division General Manager Clare Briggs declared flatly that the 1959 Imperial had "the highest quality in our 34-year history." The plant also boasted an automatic static body switching system, an industry first.

To see how the move affected 1959 Imperial production, continue to the next page.

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1959 Imperial Production

Imperial's ambitious new plant stood waiting for a volume of orders that never arrived. Unfortunately, 1959 Imperial production rose only slightly, with just 17,269 assemblies.

1959 Imperial
Imperial hung with its 1957 design for a third year in
1959, with only minor changes.

This discouraging output can be traced in part to the twin effects of the 116-day nationwide steel strike coupled with a 134-day strike at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Chrysler's glass supplier.

Then, too, Cadillac, shocked by Exner's 1957 offerings, finally fielded a car that out-finned even the Imperial. The stark reality is that despite its rich promise, Imperial production never again rose to its 1957 record, nor indeed, ever approached it.

What happened? It seems obvious that many customers who bought 1957s never bought another Imperial, but why? Quality? The 1957 Chrysler products were not long on quality, but mostly this was a problem on Plymouths and Dodges.

At Jefferson, it took 15 more hours of direct labor to build a 1957 Imperial than a Chrysler New Yorker and 30 hours more than a Windsor. Styling? Maybe Exner clung to fins too long; the 1961 Imperial proved too gaudy for most. And, of course, every few years Chrysler seemed to find itself in the headlines with reports of falling profits and high-level management squabbles. Still, Imperials were always good cars.

Perhaps part of the reason lies in a story told by a former Chrysler designer. It seems a man was driving his new 1957 Imperial through the South, and, needing gas, pulled into a station. The attendant who filled the tank was awestruck by the Imperial, declaring over and over how sensational and beautiful it was.

Finally, he asked the owner the price, and when told, reasoned, "For that kind of money, you could have bought yourself a Cadillac!" In his opinion, the Imperial, as impressive as it was, was still no Cadillac. Now how do you fight that?

Of course, Imperial wasn't the only marque to launch an unsuccessful assault on Cadillac in the 1950s. Jim Nance's commendable drive to recapture the luxury car crown for Packard ended tragically in mid-1956 when Studebaker-Packard flat ran out of money and was forced to abandon Packard's Detroit operations.

Even Lincoln's ambitious and costly plans, backed by all that Ford money, came to naught. After losing millions, Lincoln was forced to concede defeat, regrouping in 1961 with a drastically downsized, yet arrestingly beautiful, Lincoln Continental.

Imperials continued to be built -- in numbers that were barely a blip on Cadillac's radar screen -- through 1975, by which time they once again had become Chrysler Imperials. Six years later, Lee Iacocca revived the nameplate for a luxury coupe for the 1981-1983 model years. Incredibly, during 1990-1993, the Imperial was reincarnated yet again as a kind of ultimate K-car, only to die for a third time as the new cab-forward "LH" cars came onboard.

But for all its harried history, the 1957-1959 Imperials represent the star-crossed marque's finest hour, a brief, shining moment when enthusiastic stylists, innovative engineers, aspiring product planners, and dedicated manufacturing experts combined to mount an ambitious challenge to Cadillac's supremacy. These Imperials remain "The finest expressions of the Forward Look."

See the next page for 1957-1959 Imperial models, prices, and production numbers.

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1957-1959 Imperial Models, Prices, Production

Imperial stepped out of Chrysler's shadow in the late 1950s, graced as it was with unique styling and granted its own factory. As a serious player in the luxury market, Imperial seemed to be on its way, but ultimately couldn't compete with the opulent Cadillac. Here are specifications for the 1957-1959 Imperial:

1959 Imperial LeBaron
The 1959 LeBaron was the most exclusive
standard-wheelbase Imperial, at $6,103.

1957 Imperial Base Series Models, Prices, Production

Base series (wheelbase 129.0)
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Southampton hardtop coupe
Total 1957 Imperial base series


1957 Imperial Crown Models, Prices, Production

Crown (wheelbase 129.0)
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Southampton hardtop coupe
convertible coupe
4,8305,598 1,167
Total 1957 Imperial Crown


1957 Imperial LeBaron Models, Prices, Production

LeBaron (wheelbase 129.0) Weight
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Total 1957 Imperial LeBaron


1957 Crown Imperial Models, Prices, Production

Crown Imperial (wheelbase 149.5)
limousine, 8-passenger
Total 1957 Imperial


1958 Imperial Base Series Models, Prices, Production

Base series (wheelbase 129.0)
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Southampton hardtop coupe
Total 1958 Imperial base series


1958 Imperial Crown Models, Prices, Production

Crown (wheelbase 129.0)
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Southampton hardtop coupe
convertible coupe
Total 1958 Imperial Crown


1958 Imperial LeBaron Models, Prices, Production

LeBaron (wheelbase 129.0) Weight
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Total 1958 Imperial LeBaron


1958 Crown Imperial Models, Prices, Production

Crown Imperial (wheelbase 149.5)
limousine, 8-passenger
Total 1958 Imperial


1959 Imperial Custom Models, Prices, Production

Custom (wheelbase 129.0)
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Southampton hardtop coupe
Total 1959 Imperial Custom


1959 Imperial Crown Models, Prices, Production

Crown (wheelbase 129.0)
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Southampton hardtop coupe
convertible coupe
Total 1959 Imperial Crown


1959 Imperial LeBaron Models, Prices, Production

LeBaron (wheelbase 129.0) Weight
4-door sedan
Southampton hardtop sedan
Total 1959 Imperial LeBaron


1959 Crown Imperial Models, Prices, Production

Crown Imperial (wheelbase 149.5)
limousine, 8-passenger
Total 1959 Imperial


Sources: Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Publications International, Ltd., 1996; Chrysler Corporation document "Model Charts -- Production by Body Styles," 1962.

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