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.
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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