While other Chryslers shifted to unitized construction for
1960, Imperial retained body-on-frame assembly.
See more pictures of Imperials.
1960 was a critical year for the Chrysler Corporation.
Although styling vice president Virgil Exner's high-finned 1957
offerings had shocked the competition, wowed the public, and boosted
Chrysler's market share to nearly 20 percent, the gains were only
Build quality was lamentably haphazard, and owner dissatisfaction with indifferent workmanship, snapping front torsion bars, and rusting bodies caused the corporation's overall market share to sag to just 11.3 percent in 1959.
To regain lost momentum and recapture lost customers, Chrysler's 1960 models were completely restyled and re-engineered at a tooling cost of $350 million. Even the way the cars were built was changed; most of Chrysler's new models employed unitized body construction, abandoning the conventional body-on-frame approach in the expectation that building more durable products -- billed as "The Quick, the Strong and the Quiet" -- would reassure customers who were still driving the rust-plagued '57s.
There were also major marketing and product-planning changes afoot. As part of a long-term goal of developing a Plymouth-only dealer network, the Plymouth franchise was withdrawn from Dodge dealers. They instead received a new low-priced car named the Dart. The corporation was also introducing its initial entry in the burgeoning compact class, the Valiant.
Almost lost amidst the hoopla of the corporation's 1960-model press preview at Miami Beach's Hotel Fontainebleau was the fact that the company was also bringing to market a restyled Imperial, the "third wave" in its effort to gain a secure standing in the American luxury-car market. The true significance of this newest Imperial was, however, both unnoticed and unappreciated by the automotive press of the day.
From 1955 through 1959, Chrysler had carefully nurtured and groomed the Imperial. After testing the market for a standard-wheelbase Imperial in the early Fifties, Chrysler made its move. As the 1955 "Forward Look" Imperials were being introduced, the corporation sent letters to the licensing registrars of the various states informing them that beginning in 1955, the Imperial was to be registered as a separate make, and no longer as a Chrysler.
This "inaugural" Imperial was appropriately impressive, causing assemblies to double over what they had been in 1954. As good as these cars were, they were still umbilically linked to Chryslers, sharing the same basic body substructure, roof, windshield, backlight -- even the same instrument panel. Moreover, the Imperial's distinctive divided grille had, in mid 1955, been appropriated for use on the Chrysler 300.
But in 1957, everything changed. Designed by former Briggs Body stylist Bill Brownlie and Exner's alter ego, Cliff Voss, the '57 Imperial, had nothing in common with Chrysler save the drivetrain. Like a butterfly emerged from its cocoon, every bit of exterior sheetmetal, every piece of interior trim was unique to Imperial, including roofs that employed curved side glass, a first for an American car.
With its long, tapering fins rising majestically over a sloping "Flight Sweep" decklid, the '57 Imperial was a real stunner. A full line of body types, including a swanky convertible, and a choice of trim levels was now available.
Bringing this unique Imperial to market was an expensive and risky undertaking, but Chrysler felt it had to make the move if it wanted to compete successfully with archrivals Cadillac and Lincoln. The effort was amply rewarded as Imperial production well more than tripled to 35,793 for the model year.
Encouraged by this meteoric rise, Chrysler began making big plans for Imperial's seemingly promising future. The corporation committed to an Imperial-only assembly plant, a separate facility that could be dedicated to producing luxury automobiles for demanding and well-heeled customers. Given that Imperial now had little in common with Chrysler, a cogent argument could be made for manufacturing the Imperial in another plant.
The company chose to refit the DeSoto engine and body plant on West Warren Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside the Detroit city limits. Built in 1925 for Jewett assembly by the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Company, the plant had been acquired by Chrysler in 1946 from that company's successor, Graham-Paige.
Since the plant had not assembled complete automobiles since erecting the final Cord-bodied Graham Hollywoods in September 1940, everything inside the plant had to be redone. This included the installation of a modern assembly line, nearly four miles of conveyor systems, an up-to-date body shop, and six paint ovens.
With an enclosed area of more than 1 million square feet and a work force of 2,000 employees, the revamped plant had a capacity of a leisurely 27 cars an hour -- about 52,000 units a year based on a single eight-hour shift. Beginning with the 1959 model year, Imperials began rolling out of Warren Avenue.
Imperial's prospects looked good; production, however, was faltering. Just 16,133 units were built in the 1958 model year, followed by an equally discouraging 17,269 cars in 1959. The weak showing in '58 was attributed to the economic recession, and production of '59s was hindered by strikes at steel and glass suppliers. But sooner or later, Imperial had to make good on its promise.
The 1955-56 Imperials established the nameplate as a separate marque; the 1957-59 Imperials gained more distinction in styling and manufacturing; the "third wave" for 1960 and beyond would have to build successfully upon this foundation.
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Characteristics of the New ImperialWhat kind of automobile was this critical new 1960-1963 Imperial? In a phrase, the same, only different. Body-on-frame construction was retained. Since the Imperial was now manufactured in its own plant, there was no compelling need to convert to unitized construction, which would have required an expensive revamping of the Warren Avenue factory that had just been refitted to build body-on-frame vehicles.
From a product standpoint, a quiet and smooth ride was paramount in a luxury car, and many automotive engineers felt that keeping the body and frame as separate entities allowed the vehicle occupants to be better isolated from unwelcome noise, vibration, and harshness that could more easily be communicated to the passengers in a unitized body.
Then, too, Lincoln's less-than-satisfactory experience with the design and manufacture of its 1958-1960 unitized behemoths suggested that there might be a size frontier that unitized bodies should not cross.
There was also no perceived need to change the drop-center frame, chassis components, drivetrain, and suspension. The 129-inch wheelbase, in use since 1957, was retained, as was the 350- horsepower, 413-cid V-8. Built in a plant in Trenton, Michigan, it was Chrysler's most advanced V-8 design, featuring open-wedge combustion chambers, stamped-steel rocker arms, a deep-skirt cylinder block, and rigid forged crankshaft with large journal overlaps.
To handle the engine's power, Imperials were fitted with the A-466 variant of the corporation's famed TorqueFlite transmission, generally conceded to be the best three-speed automatic on the market.
The highly touted Torsion-Aire suspension was also carried over. The early problem of snapping front torsion bars was quickly solved and Torsion-Aire proved to be highly satisfactory, with a no-squat/no-dip ride and outstanding handling. Rear suspension featured outboard-mounted rear springs, with Imperials having an additional spring-like strut attached to both axle and frame to provide resistance to rear-axle torque and body roll.
The body was secured to the frame via 22 alloy-steel attaching bolts. The expensive-to-revise cowl structure was retained, as were the wraparound windshield, side-glass planes, and door hinge points, although the front-door hinge pillars and rear-door locking pillars were reinforced. Also carried over were the series designations: Custom, Crown, and LeBaron. For the fortunate few, there was also the Ghia-built Crown Imperial limousine.
What, exactly, was new about the 1960 Imperial? Basically, its styling. All of the sheetmetal was new, as were the roofs. Fins were still prominent, of course, though no longer long and tapering. Instead, they were rudderlike, rising more abruptly from a point just below the C-pillars of closed cars and angling forward in side view.
In profile, they had a vague -- and unsettling -- resemblance to the Plymouth fins of 1957-1959. It was one thing for Plymouth to borrow styling cues from big-brother Imperial, but it was entirely another thing for Imperial to seemingly borrow something from the lesser Plymouth.
The reason for these more-abrupt fins lay in Exner's desire to begin to subtly change the design emphasis of the car from the rear, where it had been since the first fins of 1956, to the front. Like an arrow, where the abrupt feathers at the rear give direction to the long shaft, the Imperial's abrupt fins were designed to give the long bodyside that same direction and purpose.
To heighten the effect, the fenders were extended 2.1 inches farther beyond the front wheels while the rear bumper was tucked 2.1 inches closer to the rear wheels. At 226.3 inches, however, overall length remained the same as in 1959.
Much of the styling of the 1960 Imperial was the work of a very talented designer and assistant studio manager named Fred Hudson. The bodyside was fairly simple, its distinguishing feature being an elegantly sculpted character line that began at the headlight brows and fell gently to a point a few inches above the rear bumper. The author remembers the late Bill Brownlie, head of the Imperial Studio when the 1960 and '61 models were being done, describing with admiration how Hudson and talented clay modelers like Jim Romeo pulled that off. The character line was highlighted by a thin, bright molding flowing from the headlight brows while additional trim was restricted to discreet sill and wheel-lip moldings.
Up front, the 1960 Imperial had a V-shaped front bumper, as did every other Chrysler product in 1960 save the Valiant. Obviously, this was at the request of Exner, who saw the V-shape as a way of departing from the usually obligatory horizontal bumper bar. On the Imperial, the upwardly angled bumper "wings" wrapped around the side to the front wheel openings. They did not, however, meet in the center; instead they were separated by a thin horizontal bar that formed the upper part of the license-plate housing.
Above the bumper, and leaning slightly rearward, was a finely textured diecast grille set flush with both the edge of the longer hood and the fender sides. The grille was "signed" on the driver's side by an Imperial script. The grille was an improvement over the heavy-handed "ice-cube tray" element used in 1959. But, in truth, no Imperial grille ever had quite the same commanding presence as the divided box check of 1955-1956. Regrettably, this potential signature cue was cast aside, leaving Imperial stylists to invent something new every year.
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Imperial AestheticsThe front end the '60 Imperial should have had was that of the beautifully worked out visage of the 1958 Imperial d'Elegance idea car, with its handsome undercut bumper-grille, above which were sculpted brows set over concealed headlamp doors.
Apparently, this front was considered (with variations) for both the 1960 and 1961 Imperial, but, regrettably, both the cost and the problematic engineering of the hidden lamps precluded their use. Instead, exposed dual headlamps were provided, chrome-ringed and set under "eyebrows" accented by miniature Imperial crests.
Cloth upholstery and manually operated window
cranks were standard on 1961 Customs.
Regarding the prominent spread-eagle ornament on the hood, Hudson wrote in a November 2001 letter to the author: "Incidentally, the eagle strapped to the hood of the '60 was referred to as 'Mt. Exmore.' I can still feel [Exner] hovering while our clay modelers let me do the unthinkable -- actually work on the clay -- a big union no-no!" This was characteristic of "Ex", who was always very particular about his Imperial eagles.
Out back, a variant of the front bumper was employed, save that the "wings" were horizontal. As before, two iterations of the sloping decklid were offered -- plain, with a long central molding terminating in a lift handle; and fancy, with a more refined version of the optional "Flight Sweep" decklid with its implied spare-tire cover. A rectangular, flush-mounted center-fill fuel door was an improvement over the incongruously inelegant round gas cap used previously.
The taillights were suitably impressive. Flowing out of tapered nacelles near the fin tops and extending dramatically beyond the fins, each projectile-shaped red lens was set off by a "floating" chrome ring connected to the lens by three axial fins, these latest iterations of Imperial's signature "gun sight" taillights.
Rooflines were also new, based on the Southampton hardtop canopy roofs of 1957-1959. But instead of arcing across the roof to the opposite pillar, a slightly raised portion flowed up from each C-pillar and then forward to the windshield. Outlined by a curvaceous chrome molding and bordered by the drip rail, the resultant longitudinal areas above the side windows were body color on most cars save the LeBaron, where satin-finish stainless-steel accent panels were fitted.
This treatment was optional on both Custom and Crown models, as was the choice of an accent color. The six-window sedan of 1957-1959, with its distinctive fast-sloping roofline, was gone as the four-door sedans now shared the roof of the four-door Southampton.
In an effort to further separate it from lesser Imperials, the lordly LeBaron was distinguished by a custom-looking "limousine" rectangular rear window of just 802 square inches, barely half the size of the standard backlight, giving rear-seat passengers increased privacy. This treatment was dramatically showcased in a double-page black-and-white ad in the April 1960 issue of Holiday magazine.
Looking from behind and above the light-colored LeBaron Southampton, the camera captured the richly elegant, sculptural qualities of the body as the metal -- unsullied by the vulgarity of a vinyl covering -- flowed seamlessly from the roof to the broad C-pillars, encapsulating the tailored rear window before surrounding the decklid and then soaring up onto the fins. Seamlessly in a literal sense as well, since all of the requisite body seams were laboriously lead-filled and hand-smoothed so as to completely disappear. Expensive, time-consuming, and labor intensive, this never to be repeated "Imperial moment" was confined to the mere 1691 LeBarons built for 1960, making them exclusive in both appearance and in number.
Inside, Imperial owners were treated to an instrument panel that in concept had much in common with the 1957-1958 dash. Enormous bright-ringed twin circular dials contained the speedometer and the lesser gauges, with oversize, easy-to-read numerals that would have delighted the AARP had it existed in 1960.
The instruments were lit with the Chrysler's new and innovative glare-free electroluminescent lighting, which eliminated conventional bulbs. On either side of the dials were placed the transmission and heater/air-conditioner pushbuttons, arranged vertically. The instrument panel was padded, top and bottom, and separated on the passenger side by a concave satin-textured aluminum panel. Oval shaped, the new steering wheel sported a vinyl-covered center pad, triangular in plan view.
Interior stylists under the direction of Tom Bingman lavished much time and care on ancillary details such as the accessory control knobs, door handles, power-window switch bezels, seat side shields, and window-surround moldings. They had a freedom to use brightwork unavailable to today's interior designers. It must be remembered that while TorqueFlite, power steering, and power brakes were standard equipment, such items as Auto-Pilot (an early cruise-control system); air conditioning (front or dual); tinted windows; power door locks; and, on Customs, power windows, were still considered options. Of the 16,477 Imperials equipped with power windows in 1960, 5,198 also had power vent windows, offered for the first time.
A limited number of 1960 Imperials were fitted with an alternator, displacing the customary generator. Designed and built by Chrysler, the more-efficient alternator appeared initially on the first Valiant, but became standard equipment on all the company's cars starting in 1961.
In common with most other 1960 Chrysler products, the Imperial featured the new High-Tower seat with the driver-side back individually contoured and raised above of the rest of the front seat for increased driver comfort and shoulder support. Swiveling outboard front seats, introduced in 1959 and designed to improve ingress/egress, continued to be optional, with 4,548 takers.
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Problems for the 1960 ImperialEach of the three series of the 1960 Imperial featured a unique seat-trim style with up to five interior color choices in Jacquard cloth, cloth-and-leather, and all-leather combinations. On the LeBaron four-door sedan and Southampton hardtop sedan (like the Cadillac Sixty Special, no two-doors were offered), owners had the choice of wool broadcloth or, on the Southampton only, broadcloth with metallic-leather bolsters.
Both iterations were available only in chaste monotones of blue, green, gray, or tan designed to provide a refined atmosphere of restful relaxation. Imperial called the look "expressive understatement." A pearlescent-white leather interior was also available on the hardtop. Of the 17 exterior colors offered on Imperials, which included Powdered Bronze and two mauves, only 12 were deemed suitably dignified for the LeBarons, which also sported unique wheel covers featuring a five-fin center overlay.
It is said, "If you build it, they will come." While this may apply to carving baseball diamonds out of cornfields in the movies, it most certainly did not apply to the 1960 Imperial. Assemblies rose by only 450 cars, to just 17,719 units (counting Crown Imperial limos). Given that the output of 1959 Imperials had been depressed by the supplier strikes, 1960-model production actually amounted to a decline. Certainly much more was expected, and not without cause.
The playing field had been leveled. Imperial had its own home plant like rivals Cadillac and Lincoln. More importantly, Imperial had the significant advantage of having the newest styling among America's top-three luxury cars. In 1960, Cadillac and Lincoln fielded facelifted cars against a virtually all-new Imperial. The Lincoln and Continental Mark V had the further disadvantage of being at the end of a three-year styling cycle with a vehicle whose size and styling had been largely rejected by the public. Yet, Imperial couldn't match, much less exceed, Lincoln's output of 24,821 vehicles.
What was the problem? Not the build quality. Advertised as "America's Most Carefully Built Car," each Imperial passed 32 quality-control stations, including a "rain storm in a box" water-test booth located on the final line where each car was subjected to a rainfall equivalent of 252 inches per hour to test for water leaks. Advertisements boasted that "more than six hundred tests and inspections are performed on every car we build."
Exclusive among fine cars, each Imperial off the line was given an individual road test before shipment and driven by specially trained inspectors over a variety of road surfaces. Whatever the quality problems of past Imperials, Chrysler was making an enormous effort to correct and eliminate them.
Was it the styling? While the 1960 Imperial was an attractive automobile, some customers, sensing that fins were about to run their course, may have shied away. Indeed, Cadillac, eschewing the outlandish fins and rocket-tube taillights of 1959, trimmed its fins for 1960, making them considerably lower, simpler, and more elegant. Luxury-car customers tend to be conservative; perhaps the look of the 1960 Imperial was a tad "over the top" for some of them.
Additionally, during the year, Chrysler Corporation was generating national headlines as several top officials, including newly appointed president William Newberg, were ousted in a messy conflict-of-interest scandal. These shenanigans were heralded in the Detroit newspapers via front-page headlines in Second-Coming type. Although the company's management scandals caused barely a ripple elsewhere in the country, wealthy potential customers who regularly read The Wall Street Journal or the financial section of their local paper might have felt doubt about buying a car from a company that appeared to be in such unmannered and public disarray.
Was it the name? Despite the company's best efforts, many consumers still referred to the cars as Chrysler Imperials. Potential buyers of "Chrysler" Imperials, which ranged in price from $4,923 to $6,318 for factory-finished models, might not have wanted to be even tangentially associated with a Chrysler Windsor at $3,194. Obviously, Lincoln and Cadillac did not have this problem.
Still, the best likely answer is that many of those 35,000 people who bought Imperials in 1957 were, for whatever reason, sufficiently unhappy with the experience to not return. Sometimes you don't get a second chance, even if it's deserved.
Nineteen sixty-one was a difficult year for Mopar fans. Styling was a mixed bag, with Plymouth shockingly shorn of its fins, Dodge sporting "reverse" fins, and both the Chrysler and lame-duck DeSoto awkwardly facelifted. During their development, Exner was fighting both ill health and a burgeoning coup in Styling led by William Schmidt and Dick Teague, brought into Chrysler (along with Fred Hudson, Dick Macadam, and others) when Packard's Detroit styling section was dissolved in late 1956. Exner prevailed in the end, and both Schmidt and Teague departed, the latter to a successful career at American Motors.
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1961 ImperialAmid the turmoil, it is clear that much of Exner's attention was concentrated on the Imperial. While roofs and doors remained unchanged from 1960, both the front and rear of the car were extensively altered. According to an internal corporate publication, the objectives of the new styling were to establish model-year identity, shift styling focus from the rear to the front, and achieve "a striking classic-car look."
The '61 Imperial reached back into auto history with its Cord
810/812-inspired grille and bullet-shaped headlights.
At least we have an idea how it happened. According to Hudson's letter, "Then came what to do for '61. Cliff [Voss, chief of exterior design] came to me and said that 'Ex' would like to see a proposal including a Cord-like grille, gullwing fenders, and freestanding headlamps ... so I connected the points and it went into production."
Dave Cummins, a retired Chrysler design executive, recalls it differently. "There was a greasy garage on John R Street near Chrysler's Highland Park campus that sold classic cars. One day on his lunch hour, Fred stopped by when there was an 810 Cord for sale. Hudson was captivated by Gordon Buehrig's wraparound coffin-nose grille, and after returning to the Imperial Studio, in one afternoon he put together a sketch that became the 1961 Imperial."
Chet Limbaugh, who began working on the 1961 Imperial as a fledgling stylist in the Imperial Studio in 1958, remembers Fred's idea sketch hanging on a wall. "Schmidt (second in command under Exner) had no interest in the sketch," Limbaugh remembers, "until Exner himself spotted it one day and said, 'That's what I want!'"
Whatever you think of the 1961 Imperial's front end, it was masterfully worked out by Hudson. The central radiator-width grille was a truncated variant of the Cord's coffin nose, with delicate horizontal bright bars wrapped around the sides, capped by a broad chrome header with recessed, gray-painted letters spelling out "IMPERIAL." As an accent, on the driver side, a small eagle with uplifted wings was set into a shadow box, gold-framed on LeBarons and red-framed on lesser Imperials.
On either side of the grille, the fenders were rakishly undercut to provide a "stage" for the headlamps. At the top, the fenders' undersides were canted slightly upward, these "eyebrows" forming a stylistic link with the 1957-1960 Imperials and also housing the park and turn lamps. The "bullet" headlamp shells were set off by finely ribbed diecast rings into which the headlamps themselves were recessed. For added protection, thin horizontal guards were placed in front on the headlamp shells, affixed to a new and simpler horizontal bumper.
Philosophically, Exner had long been a proponent of centered grilles, first on his earlier "idea cars" like the Chrysler K-310, D'Elegance, and Falcon roadster, and recently on certain of the company's production cars. This explains his keenness for replacing the 1960 Imperial's full-width grille with something more exclusive. Additionally, the individual headlamp shells were a way of achieving a distinctive headlamp treatment without taking on the trouble-prone mechanics of disappearing headlights.
The whole ensemble -- grille, headlamps, fenders -- must have cost a pile of money. Consider that the grille had three sides instead of the usual one, while the four headlamps had their own individual shells instead of being inexpensively tucked into the grillework. Especially tricky -- and costly -- were the fenders, which had to provide a horizontal sheetmetal plane for the headlamps shells to sit upon, a vertical closeout wall behind them, and overhanging brows above them. It's too bad we can't all go back to the Warren Avenue plant just to marvel at how they put the things together. And washing the 1961 Imperial's many front-end surfaces must have been a protracted procedure.
The new, longer hood, bisected by a chrome-accented windsplit, was a hatch-type design; it ended forward of the windshield and several inches behind the grille. The only visible cutline was that of the hood itself, which seemed to float within the expanse of front sheetmetal. The effect was achieved by filling and hand-smoothing all the construction seams, once again a costly undertaking.
A concerted effort was required to blend the undercut section of the front fenders with the carryover doors, achieved by having a rolled section sweep up and over the front wheels, diminishing as it moved rearward toward the doors. The new bodyside molding, on the other hand, grew wider as it moved rearward, with the quarter-panel portion accented by a stylized chrome Imperial eagle on a gold backplate (a Limbaugh touch) that mimicked the new fin shape. The fins themselves were reworked, the main difference being that they were undercut in side view. But they didn't start out that way.
"Originally," Limbaugh relates, "the fins were more vertical, like the '60. But Bill [Brownlie] liked my sketch of a 'hanging' taillight, so we actually scalloped back the fins to accommodate them." The individual ringed taillights were attached to the underside of the fins by short chromium arms. Decklids continued to be offered with or without the circular tire impression.
The LeBaron roofline was modified, with a new cross-car crease added just above the limousine-style backlight for a carriage-roof effect. At the same time, the welded intersection between the roof and the horizontal "Dutchman" panel just below the backlight was concealed by a diecast molding that wrapped around the base of the wide C-pillars. This change was undoubtedly at the request of the assembly plant inasmuch as it eliminated all that expensive hand-finishing employed in this area on the 1960 LeBarons. While a new sloping six-window hardtop roof was briefly considered for Customs and Crowns, in the end, the existing roofs were carried over (though four-door sedans were cut from every series).
Exemplary exterior details included new deep-dish wheel covers in chrome and satin finish, with LeBarons fitted with a "floating-ring" center overlay. On the Custom and Crown series, a bold, self-assured vertical Imperial script, chrome with a gold-anodized background, appeared on the front fenders.
LeBaron flanks were nameless save for a silver plaque at the base of each C-pillar reading "LeBaron Coachwork," set off by a cloisonné Imperial crest and three-pointed gold crown. In order to get the desired color, real gold was used in producing this part, for which Chrysler had to pay the 10-percent federal excise tax required on fine jewelry!
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Changes in ProductionThe instrument panel of the 1961 Imperial was altered in the cluster area, with the transmission and climate pushbuttons set into two outwardly canted elliptical towers. The two previous circular elements housing the instruments were replaced by a flat, hooded plane above a horizontal speedometer with rectangular minor gauges immediately below.
The two-spoke steering wheel was also new, using an aircraft-type design with flattened upper-and lower-rim portions. Measuring 17.7 inches across and 14.7 inches vertically, the wheel was acceptable in highway driving, but a bit disconcerting to some drivers during in-town cornering and parking.
Seat-trim styles were reworked and choices expanded. Customs were available in cloth in six color families, while five cloth-and-leather and five all-leather selections were offered in the Crown series. LeBaron Southampton patrons were also given a wider selection, including four broadcloth-and-leather trims, three all-leather, and two wool broadcloth offerings. In their last year, swivel seats attracted only 483 customers. Shoppers had a choice of 13 exterior colors, 10 of them new.
The 1961 Imperial's new styling was certainly controversial. In his astute treatise on American automotive styling, Chrome Dreams, Paul C. Wilson describes the 1961 Imperial as a "car designed to wrest the title of the World's Most Grotesque Automobile from numerous strong contenders of the late '50s," like the 1958 Buick and Oldsmobile. Were the pedestal headlamps agreeably "retro" or garishly kitsch? Were fins plausibly functional or uselessly frivolous? Were hanging taillights finely crafted sculptural elements or tinsel ornaments fetched from Woolworth's?
Whatever the answer, this Imperial was clearly the wrong design at the wrong time. Had it been marketed in 1959, it might have looked reasonable parked next to a 1959 Caddy. But in the car world of 1961 America, most makers were downsizing their vehicles, reducing overall length and width, and excising any remaining fins. Imperial remained long, wide, and finned.
Cummins recalls Imperial product planner Bob Mcgargle coming into the studio one day with photos of finless 1961 Imperials created by a Texas dealer who literally sawed the upper part of the fins off so they were level in side view, covering the "wound" with a diecast molding. For fins, this was the end.
True, the restyled 1961 Cadillac still had them. But the Caddy's overall body architecture was crisp and clean, and the taut surfaces made the car look smaller than it was.
But the real kicker was Lincoln's beautiful new Continental. Completely redone and surprisingly smaller in overall length than its showroom companion, Mercury, the Continental was absolutely stunning. Its simple, but exquisite, body design, with its chaste flanks and restrained ornamentation, seemed to mock the Imperial's excesses. Here was a car of true classic beauty that did not have to rely on doubtful details resurrected from the past.
Despite the handicap of offering only two four-door body types, Continental assemblies, at 25,164, were double those of Imperial. The public's disapproval of the Imperial's styling meant that only 12,249 1961s (plus another nine 1960-style limos) were produced, the lowest number since 1955. The consequences of this were swift, dire, and permanent.
During 1960-1961, Chrysler was in one of its episodic crises. President Tex Colbert was preparing to retire, while his administrative vice president (and soon to be president) Lynn Townsend was wielding the budgetary axe. DeSoto production was brusquely terminated after 3,034 '61 models, the Plymouth-only dealer network was abandoned, 7,000 white-collar workers were laid off, and inefficient plants were closed, Warren Avenue among them.
Imperial had been given three model years to justify being built in its own factory and it had failed to deliver on its once-bright promise. The reality was that Warren Avenue was operating at a grossly inefficient rate of one-quarter of its capacity. Given the car's diminishing production rate, Townsend pulled the plug on Imperial's Dearborn plant and the luxury car was ordered back to Chrysler's Detroit works.
For Imperial, this was the turning point. While Imperials would continue to be built, the loss of its home plant marked the end of Imperial's quixotic quest for equal rank with Lincoln and Cadillac. Like an ill-starred college graduate who has been unsuccessful on his own, Imperial returned to East Jefferson Assembly hoping its room was still available. It wasn't.
Since Imperials were last assembled at East Jefferson in summer 1958, the plant had been building first body-on-frame and then Unibody Chryslers and DeSotos through November 1960, then Unibody Chryslers and Dodge Polaras after that. Given the Imperial's continued use of body-on-frame construction, the plant manager was doubtlessly less than happy about the disruption Imperial's return would cause. But, as poet Robert Frost said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
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1962 ImperialConsequently, the changes necessary to accommodate the 1962 Imperial production at Jefferson Assembly and the adjacent Kercheval body plant were duly made in time for the 1962 model year.
As a result of the amalgamation of Chrysler and Imperial assembly operations, Imperial now benefited from the full, seven-stage, dip-spray corrosion-protection treatment accorded Unibody cars. Attempts were made at Jefferson to continue some of the additional craftsmanship processes used at Warren Avenue. A separate metal shop was established to apply extra metal finishing to joints and seams in the body-in-white stage, while another special line in the paint shop allowed extra-quality sanding and the application of exclusive epoxy sealer coats to obtain a smooth, high-luster finish.
After assembly, each Imperial was removed to its own inspection building for an intensive quality audit, high-pressure water testing, and a final road test to ensure that, according to Chrysler, "it rides, drives, and performs as an Imperial should."
This two-door Crown Southampton shows the
reduced fins that were more in line with prevailing tastes.
After an originally planned all-new "S-series" 1962 Imperial was canceled, stylists set about improvising changes to the 1961 car. The egregious fins were lowered and chopped back, becoming horizontal in side view and forward-leaning rather than undercut. They were capped by a new variant of the signature taillight, an elongated tubular shape bisected by the circular ring. Because of the extended red lens, the stylists irreverently nicknamed the lamp the "flashlight."
"That taillight," grumbles Cummins, "was originally much smaller, but Cliff got hold of it and ruined it."
Up front, the angle of the headlamp brows was continued inboard via new moldings that extended nearly to the center before sweeping sharply downward, creating a V-shaped body-color panel that divided the horizontally ribbed grille. Though rather forced, the look was reminiscent of the 1955-1956 Imperials. A ringed Imperial eagle perched atop the grille divide, its previous position in the grille being replaced by block letters to spell out the marque name. Redesigned wheel covers in brilliant chrome set off the 15-inch wheels.
Though the roof panels themselves were unchanged, the sweep moldings and stainless inserts were removed, while the side- and rear-window moldings were restyled for a more angular, tailored look. Interiors were mostly untouched, although the LeBaron lost its exclusive wool broadcloth upholstery, which had been a hallmark of the series since its launch in 1957. It was replaced by a cord body cloth/broadcloth bolster-trim option in gray only.
In back, the Imperial's characteristic "gun sight"
taillights sat atop fender edges for the last time.
One of the Imperial's greatest fans was the avuncular Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated. McCahill, who often lived out of his car for months at a time while on assignment, proclaimed the 1962 LeBaron "the best sedan in the world today. I've never driven a car that was as effortless to drive on long trips." At Daytona International Speedway, McCahill was able to push the nearly 5,000-pound LeBaron to a top speed of 121.4 mph, with 0 to 60 achieved in a respectable 9.4 seconds.
More-customary customers apparently approved of the Imperial's tamer appearance. Assemblies rose to 14,337 units in what was another difficult year.
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1963 ImperialAgain for 1963, the Imperial that was originally planned was not what was ultimately produced. When the initial design was spirited off to become a new Chrysler, Imperial designers found themselves in a depressingly familiar Groundhog Day scenario. Something had to be quickly done with the existing car to freshen it.
Another revision to the 1961-vintage grille was
an obvious touch.
Custom and Crown two- and four-door hardtops received a new roof featuring a wider, more-formal C-pillar, while the rear glass had less wraparound. The longitudinal lines in the roof panel, present since 1960, were replaced by a transverse crease aligned with the forward edge of the C-pillar, even on the LeBaron, making that roof skin new, too.
Using the new, flatter, higher-at-the-rear four-door hardtop roof panel on the two-door hardtops allowed the rear seat to be moved rearward and raised slightly, giving rear-seat passengers nearly five inches of additional leg room. The adoption of a different parking brake, acting on the rear service brakes rather than the transmission output shaft, also allowed further reductions of 2.5 inches in the height and 6.5 inches in the width of the transmission tunnel, boosting front-seat comfort and foot room. On two-door hardtops, the combined effect of these changes resulted in a notably roomier interior, important to luxury-car buyers.
The seats were remade, eliminating the high-back configuration of the driver's seat, with 23 combinations of cloth-and-vinyl, cloth-and-leather, and leather-and-vinyl trims to harmonize with the 16 available exterior colors. New standard equipment included a remote-control out-side mirror, automatic release of the parking brake when the engine was started and the car placed in gear, and power windows on all models. Not having to provide for manual window cranks permitted convenient storage compartments to be incorporated in the front doors beneath hinged armrest pads. One option making its last appearance was the $54.55 Flight-Sweep decklid.
New 11-inch self-energizing brakes with flared drums increased brake lining from 251 to 287 square inches. Imperials were also covered by Chrysler's new five-year/50,000-mile warranty on major powertrain components.
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The Downfall of the Imperial
Given that Imperial was entering a seventh year with the same basic body structure and the fourth year with the same outer door skins, general manager Briggs put on the best face possible, stating that "Imperial continues to be America's biggest car," with an overall length of 227.8 inches -- nearly 19 feet of automobile!
Despite the modest, but expensive, changes (new roofs aren't cheap), Imperial production remained in the doldrums as assemblies slipped slightly to 14,121 cars, including 13 Ghia limousines, which had returned to the line after a year off.
If the Imperials that were produced in 1962 and 1963 failed to excite the buying public, what about the Imperials that weren't produced? Would they have been better received?
The roof alterations made the back seat of this Crown
two-door hardtop roomier, but not more popular.
Of the various iterations of Exner's '62 theme, the Imperial was arguably the best looking. The central grille was retained, crisper in execution, with a broad, bright header.
Though no longer separate, headlights were designed to appear to be hanging from the underside of fender brows. Long, horizontal fender blades swept around from the headlights onto the fender and front door, while a similar, but smaller, blade began on the rear door and swept around to the decklid.
In order to allow the clean, continuous fuselage body section to be obvious amidships, the fender blades purposely did not connect, a stop-and-start treatment Cummins found disconcerting. He also thought at the time that the heavier-section front blade and the slimmer rear blade were too dissimilar. Out back, 1955-1956 style "gun sight" taillights, designed by Fred Schimmelpfenni, perched cheekily atop the horizontal fender blades. The windshield glass was pulled forward at the center line so that it was "faster" than at the A-pillars, another Exner attribute. The Custom series name was to be replaced with Viscount.
The original "S-series" Imperial was different, elegant, and pure Exner -- but probably would not have been successful in the marketplace. Commercially, it was probably too different. And there was another problem: It was too Valiant-like, appearing too much like Chrysler's cheapest car, and one that had been on the road for two years. Trying to take design concepts from an inexpensive car and apply them to an expensive one is the equivalent of trying to push a rope uphill.
When the "S-series" cars were being designed in summer 1959, Chrysler was losing money. As the program matured, the DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial variants were suddenly scuttled, but not until after several prototypes had been fabricated. They weren't around too long. Cummins recalls a bright-red mock-up for a 1962 DeSoto being cut up into six-inch cubes and thrown away.
The Dodge and Plymouth program went ahead, but then the designs were hastily downsized and cheapened, so much so that a frustrated Exner disparaged them as "plucked chickens." Regrettably, their failure in the marketplace would cost Exner his job.
Meanwhile, forward planning for the large cars was in turmoil. "Everything just stopped while they decided," recalls Cummins. "It was spooky." In the interim, the small Imperial Studio staff tried again with a completely different concept.
As it was designed over the existing 1960-1962 Unibody structure, the "fuselage" look was not possible. Still seeking distinction, and inspired by the contours of a Grecian urn, stylists under the direction of Don Kopka came up with a sculptural, concave body section immediately below the belt. Various workouts of how the concave section intersected with the main slab of the vertical bodyside plane were tried by Cummins and Pryce, but the stylists settled on a simple, sheer interface.
Originally, the resultant intersection was straighter and more downward-sloping, but Cummins recalls that the line had to be raised in order to clear the carryover Polara door-hinge points underneath, resulting in a line that was in side view, Cummins feels, too bowed. The chaste bodysides were pierced by circular wheel openings evocative of the 1955 Imperial. A variant of the stillborn "S-series" grille was used, as were smaller "gun sight" taillights on the rear quarters. A longer iteration of the Unibody's bolt-on stub frame facilitated a longer dash-to-front-axle dimension, enabling the designers to once again achieve the desired long-hood/short-deck look.
Although Exner did not camp in the studio during the car's development, Cummins remembers moving the Imperial outside into the viewing oval one rainy afternoon, with Exner, holding an umbrella, carefully looking over the clay and giving it his approval.
Here was an Imperial that might have moved the needle: crisp, clean, elegant, and sophisticated. It was 90 percent done when one day the clay was spirited out of the Imperial Studio and into the Chrysler Studio, where stylists led by Fred Reynolds were to turn it into a new Chrysler for 1963.
Perhaps the clays the Chrysler designers were working on weren't "going anywhere," and an anxious management saw in the Imperial a way to quickly generate a winning design for the far-more-important (from a volume standpoint) Chrysler. In short order, the grille was changed, the wheel openings made rectangular, the long front overhang cut back, and the side glass flattened. Of course, the taillights also had to go. With little time remaining and rear-end contours that offered little space, the stylists came up with the curiously petite round taillights used on the 1963 Chryslers.
However disconcerting to the stylists, usurping the Imperial design for the Chrysler was, in retrospect, the right decision. It enabled the corporation to sell more than a quarter of a million Chryslers in the 1963-1964 model years.
Given the policy of "no junior editions," having the right design was especially crucial since there were no smaller Chryslers to augment the sale of the big cars. Still, the original design would have made one hell of an Imperial.
The Imperials that were produced during 1960-1963 were well-engineered, well-built luxury automobiles that lacked only customers. Had they been styled differently, would they have been more successful? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, their weak showing in the marketplace cost Imperial its home plant, and, consequently, the chance to stand on an equal footing with Lincoln and Cadillac.
That chance would not come again.
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1960-1963 Imperial: Models, Prices, ProductionHere are the models, prices and production for the 1960-1963 Imperials:
|Model||Weight ||Price ||Production |
| Custom (wb 129.0)|| || || |
|Southampton htp sdn||4,760||5,029||3,953|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,655||4,923||1,498|
|Crown (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,765||5,647||4,510|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,720||5,403||1,504|
LeBaron (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,835||6,318||999|
Crown Imperial (149.5)|
|Total 1960 Imperial||17,719|
Custom (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,740||5,109||4,129|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,715||4,923||889|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,855||5,647||4,769|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,790||5,403||1,007|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,875||6,426||1,026|
Crown Imperial (wb 149.5)|
|Total 1961 Imperial||12,258|
Custom (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,620||5,106||3,587|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,540||4,920||826|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,680||5,644||6,911|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,650||5,400||1,010|
LeBaron (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,725||6,422||1,449|
|Total 1962 Imperial||14,337|
Custom (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,690||5,243||3,264|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,640||5,058||749|
Crown (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,740||5,656||6,960|
|Southampton htp cpe||4,720||5,412||1,067|
LeBaron (wb 129.0)|
|Southampton htp sdn||4,830||6,434||1,537|
|Crown Imperial (wb 149.5)|
|Total 1963 Imperial||14,121|
*1960-style cars sold as 1961 models. Source: Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide®, Publications International, Ltd., 2002
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