Changes in Production
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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