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1960-1963 Imperial

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?

1960-1963 Imperial
The roof alterations made the back seat of this Crown
two-door hardtop roomier, but not more popular.

As first planned, the 1962 "S-series" cars -- from Plymouth to Imperial -- were to be all-new, enabling Exner to showcase his "next look" beyond fins. Two design elements were key. One was the concept of a long hood contrasting with a short, finless deck to provide a sense of forward direction. The other was the aircraftlike "fuselage" bodyside, employing curved side glass with a minimum offset at the belt at a time when most cars had bulky "shoulders" below the side windows.

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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