Chrysler Corporation product planners, stylists, and engineers entered the new "fuselage" era hoping to keep the luxury 1969-1973 Imperial exclusive even as it shared bodyshells with the Chrysler-brand cars. After five years, all they had to show for their efforts was a really nice Chrysler.
The 1972 Imperial saw fresh styling changes.
See more pictures of Imperial cars.
In a press release dated August 21, 1968, to announce the new 1969 Imperial, Chrysler-Plymouth Division General Manager Glenn White boldly stated, "The manufacturer who wants to sell cars in the most expensive price class can take no short cuts. Elegance of style and decor must be provided along with the very best of quality and performance. The 1969 Imperial is the result of this point of view."
Brave words -- and true. Yet the new Imperial White was touting was in fact something less than his words portrayed. Splendid as it was, this new Imperial was, in truth, a shortcut, necessitated by the brutal fact that Imperial's meager sales volume would no longer support a luxury automobile entirely separate from the higher-volume Chryslers with which it shared the assembly lines at the corporation's Jefferson Assembly plant in east Detroit.
This realization resulted in significant compromises in the car's development that would make this latest iteration of the Imperial a throwback to an earlier generation.
But first, a look at the car itself, by itself. The splintering of the American automobile market into three basic car sizes in the early to mid Sixties had made it financially impossible for any of the Big Three to field all-new cars in all market segments all in the same model year. Each product now had to wait for its turn at renewal.
At Chrysler, 1969 was to be a year the big cars -- known within the company as C-bodies -- were to be completely redesigned. The redesign was especially important for the Chrysler and Imperial nameplates inasmuch as there were no "junior editions" to contribute to sales volume. Chrysler and Imperial would have to survive on the basis of their achievements as large cars.
According to retired Chrysler Styling executive Dave Cummins, development of the new C-bodies began in an advanced studio at Chrysler's Highland Park, Michigan, campus where a sedan package/styling model was created under the leadership of Cliff Voss and Allan Kornmiller.
The big change from the 1967-68 cars was the so-called "fuselage" styling which combined curved side glass above the beltline and a curving bodyside section below into one "seamless" surface said to be inspired by the aerodynamic cabin section found on jetliners.
This was not the first time Chrysler had delved into this approach. Former Styling vice president Virgil Exner had experimented with fuselage styling in a limited way on the 1960 Valiant and fought unsuccessfully to introduce the look across the board with a stillborn design for the large cars (including Imperial) in 1962.
The problem with Exner's approach, according to Cummins, was his penchant for projecting fender blades front and rear that in side view did not connect, giving the cars a disjointed "start-and-stop" look. However, in this latest iteration created under his successor, Elwood Engel, the basic fuselage section was carried front to rear uninterrupted, giving the resultant bodyside a clean, continuous appearance.
Retired Chrysler designer Chet Limbaugh, who was in the Packaging Studio at the time, recalls that the fuselage look was championed by Voss, Exner's alter ego who retained a deep respect for his former boss' sense of style and taste. Like every good idea, fuselage styling had its time and place, if not on Exner's '62 cars, then on Engel's '69s.
The curved side glass, pioneered in America by Imperial in 1957, had a tighter 43-inch radius, while the bodysills turned under more than on any previous corporate vehicle. The increased curvature of the bodysides permitted the window frames to be moved outboard at their bases, resulting in shoulder room increases of 3.5 inches in front and three inches in the rear.
Two-door hardtops equipped with air conditioning sported ventless door glass for a sleeker appearance and increased visibility. The windshield and backlight were fixed with adhesives, making the glass nearly flush with the roof sheetmetal and improving aerodynamics. The windshield A-pillar was also curved.
Adding to the clean look, the wipers, when parked, were concealed in a slot at the base of the windshield. The driver-side blade was articulated, resulting in a wipe pattern that was four inches wider than in '68.
Cummins believes the package could have been improved by having a nar-rower belt and giving the wheels a wider track. "The track was too skinny," he states, "and the cars came off the line riding high in the rear" owing to the continued use of leaf springs instead of coils.
"The [package] car was really attractive," Limbaugh remembers," but it was noticeably smaller than the production cars, which got a lot bigger."
"There was talk about releasing the car directly from Advanced Packaging," recalls Cummins, who was at the time chief of the Chrysler-Imperial Exterior Studio. This idea horrified Don Wright, the manager responsible for Chrysler under Cummins, who felt that the feasibility hadn't been studied enough.
Nonetheless, says Cummins, "We were told to go ahead" and make a production job out of it, Wright overseeing the Chrysler and Ken Carlson, the Imperial.
Keep reading to learn about the planning of the Imperial.
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Planning the Imperial
Planning the Imperial involved using the Cliff Voss and Allan Kornmiller model as a template. Multiple sections were created by the studio stylists working over the required "hard points." These were then reviewed, revised, redrawn, and reassessed.
The section chosen included a chamfered plane at the belt
that crisply intersected an arcing plane that dropped vertically to a
second hard intersection, followed by a subtle undercut and a rapid
tuck-under to the sill.
The appearance of the 1973 Imperial changed little and centered
on a finer grille texture.
In eschewing any abrupt changes, the stylists created a surface that both realized and reinforced the idea behind the fuselage look: to integrate the roof, side glass, and lower body into one continuous flowing surface. The result was elegant, austere, and entirely appropriate to a car bearing the lordly name "Imperial."
"The Chrysler, however, came first," relates Cummins, "based on a beautiful line drawing by stylist Bill Wayland penned during the second or third go-round of sketching. I had been eyeballing the sketch as a real possibility when Elwood came into the studio, saw it, and asked me, 'Have you seen this sketch? That's your Chrysler!' Sometime later, Engel brought his former mentor and retired Ford design VP George Walker through the studio, and Walker was equally enthusiastic about the sketch."
As developed, the upper chamfered plane flowed rearward from the front fender to the leading edge of the C-pillar, where it turned and snapped up into the roof. The lower body's full-length crease line rose as it moved forward, creating a truncated wedge in side view that gave the car a sense of forward motion. The front wheel opening was simply cut into the fender surface while the rear wheel was concealed by a skirt, both openings accented by discreet bright moldings.
With its muted bodyside section and buried rear wheels, there was nothing to keep the '69 Imperial from looking as massive as it was, if not more so. Two other things contributed to the massive appearance. One was the overall length of the car, determined ironically by a "requirement" from Bob Kushler, head of Chrysler product planning, who insisted on a high roof for the four-door sedan for more head room. (Shades of K. T. Keller!)
"We called it the 'super roof,'" remembers Cummins, "and its height was nearly impossible to live with. When we realized that despite our protests it wasn't going to 'go away,' we understood that the only way to disguise the roof height was to make the body longer proportionally.
"We had a partially complete sedan clay buck modeled up with this 'super roof' and shipped it to the showroom, with Di-Noc'ed fender and doors and a clay quarter panel representing the currently approved length of the car. Using lightweight Foam-Core, we cut out a full-size outline of the rear quarter panel and covered the surface with painted Di-Noc.
"Then we shifted this cutout into various positions, moving it back and forth, trying to discover just how long we had to make the body in order to make the higher roof look acceptable. After an hour of experimenting, we finally reached a consensus. The resulting rear overhang made for an enormous trunk, especially on the two-door hardtops," and permitted a hefty 23-gallon fuel tank.
Learn about the 1969 Imperial in the next section.
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Still riding on a 127-inch wheelbase, the 1969 Imperial was more than five inches longer than in '68, the impression of length heightened by the vastness of the car's largely undecorated sheetmetal.
Not that this was in itself bad. After all, luxury-car buyers of the day certainly appreciated the status and assumed safety that came with an automobile that Chrysler described unashamedly as "longer, heavier and bigger." One writer referred to the Imperial as a "velvet tank."
For 1969, the Imperial came in five models across two series.
But it wasn't just the Imperial's sheer size. There was also the altered ratio between the height of the bodyside and the height of the windows. Cummins objected to the high seating position in the 1967-68 cars.
"You sat too high in those cars," he recalls, "under a super-tall roof floating way above your head. We asked ourselves what makes a car look road-hugging and comfortable."
The studio's answer was to raise the beltline, simultaneously reducing the height of the side glass. The narrower windows also made the car appear more massive, giving it a fortresslike quality. This was especially true on the LeBaron two-door hardtop; its standard padded vinyl surface concealed a fiberglass overlay that reduced the size of the backlight for a more exclusive look.
Moreover, the hardtop coupe roof itself, with its extra-wide sloping C-pillars, appeared to have been pinched from a smaller car, making the body look even more gigantic. "That two-door roof came from Chuck Mitchell's Dodge Exterior Studio," relates Cummins, "and integrating it into the Chrysler/Imperial sheetmetal was a tough job."
In their efforts to remedy the perceived faults in the 1967-68 cars, the designers may have gone too far in the opposite direction for '69. Commenting on its narrow side glass, Road Test magazine opined that "if there is anyone sitting in the [Imperial], big guys look small, and small guys all but disappear."
Imperial adopted a loop-style front bumper, vee'd in plan view, with peaked vertical ends that projected forward and wrapped themselves around the fenders ends -- very bold, yet elegant. Designing a loop bumper is tricky. For impact reasons, the lower portion of the face bar must, of necessity, lead the top portion. Somewhere a changeover must take place.
Moreover, the upper and lower horizontal portions of the Imperial's loop bumper incorporated chamfered surfaces designed to catch the light, complicating the transition to a vertical surface at the fender opening.
The company's stamping expert, Ted Halloway, was concerned that once the loop bumper was stamped, it would "rock," meaning that the vertical ends would bend away from each other in opposite directions. Cadillac designers would solve such problems by building up bumpers using multiple parts, but this approach was beyond even the Imperial's cost targets.
Cummins, however, discovered that there was a bit of money available for an experimental die program and persuaded the stamping folks to do tryouts using temporary tools.
"At the first trials to mount the front bumper, the stamping was inches off," recalls Cummins, conceding that "the prototype parts were not good." But continued effort proved that the bumper could indeed be made well in one piece.
However, vinyl filler panels were required to transition between the bumper and the front sheetmetal, "something we never had to do before," says Cummins, "and Product Planning had to cough up the extra money."
Much time and attention was lavished on the grillework recessed inside the loop. The adoption of hidden headlamps for the first time on an Imperial allowed the elaborate diecast grille to span the entire width of the bumper opening. A delicate eggcrate texture, bracketed top and bottom by a thin chrome outline, was fronted by narrow black and chrome horizontal bar that reinforced the width of the car.
This horizontal element, however, immediately telegraphed any misalignment when the headlamp doors were closed, and so was not repeated on subsequent facelifts. The grille ends contained the park and turn lights, each ensconced in a slim vertical tower of translucent lens containing a miniature of the stylized Imperial eagle that decorated the hood and deck. (The loop bumper and hidden lamps were, respectively, $7.10 and $11.15 per car over their budget targets, but the money was approved anyway.)
Out back, a more traditional bumper was employed. Vee'd slightly in plan view with flipped-out ends, the surface was pierced by horizontal openings into which were set the taillight/back-up light units, the taillights featuring sequential turn signals. A block-letter Imperial nameplate rested between the lights.
The bumper ends, however, were trickier, rising in chrome towers that set flush with the quarter panel, the bumper bar, and the body-color valence panel below the bumper. As in front, narrow vinyl fillers were required to finish off the areas where the bumper caps met the body sheetmetal.
Although the chrome "ears" echoed the more three-dimensional vertical bumper caps that terminated the rear quarters of the 1967-68 Imperials, in truth, the 1969 Imperial's rear end bore more than a passing resemblance to the 1965-68 Cadillacs.
"We also had to battle the stamping people over the contours of the upper front fender inboard of the peak, paralleling the hood," Cummins remembers. "We brought a Cadillac fender into the studio to study its construction, but the Caddy had an extra 'patch' we couldn't afford. After some give and take, we finally got the Imperial front fender in one piece."
One neat detail was the combination side-marker light/cornering lamp housed in three individual vertical "gills" low on the fender forward of the front wheel opening.
Since there wasn't enough money for a body-color die casting, the three openings had to be gotten "for free" with the basic fender formation. Turn-signal indicators visible to the driver were incorporated into small body-color castings that capped the forward peak of each fender.
Exterior trim was limited to wheel-lip moldings and a narrow bright molding placed high on the car running the full length of the bodyside. As a contrast to the ascetic bodyside, the wheel covers were quite ornate, featuring delicate bright spokes arranged radially about a silver and chrome center with a gold Imperial eagle.
Inside, the new Imperial featured an instrument panel typical of late-Sixties Chrysler products -- basically a long rectangle padded top and bottom that spanned the entire width of the vehicle (a look favored by Engel). Recessed into its central cavity was an inclined plane on which were positioned the various switches, thumbwheels, climate and radio controls, clock, and a full set of gauges, all lit by ultraviolet spotlighting.
On the passenger side of the dash, this area was occupied by a flush glovebox decorated in simulated "crossfire walnut." This panel was used through 1973, with model-year changes to the color and pattern of the woodgrain.
In an effort to reduce the risk of knee injuries from unrestrained center-seat passengers, the ignition key was moved to the left of the steering column, which must have been awkward at best for most right-handed drivers. It lasted just a year, being replaced in 1970 with a steering-column ignition lock.
Interior decor was suitably luxurious. Each door, for example, was fitted with illuminated power controls and boasted a padded flip-up armrest concealing a handy glovebox; rear doors also housed an ashtray and cigarette lighter.
A 50/50 divided front seat, used solely on the LeBaron four-door hardtop, was des-cribed as a "sectional sofa for three that becomes individually adjustable armchairs for two," each with its own fold-down center armrest.
The five-foot-wide seat, whose passenger seat reclined to "an infinite number of comfort positions (to serve as) a napping chaise" was touted as an American luxury-car "first." Upholstery choices included six cloth-and-leather combinations plus optional leather in nine color choices. There were 17 exterior color selections, among them Deep Plum, Tuscan Bronze, and Platinum.
To today's motorists accustomed to choosing from a much more limited palate of exterior and interior colors, such variety seems surreal. What's more, both the LeBaron two-door hardtop and the Crown four-door sedan each had their own unique fabrics and bench seat trim styles, with shell-type front buckets seats in leather a $361 option on the two-door LeBaron. Extra-cost at first, head restraints were federally mandated for all cars built after January 1, 1969.
While both LeBarons featured individual reading lamps in the rear compartment, rear-seat travelers in the LeBaron four-door hardtop were cosseted by such amenities as self-storing assist straps to aid ingress/egress, vinyl-covered foam "pillows" affixed to the C-pillar trim where the fortunate few could lay their heads, and a separate two-speed rear heater (optional) to warm their toes.
However sumptuously trimmed, a wide variety of options was available to tempt the prospective buyer, including items that are customarily standard on today's cars: air conditioning, automatic speed control, power door locks, rearwindow defogger, and tinted glass.
Lavant-grain vinyl roofs in six colors were standard on the LeBaron, necessary to cover the fiberglass panels used to generate the smaller, more formal backlight. Boar-grain vinyl roofs in four colors were a $152 option on the Crowns.
From a powertrain standpoint, little was different from previous Imperials, nor did it need to be. Ample forward motion was supplied by a big 440-cid four-barrel-carbureted V-8 -- Chrysler's largest -- developing 350 bhp and teamed with the legendary A-727 three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission.
Self-adjusting floating-caliper disc brakes were employed on the front wheels with 11x3-inch heavy-duty drums on the rears. Suspension was still via chrome-steel torsion bars in front and rubber-isolated seven-leaf springs in back. Passengers were secluded from road noise by 43 rubber isolators and 180 pounds of sound deadener, with each car individually tested for 12 to 15 miles over a variety of road surfaces.
Imperial entered the model year with a reduced lineup, both in series offerings and body types. Since its introduction in 1957, the haughty LeBaron had heretofore been limited, like the rival Cadillac Sixty Special, to four-door models only.
But some customers, knowing that the four-door LeBaron was the top of the line, wondered why they couldn't order a top-of-the-line two-door. Now they could. Initially, the lone offering in the Crown series was a four-door sedan. At midyear, however, the division added two- and four-door hardtops "in response to customer demand."
That demand must have evaporated quickly, for a meager 244 two-door and 823 four-door hardtop Crowns were assembled during the model year. One reason was that the Crown hardtops were priced a mere $306 to $361 less than comparable LeBarons, an insignificant difference when you're paying around $6,000 for a luxury automobile.
Lamentably, there was no convertible available, understandably so given that a mere 474 Imperial ragtops were built in 1968. However logical, this decision may have been ill-considered. Since Lincoln had discontinued its convertible after 1967, a '69 Imperial convertible would have given luxury-car customers a choice.
Plus, an Imperial convertible would have been easy to accomplish, given that Chrysler had tooled up "fuselage" convertibles. Instead, Lincoln and Imperial conceded the admittedly crumbling convertible market to Cadillac.
Taken by itself, this latest Imperial was worthy of the name -- but this latest Imperial was not by itself. To reduce development and tooling costs, and bring overall expenditures more in line with actual sales, Imperial was forced to share its body with the Chrysler.
Consequently, front and rear doors, quarter panels, decklids, glass, and roofs were common with the lowliest Chrysler Newport. Ironically, this was the very short cut of which White spoke so disdainfully in his news release.
True, the Imperial boasted a three-inch-longer wheelbase, but this added length was all forward of the front door. The actual bodies from the cowl rearward were identical. "We tried to do unique quarter panels for the Imperial," Cummins recalls, "but Product Planning wouldn't give us the money."
The longer wheelbase required a hood and front fenders exclusive to the Impe-rial, giving it a more impressive dash-to-axle proportion, but this could not make up for the loss of exclusivity in the body. By sharing bodies and the instrument panel with Chrysler, Imperial reverted to the product formula last used in 1955-56.
Despite its upscale appearance, the Imperial had become just a bigger, more expensive Chrysler as opposed to a luxury marque in its own right. However, this is more evident in hindsight than it was back then, and automotive journalists of the day continued to regard the Imperial on equal terms with Cadillac and Lincoln.
Realistically, though, part of this new Imperial's success would depend on potential customers not noticing the similarities between it and that $2,100 cheaper Newport at the other end of the showroom.
Customers expecting exclusivity in their luxury-car purchases, however, would have to turn to Cadillac and Lincoln to satisfy their desires. That must have been a keen disappointment for Imperial's chief product planner Bob Mcgargle, who had worked so tirelessly, even passionately in promoting the Imperial ideal with low-volume image-building programs like the ritzy 1957-65 Ghia-built limousines and the inventive Mobile Director "office on wheels" option for the 1967-68 Crown Coupe.
Of the $147.7 million in body tooling Chrysler spent on the entire 1969 C-body program, just $7.9 million was spent on parts exclusive to the Imperial. Yet the brutal truth was that this amount was much more in line with Imperial's average sales volumes of about 16,000 units a year.
Keep reading to learn about the 1970 Imperial.
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With an expensive new program for the 1970 Imperial E-body "ponycars" on the horizon, Chrysler could not afford to pour scarce tooling dollars into a vehicle that literally could not pay its own way.
The company wouldn't walk away from the luxury-car market just yet. But it would no longer spend the bucks necessary to fully compete, consigning the Imperial to a netherworld of being neither fish nor fowl.
The 1970 Imperial lineup consisted of two- and four-door
hardtops in the Crown and LeBaron series.
Regardless of its compromised development, the new Imperial's eye-catching lines and regal bearing did at first attract many more buyers. Industry publication Ward's even went so far as to name the Imperial "the [C-P] Division's success story," referring to the fact that both Chrysler and Plymouth Fury volumes were down for 1969.
Imperial assemblies rose to 22,077, a nearly 44-percent increase over the previous year and the highest model-year total since 1964. Moreover, 307 Imperials were shipped for sale in Canada where none had been sold in '68.
Because of the revised series lineup, the costlier LeBarons outsold the Crowns for the first time ever. Six Crown sedans were made into LeBaron limousines by Armbruster/Stageway in Fort Smith, Arkansas, working with Chrysler to keep Imperial's slender toehold in the limousine market. An additional six limousines were built in 1970 and one more in 1971.
Of course, these volumes paled in comparison with the nearly 200,000 Cadillacs and more than 38,000 Lincolns built that year -- numbers that do not include the Eldorado or Continental Mark III specialty coupes. Each of their totals alone exceeded Imperial.
After such a strenuous effort, changes to the 1970 Imperial were confined to the "usual suspects." The grille texture was altered to a box check pattern of four rows of repeating rectangles. The motif was repeated at the rear where the taillights were each subdivided into four boxes.
A new two-box back-up light was relocated up between the taillights, with the Imperial name in block letters strung across the upper bumper surface. Side lighting was changed, with the rear side marker integrated into the vertical bumper end and the front side marker/ cornering lamp combined into a single rectangular housing.
Wheel covers were new and the rear fender skirts were deleted. The bright upper-bodyside molding was replaced by a much more tasteful dual paint stripe, or, if you sought parking lot protection for those broad flanks, you could opt for a vinyl molding located lower on the bodyside. Also new was bright molding that ran the length of the car at sill level, connecting to the wheel-lip moldings.
Inside, the fabrics and seat styles were redone. The optional leather bucket seats for two-door LeBarons were configured to resemble five horizontal throw pillows piled up vertically, three on the seat back and two on the cushion, resulting in one of the handsomest seats in Imperial history.
Each "pillow" was embellished with an outboard welt, a parallel deck seam inboard, and a center button pulled down deep into the supple leather. Offered in six colors, the seats reeked of the opulence of a private club, inviting driver and passenger to sink luxuriantly into their welcoming embrace.
Also new was the standard Rim-Blow steering wheel with which you sounded the horn by squeezing a thin black vinyl "tube" located inconspicuously on the inner circumference of the wheel rim. It was a neat idea, but, as the engineers would say, it was not a "robust" system and thus prone to erratic operation.
With the four-door sedan gone, Imperial's lineup consisted of two- and four-door hardtops in the Crown and LeBaron series. Production of 1970 Imperials fell precipitously to just 11,816 units, the lowest model-year total since 1956. Chrysler output was off, too, by 80,000 cars.
Nationwide, the economy was faltering, spooked by the sudden bankruptcy in June of the Penn Central, then the nation's largest railroad. Chrysler president John Riccardo was put in the awkward position of having to reassure already jittery investors that Chrysler was not about to become "the next Penn Central." Well, at least not this time.Read about the 1971 Imperial in the next section.
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With Chrysler's major push in time, money and manpower dedicated to renewing its 1971 Imperial B-body intermediates, there was little left to fund many changes to the larger cars.
To permit operation on regular-grade gasoline, the compression ratio of the 440 V-8 was reduced from 9.7 to 8.8:1 through the use of dished-top pistons and a recalibrated distributor. Compression ratios would drop further -- to 8.2 -- in 1972-73 as a part of controlling emissions.
Exterior styling changes were minimal to the 1971 Imperial.
Horsepower figures underwent a radical transformation during 1971-72. Prior to '71, published figures reflected gross horsepower, measured in the laboratory in a controlled atmosphere (60 degrees Fahrenheit) using engines stripped of air cleaners, alternators/generators, and power-robbing accessory drives.
In 1972, manufacturers were required to publish only net horsepower figures, derived from a "fully dressed" engine that gave a much more realistic approximation of power delivered to the flywheel, and ultimately the rear wheels. During 1971, however, both figures could be published. Thus, the '71 Imperial V-8 was listed at 335 bhp gross and 230 net.
A "Sure Brake" antiskid brake system, claimed to be the first four-wheel system offered to the public on an American-built car, was made available exclusively on the Imperial.
To avoid wheel lockup (and, Chrysler claimed, shorten stopping distances), the computerized system modulated brake pressure to each wheel during a panic stop, allowing the driver to both maintain steering ability and bring this nearly 5,000-pound behemoth to a dignified halt.
Developed by Bendix in conjunction with Chrysler engineers, Sure Brake was specified by a mere 293 buyers in 1971. Customers apparently did not appreciate the system's value or were put off by the hefty $344 price tag.
Rear-wheel-only antilock systems from General Motors and Ford were priced around $200, and consequently more popular with their clientele.
Also optional was a new electric headlamp-washer system wherein small brushes wiped the low-beam lamps at the rate of 50 strokes per minute, fluid being supplied by a separate washer reservoir.
Offered on all company vehicles with hidden headlamps, the system was welcomed by owners who customarily sent their cars through car washes with the headlamps off and retracted, affording no opportunity for the lamps to be cleaned.
Another inventive option was a floor-mounted cassette stereo tape player with an available microphone that allowed you to dictate notes as you drove to the office, or sing to yourself as you drove home; not quite karaoke, but close.
Exterior styling changes were again minimal. The '70 grille was retained, but with prominent satin-silver plaques newly fitted to the headlamp doors. Taillights were also carryover. Rear fender skirts, now fiberglass, returned, but the sill moldings did not.
The Imperial name was spelled out in individual letters ostentatiously added to the rear quarters and along the front of the hood. Ventless side glass appeared on the four-door hardtop, though vent windows were still optional. Inside the burled walnut woodgrain, instead of being confined to the glovebox door, ran the full length of the dash. An electric sunroof was a new option for two-door hardtops. And then there was the contretemps over the new burgundy vinyl roof.
"One day I walked into the Fabric Studio," recalls Cummins. "On the wall was a framed hand-block-printed leather panel out of an Italian monastery, the kind of material you might use on the back of a chair. I was intrigued by its subtle colors and muted patterns, and thought it might make a nice vinyl roof covering.
"I discussed the idea with studio manager Dudley Smart who got a vendor to make up a sample. It wasn't good, and I emphasized the need to duplicate exactly the look of the wall hanging. Eventually, the vendor arrived with a successful sample, and it went on the car" in 1971, offered with a new Imperial-only exterior color, Spar-kling Burgundy Metallic.
It proved to be one of the shortest-lived options ever offered on an Imperial. For some unknown reason, the burgundy vinyl began to fade rather quickly, revealing an ersatz paisley pattern. (Some speculated that the burgundy color was overprinted onto leftover paisley vinyl roof material used on the special "Mod Top" iterations of the company's smaller cars in 1969-70, but this was not the case.)
After factory reps examined cars at dealerships, Chrysler withdrew the burgundy roof option on November 27, 1970. For customers who complained, the factory offered a replacement vinyl top in either white or black.
But by far the most significant appearance item on the 1971 Imperial was a diminutive nameplate affixed to the right side of the decklid that read "Imperial by Chrysler." The Imperial was no longer a separate marque, but once again a Chrysler Imperial, and this for the first time since 1954.
Admittedly, this represented a peculiar kind of automotive "death." After all, the Imperial car was still there, and the Imperial name as well. But that small nameplate spelled the end of Chrysler's quixotic 16-year quest to establish the Imperial as a separate marque to take on Lincoln and Cadillac.
The reason was that the company's sales and marketing types were tired of seeing the Imperial name always at the bottom of the R. L. Polk & Company monthly new-car sales listings. Fold Imperial into Chrysler and bingo! Problem solved. Besides, many customers still referred to their cars as Chrysler Imperials anyway, so what was the big deal?
Yet this was the latest and perhaps the most humiliating in a series of "losses" suffered by the Imperial. First there was the loss of its own assembly plant at the end of the 1961 model year, then the loss of body-on-frame construction (unique among Chrysler products) at the end of 1966, and then the loss of unique bodies for 1969.
Now came the end of stand-alone status, and with it, the end of any hopes of competing with Cadillac or Lincoln on a more or less equal level. After toying with the idea of Imperial-only dealerships, the division threw in the towel and made the Imperial part of the Chrysler franchise.
Except possibly for a few die-hard Imperial planners, nobody even understood what was transpiring. Nor did they really care. Production was equally dispirited, falling slightly to 11,558 cars, all LeBarons, the even-slower-selling Crown series having been discontinued.
Keep reading to learn about the 1972 Imperial.
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The 1972 Chrysler Imperial received a midcycle "freshening" of all-new sheetmetal below the belt. Since all of the design's "hard points" were carryover, stylists once again worked out a series of door sections for assessment, eventually choosing one of Ken Carlson's that had been originally considered for the '69 bodies.
The 1972 Imperial was retooled to achieve a more crisp look.
The crisp, planar look was replaced by sheetmetal that had a plumpness and an overall smoothness that made the high sides look even more overpowering. The cars looked like the designers had pumped them full of enough air to smooth out all the chamfers and faceted surfaces of the 1969-71 cars. Suffice it to say that the overall result, if perhaps not better, was sufficiently dissimilar to provide a different look.
A loop bumper of four-piece construction was fitted up front, with taller vertical openings for the turn-signal lights now deeply recessed into the shield-shaped bumper ends. These outer ends were separate stampings and, to help disguise the joint lines, attached to the main bumper coincident with the outboard edges of the grille and hood.
The vertical height of the main bumper was somewhat reduced, requiring body-color valence panels below the lower bar. Yet another iteration of the box-check grille was contained within the loop, the texture this time consisting of two rows of small vertical rectangles.
The hood plateau was made more majestic, elevated, widened, and accented by a center windsplit. The front fenderline was also raised, creating a deeper valley between the fender and the hood. This, in turn, required a more-expensive two-piece construction, which, much to Cummins surprise, was accepted without resistance.
A bright molding ran atop the fender and continued along the belt to the C-pillar. The two-door hardtop roof was new, with the forward edge of the C-pillar made more upright.
Having decided that horizontal taillights left the Chrysler and Imperial looking too much alike from the rear, the stylists made a major effort to create a distinctive appearance for the Imperial. The solution was built around tall slender taillights, slightly wider at the bottom, each bisected by a bright vertical bar.
The upper portions of the taillights were set into body-color fender caps, while the lower ends were neatly reces-sed into the new bumper. This fresh approach, the work of designer John Mezits, was elegant -- even haughty -- and manifestly different from the Chrysler.
Seen from the rear, the outer ends of the new bumper angled down dramatically toward the lamps. The long horizontal line of the bumper top was relieved in the center to accommodate a circular Imperial eagle. A bright trace molding, delicately delineating the outline of the bumpers as they met the body, was fitted both front and rear. The rear track was also widened by 1.4 inches. A new shield-shaped side-marker light added detail to the rear quarters.
Interior changes included an optional Cologne leather 50/50 split-bench seat sporting a "floating cushion" construction. Available for the four-door hardtop, its seating surface -- described as "ultra-plush ... fashioned in the style of fine furniture" -- was heavily tufted, creating a look somewhere between gaudy and tawdry that I've dubbed "steamboat bordello."
But this almost sinfully sumptuous treatment was well-received by Chrysler buyers and it remained popular clear into the the Eighties on rear-drive Fifth Avenues. Four-door models could also now be ordered with a sunroof.
A new electronic ignition system had no breaker points or condenser. Listed first as standard, it was later made optional, only to become standard equipment again in '73. To assure better rolling smoothness and therefore a better ride, tires for '72 Imperials were individually selected, with each Imperial tested for smoothness prior to delivery.
The new look was apparently worth the tooling money as production of both Chryslers and Imperials increased in 1972. Assemblies of the latter rose to 15,794, a nearly 37-percent gain.
There were no Stageway LeBaron limousines this year, but the U.S. Secret Service commissioned the old-line funeral-car builder Hess & Eisenhardt of Cincinnati to construct a pair of armor-plated long-wheelbase limos for use by the White House. The cars were fitted with 1973 grilles before delivery.
Check out the next section to learn about the 1973 Imperial.
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Changes to the 1973 Chrysler Imperial were so subtle as to be barely noticed. The federal government mandated new standards for low-speed impact -- five mph for the front bumper, and 2.5 mph for the rear. That requirement doomed most of the loop bumpers, sparing (temporarily) only the Dodge Monaco and Charger, and the Imperial.
The 1973 Chrysler Imperial's instrument panel
was accented by Rosewood graining.
To meet the new regulations, the bumpers were pulled out from the body and fitted with chunky "elastomeric" chrome and rubber guards. These changes caused the Imperial's already considerable length to grow a whopping 5.7 inches. Cars built from January 1973 onward included steel beams in the doors to protect occupants in side impacts, another federal mandate.
The taillights lost their vertical bar in favor of a bright oval outline on the lens, while the new grille sported a much fussier pattern. Rosewood graining accented the instrument panel, door panels, and door-assist handles. One of the new interior fabrics was Iraq cloth -- a textile not likely to return any time soon.
Engineering options included a new electronic security-alarm system, "Safeguard Sentinel" automatic on-off headlamps, and a new standard electronic digital clock -- a "chronometer" -- said to be accurate to within one minute a month. Additional sound dampening, such as foam seals around the perimeters of the door-trim panels, and a quieter exhaust system made for a more peaceful journey.
The Imperial gained back a shred of its past exclusivity in the form of its own catalog, a 16-pager with stiff black covers emblazoned with a bas-relief of an Imperial eagle. Inside, most of the photographs aped the style of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Whether the celebrated artist was flattered, dismayed, or merely amused is not known.
Perhaps customers were impressed; production rose a bit to 16,729 for 1973. But one longtime Imperial enthusiast and owner, Mechanix Illustrated's inimitable Tom McCahill, wasn't quite so enthusiastic about his '73 LeBaron test car.
"The old ones," wrote Tom, "not only handled better but were considerably faster," complaining that the 9.8-second 0-to-60 time of his '57 Imperial was appreciably faster than the 11.5 seconds for the '73. Top speed was also less -- a tweak above 110 mph compared to his trusty '57, which went through the speed markers on Daytona Beach at a blistering 121.3 mph.
Using typical McCahill rhetoric, he continued, saying, "It handles like what it is -- a big rig with power somewhat muffled (thanks to the smog boys) that could never pop your toupee into the back seat but, if it could, would give it a soft landing. Think about that one," he admonished his faithful readers. "The Imperial LeBaron still is an excellent road car," he opined, but "it no longer has the outstanding looks it once had . . . but then what does?"
Welcome as they were, the upticks in '72 and '73 brought the total of "fuselage" Imperials to the not so grand figure of 77,974, or a disappointing 15,600 units per model year.
There was nothing wrong or inappropriate about the cars themselves, by themselves -- it was the sharing of bodies and sheetmetal with Chrysler that was the problem. It was an unsolvable riddle: Imperial couldn't have a unique body until it sold more cars, and it couldn't sell more cars until it had a unique body.
Given the situation, there was apparently nothing the stylists or engineers could do to move the needle enough to even approach the 35,796 Imperials built in 1957, which now had to be recognized as a fluke. Aspiring to best that record was like trying to grasp a fading Holy Grail lodged in some long-ago Camelot.
Not only was Imperial falling further behind Cadillac and Lincoln, but those marques were expanding with cars like the Eldorado and Continental Mark III to further enhance their prestige. Chrysler would field a personal-luxury coupe in 1975, complete with Ricardo Montalban hyping its "rich Corinthian leather," but the Cordoba would not be an Imperial.
The "fuselage" era had proved once again that there was a small cadre of buyers who could be enticed to purchase up to 20,000 or so Imperials on an annual basis, especially when the styling was new.
But most of these were not Cadillac or Lincoln customers looking for something different. Rather, they were mostly loyal Chrysler customers looking to own the finest Chrysler built. If the Imperial disappeared, these same customers would probably just shrug and buy a Chrysler New Yorker Brougham instead. Therefore, some were asking, why go through another exercise in futility?
As product planners looked toward the next complete renewal of the C-body cars, scheduled for 1974, the Imperial faced an uncertain future. Indeed, in some quarters, the Imperial had no future at all.
Other more strategically important corporate programs had been canceled either due to uncertainty in the marketplace or to reduced tooling expenditures. "It was dead," recalls Limbaugh, unequivocally. "There was no plan in the program for a 1974 Imperial."
Not, that is, until Elwood Engel chanced to see a Limbaugh sketch of a "waterfall-grille" front end. He took it to a planning meeting exclaiming, "This is your Imperial!"
Take a look at our last section for 1963-1969 Imperial models, prices, and production.
For more information on cars, see:
1969-1973 Imperial Models, Prices, Production
The 1969-1973 Chrysler Imperial line included the high-end LeBaron and, until 1970, the less-expensive Crown series. Below, find specifications for all 1969-1973 Imperials.
Grille and bodyside trim tweaks marked the 1971 Imperial, which
was limited to a LeBaron hardtop coupe and hardtop sedan.
1969 Imperial Crown
|Model||Weight|| Price|| Production|
| 4-door Sedan||4,620||$5,770||1,617*|
| Hardtop Coupe||4,555||$5,592||244|
1969 Imperial LeBaron
| Hardtop Coupe||4,610||$5,898||4,572|
| Hardtop Sedan||4,710||$6,131||14,821|
Total Crown: 2,684
Total LeBaron: 19,393
Total 1969 Imperial: 22,077
1970 Imperial Crown
|Model||Weight|| Price ||Production|
1970 Imperial LeBaron
Total Crown: 1,587
Total LeBaron: 10,229
Total 1970 Imperial: 11,816
1971 Imperial LeBaron
Total 1971 Imperial : 11,558
1972 Imperial LeBaron
Total 1972 Imperial: 15,794
1973 Imperial LeBaron
Total 1973 Imperial: 16,729
*Includes 13 cars converted to LeBaron limousines by Armbruster/Stageway. Six were built to 1969 specifications, six more as 1970 models, and one as a 1971. Limousines had a 163-inch wheelbase.
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