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1969-1973 Imperial

1969 Imperial

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."

1969 Imperial
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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