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1969-1973 Imperial

1973 Imperial

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.

1973 Imperial interior
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.

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