How Imperial Cars Work


The 1955 Imperial Newport is considered one of Imperial's most attractive cars.

Imperial became a distinct make for 1955 and continued as such for the next 20 years. The name, of course, had been familiar since the late '20s on the most-luxurious Chryslers -- and that was a problem.

Somehow, Imperial could never shake its image as a Chrysler, and it was this, more than any other factor, that hampered sales in the prestige-conscious luxury field.

Nevertheless, some of Imperial's best years as a separate make were its first. The beautiful 1955 models, based extensively on Virgil Exner's period Parade Phaeton show cars, are still regarded as the most-desirable Imperials of all.

Elegantly trimmed inside and out, this big 130-inch-wheelbase sedan and Newport hardtop coupe wore a distinctive split grille, unique "gunsight" taillights, modestly wrapped windshield, and circular rear-wheel openings, making them among the best-looking of Chrysler Corporation's all-new '55 fleet. Chrome was abundant but tastefully applied; two-toning was limited to the roof.

Naturally, the '55s inherited the brilliant 331-cubic-inch Chrysler hemi-head V-8 used since 1951, now with 250 brake horsepower and mated to the firm's new fully automatic two-speed PowerFlite transmission. At nearly 11,500 units for the model year, volume was about double that of the 1954 Chrysler Imperial, an auspicious beginning. Still, Cadillac's '55 output was 10 times as great, Lincoln's five times as high.

Wheelbase was stretched three inches for 1956. (It would shrink back to 129 inches for '57.) The Newport was renamed Southampton and joined by a pillarless four-door. Still topped by "gunsights," rear fenders were raised into fins, but no other Chrysler product that year wore them more attractively. Frontal styling was unchanged.

Following Chrysler, the Hemi was bored to 354 cid for a gain of 30 bhp (helped by higher 9:1 compression), and the Power­Flite switched from a dashboard lever to pushbutton control, which would be featured on Chrysler automatics through 1963.

Though not in the same league as a Chrysler 300, the 1955-56 Imperials were lively performers yet surprisingly thrifty, winning luxury-class laurels in the Mobilgas Economy Runs. They were also impeccably built -- really the last Imperials that could make that claim. The one major option in these years was air conditioning, priced at $567. List prices ranged from the mid-$4000s to just over $5000.

Also available in 1955-56 were long-wheelbase Crown Imperial sedans and limousines. Built in Detroit, these took over for the long, eight-seat Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler sedans offered through '54.

Styling and engineering followed that of standard Imperials, but prices were much higher -- $7100-$7700 -- and availability was limited. Just 172 were built for '55; another 226 for '56. Reflecting the industry's general decline from record-setting '55, Imperial's 1956 volume dropped to just below 11,000 units.

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The Crown Imperial and Custom Imperial

The 1957 Crown Imperial convertible was Imperial's only convertible at the time.

Imperial was all-new for 1957, bearing second-generation "Forward Look" styling from design chief Exner, marked by huge tailfins (with vestigial gunsights in the trailing edges), airier rooflines with curved side glass (an industry first), a finely checked full-width grille, and, where law allowed, quad headlamps in lieu of conventional dual units (where law didn't allow). The last was not a first, however, as that year's Chrysler, DeSoto, Nash, Lincoln, and Cadillac Eldorado Brougham also offered "quadrilights."

Seeking higher sales, Imperial expanded from one series to three, adding more elaborately trimmed Crown and LeBaron versions of the standard pillared sedan and Southampton hardtops. The Crown also offered the line's only convertible -- the first soft-top Imperial since 1951.

Arriving in January was a pair of LeBaron models, recalling the famed prewar coachworks closely associated with Chrysler -- a pillared sedan and four-door Southampton. Both new series were priced considerably higher than the standard Imperials: $5400-$5600 for Crown, and $5743 for either LeBaron.

Standard for '57 Imperials was Chrysler's superb new three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission, plus a Hemi enlarged to 392 cid for 325 bhp with 9.25:1 compression. Also shared with other '57 Highland Park cars was torsion-bar front suspension (called "Torsion-Aire Ride"). It made for fine roadability, the best in the luxury field. With all this, Imperial showed surprising sales strength. Volume more than tripled from '56, reaching near 35,000 units. That was still far behind Cadillac's 122,000.

Though the Crown Imperial sedan vanished for '57, the limo returned at a breathtaking $15,075 -- which largely stemmed from the fact that the car was now built by Ghia in Turin, Italy. With such low sales, Chrysler could no longer justify the time and space necessary to build such cars itself, especially with projected tooling costs of some $3.3 million.

Each Ghia Crown limo began as an unfinished two-door hardtop body mounted on the more-rigid convertible chassis and shipped with all body panels intact. Ghia cut the car apart, added 20.5 inches to the wheelbase, reworked the structure above the beltline, fitted and trimmed the luxurious interior, and finished off the exterior with 150 pounds of lead filler.

Each car took a month to complete, and initial delays made the Crown Imperial a very late '57 introduction. Sales were not impressive: only 132 Ghia Crowns would be built by the time production was ended in 1965, but all were impeccably tailored. Exactly 36 were built to '57 specifications, followed by 31 of the '58s and only 7 for '59.

A predictably minor facelift was ordained for '58. The main differences were circular parking lights, standard quad headlamps (by now legal everywhere), and a simpler grille. Prices were marginally higher across an unchanged lineup, and the 392 was tweaked to 345 brake horsepower. Reflecting Exner's fondness for "Classic" styling themes was an optional round decklid hump suggesting a spare tire, a 1957 option that continued to find favor in '58.

But this proved a poor year for the industry in general and Chrysler in particular, so only about 16,000 Imperials were built for the model year. To the frustration of dealers, people still thought of these cars as "Chrysler Imperials" -- and a Chrysler, though prestigious, didn't have the charisma of a Cadillac.

In time for the 1959 model run, Imperial production left Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue plant for its own assembly plant in Dearborn. Imperial could brag that it was not only a distinct make, but had its own facilities where it could take time for handcrafting and strict quality control. The '59s received a more extensive facelift of the basic '57 styling, highlighted -- for some, anyway -- by a toothy grille and broad brushed­finish appliqués on the lower rear flanks.

Standard models finally got a name -- Custom -- but the lineup was otherwise again unchanged. As at other Highland Park divisions, Imperial switched from Hemi to wedgehead V-8s: a new 350-bhp 413-cid unit shared with '59 Chrysler New Yorkers. It provided comparable performance, but was more economical to build and maintain than the fabled Hemi. Production inched up to about 17,000. Imperial would outsell Lincoln in 1959 and '60, but would never do so again.

After 1960, Imperial was strictly an also-ran among the Big Three luxury makes. As ever, Cadillac was the overwhelming sales leader, Lincoln a distant second, Imperial an even more distant third.

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The Imperial LeBaron

The 1961 Imperial LeBaron is one of the gaudier Imperials, with oversized tailfins, "gunsight" taillights and individual bullet-shaped headlamps.

Though other Highland Park cars adopted "unibody" construction for 1960, Imperial retained a separate body and frame, mainly because it was more amenable to isolation from noise and road shock, necessary for the level of smoothness and silence luxury buyers demanded. Returning unchanged was a lone 413 wedgehead V-8, whose 10:1 compression required premium fuel.

Imperial model choices were also unchanged, but styling became cartoonish for 1960, with swollen fins, a florid grille, and an even larger windshield. Interiors were ornate, dominated by an impressively bright, complicated dash with a plethora of pushbuttons; a squarish steering wheel was merely odd. Emphasizing comfort was a new high-back driver's seat padded in thick foam rubber.

Options by now had grown to include adjustable "spot" air conditioning, six-way power seat with single rotary control, "Auto-Pilot" cruise control, and automatic headlamp dimmer. Customs were upholstered in pretty crown-pattern nylon. Upholstery for Crown was wool, leather, or nylon and vinyl. Wool broadcloth lined LeBarons. Model-year production held at the '59 level.

The new 1960 bodyshell was considerably changed for 1961 -- and not for the better. Fins were the most blatant ever to appear on an Imperial -- high and gull-like, with the trademark gunsight taillamps suspended from them. And there was a new gimmick: freestanding headlamps, individual chrome bullets on tiny pedestals pocketed in severely concave front fenders -- another of Exner's "classic" throwbacks. This strange idea would persist through 1963, but rear styling became much more tasteful.

Four-door pillared sedans were eliminated for '61, but other offerings returned along with an unchanged powerteam. Sci-fi styling; Chrysler's now-widespread reputation for indifferent workmanship; and a handsome, more-compact new Lincoln Continental conspired to dampen demand, and model-year production dropped to around 12,250 -- less than half of Lincoln's total. Unfortunately that wasn't enough to justify a separate factory, and '62 Imperial assembly rejoined Chrysler at Jefferson Avenue.

Exner left Chrysler during 1961, but not before fashioning a completely new, truncated "S-Series" Imperial as part of an entirely downsized corporate line for 1962. It didn't reach production, which was fortunate because his downsized Dodges and Plymouths did -- and met a poor reception.

Instead, the '61 Imperial was reissued but with the ugly fins planed off, leaving straight-top rear fenders capped by cigarlike gunsights. The 413 was detuned by 10 bhp, and would continue in this form through 1965. Production rose to a bit over 14,250, but was still only about 50 percent of Lincoln's. Cadillac remained far ahead of both.

Another facelift gave the '63s a new grille insert composed of elongated rectangles, plus a crisper rear roofline and restyled rear deck. The stylist responsible for much of this revision was Elwood Engel, who'd come over from Ford -- where he designed the aforementioned Continental -- to replace Exner in mid-1961. The lineup was again unchanged, and model-year production was about the same as for '62.

Clean, all-new Engel styling completely banished the old Exner silhouette for 1964 as Imperial became very much like his square-lined Continental. The beltline was edged with full-length bright moldings, a divided grille appeared (recalling 1955-56), and the freestanding headlamps gave way to integral units within the grille.

One Exner touch remained, however: the simulated trunklid spare, though it was also squarish now, carried down into the bumper as on the 1956-57 Continental Mark II. A less-contrived dash with strong horizontal format was featured inside.

Modelwise, the slow-selling Custom was eliminated along with the Southampton name for pillarless styles, leaving Crown convertible and hardtops, LeBaron hardtop sedan, and the Ghia Crown limo. Model-year sales were exceedingly good at over 23,000, a level that wouldn't be approached again until 1969.

Good sales and the big '64 redesign dictated a stand-pat 1965. The only significant changes were prominent crossed grille bars on a mesh background, glass-covered headlights, and prices bumped up $100-$200.

Displayed at that year's New York Auto Show was the exotic LeBaron D'Or, a customized hardtop coupe. The "D'Or" part referred to gold-tint exterior striping and interior embellishments, as well as special "Royal Essence Laurel Gold" paint.

Ghia stopped building Crown limousines in 1965, but 10 more were constructed in Spain using '66 grilles and rear decks. When Imperial finally went to unit construction for '67, Chrysler worked out a limousine program with Stageway Coaches of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Built through 1971 at the rate of about six per year, these cars, simply called LeBaron, were much larger, riding an unbelievable 163-inch wheelbase, by far the longest in the American industry. Prices ranged from $12,000 to $15,000, depending on equipment.

Regular Imperials again saw mostly detail changes for 1966. The grille now carried an eggcrate motif, each "crate" containing tiny elongated rectangles, and the decklid was cleaned up by deleting the fake spare tire.

A literal big change involved boring the wedge V-8 to 440 cid, which returned horsepower to 350. Model-year production went the other way, though, dropping from 1965's 18,500 -- itself a considerable decline from '64 -- to fewer than 13,750.

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Imperial Rejoins Chrysler

The 1968 Crown Imperial convertible would disappear after this model year.

The '67 Imperials were all-new. Chrysler engineers were by now sufficiently experienced with unit construction to use it for their most-expensive product, and newer technology allowed computerized stress testing of a given shape before it was ever built. Unibody construction also promised weight savings. And indeed, the '67s were about 100 pounds lighter than comparable '66s.

But the real reason for this switch was lackluster sales that had made a completely separate Imperial platform just too costly to sustain. Thus, as it had been before 1960, Imperial again shared basic architecture with Chrysler in the interest of reduced production costs.

Still, this was not readily apparent from 1967 styling. Up front was a high grille with a prominent nameplate, flanked by squarish Lincolnesque fenders containing the parking lights. The rear bumper was a broad U below a full-width taillamp panel with a large Imperial eagle medallion in a central circle. Sides were still flat, but relieved a little by full-length moldings above the rocker panels. Wheelbase contracted to 127 inches, though that was still three inches longer than Chrysler's.

A four-door pillared sedan returned without a series name at $5374, the most-affordable '67 Imperial. Other models soldiered on. Sales moved up to near 18,000, but Imperial was still far adrift of Lincoln, let alone Cadillac.

Volume dropped below 15,400 the following year and prompted a far-reaching decision: From 1969, Imperial would share most Chrysler sheetmetal as well as structure. One casualty of this move was the Crown convertible, which made its last appearance as a '68.

Style changes from '67 were slight: A new grille wrapped around the fenders to enclose parking and cornering lights; side marker lights front and rear, newly required by Washington; narrow paint stripes along the beltline; dual lower-bodyside moldings. Newly optional dual exhausts and twin-snorkel air cleaner coaxed 360 bhp from the 440 V-8, but only for this one year.

The Chrysler-like 1969-70 models were among the tidiest Imperials ever, with rounded, low-roof "fuselage styling" announced by a full-width eggcrate face with newly concealed headlamps (behind flip-up doors matched to grille texture). Ventless side glass was featured on air-conditioned coupes. Overall length stretched by five inches with no change in wheelbase, yet curb weights ran about 100 pounds less.

Model choices were pared to a hardtop coupe and sedan in Crown and LeBaron trim, plus a pillared Crown sedan priced identically to the Crown hardtop. LeBaron was no longer the $7000 semicustom it had once been, its list price being slashed by about $800 to the $5900-$6100 level. Despite fewer models, LeBaron bested the Crown in sales for the first time. The overall '69 total exceeded 22,000 units, the third-best showing in Imperial history.

However, the return to a close resemblance with Chrysler and increasing buyer preference for more-manageable cars contributed to a sales decline that would end Imperial's life as a separate make. As if to forecast the bitter days ahead, 1970-model production dropped by almost half from '69, to about 11,800 units.

Imperial retained its basic '69 design through 1973. Styling modifications were confined to easy-change items like grilles, taillamps, and minor trim, plus modest sheetmetal alterations at each end and year-to-year price/equipment shuffles. Offerings slimmed to just the pair of LeBarons after 1971.

Emissions tuning dropped the big 440 V-8 to 335 bhp for '71, then to 225 bhp -- in newly adopted SAE net measure -- and ultimately to 215 bhp. Horsepower recovered to 230 for 1974 with the adoption of catalytic converters. A laudable new '71 exclusive was a Bendix antiskid brake system, priced at $250; it was extended to the entire Chrysler line for 1972.

Not surprisingly, Imperial suffered more than its rivals from the effects of the first energy crisis. The brand-new 1974 models had crisper lines and bold upright grillework, plus a three-inch shorter wheelbase and about 100 pounds less weight. But these modest reductions had less to do with the fuel shortage -- which Chrysler hadn't dreamed of -- than the need to realize further economies of scale through even closer sharing with that year's redesigned New Yorker.

Still, these Imperials were good-looking in their way, and distinctly different from the Chryslers. But with prices rapidly moving upward -- now $7700-$7800 -- they were none too successful. At just over 14,000, model-year volume for '74 was the lowest since '71; the following year it sank to fewer than 10,000 cars.

Seeking to cut losses, Chrysler decided it was time to forget Imperial, and the last '75 Imperial left the Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit on June 12, 1975: a LeBaron hardtop sedan bearing serial number YM43-T5C-182947. But only the nameplate vanished immediately; the basic '75 package continued through model-year 1978 as the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham.

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Imperial's Brief Return

The Imperial returned in 1982 with a special Frank Sinatra edition, but even Ol' Blue-Eyes couldn't keep Imperial afloat.

By 1980, however, Chrysler thought it was time for another stab at a separate luxury line. Though facing imminent bankruptcy, and having staked their future on the sensible front-drive K-car compacts and planned derivatives, Chrysler executives led by president (and soon-to-be-chairman) Lee Iacocca felt a new flagship would assure the public that Chrysler had a future.

The result appeared for 1981 in a revived Imperial that amounted to little more than the world's most-expensive Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare. Actually, it was a reskinned version of Chrysler's second-generation 1980 Cordoba coupe, built on the same 112.7-inch-wheelbase "M-body" platform, complete with odd transverse-torsion-bar front suspension and an ordinary live rear axle on longitudinal leaf springs.

The company's veteran 318 V-8 was inevitable, but Imperial received a newly developed fuel-injected version as an exclusive, with mild 8.5:1 compression and a modest 140 bhp. It naturally teamed with the TorqueFlite automatic.

Styling was handsome. Up front was a square, Lincolnlike vertical-bar grille flanked by concealed headlamps inboard of knife-edge fenders. A distinctive "bustleback" rear end evoked razor-edge British custom coachwork from the early '50s -- and Cadillac's second-generation Seville, which had arrived the previous year with something very similar. Of course, there was no way Chrysler could have "stolen" the Cadillac's treatment, and the Imperial's bustle was arguably more attractive, but the sameness was still embarrassing.

Chrysler marketed the reborn Imperial as what it called a "one-price" car. Standard equipment was predictably lavish -- but then the base price was a steep $18,311. Still, you got clearcoat paint, choice of Mark Cross leather or rich velour upholstery, electronic digital instruments (a dubious feature), full power equipment, and various choices of tires and factory sound systems. The sole option was an electric sliding sunroof priced at a hefty $1044.

Production was assigned to Chrysler's Windsor, Ontario, plant, which took pains to ensure that quality would rank with the world's best. Among special measures taken were several post-assembly checks, plus a 5.5-mile road test and a final polish before shipment. Chrysler announced first-year production would be limited to "just" 25,000 units, also in the interest of high quality -- not to mention snob appeal.

Unfortunately, the new Imperial got lost in Highland Park's much-publicized financial crisis and an equal amount of bally­hoo surrounding the make-or-break K-cars. Promotional funds were limited. Frank Sinatra helped his friend Iacocca by singing "It's time for Imperial" in television commercials, but even Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't persuade buyers, and model-year production ended up at just 7225 cars.

The following year brought no changes save an "FS" package option -- special emblems outside, a set of tapes with Frankie's greatest hits inside -- and a base price hiked to nearly $21,000. Though the Imperial still cost thousands less than the rival Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark VI, sales remained tough, so despite heavy dealer discounts, production sank to just 2329.

The '83s were also little changed -- the Sinatra option was dropped, price lowered to $18,688 -- and fared even worse: just 1427. Having now turned the financial corner, but in no need of money-losers, Chrysler put Imperial out to pasture a second time.

Imperial came back, in a way, as the 1990-93 Chrysler Imperial. This was a luxury version of the Chrysler New Yorker sedan. The name died a third time when the LH platform sedans of '93 didn't include an Imperial.

At the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, Chrysler displayed an Imperial concept car.

The Imperial was 17 inches longer and six inches taller than the Chrysler 300 on which it was based. The four-place interior featured leather, suede, and wood veneers, while freestanding headlamps recalled Imperials of the early '60s. Despite its roller coaster career, the Imperial name still has meaning to both Chrysler and the public. With luck, Imperial will once again be Chrysler's flagship.

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