Saturday, November 14, 2015

Imperial Independence - 1955-1963 Chrysler Imperial

The Imperial benefited from some of its most prolific designs during its tenure as a separate division of the Chrysler Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s. Shortly after the momentum generated by the provocative styling culminated in record sales for 1957, the division would learn that industry acclaim and customer enthusiasm can be fleeting. But first, here's a little history.
Following the disappointing sales of the aerodynamically styled 1934 Airflow, the Chrysler Corporation shifted toward more conservative designs. While Walter P. Chrysler became chairman, he turned the presidency over to K.T. Keller in 1935, who emphasized sound engineering and practicality over style. Keller later said there should be enough headroom to enable men and women to wear their hats while riding in cars. And he felt that the interior should provide the roominess that the vehicle's outer girth implied, hence the move toward bigger inside/smaller outside designs.
Employing that philosophy for 1949 meant Chrysler's first major redesign of the postwar era would result in models with visually higher rooflines and somewhat more compact outer dimensions than much of the competition, when the buying public was instead eagerly awaiting more modern, lower, longer and sleeker styling.
Sales would flourish through 1951 and again in 1953, thanks to some design updates, but the styling disparity when compared with the more contemporary shapes of Chevrolet and Ford would finally catch up with Chrysler by 1954.
Cleverly, Keller had hired Virgil Exner in 1949 to head up an advanced styling department. Exner's already impressive résumé, included stints working under legendary design chief Harley Earl at GM and led Pontiac design in the mid-1930s. Of late, he had worked under influential designer Raymond Loewy for Studebaker.
With Italian creations one of his principal inspirations, Exner's department designed concept cars, most built in Italy by Ghia, to develop future themes for Chrysler production cars. However, these ideas would remain pure fantasy if they weren't soon implemented to help invigorate what some, including Lester Lum "Tex" Colbert--Chrysler president through the 1950s--thought were stodgy-styled current offerings.
Colbert had taken the reins at Chrysler in 1950 from Keller who became chairman, and Exner's role on the production-car side began expanding. He was involved with the 1953 model year's updates, and by calendar year 1953, he was promoted to Chrysler's styling director and tasked with the redesign of the 1955 models on a tight 1.5-year deadline.
Entering the 1955 model year, Chrysler's sales outlook was dismal. With reports of 1954 numbers tumbling about 37 percent from the previous year giving its executives palpitations, the automaker was in need of resuscitation, and Exner and his staff aimed to breathe life back into it via the "Forward Look."
Not surprisingly, the Imperial, around since 1926, was also suffering an identity crisis in trying to distinguish itself from the rest of its Chrysler brethren. Design distinction would be imperative to taking on sales juggernaut Cadillac and closer-to-reality competitors Lincoln and Packard in the fine-car field. In an effort to gain ground, the 1955 models would be the first produced under the new Imperial Division of the Chrysler Corporation.
The Forward Look broke sales records for the Chrysler Corporation in 1955, yet the 1956 models, arguably, looked even better, but sold less. By the time Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Imperial no longer shared any body panels with other Chryslers, and the Forward Look's popularity was reaching its zenith in 1957. Some would argue that the design philosophy was best exemplified in that year's new Imperial, which enjoyed record sales in the mid-30,000s.
Jubilation at the Imperial Division would be short-lived, however. Build quality issues incited by the aggressive 1957 redesign program, the second since 1955, and an economic recession slashed 1958 Imperial sales to just over 16,000.
Strides toward restoring high assembly standards were made over the next few years. Then for the 1959 model year, Imperial production moved from the Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit, which it shared with other divisions' cars, to its own modernized plant on Warren Avenue in Dearborn. It was run by an Imperial-specific staff, employing specialized equipment and skills, and myriad quality controls and testing procedures.
Sales crept back up to about 17,000 cars annually by 1960, but hovered between just 12,000 and 14,000 from 1961 to 1963--never again rebounding to the 1957 level.
In 1961, new management decided to move the Imperial back to Jefferson Avenue for 1962 model production. In an informative film aimed at salesmen of the Imperial, the plant's manager cited the advantages of the move as being larger-volume production and the rust-prevention benefits via the seven-stage dip-and-spray process used on other Chrysler models. He also assured that the sophisticated equipment had been transferred from the Imperial plant and that special classroom and hands-on training was being provided to the workers to teach them how Imperials were to be built, inspected and tested.
After redirecting Chrysler's design philosophy, establishing its styling group and ascending to the position of vice president of styling, Exner was replaced by Elwood Engel in 1961, who had dramatically redesigned that model year's Lincoln and Thunderbird. Engel would make additional styling changes on the 1963 Imperial, yet it maintained the last vestiges of the Exner era. Engel would then initiate his own with the 1964 Imperials.
Part I of this article will cover the Exner designs, and Part II, in next month's issue of HCC, will examine Engel's. Though six-passenger four-door sedans and hardtops and eight-passenger four-door sedans and limousines were built during this era (Crown Imperial limos were manufactured by Ghia from 1957 forward), this article will focus on the two-door hardtops and convertibles.
1955 Imperial
For the 1955 model year, two series were offered: the Custom Imperial, featuring a six-passenger two-door Newport hardtop coupe and four-door sedan on a 130-inch wheelbase, and the Crown Imperial, with a four-door, eight-passenger sedan and limousine on a 149.5-inch wheelbase.
Despite being divorced from the Chrysler line and dropping its body nameplate, the DNA remained evident in the Imperial's styling elements. Where the car mainly differed was in the four-inch extension of its wheelbase and the trim and taillamp design.
Drawing some inspiration from the early 1950s parade phaetons, the body shell had taut, simple, yet graceful lines. A new V-shaped split for the grilles featured the Imperial eagle emblem and added an assertive look to the nose, while liberal use of chrome on the grille and prominent front bumper, and the brightly trimmed headlamp and parking lamp bezels exhibited the mid-century definition of luxury.
A Super-Scenic windshield, sloped roof, wraparound rear window and fully open wheel wells, instilled sporty flair. To create an unbroken line from front to rear, they were outlined in bright trim, as were the rocker panels and the lower-rear quarter panels. Bright lance-like side trim accented the kickup of the rear quarter panel over the rear wheel well.
The rear bumper was partially recessed into the quarter panels and housed chrome-clad exhaust outlets. Also used on Exner's 1950 K-310 concept car, the gunsight taillamps (visible even from the driver's seat) were perched atop the quarter panels to instill a unique styling treatment on the Imperial line. The Newport's overall length was 223 inches, and its width was 79.1 inches.
Under the hood, the 250-hp, FirePower V-8 Hemi engine featured a 3.81/3.63-inch bore/stroke, hemispherical combustion chambers with a "laterally inclined valve arrangement," dual rocker shafts, a four-barrel carburetor, dual exhausts and 8.5:1 compression. It was backed by the standard two-speed PowerFlite automatic transmission, and the Hotchkiss rear axle was fitted with 3.54 gears.
The Imperial's front track was 61 inches, and the rear's was 60.4 inches. Its boxed-section perimeter frame was fitted with independent front suspension featuring upper and lower control arms, coil springs and "Oriflow" shocks. Multi-leaf springs and Oriflow shocks were used in the rear.
Taken for granted today, power brakes and steering were luxury items in 1955, and both were standard on the Imperial. Just 3.75 turns lock-to-lock were required for the "Full-time Coaxial" power steering. Four-ply 8.20 x 15-inch tires were mounted on 15-inch steel wheels, with vented wheel covers to help cool the Newport's standard 12-inch drum brakes.
Topped by a dash pad, the instrument panel was logically arranged. Two round pods located pertinent instruments directly in front of the driver--speedometer on the left and a grouping of ammeter, fuel, oil pressure and coolant temperature gauges on the right. Between the pods were indicators for the high beams and directional signals. Beneath the speedometer were the heater controls and to their left, the parking brake and warning light. Under the right pod was the ignition, flanked by the ash receiver. To the right of the instruments was the shifter lever.
In the center of the instrument panel were five knobs to operate headlamps, wiper, panel lamps, lighter and the map and dome lamps. Beneath them was the radio, and under that, the cowl ventilator control. On the passenger side was the glovebox, above which an optional clock could be installed, and at the far right was the radio speaker grille. Newport upholstery could be had in V-pattern nylon with leather bolsters or in all leather.
Notable options included two-tone paint, Music Master radio, Electro-Touch tuner radio with foot control, power windows and chrome Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels. A/C was available and cost $535. Also optional was another clock mounted in the hub of the steering wheel.
The two-door Newport hardtop's base price was $4,720 (equal to $41,890 today), and production reached 3,418. Total Imperial production for the model year was just over 11,000 units.
1956 Imperial
Big news for 1956 was the latest iteration of the Forward Look--Flight-Sweep design. Chrysler's marketing materials summed it up thusly, "For in one clean front-to-back stroke, the Flight-Sweep wraps up the whole idea of go. From jutting headlight to crisply upswept tailfin, it displays a single clean line that says action! It creates an almost wedge-shaped silhouette--like a jet plane--conveying flashing power and motion."
Shrewdly, the stylists left the striking nose, doors and roofline alone for 1956, and made only subtle refinements to the headlamp bezels. However, the rear quarter panels grew pronounced fins, the trim was revised and the wheel wells were squared off at their tops.
The "Imperial" lettering was moved from the front fender, revised in design and placed near the leading edge of the fin, just behind the door. New pull-type door handles and safety door latches were used.
The rear bumper was reshaped to match the new quarter panels, which also housed revised backup lamps, although the exhaust no longer exited through the bumper. Overall length increased to 229.6 inches and width to 78.8 inches. Hardtop models were now named Southampton.
Boasting a V-8, thanks to an increase in bore size to 3.94 inches and compression ratio to 9.0:1, the Hemi produced 280hp. Pushbutton transmission controls were mounted to the left of the steering wheel on the instrument panel, replacing the shift lever of 1955. The PowerFlite was superseded by the new three-speed TorqueFlite around February of 1956, and the rear axle gear ratio was 3.36:1.
Wheelbase was increased to 133 inches, and a New "Center Plane" braking system employed two wheel cylinders for each drum up front. Rear control struts were added to reduce lean in the turns and axle hop on rough roads, when using lower spring rates for comfort.
The interior was largely a carryover except for upholstery patterns, and a 12-volt electrical system replaced the six-volt system of 1955. Interesting options included: an all-transistor radio; and Highway Hi-Fi phonograph, developed in partnership with CBS Columbia that played special 7-inch records at 16 2/3 RPM.
With a base price of $5,094 for 1956, 2,094 two-door hardtop Imperials were built, and overall Imperial production, including the Crown series, was over 10,600.
1957 Imperial
A two-door Southampton remained in the Imperial series, but it was also added to the higher-line Imperial Crown series, which also gained a convertible--the first offered to the general public since 1951. The upscale LeBaron series debuted, but a two-door wasn't offered.
The Forward Look shifted into high gear for 1957, and the Imperial, completely redesigned, was over 3 1/2 inches lower than the 1956 models. Its front-end featured a horizontal motif with "airfoil-like" browed headlamps, a finer-rectangular boxed grille with three horizontal trim bars and five thin vertical divider bars, and a two-tiered bumper, sans guards, that also housed the turn signal/parking lamps. Since quad headlamps still weren't legal in a few states, one per side was standard. Two per side was optional on the Imperial and were a no-cost option on the Crown.
Visibility was improved via a "double wraparound" windshield with 54 percent more glass area, and a larger backlight. The roofline was more formal, with an overlapping rear section that came to a point on top and also created a landau effect. Curved side glass was used for the first time in a mass-produced American car, and the quarter window shape was more angular. Body side sculpting was revised, a new lower-body character line and trim were added, and the wheel-well openings were swept back.
Larger outward-canted fins housed redesigned gunsight taillamps, and the much flatter deck lid was employed (an "assimilated" spare tire cover was offered as an option) to accentuate the fins, and the fuel filler was just to the left of it. The new rear bumper had the backup lamps set into it. Overall length shrank to 224 inches, about 5 1/2 inches shorter than 1956, and width was 81.2 inches--2.4 inches wider.
New exterior door handles were recessed and the mirrors, "Imperial" script, and eagle were redesigned. Crown models had a crown emblem over the second "i" in Imperial and on the leading edge of the front fenders.
The venerable FirePower V-8 Hemi engine grew to 392 cubic inches, thanks to a bore and stroke increase to 4.00 and 3.90 inches, respectively. Compression was bumped to 9.25:1, and horsepower jumped to 325. The TorqueFlite three-speed automatic transmission remained standard, and the rear axle ratio was numerically reduced to 3.18, with an even higher 2.92 ratio available.
A perimeter-style frame with boxed sections was retained, but was redesigned for a shorter 129-inch wheelbase and Torsion-Aire ride. The latter was advertised to reduce squat on launching, dive on braking and sway in the turns. Control arms, torsion bars, ball joints and an anti-roll bar were employed up front, and tapered-leaf outboard springs and axle struts were used in the rear, with shocks all around. New 9.50 x 14-inch Rayon Super-Soft-Cushion tires were used, and the front track was 61.9 inches, and the rear was 62.4.
The all-new interior featured a shorter instrument panel with a "safety cushion" on the top and bottom. A hooded unit in front of the driver contained two round pods for gauges, a clock between them and all controls for headlamps and accessories under them. Transmission pushbuttons were mounted on the leading edge of the left side of the cluster hood, and a rocker switch for the directional signals was under it. The heater and A/C controls were on the right edge of the hood.
This driver-oriented design meant that the passenger could only easily reach the centrally located radio or the glove box in front of him. Seats and side-panel patterns and colors were new, and different combinations of vinyl and cloth upholstery were used in the base model with leather/cloth or full-leather groupings available in the Crown models.
Power windows and a new six-way power seat were optional on the Imperial and standard on the Crown models. The optional A/C system was now integrated with the heating system, and a rear window defroster was offered.
Given all it had going for it, Motor Trend awarded the entire Chrysler Corporation "Car of the Year." Total Imperial two-door sales, when including the new convertible, increased about 489 percent for 1957! The Imperial two-door hardtop cost $4,736, and 4,885 were produced; the Crown hardtop was $5,269, with 4,199 built; and the Crown convertible cost $5,598, with 1,167 sold. Total Imperial production for the model year was either approximately 35,700 or 37,500, depending upon the source.
1958 Imperial
The cliche "nothing lasts forever" best describes Imperial's 1957 success, as in 1958, sales dropped to just over 16,000 units. Only 1,801 (or 1,901) Imperial two-door Southamptons were sold at a list price of $4,945; 1,939 Crown two-door Southamptons sold for $5,388 each, and the Crown convertible, of which 675 were built, went for $5,759.
Given the extensive redesign of 1957, the 1958 models were essentially carried-over, except for some details. The grille was simplified with multiple sets of elongated rectangles, the bumper grew larger and heavier in appearance, and the turn signal/parking lamps were now round and set into their own chromed bullet-shaped housings. Quad headlamps became standard. The rear received revisions to the optional simulated spare tire cover and its emblem. Overall length grew nearly two inches to 225.9.
The compression ratio increased to 10:1 for the Hemi V-8, and the horsepower rating was increased to 345. The TorqueFlite transmission remained standard, the rear axle ratio was 2.93 and a Sure-Grip (limited-slip) differential was offered as an option.
Interior design was largely carried over, except for upholstery patterns and colors; the turn signal switch was redesigned. Auto Pilot (cruise control), electric power locks, deluxe dual air conditioning, remote rearview mirror and a chromed hood ornament were new options.
1959 Imperial
For 1959, there was the Imperial Custom series, Crown series and the LeBaron series. Despite the fact that we have a factory photo of a two-door with LeBaron trim, none were sold to the public. Quad headlamps were lowered relative to the fenders, and a thick chrome toothy grille was mounted on the same plane between the two sets. "Imperial" block lettering replaced the eagle emblem and hood ornament and also adorned the front fenders. The side sweep trim was widened after the rear wheel wells to provide the appearance that the trim was integrated into the rear bumper. The latter was revised with a large single oval area instead of two smaller ovals, and the optional deck lid simulated spare tire cover was updated. Length increased slightly to 226.3 inches.
A new Silvercrest Landau roof treatment placed a stainless steel panel on the forward section of the roof and a black "textured Scotch grain finish" canopy behind it. The Silvercrest roof featured the stainless steel panel with a body-colored canopy, while the Landau roof offered a body-colored front section with a black, textured canopy.
The new V-8 featured conventional wedge-shaped combustion chambers and inline valves, was 101 pounds lighter, and cost less than the Hemi to build. It had a 4.188/3.75-inch bore/stroke, a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, and was rated at 350hp. The tried-and-true TorqueFlite remained standard, and the rear axle ratio remained the 2.93. A new frame was stronger, thicker and provided for a lower floor, and an updated ball-joint suspension design was used.
Along with yearly changes in seat and side-panel patterns and colors, this year's instrument panel received a new aluminum facing, a horizontal speedometer at the top, gauges and clock on the next level, control knobs and ignition switch under that and switchgear at the bottom. Newly styled pushbutton heater and A/C controls were also added.
The Imperial Crown's standard features included a folding center armrest in front, tilt-type inside rearview mirror, outside left mirror, vanity mirror and power windows and seat.
Notable options were: swivel seats that swung out to meet you, an Automatic Beam Changer that turned off the high beams when oncoming headlamps were sensed, and air-assisted rear suspension that augmented the leaf springs ensuring a level ride, even when fully loaded. The Mirrormatic Rearview mirror automatically tipped the mirror when shining headlamps were sensed to reduce glare.
The Custom series two-door hardtop cost $4,910, and 1,743 were built. The Crown hardtop was $5,403, and 1,728 were sold; the convertible was $5,774, with just 555 built. Total Imperial sales topped 17,000.
1960 Imperial
Featuring updated styling for 1960, the nose was the most aggressive yet. A dramatic V-shaped fine-rectangular-mesh grille used a recontoured bumper to accentuate its shape, and heavily browed headlamps were pushed up high into the new fenders. A stylized eagle emblem reappeared on the hood, and "Imperial" script was added to the grille. Though the roofline was similar to 1959, its treatment was different, with the canopy area drawn forward to the windshield trim.
Imperial script was used on the fenders, the flanks were reshaped and the fins grew even higher and now featured an abrupt upturn where they initiated on the rear quarters. Restraint came in the form of a thin single sweep trim piece on the sides, and the taillamps and rear bumper were new. The fuel filler was now in the tail panel beneath the deck lid.
The optional stainless steel roof section was dropped for two-door hardtops, and a new double-layer "Triple-Life" plating process promised longer life for chrome trim.
Carried over from the previous year were the 350-hp, V-8 and TorqueFlite transmission. Wheel size increased to 15 inches, and the tire size went up to 8.20 x 15.
The driver seatback featured a new "high tower" design, for more back and shoulder support. A completely new dash, with two very large, heavily hooded, round pods housed the speedometer in the left and gauges and clock in the right, all of which were lit by the glow of "Electroluminescence" to eliminate glare, thanks to Imperial's "Panelescent" lighting. Controls were below the gauges, and the transmission and heater pushbuttons remained in the same positions, but the turn signal indicator was moved to the left. The steering wheel shape became "elliptical" (a rounded square in this case), and the rearview mirror was moved from the dash top to the windshield header.
Power vent windows became optional, and the swivel seats were revised to swing out 40-degrees automatically.
The Custom two-door Southampton's price was $4,923, and production totaled 1,498. The Crown two-door Southampton was $5,403, and 1,504 were produced; the Crown convertible commanded $5,774, with just 618 built. Total Imperial production was just over 17,700.
1961 Imperial
For the 1961 model year, the front exterior was completely redesigned, yet again. Its grille became rectangular and featured chrome horizontal ribs. Harking back to 1930s design, the headlamps each had their own chrome pods mounted on stanchions. They were set into pockets created by the protruding grille, chrome-trimmed upper fender brow with inset turn signal/parking lamps and the bumper. The latter was simplified into a thin blade shape with small wings on either end.
The new hood did not extend to the grille as it had before, and the seams between the new header panel and fenders were filled and smoothed. "Imperial" lettering was in the upper grille trim, and a small eagle emblem was set into the grille. The side trim was widened, and the rear fins were reshaped with revised gunsight taillamps set into their recesses.
Additional bright trim on the rocker panels and above the rear bumper augmented that adorning the wheel-wells. The new body was an inch longer, at 227.3 inches and slightly wider at 81.7 inches, but was still as low as the previous few years at 56.7 inches when loaded. The chassis and drivetrain were mostly carried over from 1960, and instead of a generator, a more efficient alternator was now standard.
A new instrument panel featured a rectangular gauge cluster in front of the driver with a horizontal speedometer, accessory gauges beneath it, the clock in the center and controls and switches down lower. Transmission and heater-A/C pushbuttons were set into outwardly canted vertical ovals on either side, with turn signal indicators at the top of each one. After years of road tester complaints regarding the dash-mounted turn-signal switch, it was finally moved to a column-mounted lever. And the swivel seats were no longer automatic, and once again required pulling a lever to swing them out and back in.
The Imperial Custom two-door Southampton's price was $4,925, and production totaled 889. The Imperial Crown two-door Southampton was $5,405, and 1,007 were produced; the Crown convertible was $5,776, and 429 were built. Total Imperial production was approximately 12,250.
1962 Imperial
For 1962, the big news was that the tailfin era had ended for the Imperial--their height having shrunk to a subtle suggestion. However, there was a nostalgic styling cue that did return--the familiar though updated gunsight taillamps were once again mounted atop the rear quarters--a placement not seen since 1956. The rear trim was also revised, with brightwork running from the tops of the quarters and down across the tail panel, and "Imperial" lettering was used above the bumper.
The near-full-length side trim was also deemphasized by making it thinner. Up front, a V split the grilles, and there was a new eagle hood ornament.
Though the character lines remained, bright moldings were no longer used to create a canopy look for the roof. The Crown series was identified by a small Crown emblem on the rear quarter panels.
Rated engine output for the V-8 dropped to 340hp, as a single exhaust system replaced the dual system except on the convertible, and the TorqueFlite was treated to durability upgrades, and an aluminum case with more compact outer dimensions helped it shed 60 pounds. The new high torque gear-reduction starter required less current and was lighter.
Swivel seats were discontinued. Imperial Custom two-door Southampton price was $4,920, and production totaled 826. The Imperial Crown two-door Southampton was $5,400, and 1,010 were produced; the Crown convertible commanded $5,770, and 554 were built. Total Imperial production was 14,337.
1963 Imperial
The famous "5 years/50,000-mile powertrain warranty" was offered. In the typical era-specific practice of ensuring that the same grille design is almost never repeated two years in a row, the grille lost its V-split and was instead divided by an eagle emblem. Its pattern was also changed for 1963 to elongated rectangles that were somewhat similar to that of 1958.
The side sweep trim was once again slightly widened at the rear, but now wrapped all the way around the tailpanel, and the taillamps were redesigned and set into the rear quarter-panels. Lessening its V-look, the rear bumper was revised, and the backup lamps were mounted out near the ends in round chrome housings. The new, more formal roofline with its differently shaped backlight added a distinctive appearance and another inch of headroom in the rear. Overall body length was 227.8 inches.
The drivetrain and suspension was carried over from 1962, but a new parking lever, when applied, shifted the transmission into neutral and locked the driveshaft. Brake drum size was changed to 11 x 3-inches, and flared drums were employed.
Power windows and remote-controlled outside rearview mirror were standard on the Custom Series. Along with upholstery pattern updates, new seats were used in all models, and storage compartments returned to the front door armrests. The automaker boasted that 245 pounds of insulating materials were used in the Imperial.

The Custom two-door hardtop's price was $5,058, and production totaled 749. The Crown hardtop was $5,412, and 1,067 were produced; the Crown convertible cost $5,782, and 531 were built. Total Imperial production was just over 14,100.

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