The cars we loved.
Poor Chrysler, always on life support it seems. When its flying high we get Vipers, Caravans and the 300M. When
low, we get the Aspen and Shadow/Sundance twins. This cycle seems to be as old as the company itself. The scenario would play itself out like a scripted drama with a product that comes along and saves the company like a hero in a
direct to DVD movie. Although not in trouble, Chrysler’s popular Imperial brand began to lose some of its star power as the 60’s began. Cadillac and Lincoln were launching exciting luxury cars for the 60’s that were capturing the
The resulting rabbit out of the hat was a redesigned Imperial in 1964. It did not save Chrysler (or need to), but it did
renew interest in Chrysler’s flagship luxury car-brand. I say car-brand because depending on what year during Imperials short history, it was either a Chrysler car or a brand with a line of cars based on one chassis. Either way,
it easy to get Imperials history mixed up. In 1966 the Imperial was a brand at its finest offering a sedan, coupe
and convertible. The convertible represented the height of Chrysler’s formidable technical and design prowsers and today might be the most desirable amongst collectors.
A huge hit in the 50’s with Virgil Exner’s ‘forward’ design, the Imperial had gone from single model to its own brand and accounted for as much as 24% of Chrysler’s sales at one point. After moving production to its own factory the Imperial had become an independent car with almost no parts shared with lesser Chryslers. As sales decreased Chrysler was forced to move Imperial production to one of its shared facilities. Now the Imperial would use shared body panels with other Chrysler cars. despite sharing body panels, the mechanics were still a breed apart from the average Chrysler.
The 16 Valve OHC V8 was an advanced engine producing 350 hp through a 3 speed automatic all linked to the rear wheels. The Imperial featured a four-wheel disc brake system that few cars at any price could match (Imperial was the first to have such on any car in 1955). The 64 model redesign was penned by Elwood Engle, fresh from his design stint at Ford with the Lincoln Continental. The new Imperial had a similar style to the Continental, but with more expressive chrome emblishments. Changes were subtle and stayed true to Engle’s original vision for the design: low, wide luxury with a hint of space age influence.
Inside Chrysler boasted of attention to detail by pointing out that each Imperial’s wood trim used wood from 100 year trees. At over 5k pounds the Imperial was a lot of car. It rivaled anything GM or Ford offered and could be considered America’s flagship luxury brand based on its many technical innovations alone.
Some of the Imperial’s technology had become commonplace (at least in the pre-digital world), like soft touch pre programmed radio controls and rotating front seats, while others have found their way to modern cars like auto headlight dimmer. Other options like a novel spring powered reverb rear speaker system may have been the forerunner to todays obnoxious booming bass speaker boxed sound systems. Perhaps the coolest and most ergonomically friendly innovation was the easy to use cruise control system called ‘Autopilot’ that used a dial to set speed. The imperial was so loaded that ad stating “More Standard features than a Rolls-Royce”. At $8,000 the 66 Imperial convertible was more than a Cadillac, but far less than a Rolls.
Auto enthusiast are holding their breath in the wake of Fiat’s control of Chrysler. The innovation the company has been known to surface from time to time. Most recently cars like the 300 have renewed interest in Chrysler. The company is banking on a string of redesigned cars arriving in 2011 and beyond to revive its fortunes. It might be too early to anticipate a new Imperial in the mix, but given Chryslers scrappy creativity it may well be able to pull a rabbit out of its hat once again.