Once there was a time when the USA ruled the Luxury Car Field.
There were plenty of players during times when our country was thriving – the 1920s and after World War II. There was a common company that were a part of these good times. During the Roaring 1920s, Walter P. Chrysler set up shop by creating his own company. In the 1950s, Chrysler Corporation would venture further into the luxury car market with its own brand.
As Cadillac and Lincoln were about to leap into a new frontier, Chrysler decided it was time to take the most expensive model of its lineup and give it a brand of its own. The name was Imperial.
Chrysler’s Imperial began as a plan to compete against the luxury car field head on. In 1926, the Chrysler Imperial featured the new company's most powerful engine – an enlarged six-cylinder designed to match what Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard and Duesenberg had to offer. We should mention other luxury car brands that were entertaining the big money being thrown around during the 1920s, such as Pierce-Arrow, Marmon…that's just naming a few. What Chrysler did was to keep the Imperial at the top of his young lineup, while marketing it to the well-heeled, alongside more mid-to-upper priced models wearing the Chrysler seal badge.
Imperials were first offered in various body styles. A customer could choose from a two-seat roadster, a roadster with a rumble seat, a true four-seat coupe, a five-seat sedan, a phaeton and a limousine. The latter model was unique to the Imperial model, as it matches the in-house (rather, from a coachbuilder) limousines being sold by the Imperial’s main competition.
Even as the Great Depression began to seep into the American consciousness, Chrysler took the Imperial a step forward. It began with a new straight-eight engine. Then, Chrysler introduced an Imperial Custom that elevated the equipment level to new heights. Not only did it compete against American luxury brands, it also was getting notice from Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz customers.
Then, came the Airflow Imperials of 1934. The Airflow body design and advanced engineering were revolutionary already, although the body style was already shared with other Chrysler and De Soto models. The Imperial rode on a longer wheelbase with the eight-cylinder engine underneath its hood. While it created a different kind of buzz, Chrysler already re-introduced "mainstream" bodies for its lower models. Those conventional models were outselling the Airflow 3-to-1, which meant a huge loss in the luxury car segment for the Imperial. The Airflow Imperials ended their run in 1936, giving way to a more conventional design in 1937.
From that point, Imperials were simply longer, more luxurious and more powerful than mid-to-upper priced Chryslers. One complaint was that an Imperial could be mistaken for a lower trim level, such as the base Royal model. Even with additional badging for the Imperial, this identity crisis was seen as a weak point when comparing a Chrysler Imperial with a Cadillac, Lincoln or Packard. Still, there were plenty of telltale signs to distinguish the Imperial from lower Chrysler models – extended wheelbases, expanded standard and optional equipment, and the top engine specification for Chrysler.
This was a problem for Chrysler, as they tried to find way to distinguish the Imperial from the rest of the lineup. The Crown designation was added after World War II, along with reintroducing the Imperial Custom model. New features were added, such as disc brakes, air conditioning, the HEMI V8 and a few trim pieces that distinguished it from the Saratoga and New Yorker models.
With the introduction of the Forward Look for 1955, Chrysler used that opportunity to set apart the Imperial name as its own brand. What we saw was a more distinctive model that exuded its own style and increased the level of luxury. There were a few things that were shared, such as the front clip of the Imperial seen on the new Chrysler C-300. The big difference was Imperial's audacious new front badge incorporating the eagle symbol that would become part of the new brand’s lexicon.
The Imperial was finally elevated to the level of Cadillac and Lincoln. The new car matched luxury in terms of equipment, performance and trimmings. Customers were offered a choice of two HEMI V8s and two automatic transmissions. They also had hardtop coupe, a four-door sedan and a hardtop sedan for customers to choose. While introductory production doubled from 1954, when it was still part of the Chrysler lineup, Imperial held on to third place behind its main two American rivals.
When the Forward Look became longer, lower, wider and sleeker, Imperial began to take on more brand-specific design elements. From 1957 onward, they simply became the largest car ever built – period. It would be a distinction that would be a blessing and a curse for Imperial. At 129 inches, its wheelbase would eclipse most cars of its era. Imperials also offered massive shoulder room front and back. Imperials would also become the strongest car ever built. From 1960 through to 1966, it would remain a body-on-frame construction, while the rest of Chrysler Corporation’s car products went to unibody construction.
In the era of Camelot – the John. F. Kennedy Administration, to be exact – Imperials were seen as audaciously designed and outrageously styled. For 1961, the Lincoln Continental was reduced to a trimmer body and construction. Cadillacs began their reduction of tail fins with more subdued, but distinctive design. Imperial finally took to the times of integrated headlamps, slab bodies and "modern" design by 1964.
Still, the Imperials of the early 1960s were compelling to look at. Their size, boldness and strength were virtues that bridged the chic style of the Camelot era with a want of the finest luxury ever crafted. The deep front scallops that enabled standalone quad headlights in the 1961-63 models were something that could have worked better before 1960 than after. The 1961 model had the largest fins in the business, bucking the trend that saw de-emphasized tall fenders across the industry. The gunsight taillights of 1955 were brought back in 1962, even when it was integrated on models in-between. The massive trunks saw a continuation of the tire kit motif, something Lincoln and Continental did away with several years before. Yet, this audacious design gave the Imperial an identity that made it stood apart in the class.
The interiors were equally audacious, as they exuded a mix of massive scale and luxury appointments. Steering wheel shapes were unusual for the era, as was the instrumentation area and the push-button transmission. It is perhaps why lovers of luxury cars of this era seek Imperials for their collection. If not for the engineering, but of the design and build strength itself.
Still, these elements were modernized for 1964. The tire kit was squared off, while a conglomeration of Imperial design elements over the past few years were amalgamated into a modern form. There was no doubt this was an Imperial – still a bold, in-your-face luxury car that used its sheer mass to attract buyers to the car. Still, these bold Imperials did not attract enough luxury car buyers to its charms. Lincoln and Cadillac were at each other's heels in this department leaving Chrysler Corporation’s top car behind in the sales charts.
This lead to the first unibody Imperials arrived for 1967. The idea was to save the brand from extinction by aligning it with the full-sized bodies sold by Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler. While being built on the same architecture, Imperial maintained its own styling. Instead of being bold and brash, the 1967 Imperial was sleeker, yet keeping some of its traditional elements together design-wise. The straight-line/sharp-edge look worked for Imperial to maintain a distinction over not only mere Chryslers, but of Lincoln and Cadillac.
A few bold front end appeared for 1968. It was a return to the way Imperial used to be earlier in the decade. It was also be an end of an era – or, the beginning of the end. The unibody Imperials helped their cause, but both Cadillac and Lincoln still ruled the luxury car universe.
Then came the Fuselage era. To save costs across the board, Chrysler Corporation began to unify overall design for all four brands starting with the 1969 models. Some have accused Chrysler of making a Plymouth look like an Imperial, there were distinctions that could be attributed to each brand beyond just the front and rear clips.
There was no qualms what the Imperial would look like. Its flanks were sleeker in a modified “Coke bottle” look, yet with equally bold front and rear ends. Hidden headlamps were first used for the Imperial in 1969, along with a tailfin look in the rear. Where the Imperial began to meld with its less expensive Chrysler brethren was inside. The Fuselage instrument panel looked like the one found in the 1969 New Yorker. Perhaps there were some minute details differentiating the two, but it simply appears to lack distinction for being an Imperial.
If you look at 1969 models at General Motors and Ford, you saw major differences between the luxury brands and mid-priced models. You knew off the bat the difference between a Buick and a Cadillac. That is not to say that eventually designs will be unified even further at the other two major automakers in Detroit.
In the past, Chrysler Corporation reserved its most powerful and top engines for the Imperials. It began to devolve starting with the Fuselage generation, as even the top engines were simply found in the New Yorker and Three Hundred – let alone top Dodge Monaco and Plymouth Gran Fury models. The 7.2 liter (440 cubic inch) Wedgehead was the sole engine powering the Imperial since the 1967 model year. When compared to Cadillac’s massive 8.2 liter V8 and Lincoln’s 460 cubic inch V8, the Imperial seemed a bit slower – in relative terms, mind you. There was no doubt that the big Wedgehead was more athletic since it was used in sportier machinery mentioned before – in particular, the Three Hundred. If there was an advantage for the Imperial, it would be the Wedgehead motor. This engine was continued to be offered in every Imperial until the end.
Yet, the 1969-73 Imperials slowly became shadows of the Chrysler Three Hundred and New Yorker, even with its own front and rear design. That was how I saw them in my youth. By 1971, a badge that once read just Imperial saw an additional small piece added to it that read "by Chrysler." The Eagle remained – the only symbol that distinguished the brand from the rest of the corporate lineup.
By 1974, a new full-sized body was introduced. For the most part, the Imperial and New Yorker were much closer aligned than ever, even with a very distinctive crowned grille area influenced by Cadillac somewhat. The new front end brought back some elements of the past, even with the waterfall, grille and body colored headlight doors. The roofline offered options that included Opera Windows for the two-door models. They replaced any glass that was rearward from the B-Pillar.
Interior-wise, Imperial introduced Chrysler to the genre of crushed velour and pillowed seating. Even without the Eagle emblems, there was no other distinction between it and the New Yorker inside of the car. This was why that the eventual demise of Imperial would occur in a matter of months.
After the run of the 1975 Imperial, Chrysler decided to rename the car the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham. Like that, the legacy of the Imperial brand’s 20 year run came to an inauspicious end. It was seen as something that could not be successfully replicated, even with the multiple crush of the OPEC Oil Crisis, calls for environmentally friendly vehicles, higher build quality and safety concerns.
Those were not the only reasons why Imperial was eliminated from the Chrysler Corporation's catalog. The brand took a double squeeze against it. First, no one in America was buying anything else other than a Cadillac and Lincoln. However, the two remaining luxury brands felt a tighter squeeze as the luxury car customers were replacing their American cars with the likes of Mercedes-Benz. All of the sudden, the tables were turned away from the Big Three, as the German car maker exhibited its ability to make a better luxury car that was sized right, had better fuel economy, was built better and exuded the kind of luxury that was subtle and elegant at the same time.
The 1970s saw a slow sea change away from domestic luxury cars. It took the 1980s to seal the deal for the Germans, the British and, eventually, the Japanese. Still, Chrysler was not giving up so easily.
In 1980, Lee Iacocca's Chrysler introduced an Imperial built off of the personal luxury coupe platform underpinning the Chrysler Cordoba and Dodge Mirada. Iacocca brought in his friend Frank Sinatra to help promote the new car. However, the effort was too late for marketplace. Even with its in-fashion neo-retro feel harkening back to the 1930s – as was exhibited by Cadillac and Lincoln at the time – no one was really buying. The economy was weak in the early 1980s and the Europeans were already encroaching on the American luxury car market.
The one thing about the 1981-83 Imperial was that I actually thought it would sell. It looked great, but little did I know at the time of, not only the German encroachment of the American luxury car market, but the slow back-out of personal luxury coupes that would continue onward through the 1980s and 1990s. Granted, the Imperial was not the right vehicle for the time, but one cannot fault Chrysler for the effort.
The timing was also off for Chrysler, as it began to roll out its company-saving K-Car platform. Eventually, all vehicles made by Chrysler would go to a front-drive platform that shared its DNA with each other. The last Imperial was a top-of-the-line 1990 New Yorker on the Y-Body with padded landau roofs, plushy seats and emulating the grand traditions of the brand from the 1960s and 1970s. When it finally ended production, the idea of the Imperial was essentially dead.
That is, if you included the concept based on the 2005 Chrysler 300.
What Chrysler Corporation attempted to do with Imperial was to find a way to match and beat Cadillac and Lincoln at their game. While the competition did other things to thwart that attempt – the Continental Mark II and Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham of the late 1950s, for example – Imperial steadied onward. This in the face of outside challenges, such as the global economy and oil crises.
What if Imperial succeeded? How would it succeed? On which merits? And, would it have gone through the various changes at Chrysler, including the "merger of equals" or Sergio Marchionne's arrival in Auburn Hills? Probably not, I’m afraid. Iacocca's noble attempt to resurrect the name fell short due to the same economic realities that prompted him to seek assistance from the U.S. Government for the company to survive.
The legacy of Imperial does not resonate the same as Cadillac's and Lincoln's. In the end, it was a noble effort that should not be forgotten.
All photos by Randy Stern