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Imperial: the top Chrysler Corporation cars

1963 Imperial Crown

The seeds of a new luxury brand were sewn in 1926 with the Chrysler Imperial 80. Guaranteed to hit 80 miles per hour, it almost immediately set the 500-mile stock-car record as Floyd Clymer took one on a 700-mile run (only 200 miles were paved) at an average speed of 51.8 mph. In 1927, Chrysler bumped the six-cylinder engine up to 92 horsepower; in 1928, it rose to 112.

1926 and 1931 imperials

Midyear changes brought about the L-80*, which included the new thin-line radiator shell, the 125 hp “red head” engine, and the scalloped upper hood panels of the 1929 models.

1934 Airflow Custom Imperial, CWFor 1929, Imperial had numerous improvements (see the “200 mpg” Pogue Imperial). A new design was launched for 1931, with long hoods and sweeping fenders hiding a new straight-eight with 125 horsepower and 384 cubic inches. The 1932 CL was the first Chrysler to get a power brake booster.

Sales of the revolutionary 1934 Airflow Imperial would be poor due to the styling, but the car set 72 stock-car speed records during a single day run at the Utah Salt Flats.

In 1937, the first post-Airflow year, the Imperial name was used for all eight-cylinder Chrysler cars; Ray Dietrich styled Imperials from 1937 through 1942. The first fluid-coupling for passenger-car transmissions launched in 1938 as standard equipment on Imperial.

The 1949 Crown Imperial included a self-energizing hydraulic disc brake. In 1951, full time power steering was added, followed in 1953 by Chrysler’s first automatic transmission and optional electric seats (on sedans).

Burton Bouwkamp wrote: After 1957, the Imperial pushbutton was changed from the standard layout of five buttons in a cluster to a vertical row. Then, in 1960, the Imperial pushbutton pattern was changed again, from D-N-R-2-1 (top to bottom) to R-N-D-2-1.

During the announcement day, a new 1960 Imperial was parked in Chrylser VP Claire Briggs’ spot in the Jefferson Plant Executive Garage. The car was facing the open garage door. Claire got into the car, pushed the top button, stepped on the gas, and ran into the wall behind the car, damaging the wall and the car. There were no witnesses but we all knew what had happened — and saw the damage to the wall — but Claire never mentioned it. (I was working at the Jefferson Plant at the time.)

Imperial sales gained a boost in 1955, when Chrysler finally separated the cars into their own marque, rather than being a top Chrysler model (they would keep this status until 1975). Sales shot up from 5,761 (1954) to 11,432 (1955).

Along with other Chrysler cars, Imperial was completely restyled for 1957, with the “Forward Look,” which replaced the “$100 million look.”  Chrysler added Auto Pilot in 1958, the world’s first cruise control to let drivers dial in a speed; its optional 11x14 tires were the largest in the world (and are still quite wide today). A Chrysler-first integrated electric door lock system was added, followed in 1959 by a rear air suspension. However, Imperial did not get unit-body when other Chrysler cars did (1960), waiting until 1967, presumably due to low sales. (For part of that time, 1960-63, Imperial was billed as “America’s most carefully built car.”) 1966 was the last year of custom-built Crown Imperial limousines as well as body-on-frame Imperials; 92% of the cars had air conditioning, a dramatic rise from the early 1960s, but just 30% had tilting steering wheels.

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In 1967, Imperial gained both unit-body chassis and optional AM/FM stereos; sales shot up, and nearly all had air conditioning and tinted glass, though most did not have cruise control or bucket seats. The unit body construction allowed Chrysler to drop around two hundred pounds from the vehicle weight while improving cornering.

Imperial CrownIn 1969, the convertible failed to re-appear, and the fuselage-style body had a much clearer resemblance to top of the line Chryslers; prices started at a whopping $6,233, though most buyers opted for the most expensive model, LeBaron four-door, at $6,772 (14,821 were made, easily dwarfing all of the other Imperials combined). Then, in 1971, Imperial became, once again, a Chrysler model rather than a standalone line. In 1972, the Imperial name was replaced by an emblem on the front; and the car got one of the first Bendix antilock brake systems.

A newly redesigned, final Imperial LeBaron was made in 1974-75, though the same car was sold in 1976-78 as the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham — with higher sales than the Imperial had managed. These Imperials had four-wheel disc brakes (matched only by Corvette), and in 1975, added an automatic-levelling rear suspension.

The Imperial name would come back as the 1981-83 Chrysler Imperial, based on the Cordoba body; from 1990-93, based on an extended K body; and as a concept in 2006.

1962 Imperial LeBaron

Imperial logos (by Dave Duricy)

1961 Imperial cars

Although bigger, faster, and more costly than standard Chryslers, the 1926 Imperial E-80 used Chrysler's standard winged helmet as a radiator mascot and the Chrysler gold seal for badging.

Imperial logo Imperial logo

chrysler-imperial pocket protectorAround 1929, the Roman fasces was adopted as the exclusive Chrysler Imperial logo. The fasces, an axe bundled within rods, was the visual representation of Roman "imperium" or power; the rods for scourging, the axe for beheading. 

When Chrysler introduced its Classic 1931 models, the logo seems to have been changed to a pair of fasces, one carried below the other, with a flowing, double banner draped across both declaring “Chrysler Imperial.”

The fasces has been a standard element in western symbolism standing for republicanism and law and order. It's found in the state seals of U. S. states, coins, the Lincoln Memorial, even the Knights of Columbus emblem.

Unfortunately, Italian fascists appropriated the fasces back in 1919, which must have become awkward for the Chrysler Imperial as the Thirties progressed. As far as I can tell, 1933 was the last time Imperial displayed the fasces.

In the mid-1950s, the Imperial logo was a simple gold crown (see below).

Probably the most famous Imperial logo was the eagle designed by John Samsen. It first appeared on the 1962 hood ornament, reappearing in 1964 not only on the hood but in the middle of the rear bumper as well, and staying until 1975. This version reappeared on the 1978-1981 M-body LeBaron, and on the 1989-1993 Chrysler Imperial.

Imperial logo

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