1937 - 1939 Chrysler Imperial Cars: Moderate Luxury
The 1937-1938 Chrysler Imperial was based on the Chrysler Royal, but had a special engine and a longer wheelbase; body panels were stretched to fit the longer car. The look could be a little odd, with the hood long enough for a straight-eight, barely any trunk on some models, and a tiny cabin on others.
The Imperial was still just a Chrysler model, not a separate brand. It would not become an official brand until World War II was over. The first Chrysler Imperial, a 1926 model, had a top speed of around 80 mph and broke the record for the Denver to Kansas City endurance run (13 hours, 56 minutes), setting an average speed of 51.8 mph over 500 miles (also a record) though only 200 miles of the 702 mile run was paved. The 1927 Imperial was the first Chrysler car to use aluminum-alloy pistons, electrically pre-heated the fuel mixture, and warned drivers when the battery needed water.
Custom coaches were available on these high-end cars, all of which had chrome chevrons on the fenders and model names in script on the hubcaps and above the grille. Chrysler’s slogan was “You get the good things first from Chrysler” and in many cases it was true, as the company was well ahead in innovation at this time.
For 1937, the Chrysler Royal had a shorter chassis with new styling; defroster vents connected to the heater; insulated body mounts for a smoother ride; and padding on the back of the front seats for rear passenger crash safety.
British buyers could also get a Kew, Wimbledon, and Richmond — the first two were rebadged Plymouths, the latter a rebadged DeSoto.
The Imperial Custom came on a stretched wheelbase of 140 inches in two body types — the 7-passenger sedan and the sedan limousine (which had a crank-operated glass partition to separate the driver). Some were sold as chassis to various coachworks for more customized bodies. For 1938, the Custom Imperial was stretched further, to a 144 inch wheelbase; and while the standard Imperials had a painted, highly polished wood-grain finish to the dashboard, those of the Custom were painted to harmonize with the upholstery. (Imperial Custom vs Custom Imperial was to be reflected years later with Imperial Crown vs Crown Imperial.)
The main changes in 1938 were a side-opening hood, a horn ring on the steering wheel (replacing the dash-mounted button), moving the emergency brake, rubber-insulated steering gear — a first for any automaker — and front and rear sway bars, the only Chrysler model to have both.
Technologies used in the Imperial line included vacuum spark control, full-length water jackets to avoid overheating, valve seat inserts for durability, efficient hypoid rear axle gearing, full pressure lubrication, engine thermostat, and an air cleaner. Buyers could also opt for the automatic overdrive system, which slipped into overdrive when the driver lifted their foot off the gas pedal for a moment at around 35 mph.
Chrysler New York Specials, based on the Imperial, appeared in 1938 (eventually morphing into the New Yorker). The New York Specials were, in 1938, the only eight-cylinder Chryslers other than the Imperial.
In 1937, sales were brisk considering the cost of the high-end cars, with nearly 12,000 five-passenger Imperials, over a thousand two-door business coupes, and all the other varieties adding to the total. For 1938, sales dropped quite a bit. The most popular Imperial was again the five-passenger, four-door touring sedan, with nearly 9,000 cars sold. The next most popular Imperial was the two-door business coupe with fewer than 800 sales; from that point, variants sold fewer than 250 copies each. Only eleven Custom Imperials are believed to have been made.
The 1939 Custom Imperial was the first car to use a fluid coupling in United States, when Fluid Drive was made standard; all 1939 Imperials got a standard column-mounted gearshift lever. Chrysler was, oddly, late to follow up Fluid Drive with a true automatic. These were the primary changes for 1939. For 1940, buyers would see a new Imperial lineup (all called Crown Imperial) with just three body styles, six and eight passenger sedan and a sedan limousine. The 1941s gained power windows, standard, and the briefly-produced (due to World War II) 1942s saw new front fender line styling and running boards hidden by the doors; just 448 Imperial cars were made in the 1942 model year. Production restarted in 1948, with a nearly identical look and no six-passenger sedan.
1937, 1938, and 1939 Imperial engines and transmissions
The “Gold Seal” name was used for the high-compression 93-horsepower L-head sixes in the Royal as well as the eight-cylinder engines in the Imperial and the final Chrysler Airflow. A major reason for the stretched wheelbase in the Imperial was making room for those straight-eight engines.
The Imperial and Airflow L-head eight cylinder engine displaced a modest 299 cubic inches, and had a standard 6.2:1 compression ratio; Imperial buyers could opt for special heads with a 7.4:1 compression ratio that raised horsepower from 110 at 3,400 rpm to 122 hp at 3,400 rpm. Torque was rated at 214 lb-ft at just 1,600 rpm (238 lb-ft for the high-compression version).
The New York Special and Series C-20 Imperial engines had a slightly more powerful (115 hp/225 lb-ft), slightly higher compression (6.5:1) base engine. The overall gear ratio was 4.1:1 for the 110 hp engine, 3.91:1 for the high-compression engine, and 4.55:1 for the 115 hp engine.
All cars had a manual transmission, using three speeds plus the automatic overdrive.
Jim Benjaminson wrote that 1937 was a banner year for most of the industry. It was not as good as the record year of 1929, but following the terrible years of the Great Depression, it would be the highest production year until 1950. However, there was a fairly severe recession in 1938; sales for the industry dropped to 285,704 units (counting commercial vehicles), nearly half the 1937 figure, and Chrysler workers had a choice between pay cuts and layoffs. They chose pay cuts.
Walter P. Chrysler himself owned one of these cars, with a custom body, designed for a chauffeur. It is currently being restored.
The following material — text and illustrations — is from an official 1938 Imperial film-strip for Chrysler dealers, made and distributed by long-time contractor Ross Roy. It has been edited to get us away from the cute and archaic storyline.
Styling and bodywork
The die cast bumper had a more brilliant appearance; it was made in two removable sections separated by a center chrome bar, with a large chevron of chrome strips on the curved apron below the grill. The headlamps were mounted in the fender for modern styling and rigidity; they had a chrome strip across the top, too, and the fenders were bigger and had higher crowns, each decorated with a chrome chevron. Bumper had two color strips in each bumper guard, and a Chrysler emblem in the center. Steel wheels had big chrome hub cabs, with depressed flaps for flip-on type tire changes.
The hood had a new type of latch which pops up the top of the hood when water or oil need to be checked. When access to more of the engine is desired the side panels could be removed.
The windshield wipers were distinctive, with a chrome finish and bottom mounting (many cars, including the Plymouths, had wipers mounted from above). They now operated in unison and brushed snow or rain down and out of the way instead of up. The big clear vision windshield had no divider strip in the center.
The smooth solid steel top was now one large piece of metal (an improvement begun on the prior year’s Plymouth), stamped out on a gigantic press and welded to the safety steel body (photos are of a Plymouth which used the same process).
The Imperial was Chrysler’s largest standard car, with a 125” wheel base and 206” overall length (five inches longer in wheelbase than a 2007 300C, and nine inches longer).
1938 Imperial interior features
The wide rear doors revealed large, comfortable chair-height sofa-seats, designed for support; ash receivers were at the end of arm-rests, and reading laps were used over the rear window in place of dome lamps (to avoid people hitting the dome lamps).
The carpets had a heavy nap; and there was no transmission “hump” due to the (moderately) new hypoid rear axle. The year before, the interior had been redesigned for safety, so door handles were curved inward to avoid catching clothing; the instrument panel used recessed switches; and thick padding was rolled over the top of the front seat to protect rear seat passengers in a sudden stop. A new horn ring on the steering wheel made it easier to reach the horn, without taking hands from the wheel; and the handbrake was moved under the dashboard so it could be reached by anyone in the front.
In the trunk, the tire wheel was mounted in a vertical position to provide more usable space, and the license plate light could be used as a trunk light. To prevent theft, the lock cylinder was in the lid instead of the handle.
The seat cushions used individually wrapped springs; the padding was seamed like a mattress to retain its shape. Mohair upholstery was available for longevity.
The grain finish of the panel and molding blended with the soft tones of the upholstery. A new system of indirect lighting through prismatic reflectors illuminated the big instrument dial softly and clearly at night. A new “ivory plascon” material which looked “almost like marble” was used for hardware in front and rear (in 1938, the Custom Imperial’s instrument panels were painted to “harmonize with the upholstery”). All dials were protected by Lucite; and the panel was high enough to avoid knee injuries in an accident. A face-plate could be removed to make way for the optional radio. The starter control was conveniently located on the instrument panel.
Chrysler Imperial ventilation and seating
Ventilating wings were used in the front doors, and the rear half of the window could be lowered; rear windows also had both lowering main windows and ventilating wings. The big-screen cowl vent scooped air into the cabin. Built-in defroster vents connected to the heater.
Front seat arm rests were constructed entirely of soft rubber for extra comfort and safety; the front seat had an adjustment control on the left side, which moved the seats forward and up (or backward and down) to position shorter drivers closer to the steering wheel.
Chrysler insulated the roof, cowl, door panels, side panels and floor to keep out heat, cold and noise. To further prevent road and chassis noises from reaching the passenger Chrysler used rubber cushioned body mounting. Fixed spools of live rubber eliminated all metal to metal contact between the frame and body. They contributed in great measure to the quietness of the new Imperial. (Photos may be seen on our 1937 Plymouth page.)
Ride and handling; Imperial straight-eight engine
Balanced weight distribution, a key feature of the Airflow, eliminated back seat bounce. Individual coil type front springs and tapered leaf rear springs were synchronized in action to give a smooth and level ride. Aero-type hydraulic shock absorbers were used in front and rear; they were double action so as to push in both the up and down motion of the springs. Two sway eliminators kept body roll under control.
New rubber mounted steering gear and the individual steering tie rods kept the wheel free from road shocks. Quiet, easy shifting was attained through an improved “synchro-silent” transmission. Equal pressure hydraulic brakes gave better control of braking action and easy operation, while cast iron braking services provide efficient braking circuits.
The straight-eight, L-head engine produced 110 horsepower from an eight cylinder aluminum-L-head engine (a more powerful, higher compression engine was available). High compression ratio, dual carburetion and other features provided snappy performance and gas mileage. To reduce vibration, the engine was mounted on patented floating power mountings, located high in front and low at the rear so that the weight of the engine was in perfect balance. As a result, vibration was absorbed before it can reach the frame and body.
Modern design features ensured low cost operation. For instance, exhaust valve seat inserts preserved seating of the valve; owners reported a then-quite-good 30,000 miles without valve cleaning. A “synchro-silent” transmission was synchronized in second and third gears, and designed for quiet shifts (the promotional material suggested it was synchronized in all forward gears, but Hemi Andersen noted this was very unlikely, and that synchronizers for first gear are not shown in the illustration).