1937 - 1938 Chrysler Imperial cars
In 1937 and 1938, the Chrysler Imperial was based on the new Chrysler Royal. The Imperial had a special engine and longer wheelbase, with various panels stretched to fit; a variety of custom coaches were available on these expensive, high-end cars, all of which had chrome chevrons on the fenders, and model names in script on the hubcaps and above the grille. A series of Custom Imperials, essentially stretched versions of the Imperial, were made in both five and seven passenger forms, in some cases farmed out to custom coachmakers. 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.
New features for the 1937 Royal included a shorter chassis with new styling; defroster vents connected to the heater; insulated body mounts for a smooth ride; and padding on the back of the front seats for rear passenger crash safety. The 1937 Imperial moved to an extended-wheelbase Royal design, with a longer hood and cowl to accommodate their straight-eight aluminum-heads engines. The Chrysler Airflow remained in its final year selling with the Royal, Imperial, and long-wheelbase Custom Imperial. British buyers could also get a Kew, Wimbledon, and Richmond — the first two rebadged Plymouths, the latter a rebadged DeSoto. Except for the Airflow C-17 model, all eight-cylinder Chryslers for 1937 were Imperials.
The Imperial Custom came from the factory 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 also sold as chassis to various coachworks for more customized bodies.
The main changes in 1938 were a side-opening hood, a horn ring on the steering wheel (replacing a 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; in terms of marketing, Chrysler New York Specials, based on the Imperial, appeared in 1938 (eventually to become the New Yorker). The New York Specials were the only eight-cylinder Chryslers other than the Imperial.
The Custom Imperial was stretched for more inches for 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.
Though not in the reach of this article, it is worth noting that the 1939 Custom Imperial had the first use of a fluid coupling in United States passenger cars, when Fluid Drive was made standard; all 1939 Imperials got a standard column-mounted gearshift lever.
The most popular Imperial for these years was the five-passenger, four-door touring sedan, with nearly 9,000 units sold in 1938 - a fraction of its plain Chrysler equivalent. 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. Eleven Custom Imperials are believed to have been made. 1937 sales were better, with nearly 12,000 five-passenger Imperials, over a thousand two-door business coupes, and better numers in all the other varieties as well.
The Airflow experiment, which produced revolutionary cars - not so much in aerodynamics, but in basic engineering - ended at the end of 1937 in terms of styling (a year after the last Airflow Imperial, a 1936 model). Chrysler would stick with conservative styling until 1957. However, many of the engineering lessons, including issues of balance, flex, stiffness, and insulation, were put to good use in the Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge lines.
The straight-eight engine used a conventional L-head, and displaced a modest 299 cubic inches, with a standard 6.2:1 compression ratio; optional was the same engine with a 7.4:1 compression ratio that raised horsepower from 110 @ 3,400 rpm to a respectable 122 hp @ 3,400 rpm. Torque was rated at 214lb-ft at a mere 1,600 rpm (238 hp at the same speed 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.
Jim Benjaminson wrote that the previous year, 1937, had been a record 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 had everyone smiling, and would be the highest production year until 1950. However, there was a fairly severe recession in 1938; the reasons were unclear, but sales for 1938 dropped to 285,704 units (counting commercial vehicles), nearly half the 1937 figure, and workers had a choice between pay cuts and layoffs.
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 2 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 2 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. 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 all forward gears and shifted quietly.