The Imperial Measure of Length: 1957 Ghia Crown Imperial

1957 Ghia Crown Imperial

For years, Imperial was Chrysler's top model designation. In the late 1950s, wanting a prestige label to set against Cadillac and Lincoln, they re-positioned Imperial as a separate make, with its own unique interpretation of Chrysler's new “Forward Look.”

This re-naming ploy was never entirely successful, because peasants like me would insist on referring to the cars as “Chrysler Imperials.” But I still liked them. In particular I remember being stunned by the black and white publicity shots of the '58 model, sensationally long, low and smooth. It took me years to realize the wide-angle pictures were so exaggerated you could see the wheels were distinctly oval. If you wanted an Imperial as dramatically long as those pictures suggested, you had to go for a rather exclusive special edition, the Ghia Crown limousine. Between 1957 and 1965 only 132 of these cars were built, which makes them pretty exclusive by any standards.

A separate production line in Detroit to turn out limited-edition limos would have been prohibitive, so Chrysler turned to Ghia of Turin, who had already built various experimental and show cars for them, to build stretched Imperials starting in the 1957 model year. (This was in the days when Ghia was a respected traditional coachbuilder, rather than a Ford trim option).

The 20 foot, 4 inch long body was styled by Chrysler, largely on paper, as time was too short to do the usual styling clays. The plans were sent to Italy along with complete kits which included a 2-door hardtop body (for the wrap-over rear roof), a convertible floorpan (for the extra cross-bracing), heavy duty suspension from a Chrysler wagon, a centre pillar, two extra doors, a lengthened propshaft, and all the other necessary mechanical components, interior fittings, wiring and trim, and even the paint.

The conversion process was real old-fashioned coachbuilding. Ghia's artisans used one small “hard” jig for the initial cut-and-shut alignment, then knocked up a wooden frame from egg crates and built the car around it. The tooling cost $15,000, compared with Chrysler's estimate of $3.3 million for Detroit-style assembly.

The body and floor were cut and a 20.5 inch extension added. The centre pillars were welded in and the doors were partially rebuilt and re-skinned with high tops wrapping over into the roof, which was also reshaped, rising subtly towards the rear. All new panels were beaten on hand-made wooden formers, and final smoothing of the body and seams took 150 pounds of lead.

Multiple hand-sanded coats of primer, paint and clear lacquer were applied. Interiors were finished with locally sourced wool and silk fabrics, glove-grade leather, hand-made metal trim and exotic woods. Individual cars took about a month to complete and were then shipped to Detroit to be checked out before delivery. The first cars were found to require uprated tires, and a stronger electric motor for the heavy glass partition. Italian mastery of complex automotive wiring was sometimes found to be less than complete.

Customers paid a hefty premium for the privilege of waiting 6 months for a car equipped with their own choice of roof style, interior trim and equipment options and color.

Production continued until 1965, incorporating various re-stylings of the basic body. Then Chrysler switched to unit-body construction. Ghia were not equipped to handle the new techniques involved, so the contract was ended and production of stretched Imperials was transferred to an American builder of airport limos. For serious Imperial fans, some of the magic may have faded at that point.

The Imperial Ghia model

Now that Madison have re-issued their '57 Imperial with some body details subtly improved, I got hold of the earlier version at a “reasonable” price. Before cutting the soft white metal body and roof (the whole roof aft of the windscreen was a separate glued-in casting), I built a jig to align all the bits while brass reinforcement was added for the mid-section. The scale stretch was about 15mm, but just to make the point I sneaked in a few extra millimetres. Nothing drastic, you understand, just enough to get one or two micrometer freaks up out of their seats, wild-eyed and spittle-flecked. Sorry, gentlemen. Artistic licence, don't you know.

Ghia Imperial cars

The roof had to be built up on a rising line from the windscreen to the edge of the rear wrap-over, which in turn had to be raised a bit higher, even though Madison made it seriously over-scale in the first place. The fake spare wheel cover on the boot was apparently too vulgar for the limo, so that had to be removed and replaced by a central rib. Instead of a plain boot handle, the limo had the same winged emblem as the one on the bonnet, so that was copied on to thin plasticard, cut out with a scalpel blade and foiled.

Because the first limos were readied very late in the model year, rather than have prestigious customers' cars quickly going out of date, all the '57 limos were “forward-fitted” with '58 trim, including a new grille and front bumper. Rebuilding the existing bumper with Milliput wasn't so bad, but the grille was something else. How do you manufacture and assemble 30 rectangular chrome-edged elements, between 2.5 and 8mm wide and about 0.4mm high, spaced 0.15mm apart? Like building your own Xeon chip with copper wire, a pair of secateurs and a blowlamp.

After some spectacularly futile experiments with thin strips of photo-etch, I switched to the PC and spent several long sessions working out the size, horizontal and vertical position, line width and spacing of 30 little black rectangles at 6 times actual size, then switched them to white-on-black and photo-reduced them on to chrome paper. The result looks pretty good from some angles, and a bit of a chrome blob from others, but I wasn't going to spend a year's pocket money getting one grille professionally photo-etched.

The interior has a proper central partition, jump seats, footrests and grab handles, but is otherwise quite simply finished in my patented soft-look grey leather trim (a light coat of varnish doused with talc and the excess blown off). As you've realised, I'm not keen on spending a lot of time on interior super-detailing when it would take a practicing gynacologist to tell if there's anything in there.

Getting a decent black paint finish proved difficult, as usual,. The thin chrome detailing on the pillars and the double strip across the roof shroud strained nerves and patience, and the finished model is more delicate than usual (that's “delicate” as in “fragile”, rather than “exquisitely detailed”), but sitting safely in the display cabinet it looks like one big, impressive motor car, which the real one certainly was. Never mind the length, feel the quality.

Also see: Signature 1955 Imperial model

Chrysler Toys and Models

Rolling your own (by Graeme Ogg)

Graeme Ogg adapts existing models to recreate icons of Chrysler history.

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