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Imperial cars, 1926-1993

Two years after launching the Chrysler car, Walter P. Chrysler invaded the luxury car market, giving his new car the regal name "Chrysler Imperial 80."

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The car was guaranteed to do 80 miles per hour (hence the name), and it quickly became known for its high speed, low-gear pull, and hill-climbing ability.

Floyd Clymer drove a stock Imperial touring car on a record-breaking 702­mile speed/endurance run
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in 1926, his average speed of 51.8 mph was the fastest ever attained by a stock car over 500 miles to that time - yet only 200 miles of the roads were paved! Clymer called the Imperial 80 "one of the real quality cars" of its day.

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The 1927 Imperial 80 was the first Chrysler car to use light aluminum alloy pistons. Its 92 horsepower six-cylinder engine made it one of the most powerful cars of its day. It also had a carburetor "fumer" to electrically preheat the fuel mixture, and a small Chrysler emblem on the dash panel would light up when the battery needed water.

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The 1928 Imperial was the first Chrysler car to pass the 100-horsepower barrier, with a rating of 112 at 3000 rpm, which it did by raising the compression ratio from 4.7:1 to 6:1. The wheelbase was 136 inches; semicustom bodies were offered by Locke, Dietrich, and LeBaron at prices up to $6,795.

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The 1929-30 Imperial L8 had slimmer profile radiator grilles, designed so that the fluted hood identification of previous Imperial cars could be retained. Rumble seat models had a door on the curb side for easier access to the rear compartment. Prices ranged from $2,675 to $3,475. (See the Pogue Imperial of the "200 mpg carburetor" and the 1929-30 Imperials)

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The 1931 Chrysler Imperial (CG) was startling new car, with long hoods and broad sweeping fenders. The wheelbase was expanded to 145 inches, a much longer stretch, and the interior was dramatically upgraded.

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A new Straight Eight engine of 384.5 cubic inch displacement had a nine-bearing camshaft and turned out 125 horsepower.

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Thanks to RM Auctions for the use of these photographs

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The 1932 Imperial (CL) added ventilating doors on the side of the hood, similar to other Chrysler cars. The CL became the first of the Chryslers to be fitted with a power brake booster. A shorter 135" wheelbase Imperial CH was introduced as a companion to the CL; it would be replaced in 1933.

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The Custom (CL) was carried over into the 1933 model year with cosmetic changes, but a new CQ-series Imperial (essentially the 1932 Chrysler CP Eight) had an even shorter wheelbase of 125 inches. The CQ and (unrelated) CL were the only Chrysler-made cars with wire wheels standard, rather than wood wheels. Standard features were a new coincidental­accelerator pedal starter, automatic vacuum clutch, and hydraulic brakes. An optional CQ engine had lower horsepower, presumably for better economy.

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1934 At 212-1/4 inches, the Chrysler Imperial Airflow CV model was the shortest of the three Airflow Imperials. In keeping with the performance image Imperial had built up, a CV coupe established 72 stock car speed records during a one-day run at the Utah Salt Flats under AAA Contest Board supervision.

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The 1934 Chrysler Airflow Custom Imperial (CW) had automatic overdrive and a ride stabilizer bar; like the other Airflows, its structure was a network of steel girders covered by body panels - a prelude to unit-body construction. The CW had a wheelbase of 146.5 inches and could seat eight passengers. Its one-piece curved glass windshield was the first of its kind on a production car.

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The 1935 Imperial C-2 continued on the Airflow body; but a new hood and grille surface projected forward to give the cars a longer look. Other new items included bumpers, head lamp surrounds, and hood louvers on the side.

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The 1936 Imperial came without the very long 146.5 inch wheelbase Custom. The 1936 Custom Imperial (C-11) had new die-cast radiator grilles and hood louvers, and a redesigned steering linkage allowing a change in the angle of the steering column.

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1937 CHRYSLER CUSTOM IMPERIAL, C-15
: Except for the Airflow C-17 model, all eight-cylinder Chrysler cars bore the name Imperial or Custom Imperial.

The Custom came on a wheelbase of 140 inches in two body types--the 7-passenger sedan and the sedan limousine. The latter had a crank-operated glass partition behind the front compartment.

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1938 CHRYSLER IMPERIAL, C-19: The wheelbase of the Custom went up again -­ to 144 inches. Front and rear sway bars ensured a stable ride for all Imperials, the only Chrysler-built cars to feature both. Instrument panels for the C-19 Imperials had a painted, highly polished wood-grain finish, but those of the Custom were painted to harmonize with the upholstery.

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1939 CHRYSLER CUSTOM IMPERIAL, C-24: The first application of a fluid coupling to passenger cars in the United States was made late in 1938, when Chrysler introduced Fluid Drive - standard on the Custom Imperial C- 24, along with a steering column-mounted gear shift lever.

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1940 CHRYSLER CROWN IMPERIAL, C-27: All Imperial cars were now called the Crown Imperial. Fluid Drive, overdrive, and power brakes continued to be standard. The new Crown had three body styles: the six­ and the eight-passenger sedans, and the sedan limousine with glass partition.

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1941 CHRYSLER CROWN IMPERIAL, C-33: Power windows were now standard. Prices ranged from $1,795 for a Town Sedan to $2,795 for the Sedan Limousine which was the most expensive of the Chrysler-built cars.

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1942 CHRYSLER CROWN IMPERIAL, C-37: Five months and 448 Imperial cars after the start of the 1942 season, production of Imperials was shut down for the duration of World War II. Front fender lines of the new Imperial blended gracefully into the hood structure, and running boards were enclosed by the doors.

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1946-48 CROWN IMPERIAL, C-40: The new Imperial looked like it had during the short-lived 1942 production year, other than a new grille and new body ornamentation. There were two styles: the limousine and the 8-passenger sedan.

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1949 CROWN IMPERIAL, C-47: A unique, self-energizing, hydraulic disc brake was standard on all 1949 Imperials. It had two flat pressure plates on which segments of brake lining were bonded. Braking action was obtained when the pressure plates were forced outward into contact with rotating brake housings.

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1950 CROWN IMPERIAL, C-50 (custom body by Derham shown): A new hood ornament, grille, front and rear bumpers, and taillights were part of the 1950 appearance package for the Crown Imperial. Retail prices were $4,970 for the sedan and $5,070 for the limousine.

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1951-52 IMPERIAL, C-54: Two series of cars now came under the exclusive Imperial name plate: the Imperial and the Custom Imperial. The latter was used for the long-wheelbase eight-passenger sedans and limousines. Full-time power steering as standard equipment was a first for the Custom Imperial.

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1953 CUSTOM IMPERIAL, C-58: Chrysler Corporation's first fully automatic transmission, called PowerFlite, was installed in Imperials beginning in March, 1953. The Crown Imperial had a 12-volt electrical system. Electric seat adjusters could be obtained on sedans, and the one-piece curved windshield returned to vogue.

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1954 CUSTOM IMPERIAL, C-64: With engine horsepower raised from 150 to 235, Imperial continued to be the highest-powered luxury car made in the United States. The most pronounced exterior changes took place in the grille and bumpers. The Imperial name was separately registered in 1954.

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1955 CROWN IMPERIAL, C-70: The Imperial was formally turned into a brand - a car line with its own design concepts. Shipments of Imperials rose from 5,761 cars produced in 1954 to 11,432 at the end of the 1955 run.

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1956 IMPERIAL, C-73: Sweeping, long rear fenders and new body side ornamentation characterized the 1956 Imperial. The upper back portion of the right fender also acted as a door which could be swung out to reveal a hidden gas filler cap. Crown Imperials terminated the body molding at the rear wheel opening and followed it with five chromed louvers.

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1957 IMPERIAL: The new Imperial body had a compound curved windshield and the first use of curved side glass on a standard production car.

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The front end was designed for either single head lamps or the smaller dual head lamps that were making their first showing. The engine was Chrysler's top powerplant, a 392 cubic inch Hemi V8.

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Bob Steele wrote, "Back in the day, Bob Kushler was an engineering design advisor assigned to Styling. One year they were involved in styling the 1957 Crown Imperial, putting various proposals together for management consideration and approval. There was to be a final, very important presentation on a Monday morning up in the old Styling showroom, building 128, with a model for discussion.

"It had been an ongoing dilemma just how to design suitable headlamps and surrounds for placement under front fender brow areas. No one could agree. Then, just hours before the big meeting, one of the guys happened to walk down the hallway, and looked on the wall to see an art deco cigarette ashtray - a brushed aluminum housing with clamshell louvers to dispose of butts. A light went on, in desperation they unscrewed two of the ash trays, clayed them up with headlamp bulbs inside, and slammed them into place beneath the 1957 Imperial fender brow overhangs, just in time for the meeting. The result looked fine, was approved, and went into production."

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1958 IMPERIAL CROWN: Auto Pilot (cruise control) was introduced on Imperial as the first dial-controlled automatic driver assist. Optional 11.00 x 14 tires were the largest passenger car tires in the world. An integrated mechanical-electrical door locking system was another Chrysler first.

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1959 IMPERIAL CUSTOM: Power brakes, power steering, back-up lights, windshield washers, and dual exhausts were standard. A new rear suspension option featured a compressor which automatically increased air pressure inside flexible, nylon reinforced rubber air springs to keep the car level.

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1960 IMPERIAL CUSTOM: Seat cushions were padded with nearly six inches of foam rubber; gauges were illuminated by electroluminescent lighting; swivel front seats became available. The LeBaron took on a "town car" look with small rear window.

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1961 IMPERIAL CROWN: Individual head lamps stood on their own base. Safety padding was used on the steering wheel crossbar, and the top and bottom portions of the instrument panel. Steering wheels had a new oval shape with flats at the top and bottom of the wheel.

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1962 IMPERIAL LEBARON: At 227.1 inches, Imperial continued to be one of the longest cars built in the United States.

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A new vacuum suspended-type power brake replaced the air-suspended unit used previously, and a small lightweight reduction gear starting motor was introduced.

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1963 IMPERIAL CUSTOM: Imperials were painted in acrylic enamel paint that was hand buffed before the cars left the assembly line.

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The 1964 Imperials had an amazing total of 776 color and trim combinations among four cars. The Crown Coupe, with a LeBaron type rear window, was new; the Custom series was eliminated. [See the interior of a 1964 Imperial - our March 2010 Car of the Month]

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1965 IMPERIAL CROWN COUPE: Head lamps were covered over by a pane of flat tempered glass. Inlays of walnut veneer decorated the steering wheel, instrument panel and door trim.

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A master gauge flashed a warning light on the instrument panel if fuel level, oil pressure or engine temperature needed attention.

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1966 IMPERIAL CROWN CONVERTIBLE: Imperial four-door models were highlighted by new 50/50 front bench seats. Each half could be adjusted independently of the other. This included the center armrest which also was divided down the middle. A new grille and deck lid shape were the primary appearance changes.

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The 1967 Imperial line included a lower-cost base series with two doors, as Chrysler and Imperial tried to attract more sales with lower pricing. Wraparound turn signals made their debut. Standard equipment included automatic transmissions, power disc brakes, power steering, full carpeting, an electric clock, and power windows. Imperial made around 2,200 of the base four-door sedan and under 600 convertibles; the Imperial Crown was more popular, with 9,415 four-doors and 3,235 two-doors reported by the Standard Catalog of Imperial. There were also around 2,200 Imperial LeBarons. All the cars retailed for over $5,300; the Crown started at over $5,800 and the LeBaron for over $6,600.

The base-model 1968 Imperials were brought into the Imperial Crown series, rather than standing apart. The rear end stayed about the same, while the front had grille changes. All the 1967 and 1968 Imperials used a four-barrel 440 cubic inch V8 engine, rated at 350 hp (gross) and 480 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 RPM.

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The 1969-1973 Imperials looked just like the top of the line Chryslers, at least from the side; but each one was test-driven for 12-15 miles. They kept the 440 engines from prior years, and had standard air conditioning with automatic controls.

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The five years, 1969-1973, saw some 77,980 Imperials built.

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The 1974 Chrysler and Imperial lines were fully re-engineered, and the outside was given major changes as well. The front was arguably influenced by the Lincoln Continental. LeBaron production was respectable by Imperial standards, with prices starting at over $7,200 - around 10,600 four-doors, 3,850 two-doors, and 57 Crown Coupes. Nearly all came with power seats and 84% had tilting steering wheels. The 440 was rated at 230 net horsepower - a 15 hp boost from 1973.

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There were essentially no changes to the 1975 Imperials. Sales fell somewhat, to around 9,000 in total. That was the last year of the Imperial; starting in 1976, the cars themselves were sold as Chrysler New Yorker Broughams - with a remarkable increase in sales. Chryslers were seen as more attainable, perhaps; the base price of the New Yorker Brougham was lower, but most buyers loaded them up with options (that had been standard on the Imperial), so the price ended up the same.

Then came the Chrysler Imperial of 1981-83. It had the most humble base of any car with that name, to date - a modified Volare/Aspen chassis and powertrain, with its own sheet metal and interior. Over three years, around 17,000 were made.

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The 318 cubic inch engine had an exclusive electronic fuel injection system, which proved troublesome; Chrysler usually replaced it with a carburetor. The car had more standard features than most, heavier gauge steel than its stablemates, better aerodynamics, and more sound insulation. The warranty covered every part but tires for two years or 30,000 miles, and each one was thoroughly tested before being sold.

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The final Chrysler Imperial ran from 1990-93, and had even more low-end roots than the 1981-83 cars; it was based off a derivative of the nine year old K platform. In 1990, it used Chrysler's standard 3.3 liter V6 engine; in 1991, it gained a standard 3.8 liter engine (optional on the similar Chrysler Fifth Avenue). The main differences from the New Yorker were in seat coverings, standard features, and exterior styling; and the Imperial's 5/50 bumper to bumper warranty. These were the only Imperials without eight cylinders since the 1920s.

Critics were sometimes fairly harsh, but one comparison test found the reviewers preferring it to the equivalent Cadillac and Lincoln, for the most part. They just couldn't get past the V6 engine.

Based on a 1966 Chrysler report provided by J.P. Joans.


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