Automotive History: The Chrysler Imperial Parade Phaetons – The Royal Treatment

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One of the benefits of a Hulu subscription is that there are a lot of obscure old television shows available for watching.  Mrs. JPC and I stumbled across one such show that had its debut in 1958 – The Naked City.  No, it’s not about that.  It ran for one season (before being revamped with a new cast) as a thirty minute drama about some Detectives with the New York Police Department, and was notable for introducing James Franciscus to the big time.  Every TV show has a “thing”, and this show’s thing was that it was filmed on location in New York, and strove for a very realistic experience.  In glorious black and white, of course.

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This clip is not from the television show, but shows the sort of view of the parade car that the show’s producers incorporated into the episode. This photo depicts a 1951 parade for General Douglas MacArthur.

 

One early 1959 episode of the show involved a parade in honor of a famous athlete, threatened by an embittered  malcontent with a bomb.  Some things from 1959 are still quite current, it would seem.  (For those who care, this was episode number 22, entitled Ticker Tape, with an original air date of February 24, 1959.)  But what makes this re-telling relevant here instead of in some other forum is the car in which the dignitary was to be conveyed.  At first glimpse, I could tell that it was a big convertible sedan from the early 1940s.

“My”, thought the ever-observant car nut, “what an odd choice for a show going for realism – why would they be still using some ancient convertible sedan in a ticker tape parade in 1959 New York?”  Didn’t the city have one of the famous Parade Phaetons built in the 1950s?  As I got a better look, I could tell that it was a 1940 or 41 Chrysler, but could not recall Chrysler even offering a convertible sedan that late.  A little googling after the show made me acknowledge that the folks doing the program got it right, and expanded my understanding of Chrysler’s foray into parade cars.

 

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In 1939, the number two auto producer in the U.S. (if not in the world) was not the Ford Motor Company, but the Chrysler Corporation.  Chrysler in 1939 was the result of what Walter Chrysler had spent nearly fifteen years building virtually from scratch, or at least from the wreckage of the failing Maxwell-Chalmers company.  Although the founder had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1938 at the age of sixty three, the company he created was at its peak.

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One of the luxuries of a profitable, well-run company is the ability to do some special projects to burnish your standing in the world.  One of these was the construction of a Parade Phaeton for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  The body of this 1939 Chrysler Custom Imperial was built by the Derham Body Company of Rosemont, Pennsylvania.  Derham had been one of the leading builders of custom bodywork during the classic era, and began a significant relationship with Chrysler in the mid 1930s including, strangely enough, becoming a DeSoto-Plymouth dealer to supplement the firm’s dwindling custom body business.  There is an excellent article about Durham on Coachbuilt.com that can be read here.

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There is nothing to indicate that the car’s chassis was anything other than a standard Custom Imperial.  Of course, Chrysler’s high-end car of that time was nothing to be ashamed of.  Its 323.5 cid ( 5.3L) inline eight featured an aluminum head and aluminum pistons, and was good for up to 141 horsepower in optional trim.  1939 was also the inaugural year for Chrysler’s new Fluid Drive, which was standard equipment on every Custom Imperial.  It is difficult to imagine a better environment for clutch-free driving than a New York City parade.

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The beautiful green phaeton (an open car without roll-up side windows) had a short life as the belle of the ball, but it lived grandly for a year which included being the official conveyance for the King and Queen of England on their visit to New York in the summer of 1939.

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Chrysler and Durham teamed up again for another parade car in 1940.  Upon the 1940 car’s completion, it was transported to New York to replace the 1939 car, which was returned to the Company’s care.  The 1940 car was finished in a blue and gray two tone and would see official service as a New York parade car for the next twenty years.  The 1940 car was finally retired from semi-regular service in 1960.  It was this car that I saw on television, in what was probably the last year of its working life.

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There are many black and white photos of the 1940 car online, showing it ferrying dignitaries like Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.  Strangely, despite the car having been under the care of the Henry Ford Museum ever since, I could not find a single color photograph of the car online.  Or much of anything about its construction, either.  Although the 1940 Chryslers and Imperials featured new bodies (which would serve through early 1949), they were essentially unchanged from the prior year, other than a two horsepower bump and a name change from Custom Imperial to Crown Imperial.

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Although not strictly in the line of formal Parade Phaetons, Chrysler did build five Newport Phaetons in 1940-41.  Strangely, none of these was ever put into formal parade use as the earlier cars had been.  Instead, one was kept by the Chrysler family for personal use, and one was sold to Lana Turner.  One of the five famously paced the 1941 Indianapolis 500 race, the only non-standard production car to do so until modern times.

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Much better known than the relatively obscure 1939 and 1940 cars was the trio of parade phaetons that Chrysler built in 1952.  These cars were the beginnings of the Forward Look era at a resurgent Chrysler, which was still outselling the Ford Motor Company (although not for long).  They began with the frame of a Custom Imperial limo, which was stretched two inches for a wheelbase of 147.5 inches.  The bodies were the products of Chrysler stylist Cliff Voss and body engineer Harry Cheseborough, under the direction of Experimental Design Chief Virgil Exner.  Other than the stock 1952 Imperial grille, the bodies of these cars were completely custom built of steel, and were an early glimpse of the direction that Chrysler styling would take for the 1955 models.  Strangely, fabrication was done in Chrysler’s own shops rather than by Ghia in Italy, which had already completed the K-310 show car for Exner.  The separate compartments for front and rear occupants were reminiscent of the 1940-41 Newport and some of the high end phaetons of the classic era.

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Mechanically, the cars were stock 1952 Imperial, powered by Chrysler’s then-current 331 cid (5.4 L) hemi V8 coupled to a Fluid Torque semi-automatic transmission.  Stopping was courtesy of the gigantic Ausco-Lambert disc brakes that were used on Imperial limousines at the time (and which we have previously covered here.)  Was there an application where disc brakes were less necessary than in a car designed exclusively for parade duty?  For that matter, this may be one of the few instances where the hoary old flathead straight eight of the 1939 and 1940 cars would have had the advantage over the modern Firepower hemi, which was somewhat lacking in the low-end grunt that was the old flathead’s forte’.

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Chrysler retained ownership of the cars and maintained them in in the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and (of course) Detroit.  Each was available for parades and special occasions in the region surrounding each of those cities, sometimes accompanied by promotions involving local dealers.  Each of the cars was painted a different color scheme.  The New York car was black with light gray leather interior.  The L.A. car was cream with rose-red leather and the Detroit car was metallic green with natural tan pigskin.  The Los Angeles car was first to make an official debut at the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena in January of 1953, in which it ferried Grand Marshal (and Vice President-Elect Richard Nixon).  Soon after, the New York car got a cameo role in the 1953 Cinemascope film How to Marry a Millionaire.

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From 1952 through 1960, many photos of New York parades show the veteran 1940 car backing up the newer model, as in this shot of a 1952 parade honoring Ben Hogan.  This picture is interesting because there are not many pictures online of these phaetons in their original 1952 style.

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The three 1952 cars were recalled to the company in 1955 and given an updating, which included a 1956-style Imperial grille and 1956-style tailfins.  The front fenders used 1955-style round wheel openings, which were necessary for tire clearance.  These 1956-trimmed cars are the most famous versions of Chrysler’s parade cars by far.  Each of the three was repainted and retrimmed as part of the updating.  The New York car was now cream with red leather, while the Detroit car got desert sand paint with red leather.

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The Los Angeles car was painted silver-blue and trimmed with white leather, and it too was featured in the filming of a movie or two.

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Photo source: John Lazenby via Imperialclub.org

There were also some mechanical updates done.  Each was refitted with a new PowerFlite two speed automatic, but still controlled by a conventional lever mounted on the steering column instead of either the dash-mounted lever or pushbuttons as used on 1955 and 56 production cars.  Some sources indicate that the cars received new engines, but the best information (from a 1977 article in Special-Interest Autos) is that the original 331s  received some minor performance upgrades such as new four barrel carbs.VanCliburnParadeCars

These three cars went on to provide many years of good service in their respective cities, providing royal chariots to some of the leading figures of the era.  This picture from 1958 shows classical pianist Van Cliburn in the white 1956 New York car with the old two-tone 1940 right behind.  Unfortunately, as time passed and the cars became more dated, Chrysler declined to get back into the business of being America’s supplier of magic carriages.  By the 1960s, Chrysler was a very different company with a very different mindset, one in which volume production ruled and expensive public relations vehicles were seen as a waste of time.

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So, where these unique cars now?  After Chrysler got the 1939 car back from New York, it was used by the Company for special functions before it was donated to the Detroit American Legion post (of which K. T. Keller was Post Commander) in 1952.  A former Chrysler employee tried for years to buy the car, which had fallen into disuse.  He was finally able to purchase it in the 1980s, and a full restoration was completed around 1990.  As of 2009, the Imperial Club’s website reported that it lived at the WPC Museum.  There are many high-quality color photos of this car that can be found online, and it is beautiful to look at.

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The article about Derham at coachbuilt.com states that there were actually two 1939 cars built, and that the other one is in the possession of the Henry Ford Museum.  This is the only mention found online of a second 1939 car, which was claimed to have been the one used for the British monarchs during their visit here, after being bulletproofed.  Perhaps this explains why some online pictures show dark brown leather upholstery while others show tan.

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The 1940 car went to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan upon its 1960 retirement.  This car seems to have been in mothballs there ever since, as there is virtually nothing about it that can be found online.  This seems a shame given that this car probably served in its intended function for much longer than any of the others.  The Derham coachwork in its blue and gray color scheme would undoubtedly be the most beautiful 1940 Chrysler of them all.  Sadly, we will just have to imagine it for now.

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The 1952/56 cars were eventually sold for nominal sums to their cities of residence.  The New York car was at some point treated to a new black paint job.  Some sources have this happening in the 1980s, but this photo clearly shows that the car was again black for the 1969 parade given for the Astronauts of Apollo 11.   This car remains in New York.

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The L.A. car was repainted white and retained its white interior, and at last information, still owned by the City of Los Angeles.  According to a recent installment of Jay Leno’s Garage, the Los Angeles car was reupholstered in dark red.  These cars have continued to serve their intended function in parades in those areas.  The Detroit car had been a bit of a mystery.  Although some had reported (including the 1977 SIA piece) that the car had been vandalized and stripped at some point in the past and was thereafter destroyed, the reports of its death had been greatly exaggerated.  Subsequent information shows that the Detroit car was sold by Chrysler to private buyers around 1970, and is today at the Peterson Museum.

The most amazing fact is that of the five (or six) cars constructed or rebuilt between 1939 and 1956, each and every one seems to be present and accounted for today, which is an amazing survival rate, given the multiple paths followed by each of the cars.

 

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So, there we have it.  For much of the twentieth century, Chrysler’s Imperial was America’s National car, there to provide a sumptuous and ceremonial welcome to our biggest heroes and most distinguished visitors.  Although they might be an anachronism in our modern age, they remind us of a time when we were able to “put on the dog” with style and class.  They also provide us with a couple of pretty good modern automotive mystery stories.  Finally, they are proof that in at least this one instance, watching old black and white detective shows on TV is not necessarily a waste of time.

 

Further reading:

1946 Chrysler Town & Country (Paul Niedermeyer)

1951 Chrysler K-310 (Paul Niedermeyer)

1953 Chrysler Imperial (J. P. Cavanaugh)

1955 Chryler New Yorker DeLuxe (J. P. Cavanaugh)

1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe St. Regis (Tom Klockau)

1956 Chrysler Windsor Town & Country (Laurence Jones)