(first published 7 February 2012) Hello again, Curbside Classic fans. As promised on the nostalgia trip I took here in September, I’ve returned to write about the design of my 1973 Imperial. This story isn’t a procedural from the Chrysler studios – the shadowy “Auto Editors of Consumer Guide” have taken care of that already – but rather a rumination on how such a strange beast as the 1973 Imperial came to be, why it went away, and why people notice it today. “I’ve always been fascinated by failure,” Charlie Brown once said, and he’s our dashboard icon for this excursion.
Park a 1973 Imperial next to a contemporary Jaguar, Mercedes, or Volvo. How can we explain why one of these things is not like the others, and why is it the Imperial that’s extinct?
Of course, in 1973, an Imperial was only one land yacht among many. Cheap gas, wide roads, garages larger than many of the world’s homes – these American conditions are necessary, but not sufficient to produce an Imperial. Nor can higher gas prices explain why you can’t get one any more, not when you can get a 2012 Lincoln, or a new Cadillac that outweighs my car by more than 500 pounds.
So why did the Imperials disappear? And why, if such a beast pops up in 2012, is it so entertaining, even to normal people with no interest in cars? I say this from my experience piloting one around suburbia. I couldn’t get more attention – thumbs, waves, slack-jawed teenage stares, at least one proposition from an old lady – if I was driving a new Ferrari. Why?
In the Curbside Classic tradition, explaining the Imperial involves a bit of corporate history as well as an attempt to look at its design through modern eyes.
Chrysler, 1963-79: Ruined in a Conventional Way
“A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.”
– John Maynard Keynes, as quoted by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times
Replace “banker” with “product planner” and this could be the ethos of the Chrysler Corporation of the 1960s and ‘70s. As Paul wrote about in this series, Chrysler evinced a kind of bipolar corporate culture throughout its history. It would periodically attempt to leap in front of the industry, with designs like the Airflow cars of 1934 and Virgil Exner’s tailfinned road bombs of 1957. The Airflows were innovative and influential, but sold poorly; the ’57 cars sold well, but they had been rushed into production only two years after the company’s last big revamp. Poor build quality and design missteps led to weak sales for much of the next five years.
After 1962, Chrysler’s culture swung towards its other pole. Under the leadership of Lynn Townsend, the company sought to conduct its business in a thoroughly conventional way. Virgil Exner and his fins and funny faces were shown the door. The stout Mopar engines, transmissions and torsion-bar front ends would now be dressed in the clean “Modern” fashion set by the 1961 Lincoln Continental.
The “Modern” Phase of American Big Car Design
It’s hard not to impose a template of phases or eras on the past. It helps us talk about Europe circa 1500 to call that time the Renaissance, even though no one back then would recognize that use of the term.
In calling the ’61 Continental and its progeny “Modern,” I’m trying to name the period after the tailfin but before the Brougham era of the opera light, the spurious Rolls-Royce grille, and the loose-pillow-look leather interior. (If you can think of a name for our 21st century era of three-ton trucks being sold as family cars, feel free to comment.)
I use the ironic quotes deliberately. It takes nothing away from the beauty of the Continental to note that it’s “Modern,” not Modern. Behind its sheer sides, restrained detailing and crisp “fender blades,” the Connie remains about as preposterous as any other old full-size American car. Neither Colin Chapman (of Lotus) nor Alec Issigonis (creator of the Mini) would ever countenance a machine that needs a gallon of premium to haul five people twelve miles, and that fills its trunk with roof at the touch of a button.
That said, I’m here to praise antiques, not to bury them. The concept of an oil crisis was as foreign in 1961 as the term “Pre-Raphaelite” would have been to Raphael. While actual modernity in American car design would have to wait, we can thank the Continental’s influence for making Detroit’s big sedans of the ’60s look a little more sensible then they had before.
The (Compromised) Incomparable Imperial
Chrysler paid the Continental the ultimate compliment by hiring away its designer, Elwood Engel, who then gave them the stately “Incomparable Imperial” of 1964. An independent marque after 1955, the Imperial had gained its own unique platform in the go-for-broke year of 1957. Fast finned Imperials outsold Lincolns for a couple years in the late ‘50s, but the ’61 had put a stop to that. (Cadillac outsold both brands many times over throughout this period.)
Engel’s 1964 redesign dressed the Imperial in “Modern” style, with one telling exception. Chrysler was unwilling to invest in all-new tooling for a slow-selling car, even if it was the corporate flagship. This meant that the ‘64’s new suit covered the body structure of a ’57, complete with bulbous wraparound windshield.
Each vertical line on the ‘64 does its best to make you forget that big hunk of ‘50s-style glass and heavy chrome. The nose, fenders, tail and c-pillar all lean crisp and straight like the tail of a 707, in defiance of the rounded prop-plane-style canopy. It was a compromise, but to my eye, it works. The 1964-‘66 cars have a little dynamic flair that’s missing from their successors, whose pleasant but rigidly parallel lines take “Modern” to the brink of boredom.
The ’67-’68 cars (CC here) rode on a stretched version of the corporate “C-body” platform, which gave them a more up-to-date windshield; from 1969 on, Imperials would differ even less from mere Chryslers.
False Dawn of the Fuselage Era
The 1965-‘68 full-size Mopars sold well, but the new “fuselage” ‘69s squandered that momentum. Notwithstanding a few sales spikes, the market share of full-size Chrysler products would ebb throughout the 1970s.
Conventional thinking only works until someone else changes the conventions. The wide-mouthed, unadorned fuselage cars were out of step with the times, and there was too much of a family resemblance among them. The big Plymouths, Dodges, Chryslers and Imperials all looked quite similar, even as the Big Two were furiously re-segmenting the marketplace.
Paul and the Curbside Cohort have written about the “personal luxury” cars that came from people like Bill Mitchell and John DeLorean of GM, and a Ford salesman named Iacocca: The Grand Prix; the Riviera; the Monte Carlo. The LTD, the Thunderbird, and the Continentals Mark III, IV and V. Each of these cars had styling details that promised something special, and earned a premium for it.
By 1970, the lithe, restrained look of the early ‘60s had given way; ties got wide, sideburns got long, and cars grew fake landau roofs, exaggerated stand-up grilles, and extra bulges and badges – anything to add bulk, flash and a little menace. (Qualities you could trumpet to sell Escalades today.)
If a ’61 Continental is a smiling Kennedy in a convertible, a ’70s Lincoln sedan is jowly Nixon, brooding behind bulletproof glass. The older car may look better to most 21st century eyes, but Lincoln sold far more cars in the pseudo-classical ‘70s than it had in the pseudo-Modern ‘60s.
Chrysler would eventually manage a “personal luxury” hit in 1975 with the Cordoba. Until then, the market would perceive most of its lineup as rather generic renderings of “car.” This wasn’t much of a problem for the sturdy Darts, Valiants and Dusters that sold in huge numbers, but it was hard to pitch an expensive Imperial that looked so much like the fleet favorite Plymouth Fury. Maybe that’s why the car is so tiny in this ad from 1970?
Aging Athlete in a Crisp New Suit
The fuselage Imperial got a new outfit for 1972. Spoiler alert: sales rebounded only a little, remaining well behind Lincoln at under 20,000 cars, and the independent Imperial brand vanished after 1975. But with the magic of hindsight, we can forget now about a carmaker’s ancient troubles, and instead enjoy the Imperial’s design for what it is.
The revised 1972 Imperial (my ’73 is identical, except for the bumper-mounted .50-cal guns and some minor trim details) shared some elements with other full-size fuselage Chryslers. These include a high, nearly flat hood and trunk, and curving sides that, in cross-section, flow smoothly in a sheer continuous line from rocker panel to roof.
The fuselage design ditched the “hardtop” look, as seen on this ’66 Chrysler, that steps the greenhouse well back from a strong vertical edge. On a fuselage car, no crease or change in angle separates the c-pillar from the sail panel. The lack of vinyl roof trim on some cars, like this 1970 300 Hurst, emphasizes the effect.
The style seems to say, “Airplanes are seamless, top to bottom, and cars should be too.” It is in defying this rather arbitrary rule that the final fuselage Imperials found their signature details: the fender blades that culminate in outlandish chrome turn-signal pods. Chrysler designers brought back a pronounced vertical edge – an echo of the early “Modern” Engel era – to give the car stronger visual “shoulders” and help distinguish the Imperial from the rest of the lineup.
As related by the all-knowing “Auto Editors of Consumer Guide,” the new fender design was more complicated to build than that of the ’69-’71 cars. The steep inside edge, leading from the fender top to the edge of the hood, required a separate stamping from the outside panel of the fender itself. The chrome strip atop the ridge actually hides a welded seam between the two panels.
The front turn-signal pods – which are artfully proportioned, notwithstanding their size and strangeness – echo jet intakes and the shield shape of the rear side marker lights. Putting aside these associations, they serve to both demarcate and unify the horizontal grille and the vertical flanks of the car.
Demarcation is what makes this Imperial better-looking, in my flagrantly biased opinion, than the “pure” fuselage look of the previous design. I also prefer the ’72-’73 to its arch-rival Lincoln sedan, whose slab sides and square ends suggest furniture more than automobile.
The creases on the Imperial lift and modulate its mass, and the angles and curves provide a sense of purposeful forward motion; he’s a big bulky guy, but his suit fits.
From Commodity to Artifact
The pleasures of hindsight, of wandering around in the past, are tempered by an awareness that something has been lost. Strangely enough, it almost doesn’t matter whether what’s been lost is worth mourning.
I obviously love this Imperial to the point of obsession, but I don’t object if you’d prefer a Lincoln, a Fury, a ’91 Oldsmobile, or a bus pass. I can’t even say I would have wanted my car in 1973. I imagine myself as a sideburned ‘70s consumer, wandering a lot full of shiny Chryslers and Plymouths. An Imperial? For me? I dunno, I’m pretty cheap…What can you show me in a used Duster?
This consumer’s perspective is lost when we see a mass-produced machine that’s outlived its era. But that loss is our gain. The magic, the alchemy of the antique, is that an object that’s no longer a commodity turns into an artifact.
The design of an extinct automobile gains a strange power when one just appears in front of you, long after its time has gone. An Imperial’s magic worked on me, when the car and I were both 17, and it worked on the old lady who asked me out, as I rolled past her last summer.
Seeing a row of similar old cars in a museum, or at a show, or on eBay, steals back some of that magic. So does reading a long article that dissects a car’s appeal! But you’ve made it this far, so I can assume you share my weakness of being perpetually surprised by the past. And really, isn’t it a gift, a strength, to have a weakness for magic?
I am intrigued with your Imperial. Always partial to clean, straight lines, it is enormous and beautiful! And the top photo, with the headlights exposed evokes an appealing suave aggression. Bond…James Bond.
What is it like to pilot this mass of metal? Is it powerful, smooth and silent? How does it take curves in the road? I imagine passersby stop in their tracks to gape. And how wonderful would it be to cross the continent in this beast?
About the transitional period between tailfins and the ’65 LTD…Camelot. Woefully predictable, but arouses the time.
I always loved the fuselage styling of the 69-73 Chryslers. When my Dad “graduated” to a 72 Polara 2dr HT, from his rust bucket 64 Biscayne, I thought we hit the lottery. The car was big, beautiful, and powerful, (even though a base model with the lowly 318). I dreamed of the day I could buy the Imperial Coupe, like our family doctor drove. He looked so successful driving it. The old ladies would be picking him up today.
Anyhow, I never got the Imperial. In 76, I bought a new Royal Monaco, which in it’s declining state, I still own and drive once a week or so. It’s true that all the big Chryslers of that era looked alike. Being thrifty, I couldn’t see spending 2 thousand (big money then) or more for the New Yorker (every bit the Imperial) for that year. Aside from the pillowpuff interior, the Monaco is just as much car as the NY. And that’s what helped to kill Chrysler.
In the 80’s, when the K car came out, Le Baron badging did not make a Reliant a Chrysler. I always thought the Diplomat, New Yorker of the 80’s looked more like a Valiant or Dart than a luxury car.
Now the present era 300 is another story. Great looking car. If I ran across an Imperial from the fuselage era, I might be tempted to buy it. Practical? No, but great nostalgia.
Never had anyone try to pick me up in my old Dodge. Can’t really say I’d want to. Cheers!
THIS should have been the Bluesmobile!
In calling the ’61 Continental and its progeny “Modern,” I’m trying to name the period after the tailfin but before the Brougham era of the opera light, the spurious Rolls-Royce grille, and the loose-pillow-look leather interior.
In the book, Populuxe, Thomas Hines uses the term “sheer form” to refer to the squared-off, less adorned styling of the era, particularly as applied to appliances, electronics, furniture and architecture.
I always thought that was a good, descriptive term…although “sheer” implies light weight and agility, attributes that most of these items definitely did not possess.
Interestingly, GM designers called the look of the ’76 Seville (which was a huge influence on the downsized B-bodies and other big-ish cars of the era) the “sheer look.” They meant it in the sense of satin or nylon stretched taut over a surface.
Great write-up Alan!
Sounds to me as if you have a true passion for your Imperial and your point about the allure of a particular older automobile on a given individual (a phenomenon celebrated on this sight) ring true.
At some point, for many of us a particular automobile can capture the imagination and seemingly “call” to us, for lack of a better term. Is it nostalgia? A deferred desire? Insight brought about with time’s passage? Or perhaps in our modern world of seemingly “cookie-cutter” consumer conveyances where engineering excellence and pseudo-luxury are on tap almost across the spectrum of the automotive landscape, the offerings of the past stir in us a desire for something different. The false-starts and evolutionary dead-ends of automobile evolution offer a percieved freedom of expression through ownership in this day and age. Maybe all of the above and more?
Whatever the case, it’s that interest or combination of intersts that fuels this sight, it’s contributers and it’s readers.
My wife, on several occasions has found me reading a post here and always shakes her head and says something to the effect of; “More rusty old cars.”..”Why would anyone want to look at that?”
On the surface that is an entirely valid statement. Many of the subjects found here would never garner enterest from your average person, or the “casual” enthusiast, for that matter.
That’s what is so grat about Curbside Classic. It is an open format for anyone’s automotive enthusiasm.
Enterested in IH “corn-binder” pick-ups? Someone here probably is to.
Pass a blue, moss-covered ’74 Nova 4-door with a pink right front fender and duct tape holding the headlights in that sports a serious rake and traction-bars on your way to work each day, always wondering to yourself; “What’s up with THAT?” Take a pic and discuss it with the folks here…Maybe even approach the owner and get the real story yourself, sharing it with the peanut gallery when you post.
Paul’s done a very cool thing here with this site and you folks have helped carry it to the next level.
BUt I digress..
Alan, I love your Imperial and C-Body “Fuselage” cars in general…
Someday I WILL own a Fuselage coupe someday soon…Preferrably an Imperial (But a Dodge Polara would do!). 🙂
Too late to the party is my explanation. Plus, by that time, the quality of Chrysler was far behind GM and many people seemed to know that, so why pay a premium for a “paper car”? They were quite flimsy compared to GM and Ford.
I do miss roof design separation from the body. I like the “shelf” window sill. Pillarless H/T – well, I think side impact standards and perceived coming roll-over standards that never happened and A/C killed them. Plus, you can’t get the full effect of a nice stereo with the windows down – not that I ever worried about that!
You, Sir, have a very nice set of wheels! I wish I could own something from the H/T era…
I see no reason we couldn’t do a pillarless hardtop coupe today. Any hardtop convertibles with the top welded in place would be basically the same thing.
A 4 door hardtop would be a different story altogether. I don’t see how it could be done without serious structural reinforcement – maybe even a bulkhead connecting the B-half-pillars. That’s crash standards for you.
I don’t know–I think there’s a reason most demolition derby’s won’t allow an Imperial of any stripe to compete. . .
I think the beauty of these cars now is that they are philosophically the polar opposite of what we think of in terms of power and luxury. They are the 800 pound gorilla in an Armani suit that’s just a little too tight for comfort.
There’s a ’71 with a 440 in the local classifieds I have my eye on. Now I’m even more tempted. . .
Yours is a beauty, Alan. Love it!
Alan, thank you for this superb piece. Your writing is inspired, and for obvious reasons. You were able to see from the beginning how this car is a true classic (not just a CC), and will become more so as time passes. You’ve obviously had time to reflect on your car’s place in the history of the big American luxury car, and described it perfectly. I had never fully appreciated fully the subtle but significant effect of the ’72 restyle. This quality of this piece (and car…drool) is something for us all to aspire to.
Thanks, Paul, for publishing this, and thanks to the CC Cohort for all the thought-provoking comments – I feel fortunate to write for such an engaged audience!
Two little points to add:
1) I can’t take credit for “fender blade.” The term comes from Ford designers working on the ’61, according to an ancient “Collectible Automobile” article that’s probably not online. Pretty sure I’ve seen it other places as well.
2) For more about the Imperial, check out the great imperialclub.com site, especially the “year-by-year” section. And fuselage.de has great content on all the big 69-73 Mopars. I was struck by just how many front-end treatments there were on these cars. Presumably the budget wouldn’t permit changes to rooflines and glass, but they had to do SOMETHING…
Until next time,
This was unusually well written for an auto nostalgia piece. I particularly appreciate how Alan transcends the fanboy narrative long enough to wonder why we obsess about old cars.
Seeing CCs like this always make me introspective about the dual nature of my own automotive personality. I am torn between monsters like this Imperial (and all of the related luxury cars from the Big 3) and sporty cars like a Miata, FT86, Impreza WRX, new Dart in top 6-speed manual trim, Mustang, Camaro, ect… Not only is my heart torn in those two directions my driving style matches what I am driving. I’ll exceed the speed limit in any car but with a chromed monster you’ll likely pass me as I’m merging on the interstate and then several miles later I’ll fly past you exceeding the speed limit by 20 miles an hour. I’ll be more relaxed and forgiving of other drivers. (The exception to this is the Panther platform and GM B-body, for some reason I just want to HOON the heck out of em!)
Put me in a sporty little car that can handle? I think I’m Sterling Moss or Jack Baruth or a freaking fighter pilot… What to buy as my next car? (Oh and on mid size cars it totally depends on the nature of the beast, I become the car.)
I love this old Imperial and would be honored to pilot such a beast around a few times a week. I’ve always thought that these cars aesthetically were actually superior to the Cadillacs of the era. Perhaps its the blending of old and new or the thought of Lincoln styling with torsion bars superior ride.
This is the best automotive article I’ve read in awhile. It is a good history of why the fuselage Mopars were not popular, what makes your Imperial special, and a good defense of why you own it. It also does a good job of explaining why the 72-73 Imperials are among my favorites of the fuselage era…. they look more like a ’66 Chrysler. 🙂
Thanks for giving the “blades” a fitting name. I usually call them “chines”, which are sharp angles in a boat hull, but also airplane wing extensions (such as on the SR-71 Blackbird). My 4 year old son says that my cars have fins on the front and back, but I’m not going to start calling them “front fins”.
The steep inside edge, leading from the fender top to the edge of the hood, required a separate stamping from the outside panel of the fender itself. The chrome strip atop the ridge actually hides a welded seam between the two panels.
That’s the way 65-66 Chrysler fenders were constructed as well. I’ve had a pair chemically stripped, which removed all the factory filler as well as the paint and rust, and the welded seam is very obvious.
BOC, I would love to get a tutorial from you on all things c-body! And then steal a ’65 or ’66… 😉
A splendid article about a magnificent car. Thank you, Alan, for making my day.
Alan, you have written a fabulous piece here. Of course, you already know that I love your car.
I never realized that the front fenders were composed of two pieces. One of the many little, hidden high-cost touches that nobody would ever notice. My favorite feature on these cars was always the front parking lights. To me, they had a sort of gothic look, and reminded me of the lanterns that served as headlights on the Munsters’ hot rod from the 60s TV show.
I think that this Imperial is the only car that made the transition from 1972 to 1973 with almost no perceptible styling change. All of the other 5 mph bumpers were hugely intrusive and gave away a 1973 model in a nanosecond.
When I was a kid, there was an elderly neighbor couple. They never had kids, and always had 2 Imperials in the garage, always purchased used. For a long time, there was a white 64 and a gold 67. The 64 finally got rusty in the rear quarters and was replaced with a dark green 72. I liked each one less the newer they got, but wish I could have any of them today.
I never owned a fuselage Mopar, but drove a couple of them fairly extensively. My car-mentor Howard had a black 72 Newport coupe and his son (my college roommate) bought a tan 73 Polara wagon. The wagon particularly needed more sound insulation, and always felt lighter weight than it really was. Back when these were just cheap used cars, I always preferred the 65-68 C body to the fuselage because the fuselage never felt as substantial. But I always liked the way they drove. I nearly bought a 71 Polara a few years ago, but could not get together on price with the seller.
I am yammering on about fuselage Mopars because I don’t want to step away from the warm glow of your beautiful car and the exceptionally well-written piece about it. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
Very well written article. I have a similar fondness of these fuselage Mopars. I had a succession of these starting with a 71 Sport Suburban, then a 75 Custom Suburban, then I regressed to a 69 300 coupe, then a 72 Newport sedan, and finally a 71 Town and Country. I had the 71 T&C the longest, 10 years, it was my DD for 4 years. From 90-99 these were all I drove. I now have a 70 300 4dr hardtop as a weekend cruiser, driving around on a nice summer day with all the windows down is a great experience I always wanted a 4 door hardtop fuselage. They are very unique cars with their unibody construction and immense size. All their competitors at the time were all BOF. My favorite engine combo was the 383 4bbl, that my T&C had. The 318 in the 71 fury was just adequate, and the 440 was too thirsty for daily use. The 383 was quick, could cruise the interstates of the Midwest at 80 all day, and returned a solid 16mpg.
The 74-75 c-bodies were decent cars, but did not have the same feel as the 69-73 c-bodies. The 69-73 were much more fun to drive than the later cars. I found that 71 T&C to be a great daily driver, i enjoyed all the seat time in it, i would still have it if the rust had not taken its toll. That was a weak point in this body style when the rubber isolated subframe was introduced in 70 (71 in the wagons) the rear frame mounts would give out, happened to the 71 Sport Suburban and my 71 T&C. When i was younger i liked the fury interior and smaller size, but now after owning all these C-bodies I can really see how the Chrysler version was the best execution of this design. The imperial had all the little things in the right place and took the Chrysler execution to the next level. The dash with its full set of gauges, ribbon speedo (needle that came down from the top), am fm stereo, 5 speakers, floor mounted cassette player , anti-lock brakes, factory alarm system, headlight washers, front and rear A/C and heat, Autotemp 2 (a nightmare if its not working), and factory sunroof. These were truly spectacular cars that had an impressive list of options.
Your black on tan 73 is striking, it does the design justice beautiful car.
A fuselage Chrysler with a 383 and 16 mpg? I’d take that all day long, even today. Love these cars.
The first car I drove was our family 1969 Town and Country with the 440. I still have a fondness for them. It only had like 40,000 miles on it in 1979 when I started driving. The second fuel crisis, along with a broken torsion bar killed it!
Wow, I love seeing your ’70 300! My parents had the same car in the same color, but with a black vinyl top. I think it looks even better without the vinyl top. My favorite details on the car are the sweeping full-width hideaway grille, and matching unadorned full-width taillight. One of my all-time favorite car rears ever. And so rare now!
I agree with you on the vinyl roof. My car-mentor Howard had a black 72 Newport 2 door with no vinyl top. That was a sharp looking car. It got even better when he swapped onto it a set of slotted mag wheels with whiteletter Goodrich T/As. The car looked absolutely menacing then.
Whoa – not my 300 – I wish! I only won the cosmic c-body lottery once! 🙂
Duh…you meant Mopar’s…time to log out, LOL!
I was a Lincoln man first before I crossed over to the dark side and the world of Imperial Star Destroyers. I think you hit on something here, a Lincoln is a stunner in its own way but it always looks at rest- even the classic 61 Continental is not a design in motion. But the Imperial always looks like it is lunging at you, its lines always cant and suggest elegant forward motion. Even the 67-68 has a slight taper emphasizing that slightly forward tilt. Its the rectangle vs. the trapezoid. Cadillacs have their own charms but what ties them together is flash and sizzle while the Lincoln and Imperial went for an elegant look. This was a great read I loved the design tutorial. Nelson Rockefeller had some cool fuselage Imperial Limousines, definitely a distinctive choice.
At that close range we won’t last long against those Star Destroyers! – Admiral Ackbar
Dang it, now I want one in white with darkly tinted windows and the personalized plate “STRDSRYR”
An IMPERIAL with star wars plates would be sweet- or you could also do “EXECUTR” after Vader’s flagship- the Executor-, “DRKSIDE”, “SITHSLD”(Sith Sled?), lots of posibilities!, Then you need a “political” bumper sticker “PALPATINE for a safe and secure society!”
Here in LA, a ’72 Imperial almost identical to the one pictured (black with gold interior) is the classic car of choice for Syd Mead, futurist and designer of the look of such movies as TRON, Aliens, and Blade Runner. His personalized plate: FABULON! The Fabulon is futuristic and fabulous to be sure.
The post-fin era up to the bordello pillow interior are can be divided into two: The Kennedy years and the pre-Watergate years with Vietnam thrown in between as transition.
Clean lines up through 1964 models, mild humps up to escalation of Vietnam and large humps and fuselage just after escalation up to Watergate.
Colonnades and fixed-windows ever-after! Sorry, but I had to say it…
If not totally accurate, it makes sense to me.
Colonnades aka ‘Opera Windows’, too.
I Dont Like Fixed Rear Windows either. And Please give me a BreezeAway anyday!
A fine piece. Thanks!
The pic of the 1973 Chrysler-Plymouth line brochure shows what hurt Imperial. It was just another Chrysler by then, and only in tiny letters. Many ‘mid-lux’ buyers got New Yorkers and saved some cash. When the ‘new’ 1976 New Yorker appeared with previous year Imperial body, it was a hit.
And the great irony is that many people who bought New Yorkers optioned them up to Imperial levels so they were still spending just as much as they would have on an Imperial which had just about everything standard.
Excellent article and beautiful car!
In 1970, Ford abandoned the distinctive Sixties suicide door Continental design (it ironically hung on two more years as a T-Bird) and brought out boring, thirsty, wallowy Lincolns that were very hard to tell from a Mercury Marquis at a quick glance. It should have been an opportunity for Chrysler to seize. There was nothing really wrong with the product, in fact, it looks much better to my eye than a 1970-74 Lincoln. However, by the Seventies it was clear that the effort to create a separate brand identity for Imperial had failed. People called them “Chrysler Imperials” no matter what. That 1973 “Chrysler/Plymouth” brochure didn’t help that one bit.
Thank you for the well considered article, I wish you were writing for “Collectible Automobile”. My first car was a fuselage Fury (badged Dodge Phoenix for the Aust. market). Cool old rides.
(If you can think of a name for our 21st century era of three-ton trucks being sold as family cars, feel free to comment.)
The Abomination of Desolation.
I’ve always considered the “fuselage” Chryslers to be some of the most beautiful cars of that era. When I bought a 1972 Cadillac DeVille sedan from its elderly owner in 1998, its contemporary Imperial rival was the car I really wanted–but as a 16-year-old with limited Internet knowledge (was it really that long ago?), I couldn’t find one locally. Trying to accommodate 9 MPG (and frequent niggling repairs) on minimum wage didn’t work out very well, so I sold the Cadillac. Soon, it was replaced by a used ’95 Miata, which began a whole other story in terms of automotive preferences. Still, I’d love to run one of those misunderstood 1970 Chrysler 300/Hursts.
Fantastic article! I think the fuselage cars have been underappreciated but perhaps that’s changing. The ’69-’73 Imperial was certainly a good way to stand out from the (Cadillac and Lincoln) crowd! By the way, to my eye, the “jet intake” fender lamps looked more like lanterns, and were kind of a neoclassical touch, very in step with the times if not quite up to the opera windows and vertical grilles of the competition.
I think you can split the SUV era in two, or even three distinct phases, based on styling themes of the time:
“The Active Lifestyle Era” – with its roots in the late Jeep Grand Wagonneer, Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, looking rugged could be considered stylish and even high-end. Think LL Bean clothing. In fact, LL Bean was a licensed trim edition on the Subaru Outback, but there were others – Eddie Bauer Fords, Orvis Jeeps, and probably more I am forgetting. Speaking of the Outback, it was proof that rugged styling cues on cars would sell. This was the period where you could take a sale-proof station wagon, raise the suspension, add all wheel drive and white letter tires and contrasting body cladding (preferably beige cladding on a dark green or dark blue body) and suddenly it would sell to wagon-averse Americans. This style even caught on in Europe and Japan. Subaru Outback, Audi Allroad, Volvo XC70 Cross Country, and even the first gen Mazda MPV (really a minivan but with non-sliding doors) got this treatment. Today you will see far more of these “soft roader” variants than the straight wagon versions. Vehicles like the RAV4, CR-V, Pontiac Vibe, and Subaru Forester were a further push into unique bodies to make them more like the Cherokee without losing their carlike driving dynamics.
“The Escalade Epoch” – In a perverse reversal of the Active Lifestyle trend, now the primary expression of wealth was to take a theoretically rugged-capable vehicle, and through the painting or removal of body cladding and the addition of ever larger chrome wheels and low profile tires, make it 100 percent street bound. In a way it makes sense, since very few of those overty outdoorsy expensive SUVs and tall wagons made it beyond a gravel road, but it was as shameless an expression of such wealth (I can afford a $50k offroad vehicle and then make it completely unsuitable for such conditions!) as owning a pet tiger and then having it wear mittens. Personally, I feel that this was a longing for the return of brash, large luxury cars like the featured Imperial, but CAFE standards have made it so that the only large vehicles the automakers can afford to sell in large numbers need to be classified as trucks. This style did find its way out of trucks in some cases, the best known being the Chrysler 300 of 2005, but such was the hunger for this look that you will see 20″ and larger chrome wheels on almost anything.
I think we have reached the end of the Escalade Epoch, but it is still too early to be sure what comes next. There is the fetishist ion of hybrids and there is some common design language there but so far the truly aspirational hybrids all look like their standard counterparts with big blue or green badges added to their rumps. The fact that the Prius sells so well may be a sign that looking green is more important than being green, just like looking like you could go on an expedition on your way to Whole Foods was important once. On the other hand, the current Honda Insight pushes all the same buttons but doesn’t sell.
There are some near ubiquitous styling trends like headlights and taillights smearing ever further up and over the body – I hate the style but it is clearly done to meet light and reflector size and location regulations within one unit – and bulbous hoods with bluff front fascias to meet European pedestrian regs. However, each of these styles comes more from necessity than fashion – as does the “hybrid” look – and none of them feel to me to be as big a trend as the Brougham Epoch, the blackout “Euro” look, the “Jet Age,” the “Active Lifestyle,” or the Escalade Epoch. We will need hindsight to see the ’10s with clarity.
This is a message from the future! (future…future)
Enjoy the vehicles you can drive and look at now.
Soon they have big telescreens and will “collect and share data.” All the time.
And no one will care because “Ooh, shiny thing!’
This message is from 2021.
I will check back in 9 years and let you know how Skynet/Samaritan is doing.
“fetishist ion” should be “fetish for the fashion.” autocorrect can be a pain.
Excellent article Alan, as always.
I have always preferred the 72-73 Imperial over the previous Fuselage Imperials.
However, I think (and I am biased through ownership) but the ultimate Fusey,
is the ’70-71 Newport 2 door Hardtop. Minimal bling. With a more delicate ornamentation
with the Loop bumpers front and rear.
Agree that the Fuselage is a very under appreciated car.
Great piece! I love the fuelselage cars. The 69 Polara, 70 Fury and 300 in particular. Your Imp didn’t try to scream I’m luxury like other brands tried to do by 73.
A friend from high school had a sweet 69 Polara convertible that was loaded to the gills. It was Red with White top and interior, TNT 440, buckets and console, auto temp control, and power windows. Really, if it was an option in 69 this car had it. She would scoot too! We took that car down to visit his grandparents in Tennessee one year, drove straight through down down there and rode in a Rt66 “rally” on the way back through Illinois and never got tired.
It’ll be hard to top that road trip in my lifetime.
A really great article, thanks.
Quick; you must show us some images of the car with its lights on!
Thanks, Jordan. Here’s the best I can do for now, kinda hazy and shot with a dying BBerry last summer. Just pretend you’re about to come to a bad end in an episode of “Kojak.”
I’m having the door motor rebuilt over the winter by “The Headlight Motor Man”! I intend to make a celebratory gif once she can open her own eyes again.
Thank you for that! That would be great to see approaching in my rear view mirror or in oncoming traffic. If it’s one thing I lament, it’s interesting headlight/taillight design.
I Liked The Cadillac Cone Like Taillights That Were Part of The Restyled 73 Chryslers.it set them apart from lesser New Yorkers, Newports Etc.
I Liked a Girl in Dance School, Ballroom, it was routine in our family, due to my having sisters of Marrying age. Anyway…Her Father had a Yolk yellow green Imperial Brogham,white top I am certain if Not Matching Yolk.
I Always loved The cadillac Like Vertical Tailights,bezeled. As a car nut I remember thinking her Dad a Dr. , must be independant to Have Chosen an Imperial over the 20x more Popular Cadillac or the 10x more popular Lincolns.
Chryslers were an Underdog,dinasaur almost like, Imperial was Never Going To Be a Volume Seller. But I Sure Liked, Even The 1990-1993 K Kar Deluxe Imperial.
Extremely nice looking Imperial. I owned a 70′ Imperial once, black with 350 horse 440. It was one hell of a car; power, long, and intimidating to Toyota Prius owners. I still drive a fuselage car now, a 70′ Chrysler Newport with a 330 horse 383 magnum under the hood. Not quite the monster the 70′ Imp was, but still massive and powerful. Long live the fuselage car, and Mopar.
I love fuselage Chryslers, but can’t understand owning a car because it “ANNOYS (insert stereotype) PPL.” Surely the pleasure of owning a car is in one’s own enjoyment of it, instead of the real or imagined reactions from others.
Let’s just say its my way of saying K-M-A to those folks who think it is their duty to accost me for not driving an “I’m saving the world” type car, e.i. Prius, hybrid, or whatever. On more than one occasion I’ve had notes left on my windshield from brainwashed tree hugger types asking how could I be so insensitive to the fact of “global warming (GW is NOT a fact). So there is no “imagination” about it. Perhaps you can understand that.
The turn signal pods remind me of the Woodlight headlights that were often seen on Ruxton cars in the ’30’s.
Great article Alan. Love your Imperial.
We had a ’72 New Yorker when I was in high school. Great date car. Wish I still had it, though it was like steering the Titanic and just as disaster prone.
(If you can think of a name for our 21st century era of three-ton trucks being sold as family cars, feel free to comment.)
I smile every time I see a Mopar Fuselage!!
As a kid, my best friend’s Mom drove a blue ’69 Chrysler Newport sedan. We could fit 6+ kids in the back seat with room to spare.
She eventually gave it to her 3rd son (my friend) who know nothing about mechanics. However, he got a crash course in auto repair keeping the beast rolling for many years.
I actually like the ’64, windshield and all. My favourite car, the Mercedes W111 coupe has a wrap around windscreen – albeit not as extreme as some of the US cars – and it was around until 1972. It also has a rather wild wrap around rear screen (hint: don’t sit in the back of one on a sunny day!).
The ’67 just looks like a bloated Valiant to me.
“…Park a 1973 Imperial next to a contemporary Jaguar, Mercedes, or Volvo. How can we explain why one of these things is not like the others,..”
48 years after the 1973 Imperial was new, and six years after the above words were penned (tapped out on a keyboard), I do opine about those makers’ sedans of the era that the Imperial and Jaguar are beautiful. The Mercedes and Volvo are appliances.
Went through a lot of Imperials, kept my 64-65-66’s, love their windshield, there is NOTHING obstructing vision, did think the ’73 pretty, in Imperials massive way. Check out Imperial versus Ferrari on You Tube. Ironically this photo was after driving up the same road HWY 70
Been awhile since viewed, Imperial vs Dino308, for video.
My uncle’s ’72 and my father’s ’70 New Yorker Brougham and ’73 Dodge Royal Monaco were all lemons. So I don’t have any love for Fuselage Chryslers. We had three Valiant cars, all die-hard vehicles, but the Chrysler full sizers we had in the family, caused us to buy other brands and never buy Chryslers again.
I just wish they were as good as they looked.
Having worked as a Dealership mechanic from ‘59 until mid ‘88, I can agree with your evaluation of the ‘72 and ‘73 C body cars, but your fathers ‘70 Brougham? This was a car without the emission controls of ‘72 and later. Still the great performing 440 with a Carter AVS carburetor. No smog-pump or EGR.
Emission controls killed the ‘Big Block’ Chrysler engines that required high compression and free breathing as well as the Slant 6 which could not survive by being choked down. 1971 was the last year of decent performance from Chrysler engines until new engines were developed.
Yup – good looking car, but not a good one.
Being a huge fan of the English Pre-Raphaelite painters, seeing them compared to Raphael in the context of being unable to imagine an oil crisis in 1961, just made my day. I completely understand why you feel the way you do about your Imperial as that is how I feel about my ’68 Plymouth Fury VIP. From my very prejudiced eyes, I think of the ’65-68 C-bodies as peak full size Mopar. I get reminded of this every time I drive my ’79 St. Regis where the only thing it has over my VIP is front disc brakes, and I love that old Dodge as I’m in my 26th year of driving the St. Regis.
Don’t know how I missed this piece in 2012, but from 2021 I say, well done!
73ImpCapn, thank you for sharing your gorgeous car with us! I found this article some years ago surfing CC, and here it is again. Definitely worth reading a second time!
In 1975 I was 11 and recall cruising next to one of these in Chicago on our way to Milwaukee for Thanksgiving. From the vantage point of our 1968 Impala, watching that skirted rear quarter with its lettering and lighted Imperial shield was something to behold.
“Lincoln sold far more cars in the pseudo-classical ‘70s than it had in the pseudo-Modern ‘60s.”
It’s both hard and unfair to compare sales of the Camelot Continentals to what came before and after them, or with the competition, since they weren’t competing with Cadillac (or indeed Imperial) model-for-model, instead going for an air of exclusivity and high margins on a per-unit basis with only two models priced to the high end of the segment.
Getting back to the ’72-3 Imperial, the turn signal pods resemble Woodlite headlights as used on the Ruxton among other premium cars circa-1930 as well as jet pods. A combination of modernist and neoclassic influence.
They need a taller, longer greenhouse to balance the huge mass of the body. The windshield was made more upright so the hood could be longer, but instead it looks pinched. The ’74 is much nicer looking and different from Dodge (which looked like a Buick) and Plymouth.
I’ve only encountered the term “fuselage cars” in the last few months, and acknowledge that it’s very apt. To me, these were always the “whale Chryslers”.
I thought that both Chrysler and (full-sized) Plymouth peaked, style-wise, with the ’68s. (I didn’t like the ’68 Dodges, though.)
Whatever one thinks of the styling, I’ve always been impressed by the boldness and confidence of the look. They looked excessive, and proud of it.
I love the 73 & 73 Imperials. Smooth, powerful and distinctive! Here’s a pic of my 73 Imperial LeBaron coupe.
I first purchased an Imperial when in the spring of 1974 I was exploring around my new home in central Germany, between Mannheim and Heidelberg. Bicycling thru a small town not far from the military base I called home, I spotted a large black elephant in the back row of a used car dealership.
It was a 1956 Imperial sedan, and the price was $100. I drove it home a few hours later. That car was my primary transportation for over 30,000 KM, until I shipped it home in September, 1975. How it came to be in Europe from new, is another story for another day.
So began my love affair with Imperials. I don’t have time now to write about all of them, but here’s a listing of most of the Imperials I’ve owned:
1955 Crown Imperial limousine [ex White House]
1956 Euro-spec sedan
1956 Southampton 2-door
1957 LeBaron sedan
1959 Southampton 2-door hardtop
1960 LeBaron sedan
1964 2-door hardtop
1964 Convertible in white
1965 Convertible in black
1965 Ghia limousine [#9 of 10]
1967 2-door in Gold.
1967 2-door with “Mobile director” option.
1968 Armbruster-Stageway limousine.
But at this point, I stopped collecting Imperials, for several reasons. First, I really didn’t care for the new fuselage styling, as I felt it was just a Chrysler Newport with fancy trim. And the second reason was based on personal experience;
My best friend and next door neighbor, Richard, was also into cars. With my father away on business a lot, my friend’s father became sort of an adopted dad. So when Richard and his dad went to the 1970 Washington DC auto show on opening day [a Friday], I was included in the trip. At the show the Chrysler stand featured a dark gray Imperial LeBaron with black leather interior & black top. The car was unusual because it had on the window invoice “Delete pinstripe”, but otherwise it was bone stock.
Well Richard’s dad decided to buy that very car, and at the end of the show, having paid cash for the car, as it was taken off the show stand and quickly cleaned up inside & out, and the license plates transferred from his trade-in while we waited, the 3 of us returned home in the new LeBaron that Monday afternoon.
Unlike my earlier Imperials, the steering was much more vague, and the car tended to wallow like a cruise ship. That said, it was a great tour car for long distance trips, and on several trips to South Bend where we overloaded the Imperial with Studebaker and Packard parts, it performed very well.
But the car was plagued with rattles and body noises from the start. Closing both front doors usually resulted in rattle noise. This was a re-occurring problem, and after it was out of the warranty period, they simply got used to the driver’s door noise. The dash started “clicking” when the car went into tight turns at speed, and especially when it was below freezing, then the various clicking locations got noticeably worse. There was a local railroad grade crossing and each time the Imperial went over that crossing, we would hear various noises due to loose parts.
The front power windows were especially prone to coming off the track, to the point the driver’s window had to be disconnected. The Autotemp system worked OK in the cold months, but had a hard time in the hot months here in Maryland. It just didn’t put out air cold enough to cool down the cabin, often taking 15 minutes or longer to cool down the interior, even when the car was running at higher speeds.
When in 1977, a friend who worked for the local Chrysler dealer, called me to let me know they had just taken in another “older car” in trade, he said I should come over right away, because if I wasn’t interested in it, it was going to be wholesaled off, as it was too old to put on their lot.
Richard and I went to look at the car, it was a gorgeous 1967 Imperial LeBaron, Gold exterior and interior, with a black top. It had done only about 8,000 miles and was always garaged when not being driven. So they bought the car and sold the 1970 LeBaron thru an ad in the Washington Post. It had done only about 60,000 miles.