(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?