(first posted 8/8/2014) While the lack of interior color choices on new cars is a complaint commonly expressed here at CC, it’s also important to note that our choice when it comes to exterior colors has been greatly reduced over the last half-century. This is especially true when it comes to luxury cars, where cold, unexpressive colors seem to be the trend. If you don’t believe me, go check out a new Mercedes S-Class; you can choose from no less than six shades of black (four regular, plus two Designo).
But it was a much more colorful word of cars in 1956, when this Imperial Southampton 2-door hardtop rolled off the assembly line in Detroit. It offered a much wider spectrum, with 20 hues of paint, and countless two- and three-tone combinations. These big, long, low, and wide cruisers look great in colors like turquoise, sky blue, and pale yellow. But my favorite shade of all on late-’50s cars has to be coral pink, like the main color on this Imperial.
To be exact, “Cloud White over Desert Rose” is the official color combination on this car, and I think it looks absolutely stunning. I must admit that these colors wouldn’t look quite as well on any 2014 car. Although there are definitely beautiful new cars, they are beautiful in a minimalist sort of way. The ’50s were all about flair, fins, and flamboyance – something that this Imperial executed in a more tasteful way than ’56 Cadillacs and Lincolns. With the help of Virgil Exner’s Forward Look styling, the ’56 Imperials exuded a sleeker and leaner look than top rung GMs and Fords.
While it may have come across as more athletic than its rivals, looks can be deceiving. The 1956 Imperial was still a very big car; at nearly 230 inches long and over 78 inches wide, the Imperial had 7 inches in wheelbase and over 10 inches in overall length on a Chrysler New Yorker. It was also about 5 inches longer than a comparable Cadillac Sixty Special or Lincoln Premiere. With a base price of $4,832 ($42,340 in 2014 dollars) for the 4-door sedan, Imperials were also the costliest of the Big Three’s flagship full-sizers (excluding limousines and personal luxury models).
To haul around its two-and-a-half ton curb weight, there was a husky 354 CID (5.8 liter) “FirePower” Hemi V8 under that long hood. Making 280 horsepower, it was the same engine, albeit lower output, found under the hood of the famous Chrysler 300B. Initially coupled with Chrysler’s 2-speed “PowerFlite” automatic transmission, the Imperial was capable of reaching sixty miles per hour in just under 10 seconds. Late into ’56 production, a 3-speed Torqueflite automatic would be available.
While not exclusive to Imperial, among its most interesting features was the Push Button Drive Selector. With buttons for each driving mode (drive, low, reverse, neutral) located in a pod to the left of the steering wheel, a traditional column shifter was no longer needed. Push button transmissions were standard on all automatic transmission Chrysler Corporation vehicles from 1956 through 1964, when they reverted back to a regular column-mounted shifter. It’s interesting to note that push button transmissions are beginning to come back into vogue on modern cars.
With total production of 10,628 vehicles, Imperial sales in 1956 were far lower than both Cadillac and Lincoln. While it’s true that Imperials were slightly more expensive, price probably had minimal effect on sales. Although the Imperial name had been used on the most prestigious Chryslers since 1926, as its own brand, Imperial was only two years old. It simply didn’t have a foothold in the marketplace to capture many sales from competitors. A strong visual resemblance to Chrysler-branded models didn’t help Imperial’s case as a separate luxury make either.
Not that looking like a 1956 Chrysler was necessarily a bad thing. As opposed to 1955 models, ’56s gained sharper looks with wind-piercing headlight housings and the addition of tail fins. Its Chrysler 300-like divided eggcrate grille and power dome hood gave it forceful, aggressive look.
Running the entire length of the vehicle was a chrome character line that gently widened going towards the rear. Its canopy-like roofline was both formal and airy. Soft tail fins began their rise about 2/3 the way back, and were topped with Imperial’s signature styling feature, “gun-sight” taillights.
The free-standing gun-sight taillights were among this car’s most distinctive feature. Stylish and delicate, they would become integrated into growing tail fins from 1957-1961. Their final appearance, in 1962, would see them once again perched atop the rear fenders.
The 2-door Southampton hardtop, like our featured car started at $5,094. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to $44,636, which actually seems like a bargain relative to full-size cars from luxury marques today. For that still-hefty price tag, Imperial buyers basically received all the modern automotive luxuries of 1956.
Four-way power front seat, power windows, power steering, crown-crested overhead dome and rear-reading lights, fold-down center armrests, and full gauge instrumentation were all standard. Seats were upholstered in leather, with Imperial Eagle-embroidered faille cloth inserts. Everything being color-keyed, of course, was a given.
Imperial buyers could of course further customize their car with some optional equipment if they felt like shelling out even more cash. There were several heating systems to choose from including the MoPar All Weather Comfort System and the MoPar Instant Heat Conditionaire, the latter which included automatic climate control. Air conditioning and tinted window glass were also options.
Naturally, there were also several radios to choose from, including the first all-transistor radio ever available in a car. This particular Southampton coupe features a very rare option, the Highway Hi-Fi record player. Mounted in a shock-proof case under the dash board, Highway Hi-Fi featured a specially designed stylus that would not be affected by vibration, speed, or cornering. Special records were needed to play on this system, and a set of six was given to all owners who ordered Highway Hi-Fi with their new 1956 Chrysler product. I was really excited to see this, as I’ve never seen a car equipped with one in person before.
Without multiple models and a lack of solid brand loyalty, Imperial never posed any kind of threat to Cadillac in terms of sales. But unlike Cadillac, whose broader lineup included lower priced, lower content models, Imperials were always fully loaded, full prestige cars. Their low production only added to their exclusivity then, and their collectability now.
These were some of the most beautiful cars ever produced, and this one in particular is especially spectacular. The contrast between pink, white, and chrome really pops, and accentuates the car’s distinctive styling features. It may be an overused cliche, but they truly don’t make them like this anymore.