(first posted 7/16/2013) Chrysler Imperial. Doesn’t it just roll off the tongue? A little too well, for fans of the newer models. As the former owner of a 1964 Crown Coupe, I learned that the curse of an Imperial owner is the constant need to correct people: “It is not a Chrysler Imperial–just an Imperial.” Sort of the Mopar equivalent to the Cadillac owner’s curse of “Don’t slam the trunk lid.” Thinking back on it, is there any high-end car that ever had so much trouble deciding what it wanted to be?
The Chrysler Imperial 80 followed right on the heels of the original 1924 Chrysler 70 as a car with all the goodness of the new Chrysler plus extra size, comfort and luxury. In the classic era, there were few more beautiful cars than the custom-bodied Imperials, but shortly after the Airflow debacle, the Chrysler Imperial morphed into a Buick Roadmaster wannabe (1937-39), and then into an ultraconservative, eight-passenger sedan or limo usually to be driven by a chauffeur.
Through 1948, a Chrysler Imperial was basically a long-wheelbase New Yorker sedan with an extra cushy back seat. People who looked for a bit of glamour in their cars stuck with Cadillacs, Lincoln Continentals and, maybe, the wood-bodied Town & Country. The Imperial had a certain patrician appeal, provided you were a gray-haired financier who wore spats.
When planning the new 1949 models, Chrysler decided to get back into the market aimed at the man (or woman) of means who preferred to drive rather than be driven. Following a handful of 1949 models, the 1950 Chrysler Imperial (sorry, I just love the freedom to keep using this full name) appeared as Chrysler’s first semi-legit Cadillac competitor in years. By 1951, the Imperial lineup, now with a new Firepower Hemi underhood, had been fleshed out to include sedans, coupes, a hardtop and a convertible in addition to the traditional eight-passenger sedan and limo. It was here the Chrysler Imperial would stay while preparing its leap to the big time (including its own Imperial nameplate) with the ambitious 1955 models.
The heart of the Chrysler Imperial (and New Yorker and Saratoga) was the famous Chrysler FirePower V8 engine. Although not the original engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, this was certainly the original Chrysler Hemi (which is a registered trademark of Chrysler). Until then, Chryslers had been powered by durable (but dull) inline flathead engines. The smooth straight eight that powered the New Yorker and the Imperial through 1950 dated back to the early 1930s.
A team of engineers, led by James Zeder (the younger brother of Fred Zeder, a fixture of Chrysler’s engineering department who’d helped develop the first Chrysler, in 1924), began experimenting with different engine configurations during the war. Allpar has an excellent account of the development of the first Chrysler V8 (here) The digest version is that James Zeder, having done his homework, had the data to convince company President K. T. Keller to shake some cobwebs out of stolid old Chrysler by abandoning the straight eight in favor of this modern design. K.T. Keller had his faults, but his respect for a superior product almost always outweighed his conservative approach to change.
The 1951 Chrysler V8 displaced 331 cubic inches (5.4 liters) and, with a 7:1 compression ratio and a two-barrel carburetor, put out 180 horsepower. A 1951 New Yorker was the first stock car since the supercharged Cord of 1936-37 to crack 100 mph on the sand at Daytona Beach. For comparison, the identically sized Cadillac V8 had 20 fewer horses despite its higher compression. In 1952, Cadillac would bump up the power to 190 horses; two years later, Chrysler responded with a boost to 235. The Great American Horsepower Race was on. The same 331 CID Chrysler engine would be massaged to put out 300 ponies in the 1955 C-300 before its displacement was raised to 354 (in 1956), and later to 392 (1957-58). By any measure (aside from manufacturing cost), the Chrysler FirePower was undeniably the best of the first crop of American V8 engines.
Unfortunately, the sparkling innovation of the FirePower failed to progress beyond the engine compartment of the big Chrysler. Until the two-speed Powerflite would come to the rescue very late in the 1953 model year, the 1951-53 Imperial continued to make do with the hoary old Fluid Drive and semi-automatic transmission. Paul Niedermeyer gave a good account of this simple but incomplete step towards automatic shifting in his CC of the 1946 Town & Country (here). When the V8 hit town, the veteran M6 transmission had a torque converter added (in place of the old straight fluid coupling) to give the car a little more ooomph.
Although Chrysler tried to disguise the ancient transmission with a shift quadrant that looked like that of a real automatic, the renamed “Fluid Torque” transmission still needed that “Safety Clutch” pedal and the lift from the accelerator to accomplish its single semi-automatic shift in normal operation. Actually, there are some sources that claim that the Fluid Torque transmission would give the superb Torqueflite automatic a run for its money in acceleration if one could master the technique of manually shifting from Lo to Hi range. It may have been the finest flowering of the semi-automatic at Chrysler, but it was still just a semi-automatic, and as such an unforgivable sin in the Imperial’s price class. The rest of the world had moved on to where even plebian Fords and Chevrolets could be equipped with full automatics.
From a competitive standpoint, the ’53 Imperial was a laggard. By 1953, the FirePower engine, despite dripping with potential, trailed both Lincoln and Cadillac power plants in horsepower. It beat the ancient Packard straight eight by only a mere twenty horsies–and even conservative old Packard offered its home-grown Ultramatic tranny, while Cadillac and Lincoln shared the industry-leading HydraMatic. There would be no advertising comparisons between the Chrysler Imperial and Luxury Cars C, P and L. At least by 1953, the rebodied Imperial was (sarcasm on) a beautiful car (sarcasm off).
The 1953 Chrysler and Imperial would be the last new models before the Virgil Exner styling era at Chrysler. Exner had come to Chrysler’s Advanced Design Studios in 1949 and was put in charge of a new line for 1955, following his creation of several stunning show cars. Despite new exterior sheet metal, the 1953 Chryslers were still based on the ’49-52 structure. Some sources indicate that Exner led this redesign; others at least hint that the cars were largely the work of Henry King, and that Exner did not assume control of production cars until they were well underway. King was an old-timer who had become Chrysler’s lead stylist after Fred Zeder fired Ray Dietrich after Walter Chrysler’s stroke, in 1937. While not (quite) as frumpy as the ’49-52 cars and featuring one piece windshields, the cars were far from stylish. It is interesting that the ’53 Imperial lost the convertible and coupe models, though it appears that the Newport hardtop reappeared at some point after the brochure was produced.
Surely, Exner tried to exert whatever influence he could at his late arrival to their development, but only so much could be done. In the historical record, the development of these cars has been largely ignored, overshadowed by the 1949 models and by the later 1955 and 1957 models. Even Aaron Severson’s fine account of this period of Chrysler history (here) doesn’t really get into these cars–not that there’s all that much to get into.
In truth, the 1953 (and nearly identical 1954) Imperial probably came off as well as any Mopar of that two-year generation, though that’s not saying much. Inside, however, Chrysler did its traditional fine job of making its top car look like a top car. It is unfortunate that Imperials of this era would suffer from the same shortcomings that affected so many of their younger siblings. Despite a longer wheelbase and many special touches, they gave the impression of being very nicely trimmed and slightly better equipped Chrysler New Yorkers, and really nothing more.
The 1953 Chrysler Imperial’s fatal flaw was that it failed in the most critical mission of a proper luxury car: to impress the neighbors. The Imperial did so only if the neighbor was an engineer who saw the wisdom of spending several hundred dollars more for a really nice interior, or a Chrysler die-hard who would never think of sliding his derriere onto the seat of another brand. At the time, the other 97% of the population was wowed by a Cadillac and not much else. Quiet, “old world” elegance and baked-in quality (then, as now) could bring in just so many buyers.
The sad story is that the 1953 Chrysler Imperial, with its less-than-attractive styling and lack of an automatic transmission, sold (according to the Imperial Club’s website) 9,018 cars. In 1975–after over 20 years and umpteen bazillion dollars and man-hours expended–the (once again) Chrysler Imperial sold 8,830 units. If ever there was a car that toiled its life away under that Presbyterian concept of predestination, it would be the poor Imperial. Like some of the tragic figures of history and mythology, the Imperial would never permanently break out of the role it settled into during 1951-54. This most obscure of Imperials may not have been a successful luxury car, but it was a very, very nice Chrysler. And shouldn’t that be enough?