(first posted 11/18/2014. Posted by request of Lennon L., who asked for a ’59 Imperial CC on his birthday)
The wild 1957-60 Imperials and their slightly toned down 1961-63 successors have received their fair share of criticism here for their wacky collection of styling features – tailfins, rocket pod taillights, free-standing headlights, “toilet seat” trunk lids – assembled in varying combinations over the years under Virgil Exner. The criticism is justified, since Imperials had some of the most far-out, excessive styling of a far-out, excessive era. A lot is necessary to surpass the famously over-the-top excess of a 1959 Cadillac, and the contemporary Imperial had more than enough, although in relatively obscurity since Imperial sales were so low. Seeing a well preserved example in the metal for the first time prompted some different thoughts about these over half century old luxury cars, though, thoughts that were far more favorable.
“Classic” or “dignified” are not thoughts that will occur to anyone looking at a 1959 Imperial’s baroque face. Its quad podded headlights, huge horizontal grille bar with five wide teeth, bifurcated bumper, twin fender crowns-in-V’s, and domed hood topped by an Imperial eagle hood ornament make the aforementioned 1959 Cadillac’s nose look almost restrained in comparison. Fussy and overwrought come to mind as ways to describe it.
The tail inspires similar thoughts. Fins tipped with rocket tail cones, each then ringed with multiple annular fins like a new-for-the-1950s guided missile; the “toilet seat” fake spare tire holder introduced in 1958; a bifurcated bumper reminiscent of the mouth of a bottom feeding fish – details, details, details, all of them weird and rather unattractive.
I really cannot bring myself to hate this car, though. Part of it may be that I spotted it outside a Sears Auto Center that is the very same building in which I spent many afternoons as a small child in the 1970s, waiting for my father to shop for car care items, back when DieHard batteries and RoadHandler tires were top aftermarket brands and Sears was a go-to place for auto maintenance and repair. It is easy to be nostalgic in such as situation, even for a car that you have never seen before, from over a decade before you were born. It prompted me to take a look back at that long-ago time when this car was new.
With flamboyant finned cars of the late 1950s long since entrenched in popular memory as symbols of kitsch – the prime example being the 1959 Cadillac, associated by many with Elvis, even though he never owned one since in 1959 he was a draftee serving in the Army in Germany, where he owned German cars (a VW, a BMW 507, and then another BMW 507) – it is easy to forget that the target market of a Cadillac, Lincoln or Imperial was affluent and rather conservative. It is noteworthy that Imperial advertising used camera angles to minimize the 1959’s flamboyant details at its front and rear ends and tried to sell the car as “classic” in design. False advertising, most of us would say, but indicative of the beholder who was supposed to find these Imperials beautiful.
As strange as it seems now, these cars were supposed to appeal to the wealthiest Americans, such as this couple being chauffeured past the statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. This location, then and now, is one of America’s most affluent and expensive areas, and today anything less than a Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Maserati, or Tesla would look out of place there, aside from a taxi or a car service Lincoln Town Car – a Chrysler Fifth Avenue would be painfully out of place on this part of Fifth Avenue.
This advertisement, which once again features the 1959 Imperial at 59th Street and 5th Avenue, hints well at what Chrysler’s Mad Men thought of the work of Exner and his stylists. The profile view minimizes its Exner exuberances even further, giving very little idea of the elaborate front end or the many details of the rear, and completely hiding the toilet seat on the trunk lid. “… heads will turn” it declares, out of “admiration” supposedly, but perhaps equally or more often out of bemusement. Heads would turn, and then buyers would appreciate the car’s engineering substance beneath the surface flash, as described breathlessly in most of the advertising copy. Chrysler’s advertising department appeared to be saying about the styling of the 1959 Imperial, “We are not amused,” to borrow the words of Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India.
With Imperial advertising apparently ashamed to show these details, it is unsurprising that few potential buyers seeing them in the showroom were willing to pay their money to display them on their driveways. Only 17,710 Imperials were sold in 1959 – 7,798 Custom sedans and four and two door hardtops, 7,777 Crown sedans and four and two door hardtops, 555 Crown convertibles, 1,132 LeBaron sedans and four door hardtops, and 7 Crown Imperial Limousines with the lofty price of $16,000 ($129,000 in 2014). Cadillac thoroughly dominated the luxury class with sales of 142,272, and even distant second place Lincoln managed 26,906.
A different perspective on these Imperials is that their strange styling and lack of popularity did not stop many of the wealthiest people in the United States and the world from buying them. The Crown Imperial Limousine, built by Ghia in small numbers (only 132 from 1957 to 1965), had owners such as Nelson Rockefeller and the King of Saudi Arabia. The actually imperial Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ruler of Iran from 1941 to 1979, bought this 1957 sedan and – perhaps finding the standard styling too restrained for his taste – added to it what appear to be front fender portholes and Dagmar bumpers from a 1955-56 Cadillac. These Imperials lived up to, or exceeded, the image created in their advertising artwork.
The Crown Imperial Limousine also made a cinematic appearance as the car of royalty of another sort. In The Godfather: Part II, a 1958 Imperial Crown Limousine was the chauffeured car used by Michael Corleone at his house on Lake Tahoe.
Playing with camera angles, just as Imperial advertising did in 1959, introduces another perspective on these cars. Viewed directly from the side, the excessive details mostly disappear and the car’s fundamental shape comes forward, and it is actually graceful. In 1959, these Imperials retained the basic proportions, roofline, and tailfin sweep of the 1957 “Forward Look” Chryslers that are widely regarded as beautifully styled. Ensuing years would depart from this styling foundation, starting with the fins becoming truncated and lumpy in 1960, then with the roofline and other shapes changing, until only the wraparound windshield remained unchanged at the end in 1966, like the equally curved smile of the Cheshire Cat.
The partial contrasting color roof of this Custom four door hardtop (one of 3,984 produced in 1959, at a base price of $4,910, $39,594 in 2014 dollars) is the only major disruption of the harmony of the design from this angle. It was one of several roof options in 1959, which included a new “Silvercrest” roof with a stainless steel panel and a “Landau” roof with a black leather-like rear canopy – comparable to the roof treatments of contemporary Cadillacs (e.g. the stainless steel roof of the 1957-58 Eldorado Brougham) and precursors to Brougham-era half vinyl roofs and the stainless steel roof panel of the 1980-85 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. Whether this association with styling trends two decades later is positive or negative is debatable.
Another perspective comes from viewing the interior, which is as restrained as the exterior is garish. The simple and symmetrical instrument and control panel, conventional round steering wheel (not the idiosyncratic squared-off wheel of later model years), and clean but well detailed dashboard are a well-executed rendition of 1950s American luxury car interior style.
Symmetry rules the view from the driver’s seat, with Torqueflite transmission pushbuttons on the left, ventilation pushbuttons on the right, and full instrumentation (speedometer, temperature, ammeter, oil pressure, fuel, clock) and six control knobs symmetrically laid out in between. Symmetry was such a styling concern that the usual turn signal stalk disappeared in favor of a dashboard lever below the transmission pushbuttons, to clean up the view around the steering column.
The transmission pushbuttons were part of a drivetrain package that, along with the suspension design, would last into the 1970s. A decade into the postwar era of overhead valve V-8s, in 1959 Imperials dropped the first generation Hemi and adopted the RB series wedge head big block V-8, in 413 cubic inch form, which would later expand into the 440 and last until 1978. The Torqueflite transmission adopted in 1956 set the standard for automatics and would last though the end of the century. Along with the torsion bar front suspension introduced in 1957, these fundamental mechanical elements were substantial strengths beneath the questionable exterior.
If the owner had a chauffeur to do the driving and sat in the rear seat, he or she had all of the room that one could need. Here as well, the interior design was simple and unfussy. The fedora-wearing man and his wife in the pillbox hat shown being chauffeured down 5th Avenue would find nothing to complain about here.
Outside the car, the heads that turned toward the 1959 Imperial would have a distinct sense of awkwardness running through them as they checked out the car’s bizarre back end, however, and Mr. Fedora and Mrs. Pillbox Hat would probably have felt uneasy about the attention of the people peering at them through the fishbowl rear window being mockery. I can easily imagine the “face” created by this car’s rear styling inspiring street kids to put doughnuts on their noses and pull the sides of their mouths outward with their fingers, in imitation. “Hey mister, what am I? Your car!”
It is unfortunate, because the car’s problems were skin deep. It had one of Detroit’s best proportioned bodies of the late 1950s and a well-executed interior, wrapped around a modern drivetrain that was fundamentally sound enough for last for two more decades. On the other hand, coming from a time when around the industry fins were soaring, chrome was metastasizing, and airplane and rocket decorations were proliferating like the real bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles that the United States and the Soviet Union were acquiring in the late 1950s, its stylists gave it tacked-on details at each end that overwhelm everything else. Combined with Chrysler’s 1957 quality problems and the 1958 recession, they have ensured that few bought these cars and few remember them now.
Over half a century later, what is one to think of a car like this 1959 Imperial, which is one of what must be no more than a few hundred survivors from its year? These and other Chrysler Forward Look cars had quality problems when new, but one that has survived for this many years would have been a well-built example or else would have had its problems addressed over the years. If you can ignore its overdone details at its front and rear ends – and I doubt that Nelson Rockefeller, the Shah of Iran, or Michael Corleone would have cared, or cared what anyone else thought – and appreciate its other aspects, then you would have a generally well designed 1950s luxury cruiser that is highly distinctive, unlikely to be mistaken for anything else even though few people will know what an Imperial is. It is not only a relic of a different time; it is different from its contemporaries and definitely striking in appearance. Heads will turn, as stated in the ad.
A possibly enlightening comparison is to an Imperial that I have experience with: a 1967 Imperial Crown convertible, with styling penned by Lincoln Continental stylist Elwood Engel. Owned by the family of a friend, it is one of only 577 convertibles produced that year (out of a total of 17,614 1967 Imperials), and it has clean lines derived from the Continental’s and a high quality wood-trimmed interior, almost identical to the 1968 Imperial Crown convertible described by Tom Klockau. It is a classy and elegantly styled vehicle, but it has a major flaw: it is really quite boring. On the street, no one takes note of it as anything other than an old and large car, because it has no other obvious noteworthy qualities. A 1959 Imperial, like a 1959 Cadillac, does not have this problem. Flawed they are, but their styling excesses make them interesting. No one will ever consider a 1959 Imperial to be timelessly beautiful like a 1961 Lincoln Continental, but it is far more fun to look at if you do not take it too seriously, and isn’t the car hobby supposed to be fun? Even though I doubt that I would have purchased a 1959 Imperial as a new car, since its styling is a bit too weird for a car that I would drive every day, in 2014 I would gladly own and occasionally drive one if I had the funds and the extra garage space, and laugh along with anyone who mocks its details.
Curbside Classic: 1960 Imperial Crown Southampton – The Frankenstein Of Cars
Curbside Classic: 1957 Chrysler New Yorker–Clara And The New Yorker That Never Was
Car Show Classic: 1967 Imperial Crown Coupe – For The Last Time, It’s Not A Chrysler!
Curbside Classic: 1968 Imperial Crown convertible – Fall Back, Men, Fall Back!
Looking back at what was considered “appropriate” for the time often causes us to think “what could the designers have been thinking?” However, as I drive around today, one undeniable fact stands out, thiose designs had PRESENCE! Even today, in the midst of the hordes of anonymous silver/gray/white “melted bars of soap” Camcords, etc. one can instantly tell that this car (along with others from the period) is something to be noticed. You know that the approaching vehicle is a Ford/Chevy/Chrysler, etc even before you can clearly see it. So, yes, it remains a beautifully wacky weird car, and I LOVE IT!! 🙂
I agree they have presence, but I also think you could ‘redecorate’ the front end of a 59 Caddy to look pretty convincingly like an Imperial and vice versa. Cars have always ‘looked the same’.
It seems as if the Imperial stylists were looking over the shoulders of the Cadillac stylists (via company spies??) and wanted to make sure thay had as much chrome gingerbread as Cadillac. Ummm, well, we see how that worked out.
While trying to find a pic of a pretty one, it became evident that the grills on these were just plain ugly no matter which angle it is seen from.
It was the other way round.Cadillac got worried and out finned them with the 59.It was only that the body shell of imperial had been out since 57 and did not look new that the caddy dominated 59.I own a 59 caddy coupe and want one of these imperials. Beautiful cars.Art on wheels.
Seems to me, A daily driver like this would feel like driving a “class A” motorhome to work everyday! You certainly wouldn’t lose it in a parking lot, would you? Tom McCahill of the old Popular Mechanix magazine once said making a turn in the Nash automobile with the enclosed from wheels, was akin to “driving 3 acre lot!” This beast would be like driving a 5 acre lot. 🙂
That’s funny Jon. CC effect.
Saw “Bunco Squad”  the other night and the chase scenes included just such Nashes. One a Statesman and the other in police drag storming around curvy roads in Los Angeles hills.
Great stuff and an automotive car spotter’s gold mine.
Yes it does now Jon but back then it was the norm as everything else was chrome laden and large so living in that era did not seem different. Of course it does now but that goes with everything else in life. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Today they are monuments to excess and i guess you love them or you hate them. I just hate boring todays cars. Life is too short for that. I can tell you all here they put a smile on everyone’s face and as now Bling seems to be well and truly in with the look at me, look at me crowd a bit of something different is more appreciated now. The guy who wrote this article above pretty much got it right. Chris Webb
There’s no shame in liking Forward Look Chryslers, or more specifically this Imperial. My favorite Forward Look Imperial are the ’62s with the split grille and free standing headlights. The grilles on the ’59s don’t do it for me.
It’s interesting to think of how opinions of this car would differ 55 years ago. Today we look at them as works of art, because they are so expressive compared to today’s new cars. But back then, in comparison to contemporaries, and the fact that these were more common sights, I bet people didn’t admire them so much.
My kid drives a ’62, tuxedo black-and-white.
The number of doo-dads tacked all over this Imperial are hard to notice individually as they get lost in the sea of busyness. Their sum works to make this a truly distinctive car but perhaps for the wrong reasons as noted.
What I am finding fascinating about this Imperial is the bi-polar nature between the interior and exterior, much like the person who is boisterous and entertaining with an audience but quiet and restrained when in private.
An amazing car. Well done.
Yeah, that interior is almost Teutonic in its absence of any frivolity, a remarkable contrast to the over-the-top, outrageous exterior.
Right out of “Forbidden Planet”!
Robbie the Robot would feel right at home in one of these, and that hint on the rear roofline of “broughamism” foretells the future of cars.
For some weird reason, I liked under-dash A/C. Whether an Airtemp unit or Kenmore. My old 1976 Dart Lite had a factory under-dash A/C unit as well, because when Chrysler designed the Dart/Duster combo, no consideration was given to put the A/C vents in the dash.
All that stuff hanging under the dash reminds me of my 4- and 8-track tape players!
That AC unit in the Dart may have looked tacked on, but it was a fully integrated reheat-capable, outside-air unit. You may remember the controls were in the dash. It’s just that the vents weren’t in the dash. The unit in the Imperial is a true add-on, a Mark IV unit I believe.
I believe this under dash unit to be aftermarket. I believe that the factory unit was incorporated into the dash. Chrysler used an a/c vent design that mounted in the top of the dash and was hinged at the front, so that you could pull it up to blow into the passenger compartment instead of onto the windshield. IIRC, these did double duty as defroster vents. My 64 still used the same vent system.
Not the same year, but I remember the one seen in Blade Runner.
Very nice spotting.
Wow. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Much of that movie’s look came from the great designer Syd Mead, who owns a ’72 that looks like mine.
Yep, seen him driving that 72 in a doco on him.
A beautiful car…….I have nothing negative to say about it, unlike everyone else who comments here..Someties I think most of you guys hate cars because of the so many I like are made fun of, anymore I just look at the pictures because you guys are so hateful.
Hateful…? Negative…? All I see is balanced commentary and attempts to be objective WRT an inherently subjective topic, auto styling. I see nothing hateful in the few comments on here up to now.
I don’t see any hateful comments here except for yours. Everyone else is just expressing their thoughts and opinions of this Imperial, while you are the one calling people “hateful”. We don’t tolerate name-calling at CC.
OK, so some of the styling is a bit over the top. But at least they had style. Not like the bland, boring, refrigerators on wheels we have today. Cars like this have an identity, whether you like them or not, they at least evoke feelings. Today you can stand on a street corner and watch all the little cookie cutter 4 door sedans and crew cab trucks go by, and not notice anything that stands out.
AHEM! Sick to death of bland, cookie-cutter refrig-styled vehicles!
This is an interesting take and I think a large part of this is due to perspective. As I was born in the 80’s and really starting loving cars in the mid 90’s onwards, I can easily pick apart cars from the various manufacturers and think there’s quite a large variety of automobiles available around the world. On the other hand, I have a tough time telling apart cars from the various American manufacturers throughout the 50’s an 60’s.
nailed it Junk yard.You can drive a designers dream or a plastic box.This would destroy everything in a demo derby where your Hyundai would last about 5 seconds. No soul brother. Bring back art to the streets.You could make 3 cars from the chassis metal alone today. I slow the freeway down when i am out in my 59 caddy and get countless pictures taken plus comments.My wife’s i30 well guess what.
I think the windshield and front side window styling on this car was the best of the big 3 during the late 50s.
It was a little stale by 1966, though.
Everything 6 years on is stale. After we have seen it for a few weeks we all want something new, The reason Cadillac did well in 59 was it came out as a new design where Chrysler stuck with a 2 year old version. A 4 door imperial looks far nicer than a 4 door 59 cad version. I own a 59 coupe de ville. Just bought a 59 crown 4 door. Look at the copycats of some of the designs from this car from GM on many of their other models after the 57 imperial. The one consolation is that a lot like these cars of the fifties now and yearn for off the wall styling. They all generic copies of everyone else,s cars now and boring as hell. Cool Design been legislated out of existence thanks to Ralph Nader.
Because it was the least changed from the original ’57 Forward Look cars, I always found the ’59 the most attractive Chrysler product of the bunch. It still had most of the original purity of design (the Chrysler came next, followed by DeSoto with Dodge the ugliest).
And of the luxury offerings from the Big 3, the Imperial won that one by default – Cadillac and Lincoln were absolutely abominable that year, so the Imperial being ‘merely overwrought’ was a lot easier to take.
1959 would have been the year where I bought a Jaguar, were I shopping in the luxury field.
There were a lot more attractive cars to be had for less money in 59.Chevy,Pontiac,Buick,Ford,Edsel and Mercury made some real lookers.
I disagree with you on Pontiac and Mercury, and the market disagrees with you on Edsel. 🙂 Aside from Pontiac (IMO), there were a lot of beautiful cars coming from GM in 1959 though.
Lots of disagreement here: The ’59 Chevy was ugly second only to the Cadillac – and in 1959, Chevrolet was putting food on the family table and paying for my piano lessons, so I must have really hated the design. Pontiac was OK, only because most of the rest of GM was so hideous. Buick is my favorite (the only ’59 I like), as its the only GM ’59 that had a unity of design. But that design was polarizing.
Ford and Edsel were boring beyond belief. In the former, that guaranteed sales success (although Ford was expecting a failure). In the latter, after 1958, nothing could guarantee survival, much less success. Mercury was the most striking of Ford’s line, being a toned down ’57-58. Not bad.
Well done, Robert.
The only ’59 detail that I can do without is the barbell on the grille. The ’57 face was more in keeping with the essential “Flite Sweep” esthetic: big cars whose mass is lightened by their lines. It should be noted that the famous ’59 Caddy face was a pretty direct homage to the ’57 Imperial, especially in the eyebrows over the headlights.
As for the ’59 Lincoln…I’ll take George Jetson’s car over Herman Munster’s any day. 🙂
1957 Imperial face, the original iteration of this model. The ’59 grille was a kind of throwback to the early 50’s.
Oh, and all nitpicking about the ’57 – ’59 Imperials, or for that matter other Chrysler cars of that period, is just that: nitpicking. The Imperials – about the only production cars with curved side windows besides everything else – are totally awesome.
Hi Michael. Would now like to put this argument to bed. I have and totally restored a 59 coupe de ville caddy(still have it) and now own a rust free 4 door copper pink metallic 59 Imperial s/s roof, flight sweep deck lid, torsion bar suspension, recessed door handles, plus. Almost totally restored it now. The Imperial is better engineered, better put together with advanced ideas for the day. The caddy was a knee jerk reaction to Chrysler by 59 starting with a Buick door and throwing it together in haste. The very poor rear lights design bumper meets body are a terrible fit on most. Yes the Mercury old style grill is there but all the manufacturers used up the old stuff too. Summing up a very good car that was way ahead of the publics conservative thinking zone in 59.Style now legislated out of existence by blinkered people.Ultimate year.
What a blast! I enjoyed this first thing in the morning. Thanks!
The Mad Men references are a great reminder of the differences in how GM and Chrysler marketed their flagship luxury car lines. Cadillac may have absolutely dominated the luxury car market and produced some of the most expensive cars on the road, but even in those days they never forgot that they were the top rung of the Sloan Ladder. Cadillac advertising often had themes of aspiration and rewarding one’s self for a lifetime of study and hard work.
Imperial advertising (especially in the ’60s and early ’70s) tended to be aimed at people who never needed to work a day in their lives…..
Interesting points about the contrast between Cadillac and Imperial marketing. I also have noticed how period Cadillac advertising usually featured themes along the lines of “Reward yourself …” and “Our luxury features will make your life easier, which you have earned …” I have not seen enough Imperial advertising to see a similarly consistent tone in Imperial ads, but between the settings of the 1959 print ads that I found for this article and the 1965 TV ad that you featured, a “You belong on top of the heap” theme does seem to be featured throughout.
The Online Imperial Club site (THE holy grail of info on these cars) has nearly every ad ever published. Check out the 1969 and 1970 print ads in particular….downright creepy!…..
Wasn’t around then but based on modern perceptions of the era it seems like back in the ’60s new money drove Cadillacs, old money drove Lincoln Continentals, and people connected to Chrysler Corporation drove Imperials.
@Mark: For 1970, I find it ironic that the “Deliberately Designed For the Rich” ad shows a plain side view that seems to make it look as similar as possible to a Chrysler Newport, or for that matter a Plymouth Fury.
Hmm – ads that appealed to those who didn’t have to work. This fits: Ozzie Nelson drove an Imperial on the family’s TV show and it was never clear that his character had a job – all he seemed to do was play golf (in real life, we know Mr. Nelson was a very hard-working man).
As a kid growing up in small town midwest, about the only time I saw an Imperial was on television – they were very rare.
I saw a lot of American cars in 60s Britain as both sets of Grandparents lived near a USAF base,Lincolns and Cadillacs were scarce compared to Fords,Chevys and Plymouths but I don’t recall ever seeing an Imperial.
I don’t remember seeing one when on holiday in America either.
I don’t think these cars were mainly bought by the super-rich. I’ve been noticing them since they were new, and most of the drivers seem like upper-middle class mavericks who like to make an impression for business purposes. Store owners, ranchers.
One beautiful original is still driving daily around here, with an original driver who fits the same mold.
Most of them were bought by loyal Chrysler owners.
Not my cup of tea compared to the elegant 55 and 56 Imperials or the later Engel cars.It is however a whole lot more attractive than the monstrous 59 Lincoln.
For me, the exterior styling of this ’59 is an over-wrought caracature of the 57-60 Imperial. The 60, by comparison, is downright tasteful.
But then, many 1959 model cars from the big three seem like awkward answers to the question “What do we do with it now that we have exhausted our ideas on the 55-58s?”
As a previous poster noted, it’s an interesting contrast between the interior and exterior.
I remember when Japanese built cars 1st came to the U.S. in large numbers and the car mags all “complained” that they were overly decorated on the outside. I now wonder if the designers might just have been copying U.S. designs thinking that it was what customers expected.
As a very small child of 6 or 7 my father took me to Washington D.C. for what was a re-union or “demonstration” of some kind by his old Marine Corp unit. As a memento of the trip I got my father to buy me a model car when we stopped in a drug store. The car I chose? A late 50s Imperial convertible in turquoise or aqua blue. The car would have been a new car then and I really believe it was a 57 or 58. My 1st 1/24th scale model car.
Unfortunately, I’m not really a fan of any Chrysler product from 1957 through 1960. Even though I now think they aren’t all that bad looking.
The C pillar on the subject car is sublime.
I was struck by the small door opening, at foot level anyway, of the rear seat. Must have been hard to make a graceful exit if you had large feet! I suppose the hardtop styling required a thick door pillar.
I noticed the same thing too. Maybe the pillar could have been reshaped to “lean back”, following the angle of the front seat back? That would’ve given more footroom when alighting (‘getting out’ sounds so downmarket for an Imperial-class cruiser!). Heaven knows, you don’t need any more wheelbase in there!
Great write up, beautiful car. I agree with others that the ’57 design was the best of the ’57-’59 period, but I’d probably pick a ’58 hoping that some of the issues of the ’57 had been sorted out (of course this probably doesn’t make much difference 50+ years out). The ’59 front isn’t necessarily ugly, but it sure is heavy handed when viewed side by side with the earlier cars.
The interior of the featured car does seem a little restrained. It may have been simplified in a restoration, or simply one of the more basic available that year. Two tone colors and fancier sew patterns along with brocade fabrics were available. This ’59 LeBaron shows some of the options available…..
The ’59 is a prime example of the downside of the mandatory “new car every model year” styling change. A lot of things were changed that should have been left alone, but SOMETHING had to be changed, dammit!
For the Forward Look cars, the entire line should have been frozen at the ’57’s with the exception of Plymouth (the ’58 front end cleaned it up very nicely, although I wish they had kept the ’57 taillights) thru the ’59 model year. But that just wasn’t done. Only companies at death’s door (looking at you Studebaker) did stuff like that – and even they tried to restyle, no matter how obviously cheaply.
Its a shame that they were always refered to as “Chrysler Imperials” as opposed to just “Imperial”.Interior is very much at odds with the exterior of the car, but that isn`t a bad thing.Styling is very over the top, but that much maligned “toilet seat” on the trunk lid looks just right on this car.Really love the ads, especially that Ludwig Bemelmans style one of the black Sedan on 5th Av and 59th.St. I miss that style of advertising today, a true form of art.
>vIts a shame that they were always refered to as “Chrysler Imperials” as opposed to just “Imperial”.
Happily, Robert got the title of this article right and didn’t tack the word “Chrysler” in front. 🙂
Your mention of the conservativeness of this class of car’s buyers brings to mind an interesting conundrum: The definition of ‘conservative’ in car ownership for the time. Looking at the competition: Cadillac’s insanely overblown styling for the year (sorry, I don’t care if its a cultural icon, the ’59 Cadillac is one of the most nauseating car designs ever in my eyes), Lincoln’s monstrous blocks of granite on four wheels, and Imperial merely being tacky and over gew-gawed in comparison.
And the alternative to those? The bigger Mercedes Benz, and the Jaguar 2.4 and up saloons. Tasteful, understated designs which, by the standards of the time, would have been radically unacceptable to a conservative buyer. Actually, ownership of either of those brands would have bordered somewhere between eccentricity and ‘he must be mad’ by the prospective customers of the time. All because they weren’t American cars. And only weirdos bought foreign cars, of course.
It’s really mind-jarring to consider a ’59 Cadillac conservative and normal, and a Jaguar saloon unacceptably radical.
The problem with all of the 1959 European cars is their petite size and their lack of power for the American interstate highway. Most of them were certainly better handlers (though the torsion bar Imp was no slouch) but they were in so many ways less car for more money. This would not be the case in another 10-15 years.
Don’t forget that the best selling luxury import in this time period was Jaguar, and the big Jaguar Mark series was not exactly petite or seriously underpowered. These were pretty common at the time; there were a couple in Iowa City back then. They were the prime import alternative to the Big 3 luxury cars. https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1959-1961-jaguar-mark-ix-an-englishman-abroad/
That’s was I was thinking. As a kid, I knew there were big Jaguar sedans which struck me as the near size equivalent of the Big 3. But they were nothing that a conservative business man would have driven. The image was all wrong.
Didn’t Kim Novak’s character drive a Jaguar sedan in Vertigo? She played a very wealthy woman, but the movie takes place in San Francisco, which even then had less of an aversion to imported cars than the rest of the country.
Yes, she did drive a green Jaguar in Vertigo, a 1957 according to imcdb, though tasteful and conservative to some, to me, it looks like a brand new 1946 car in the late 50’s, its not ugly, European cars were a bit plain and “fuddy-duddy” in comparison in comparison to the 1957 Cadillac in the same frame for example.
BTW, if you’ve never seen this movie, it is an old car lovers fantasy, so much real street scenes with so many old cars to spot, you could spend hours just looking at the cars in the background. A beautifully filmed Hitchcock masterpiece.
Jimmy Steward drives a pretty cool 1956 DeSoto Sportsman Hardtop in it too.
Spend some time on the imcdb link and blow your mind!
I’m with Carmine on the Jaguar,it looks very staid and old fashioned by 1959.Squaresville daddio!
I remember reading that, at some point in mid-1950s, Jackie Kennedy gave a Jaguar as a gift to her husband, John F. Kennedy, Sr. I can’t remember whether it was a sedan or the sports car. He told her that he couldn’t drive it, as it would leave the wrong image with voters.
The Kennedy family at that time was supposedly partial to Buicks and Oldsmobiles, even though family members obviously could afford to drive anything that they wanted. But, given their involvement in national politics, it mattered what they were seen driving.
I always wondered why an Oldsmobile 88 was the car that Ted Kennedy drove into the water in the Chappaquiddick incident. It seemed to be a mundane car for such a wealthy family. A long-term family preference for them, perhaps with a long-term relationship with a specific dealer who would replace the family’s cars on a regular basis, would explain that.
Plus, I don’t think it was really all that OK for wealthy Democrats (especially those looking to be elected to something) to drive really expensive cars then.
Like Geeber said, there were probably aspects of modesty the Kennedy’s wanted to portray in their political ambitions.
But, my guess is that most celebrities and super wealthy keep a few comfortable but mundane cars in the garage, simply to cut down on unwanted attention.
Considering Ted Kennedy’s goal that night was to run around with a woman that was not his wife, he probably appreciated the stealth wheels. The Olds was probably a stroke of luck for him as well. The photos of the aftermath don’t leave him looking like quite so much of a wealthy schmuck that just killed someone.
I know a family whose son provided alcohol at a frat party recently. An underage diabetic man that drank too much passed out and died. The young man that provided the alcohol was led away from his initial court hearing in shackles – all for charges that are just a technicality. Unfortunately for him, his last name is not Kennedy.
The 1967 Olds Delmont 88 that Ted drove that fateful night actually belonged to mother Rose. Ted, who as a senator lived in the Washington DC suburbs and spent most of his time there, would borrow it when visiting Massachusetts.
Back in DC around this time Ted drove a 1970 GTO convertible.
Didn’t know the Delmont belonged to his mother, but its interesting that it wasn’t even a Delta 88, but the cheaper Delmont 88, and not even a hardtop sedan!
Ted did seem to have a thing for Pontiacs, I had heard about the GTO and I recall that when he died one of his nieces talked about his love for his 1975 Pontiac convertible (which I imagine must have been a GrandVille ) that he still loved to drive on the weekends.
The “humble” Kennedy car thing still sort of continues, about 6 or 7 years ago there was an younger Kennedy offspring that was busted for sideswiping a car in DC traffic, he supposedly was on some sort of prescription drugs and what not, but the car that the younger Kennedy was driving was a 6 or 7 year old blue V6 Mustang convertible.
The Kennedys drove all kinds of cars, including Buicks and Oldsmobiles, but also many other makes. Joe Sr. had several Rolls-Royces over the years, and a number of Cadillac limousines. My recollection is that Rose had a Corvair around the time of the JFK assassination. There also was an Imperial Crown Coupe @64 at Hyannisport that Joe Sr. is seen being lifted in and out of in photographs in several books.
Jackie did buy JFK a Jaguar with some of the small inheritance she received from the death of her father, Black Jack Bouvier, in 1957 and it was returned. JFK had already begun plans for the presidential run by then and there was too much attention being paid to the European couture worn by his mother and his wife. I think it was the Jag’s European origin more than its luxury car status that was the issue. With JFK’s love for the Lincolns and T-Birds for 61, and the close connection between the new administration and Ford, these became family favorites. Bobby bought a 65 Ford convertible that he still had when he died in 68.
BTW, Jackie’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, drove Jaguar sedans for quite a few years and she may have been the inspiration for the gift car for JFK.
Like so many of the articles that appear here, this was a considerable pleasure to read.
The Kennedy family owned an Imperial of this vintage. I remember a 1960 which appeared to be a custom build appearing in several of the scenes of JFK’s funeral.
I think you are referring to the 1960 Imperial Crown Ghia limousine used by Jackie. I believe it was leased by the government rather than owned by the Kennedy family.
The 1959 Cadillac is a remarkably clean design, fins notwithstanding. The front and rear grilles are a bit over the top, but not hideous as were the Imperial’s big chrome teeth. When i look at the Jag I see a stubby car with a body shape reminiscent of the elephantine Packards of the late 1940’s.
– outdated styling/design
– lack of modern conveniences – power locks/windows A/C?
It makes me think of some of the current ads for the likes of Infiniti and Lincoln, attempting to present themselves as a luxury car for nonconformists. But given that buying (or indeed these days, leasing) a new luxury car is a conspicuous act of conformity, there’s a limited niche indeed.
Great article, Robert.
I really like the way the rings ahead of the tail lights appear to go right through the fins.
That’s all I’ve got.
I agree – that may be the coolest detail on the whole car!
Thanks so much for this Imperial posting. My mechanic is trying to sell a ’61 model for a customer priced at $11,000. The body work is kind of questionable under the repaint. It definitely got my attention though!
Love it! While I’d prefer a ’61 Imperial, I certainly wouldn’t kick this one out of the garage! Nice to see that this is a true “Curbside Classic” since it was spotted in a parking lot instead of at a car show.
To me, the 60-61 models are the least attractive. The 60 is killed by its face, and the 61 by the stale fins. As for every other year, where do I sign?
How ’bout that, JP? I’ve always thought the ’60 Imperial has the prettiest face, especially after the overdone ’59.
Fabulous car. As a 1959 model myself, I am starting to feel a bit dated. 🙂
We talk about someone considering all of the 1959 luxury cars, but the market was really not like that. Most of these were bought by die-hard Mopar people who had been driving Chrysler-built cars since Walter P. signed the paychecks. Cadillac had a lock on the market, and Lincoln and Imperial had to fight for the few customers not spoken for, like those ditching 3 and 4 year old Packards.
1959 was either a fabulous or a horrible year to pick a luxury car. There have been few years where the choices were so varied in their styling, with none of the choices being very restrained. Personally, I like this car. A lot.
Edit – Loving the last couple of days. I see a pattern starting with yesterday’s 69 Dodge – does someone have a 49 Plymouth for us tomorrow? Then a 39 DeSoto?
Sounds accurate to me. My dad said he used to date a girl whose father always owned Imperials. Occasionally he’d let my dad drive his Imperial. He also told me a story about meeting a guy in the late 70’s who would buy a new Imperial every year, but kept the old ones and parked them in his barn. He liked my dad’s Chrysler so much that he wanted to trade one of his Imperials for it.
I love these so much. LOVE. Also the later models with the freestanding headlights. They are just so completely ridiculous, and if you’re going to have a car of this era, you might as well go all-out and embrace the crazy. Too much fun!
I’d take a ’57 first; as mentioned already, some facets on the ’59 seem changed for the sake of it, but all-in-all, this ’59 is all right with me.
Perhaps even better than the car is the advertising. The rainy Manhattan image is one I’ll have to find for my collection.
Exactly right. The ad does more than just sell a car. It creates a whole scene,and establishes an atmosphere. The beautiful grayed down look of a rainy day, the stylized background ,the people with their umbrellas, and the finely done birds all combine to produce a work of art thats just as evocative as a fine painting.I`m a painter, so I notice things like these. New York in all its glory,the way you can picture it in your mind.
I like these Imperials, although the grille design struck me as strange, considering that, with the Forward Look, Chrysler Corporation was trying to run as far away from its recent past as possible. It looks as though Virgil Exner simply yanked the grille teeth from an early 1950s DeSoto and used them for this Imperial. The entire front is a definite step back from the 1957 and 1958 Imperials.
From a styling standpoint, I would definitely take one of these over its competition from Lincoln. The 1959 Lincoln and Continental were simply awful. This car possesses a far more coherent and attractive design than the 1959 Lincoln and Continental, even if some of its details are overdone.
The real handicaps faced by this car were the parent corporation’s reputation for bad build quality, and the fact that everyone referred to it as a “Chrysler Imperial.” The Chrysler name carried some serious clout in those days, but it simply was not considered to be equal in status to Cadillac by the general public. Chrysler was viewed as a Buick competitor.
Hideous. I kinda like it.
The taillights on this car are from a ’60 and the hood ornament looks like it’s from an Engel-era Imp. Taillights on the ’59 were just like ’57-58 except the lenses were elongated. Factory A/C on these was fully integrated into the dash and you could even get a separate rear A/C unit with its own evaporator and blower in the trunk. My dad test drove one of these (Crown 4-door Southampton) in late ’59 — a dealer ‘demo’ with every option: power vent windows, dual A/C, swivel seats, cruise (Chrysler called it Auto-Pilot), ‘Silvercrest’ stainless steel roof insert. A fantastic car that would cruise all day at 80 without effort. We ended up buying a ’60.
Just curious for the guys who prefer the ’57, is it the single headlight model or the double one? The single light ’57 looks pretty freaky… like they designed it for the double but had to go with single at the last minute. Or set up the sheetmetal to take the quads more easily mid-year.
When I’m in the mood for old car porn, nothing satisfies more than a search of the ads for ’57-63 Imperials or ’59-’69 T-birds. So much eye candy in those interiors. The ’60 Imperial with the two pods on the dash and the square wheel is fantastic. For exterior it’s hard to beat the ’62. ’60 and ’62 are also my favorite years for the New Yorker and 300.
The single-headlight version does look strange, but when the 1957 models debuted, quad headlights were not legal in all states. The front fenders of the Imperial, Chrysler and DeSoto were therefore designed to accept either two or four headlights. The Dodge and Plymouth featured very large parking lights that, when paired with the headlights, gave the same effect as quad headlights.
I think that the single headlight designs look strange because there were relatively few of them (and the front was obviously designed for duals). I believe that, as each state fell into line legalizing the dual headlamps, Chrysler stopped shipping the single headlight versions.
Mercury did the same thing, although I think single vs. dual headlights on their cars was indicative of individual series status. The cheap models got singles, the higher up models got duals. And the Mercury with single headlights didn’t look so odd.
Taken at the Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti? I have the same pic!
I found it on the internet so it may be same pic you have or took. Here’s another one from an ad in Hemmings, a Crown 2-door that is said to be a previous Best of Show winner. It will be up for auction this weekend at McCormick’s in Palm Springs. I wonder what it’s worth, $35-45k?
The single headlight front end on those is pretty hideous, it looks so weird, though it does remind me of the later Turbine Chryslers a bit.
I like the “toilet seat” fake spare tire on the trunk thing. It looks like it could be where the Mr. Fusion fuel adding port in back to the Future could be located.
To me it looks like it has a roulette wheel in the centre!
1959 just had to be the pinnacle (or nadir, as some might see it) of styling excess in American cars. Just look at this Imperial. Reminds me of a Wurlitzer or Seeburg jukebox of the era, but that’s kind of the point and perfectly in tune with the times. The dawn of the space age and the mighty American car industry could build (and sell) anything it wanted. GM got in on the frenzy with its own huge ’59’s – the bat winged Chevy, the menacing cant eyed Buick and of course, the finned Cadillac. IMHO the Olds and Pontiac were the best from GM that year, only perhaps because the others were so excessive. Pontiac in particular was nice, as Bunkie and John Z.D. hit a home run with the wide track design.
Interestingly Ford didn’t bite and came out with fairly conservative cars this year. This decision proved fortuitous, as they beat Chevy in the sales race for one of the very few times since the 1930’s.
’59/60/61 Pontiacs showed another downside of the mandatory annual restyle; the ’59s were a huge hit and the split grille in particular got a lot of positive feedback; but by the time they shipped the ’60s were locked in without it and it took a crash program to bring it back for ’61.
Anyone remember the 1983 movie “Christine?” Wasn’t she a 1958 Imperial or something?
Christine was on the opposite end of the Mopar price ladder, she was a low priced 1958 Plymouth, the fancy Fury model, but not an Imperial.
58 Plymouth Belvedere. You remind me of when I owned a 59 Plymouth Fury with the birdbath spare tire on the trunk. I was parked somewhere and someone came in and said “who has the old Chrysler Imperial in the parking lot?”
Maybe this one one of Imperial’s problems – an Imp always looked more like a Plymouth than a Cad looked like a Chevy, or than a Lincoln looked like a Ford. Lincoln is fighting that problem now.
It was a Belvedere in the movie, though it was supposed to a Fury in the book, though Stephen King has a bunch of errors about the car in the book, like its a 4 door sedan, which there was none of in the Fury line, also he writes about the “gear lever moving from Park to Drive” in the book, another thing that wouldn’t take place in a Plymouth Fury with Push-Button selectors. But hey, creative license right?
There were a couple of cheaper Savoys that were used as smash-up cars in the movie too. I think they wrecked like 6 or 7 58 and 57’s made to look like 58’s in the making of the movie. There are a few real “Christine” movie cars that survived filming and are in private hands though
Yes there were several technical errors in the book. In the movie, Christine was supposed to be a “special ordered” Fury. In 1958, Furies were only available in an off-white colour called “Buckskin Beige” with gold side trim, but Christine was red with silver side trim like a Belvedere.
In the opening when the cars were going down the assembly line, if I remember correctly the other cars you see before and after Christine were off-white (regular Furies), while Christine was red.
I’ve been meaning to sit down and watch that movie again. Not enough time. If only my Chrysler would restore itself like Christine did, I’d have lots of time to watch movies. 🙂
I haven’t seen the movie that recently, but as I recall it, in the movie they never make any mention of Christine being a Fury, or even a Plymouth I think,(as opposed to the book where they constantly mention “Plymouth Fury”)though maybe they refer to it as a Plymouth once, she’s mostly just called “Christine” throughout the move, though you do see the Plymouth badges on the car. If I recall the side trim on the movie cars isn’t silver, its white, but I could be wrong.
They do use a Fury or at least Fury parts for the 150mph speedometer and the dual quad engine.
The “custom order” red in the book I could almost believe back in the “anything you want” 50’s, but there is no way it could be a 4 door Fury.
The assembly line scene was the first scene filmed in the movie, the white “non-Christine” Plymouths were painted red and used as Christines for the rest of the filming.
I was wrong about the 6 or 7 Plymouths used for filming, it was closer to 23 or 24.
I’m actually finding it a bit hard to believe that the front end on this thing is stock, and not some bizarre “custom”. How did this get approved by the same man that created some of the most elegant front ends in the early-mid fifties, with his series of Chrysler-Ghia Specials? And the ’55-’56 Imperials? Simply unbelievable.
Wasn’t he supposed to have been sick at the time, or was that a year or two later?
Exner was recovering from a heat attack when the Norseman show car was lost on the Andrea Doria in 1956, after that…I dunno…………
He was largely out of commission during the time the ’58 and ’59 restyles were being done, so he is somewhat off the hook. But then there’s the ’60-’61s.
The political situation at Chrysler Design was very problematic when Bill Schmidt was brought in from Mercury, to be the #2. That set up rival camps and the rather retiring personality of Ex did not relish a fight. It explains why things were rather confused and off-track. Ex and Schmidt finally had a “showdown” in 1959, which Ex won, with his secret design for the “Super Sport”, the basis of all the new 1962-1963 cars. Schmidt knew he’d been outdone, and left. But the intervening years were difficult ones at Chrysler design.
Robert, loved the article but not totally in agreement with this characterization of the cars:
“The wild 1957-60 Imperials and their slightly toned down 1961-63 successors…”
The 61, with the free-standing headlights and record height fins, seemed even wilder, then and now. I would agree that the grille and individual trim pieces on the 61 are slightly toned down but the overall styling is pretty far out there! That the 62 and 63 models were toned down is very true.
A couple notes about the car in the article. The rear bumper is from a ’57-’58. Tail lights from a ’61 and the seat fabric is incorrect style. Here is my ’59 Imperial Custom Coupe with the Silver crest landau roof option. I have owned it for 25 years. When I purchased it a family of racoons were living in it.
For anyone who’s getting the fever after reading the article, there’s a very solid ’59 on eBay right now starting at just $3500; the mechanic-owner has rebuilt all the running gear, and body seems only surface-rusted.
For the heck of it, here’s yet another ’59 ad (polo, Saks Fifth Avenue):
Such fascinating styling. I like the profile, but find the front a little heavy for me – I much prefer the facelifted models with the freestanding headlights. The rear is let down by the bumper design, but the toilet seat is distinctive and not hideous, and the detailing on the fins is really quite exquisite.
Not wild about the exterior but love the interior design, and man, the legroom, front and rear! Maybe it’s an illusion but it looks better than the roomiest stuff I’ve seen from the 70s-Present.
Nothing like gilding the lily! The taillights are from a 1960 model and the rear bumper from 1957-58. The 1959 bumper had a single, concave shape with reverse lights smoothly integrated at each end.
One styling theme yet to be commented upon are the heavy ‘eyebrows’ undercut to house the headlights……..to be shortly seen in exactly the same form on the 1959 Cadillac. Sure, Cadillac had popularize the general theme, but Imperial showed how to take it to its ultimate development. The 1957 profile is obviously the overall inspiration for the 1959 Cadillac design……imitation is the sincerest form of………! Ex had to love it!
Well spotted! And now I’ve spent some time googling the different years, I think the ’59 bumper is much better – and cancels out my criticism in my comment above. Given the wrong-year parts, I wonder if the car was rear-ended at some stage?
Is it just me or does the grille look like it came from a totally different car and is just sitting in the opening? The placement of the headlights, particularly.
The grille always looked to me like it belonged on a truck. Think 1951 Ford.
A 59 Cadillac looks refined and the trim looks like it was designed for the car, even with it’s ‘over the top’ fins. This car has more of a tacked on look that was more stereotypical of the late 50’s finmobiles. The 60 Cadillac with the somewhat toned down fins is good looking, especially compared with the 60 Chrysler. Still a cool looking car, though.
Interesting pro and con comments about the style of this work of art. The Forward Look styling earned the Chrysler Corp the 1957 Gold Medal Award of the Industrial Designers Institute, the USAs’ highest honour in Industrial Design. The car in the article may have been rear ended as the script on the deck lid was not on the 59. Tail light lens replacement is extremely difficult as there is only one source of reproduction out of Australia and it can be difficult to deal with the man. There were 2 deck lids available this one is the option called Flite Sweep and cost $40.00 The correct hood ornament was $5.00 extra and is rare .I have owned 2 1957 Imperial convs and I loved the style with the top down but my current 59 Imperial is the 2 dr. HT as I prefer its roof line style with the 4700 sg.in. of glass. The curved side glass was also another 1st for Chrysler starting in 57. The torsion bar suspension was awarder Motor Trends award for significant auto achievement. As for style all the other Chryslers with the Forward Look had the fins sheared off to accommodate the taillights whereas the Imperial fin is complete and the taillight is incidental to the shape.
Just a stunning car. The 1957-59 Imperials were excellent, unapologetic American luxury cars.
And an amazing find in the wild! I haven’t seen one at a car show in years.
This is my favorite Imperial picture from 1957-59, from the ’57 brochure.
Here’s a pic of my 59
Spectacular, Walt ….. but what about the wheel covers?
Yeah, for god’s sake put the right wheel covers back on.
YES I PUT THE ORIGINAL W/C back on, but I love moons. Have them on my 1950 Studebaker , 1982 Avanti, 1990 Firefly conv, & 1963 Comet conv.
When I was 20 in 1955 I was financially deprived on slicking up my 1930 Model A’s, hence my love affair with full moons . Thanks for being so alert.
More pics of my 59
The interior/exterior colours work beautifully together; such a beautiful car, thanks for sharing the photos Walter!
More pics 59 trunk
More pics 59 rear
59 rear seat
59 front seat
nice car, I never knew they came with swivel seats, I always thought the 1957-60 Imperial’s were the best looking of the bunch with 1959 being my favorite because it was the first year of the high compression 413 cubic inch V8, I’ll gladly take this over a ’59 Cadillac (Cadillac’s of that era didn’t do much for me), for the 1959 vehicles my choices are either a Chrysler Imperial/New Yorker, Buick Electra hardtop, Lincoln hardtop, Oldsmobile 88/98 hardtop or a Pontiac hardtop.
Isn’t is amazing that Virgil Exner & Alec Issigonis were contemporaries.
Gotta love ‘m both.
My Grandmother’s second [of four, the final one stuck] husband had a 57 or 58 in gunmetal grey metallic.
Perfect car for him, as he was brash, a real estate sharpie, smoked Tareytons and liked his liquor.
He had this when my grandmother bought the 60 Ambassador wagon which became one of her signatures [as did the 70 Maverick Grabber in bright yellow]. Had a big dent in the passenger door.
These cars, along with my parent’s 50 Studebaker with the wrap around rear window, were my first automotive memories.
Apparently, shortly after purchasing the Ambassador, my grandmother was going to take us out in her husband’s Imperial, it’s claimed I responded with “That old thing ?”.
I was four at the time. And that Imperial would have been three.
It did have that great arm rest in the back seat which I thought was for kids.
Papa Byrd. Great guy, but shady.
Once I asked him why he didn’t have a moustache and he replied: “Why should I have something growing right under my nose that grows wild around my a** ? ”
I was 6 about that time and never forgot that statement or the cars that populated my first years on Earth.
About the turn signal lever on the left side of the dash. Looking through the comments, no one mentions it. I can’t imagine it not being self-canceling like a normal turn signal stalk on the column but wonder how Chrysler would engineer something like that to operate back in the late fifties.
As to the ’59 Imperial itself, I’m not particularly partial to it. For me, it has to be ‘really’ outrageous, i.e., 1961 Plymouth. The Imperial seems like it has too many extraneous doo-dads glued onto it. The ’61 Plymouth is plenty goofy in even the most basic trim levels.
I recently test drove a ’59 Imperial that was for sale locally. The turn signal lever DOES automatically cancel, though there is a push-button below to manually cancel it. I found it awkward to use in normal driving–I was groping for it and it takes your eyes off the road. I suppose I could have gotten used to it over time, but I wonder how many people walked out of Chrysler dealerships and wouldn’t buy because it’s so inconvenient, and you have to use it all the time! Not the way to sell cars!
’59 Cadillacs and Lincolns would have regular turn signal and transmission selection levers (and a PARK position) which is much more convenient. However, I do not critique history– what was, was– and that’s what makes cars like this so intriguing.
I wonder how the turn signal worked. Could it have had a timer that simply returned it to the neutral position after a preset amount of time? Or was it somehow wired into the hub of the steering wheel which would send a signal to a relay when the steering wheel was returning to the ‘home’ position, the way it works with a normal self-canceling column stalk?
Frankly, it seems unnecessarily complicated and, as pointed out, rather inconvenient. I suppose once the driver got used to it, it wouldn’t be so bad, though.
For me, Exner’s work is generally love it or hate it. This is one I love. Had an AMT kit of a 1960 back in the day that was one of my childhood treasures. Once on a trip to Willoby-Peerless Photo in Midtown, I spotted a Limousine version and my father pointed out a certain celebrity riding in the back. I forgot who the celebrity was. I haven’t forgotten that Imperial though after all these years.
The very first comment way back when said this car was “beautifully wacky,” and I really can’t do better than that. There’s just so much going on here stylistically that I have to admire the effort. Beautiful to everyone, no, but it certainly is a striking automobile.
On a trivial note: when did the “ventilation controls to the left of the driver” layout become a thing, and why? I remember that setup during the 70s but never understood when or why it became a fixture, at least on some American cars. Just wondering, since I expected to see the featured car’s dashboard laid out that way and was surprised when it was the more modern design.
I have no childhood memory of these all, as opposed to the Cadillacs I saw now and then, and the Lincolns once in a special while. eBay has one ad that shows the trunk, I see (is that supposed to be a particular bridge in NY or SF?):
Happy dealer photo, also eBay. Is that a dealer with customers to our right, or one customer surrounded by attentive sales staff?
Could be courtesy cars for town notables. Like they mentioned in some Imperial ads in National Geographic. Special invitations to Dr.s
and lawyers and such.
Marketing having your best car driven around town by the “best” people.
Back when this ran before, I have no idea why I wasn’t remembering the 59 Imperial that my Mom’s cousin was driving in the late 60s. Her kids were the same ages as my sister and I and we would go to their house sometimes. It was an odd old car for the time and I forget how they got it, I believe from an elderly relative.
Her husband was an engineer and had no patience for car trouble. The battery was getting weak and on cold mornings she would go out and put a trouble light over the battery for 15 minutes to warm it up so it would start. Because she knew if she told her husband it needed a battery, he was going to insist on dumping it for a new car. But she loved that old Imp even though the family jokingly considered it something of a ghetto cruiser.
I kind of like it, and especially like the space-age tail light treatment.
It definitely looks best in the lighter colors – I don’t like the black one at all (and that’s odd for me, owner of a series of black cars).
The cranberry/maroon one pictured in the comments is just light enough to work well – any darker would be too dark.
Here is the ’59 Imperial, shown in a 1959 “Forward Look” Russian – language brochure (also in English) that was prepared for and distributed at the 1959 US National Exhibition, a cultural exchange event held that summer in Moscow (the scene of the famous Nixon – Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate”). Chrysler, GM and Ford sent over about 20 of their snazziest new models for the three million Soviet visitors to ogle, and an Imperial was among them. The cars were one of the hits of the show, which showcased US consumer abundance. At that time, private car ownership amongst Russians was virtually unknown, and to those visiting this shiny US capitalist showcase, the cars must have seemed like something from outer space. This brochure is via Imperial Club, and it is a fascinating Cold War artifact, as it explains the role of cars in modern US life as the ultimate exemplar of “peoples’ capitalism”:
My apologies for the above low – res scan, here is a much better one. The text reads: “1959 Imperial. In the past ten years, more and more Americans have been spending their leisure time boating. Today almost every city situated near water has at least one harbor built especially for private small craft. Here an Imperial, one of our finest lines of cars, is shown at such a harbor. Total number of Imperials now in use: 130,000. For 1959 specifications, see inside back cover…”