(First Posted October 25, 2013) Calling a car from this period a monster is not exactly uncommon or uncalled for. But what if its own daddy called it that? Virgil Exner, the father of the definitive automotive fins created a sensation in 1957 when they appeared on the all-new “Suddenly it’s 1960” models. With a straight face, Exner then claimed the fins were rooted in aerodynamics and highly functional. But with the ’57s he painted himself into a corner; there was no where further to go with them except ever greater absurdity, quickly turning them into caricatures of themselves. Even Exner admitted as much: “by 1959, it was obvious that I’d given birth to a Frankenstein”. I credit him for his honesty, if not good taste.
Let’s briefly take in the Frankenstein in its full glory, then jump back three years to where it all started.
The 1957 Chryslers (CC here) were probably the finest of the Mopar crop that year, their fins being the cleanest expression of Exner’s bold new look. In addition to the alleged aerodynamic benefits, Exner saw the fins as away to dramatically change the poise of his cars. His son Virgil Exner Jr. speaks for his father’s intentions: “The idea of the fin was to get some poise to the rear of the cars, to get them off of the soft, rounded back-end look, to achieve lightness.”
These ’57s were certainly dramatically ahead of the competition in terms of length, lowness, width and of course fins. And they work quite well here, given the objectives of that moment, questionable as it was.
Exner’s work had two main influences.One was the Italian school of design, especially the Alfa Romeo BAT cars, such as this BAT 5 from 1953, by “Nuccio” Bertone. Not only did the big fins originate here, but the BAT’s divided front end grilles seem to have inspired Exner’s acclaimed 1955 Imperial front end. Did you think Exner was really all that original? The truth is all the big American design Chiefs and stylists stole like mad from Europe. Maybe “stole” is a bit strong, but what is the right word? “Influenced” seems a wee bit too…polite.
And of course, Exner also heavily borrowed from the classic era of the thirties, such as the Duesenberg. The perpetual battleground of integrating such disparate influences plays out repeatedly in his work, for better or for worse. Truth be told, Exner was a bit of a two-hit wonder with the 1955-56 and the 1957 Chryslers. Everything else that followed until he left in 1961 was rather problematic, exacerbating Chrysler’s other issues at the time.
The 1957 Imperial was a bold and expensive gamble by Chrysler to challenge the near-monopoly that Cadillac enjoyed in the fifties. Lincoln was struggling with its own design issues, and the Imperial was certainly years ahead of the rather modest ‘57 Cadillacs, even if it wasn’t quite as harmonious a design as the Chryslers (note: this was during the time when Imperial was a separate brand from Chrysler).
The ’57 Imperial even got its own distinct body shell, unlike previous and later Imperials. One of its most unique features was curved side glass, an industry first. There was no question; the ’57 Imperial was the most advanced of the luxury cars when it appeared, in the context of that moment in time. Of course, like all of Exner’s cars, it was a bit over the top, and not everyone’s taste. But sales tripled in 1957 over the prior year, reaching 35k, an all-time high water mark for both its fins and Imperial sales ever. In 1957, the Imperial could bask in its brief moment of glory and success.
Of course, the rampant quality problems of all ’57 Chrysler products did not escape the Imperial. and the deep recession of 1958 created a remarkable change in attitude. Suddenly yesterday’s rocket ships became giant finned monsters overnight, now being seen the same light that over-leveraged MacMansions were a few years back. A recession can be a remarkably sobering experience.
Imperial sales dropped by over 50%, and the whole upper end sector took a huge bruising as everyone clamored for Ramblers and VWs. Imperial sold 18k cars in 1960 to Cadillac’s 143k, so maybe it wasn’t all the recession, but perhaps in part to that ridiculous fake spare tire “toilet seat” that showed up in 1958. This was Exner’s jumping the shark moment, although I know some (many) will disagree. You’re wrong! What a hodge-podge of mish-mashes. Suddenly it’s 1974!
At least Imperial didn’t drop as much as Lincoln; their disastrous over-the-top 1958 models dropped Lincoln into the number three sales slot of the luxury brands. For two brief years, Imperial savored silver, even if sales were in the toilet of its own making.
The failure of the Imperials to properly catch on put them into weird sort of limbo: from 1957 through 1966, they used the same basic body shell, despite ever more desperate efforts to conceal that fact. But there was a royal give-away: that very expensive compound curve windshield. Chrysler could screw around with a fin here and a floating headlight there, and eventually some slab sides and new ends, but it was stuck with that distinctive tell-tale windshield for way too long. I figured this out in real time, and each fall as the new cars came out, there it was: that same damn windshield. It wasn’t until 1967, when Imperials went back to using a slightly disguised Chrysler body that it finally disappeared.
When the rest of the Chrysler family switched to unibodies in 1960, the Imperial got a pass. Ostensibly because the frame gave it a quieter ride, the real reason was that Chrysler couldn’t afford to spend anything more than nickles and dimes on the slow selling Imperial during its 1957-1966 body era. Hence the tell-tale windshield.
If this 1960 Imperial is a Frankenstein, than what is its 1961 successor (above)? That’s when Exneruberance started to really go off the deep end, marrying the free-standing headlights inspired from his beloved classic era with the tail end of the fin era. And free-standing taillights to go along, no less. But freaks can be so lovable; I’ll take one home, thank you. But in something a bit bolder than this green.
Consider that by 1961 a revolution was underway, spearheaded by the stunning new Lincoln Continental. The rest of the industry had begun to move move on, and even Cadillac fins had returned to earth. The ’61 Continental made the former leading-edge Imperial look like a retro-mobile, the forerunner of the seventies’ customs like the Bugazzi and such.
After Exner departed, former Ford designer Elwood Engel credited for the ’61 Continental, was brought in to subdue and tone down the the monsters. His reskin of the old ’57 body added very Lincolnesque slab sides to the ’65 Imperial, but still there’s that old ’57 wrap-around windshield again, looking absurdly out of date by then.
Seems like we’ve talked about everything but this 1960. Well, it was an interim year, just before the floating headlights, but the fins were already well past their prime. As a compensation, there’s quite a dramatic dashboard to savor, including those push buttons for the Torqueflite transmission.
Let’s not shortchange Chrysler’s squared-off steering wheel, which was as prescient of future tillers as the fins. Looking out over it was presumably easier, to better appreciate the acreage under which sat Chrysler’s 413 CID wedge V8, which replaced the legendary and legendarily expensive-to-build hemi a couple of years earlier.
With a 350 hp rating, the big wedge did everything the hemi could but even better, except to power a dragster after it was yanked out of its first role in life.
A Frankenstein the 1960 Imperial may well be, but we all loved that monster too. Now it’s hard to fathom how such bizarreness was once considered elegant and chic. Stranger things have happened, but not that many more than the 1960 Imperial.