Curbside Classic: 1963 Imperial Custom Four-Door – The Imperial Battleship


(first posted 11/2/2012)      Nautical terms are often applied to automobiles. We’ve all heard the old saw about “Nimitz-class boats” navigating wide-open swaths of America on newly-built ’60s superhighways–but just how many of those old battleships could legitimately claim to have USN credentials? Click through for the full lyrics to this sea chanty…

As we can see, this fine vessel has been put up in dry dock for some time, and in the unlikely harbor of Omaha, NE. But that bumper sticker-ette hints at a completely different past.

First, the sticker: It reads “DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY…NAS DALLAS…DALLAS, TEXAS”, and is flanked by small stickers with dates possibly ranging from 1967 (according to the top sticker) to as far back as 1965 (as seen beneath the top sticker). So as it turns out, this naval-themed Imperial is no stranger to incongruous locations. Those of you having salt water in your veins know that in military jargon, “NAS” stands for Naval Air Station. The history of NAS Dallas is no more or less illustrious than that of most other military installations; Originally an Army training center for in the 1920s, it eventually grew into a large-scale flight operation due to a four-decade increase in the number of both runways and personnel that started in the 1940s. All of this begs the question: Who drives a late-model Imperial on a ’60s  Dallas airbase?

There certainly are myriad possibilities: Base commander? Well-paid naval surgeon? The chauffeur who transports local dignitaries on-base? Or was it simply an airman who scored a screaming deal on a slightly-used Imperial in 1965? What isn’t up for debate is why someone connected with the Navy would choose to pilot such a vehicle. This, after all, was “America’s Most Carefully Built Car”, according to Imperial literature–and it would almost have to be. Get a load of those concave fender stampings, not to mention the extensive use of chrome and stainless steel. And those “pod” headlights! It could be argued that the driver’s rear-view mirror incorporates more style and panache than an entire modern-day commuter-mobile.

Those details, however, are only the beginning. The 1963 Chryslers were the last of the Virgil Exner-designed cars to come from Ma Mopar. In fact, this Imperial–while firmly a late refresh of the 1961 model–clearly shows the influence of newly-installed head designer Elwood Engel. Although Chrysler had hired him away from Ford in 1961, on the heels of the success of his well-regarded 1961 Lincoln Continental, Engel would not be able to fully realize his vision for Chrysler/Imperial until 1964. In the meantime, he settled for tweaking the last of Exner’s infamous ’61s. With this car, Engel’s influence is best seen in the roof line, which recalls his earlier Continental and is more formal than on the ’62 Imp. Engel and his staff were also responsible for subduing the Imperial’s completely outrageous taillight pods; in fact, they killed two birds with one stone by at once shrinking the fins and integrating the taillights.



Astute Imperial spotters will note that this particular Imp is not equipped with the “toilet seat” on the trunk. In fact, had it been up to Engel, the “FliteSweep” deck lid almost certainly would not have been available. Owner surveys showed that some customers simply demanded that the faux-spare tire remain available, and so it was. For his part, Engel would reveal his faux-spare tire desires in 1964, when he simply slid the whole affair down the trunk, thus replacing a horizontal throne with a vertical hump.

Provided a prospective Imperial buyer wasn’t prone to trunk-based excess, they were otherwise free to express their own individuality by checking the correct boxes on the order sheet.  Power windows? Standard, and expected. Power vent windows? Absolutely available. Air conditioning? Of course… would you like one unit, or two? Backseat passengers get warm too, you know. Radio? Certainly…and the classy buyer would also opt for the foot switch-operated tuner. Cruise control? Well, yes…but here it’s known as Auto Pilot, and is controlled via a dash knob and a somewhat complex series of taps on the accelerator.

A rear-view mirror that adjusted itself to high-beams by detecting their heat? Check. Automatic beam changer for cars coming toward you, rather than coming up behind you? Check. What’s more, that ovoid steering wheel framed a set of electroluminescent gauges: Just slouch a bit while driving at night and view those brilliantly-lit gauges through your TV-shaped steering wheel! The list went on and on, right down to the 178 different color combinations a discerning Imperial buyer could choose from—every one of which was hand-buffed for hours at the factory

Even the mechanicals designed to be unobtrusive in an Imperial were not ignored. All 1963 models came standard with the 413 cu in engine originally introduced in the ’59 models. While wilder versions were available in other Chrysler vehicles, the Imperial mill was outfitted exclusively with a single Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor fueling 10:1 compression, and developed 340 hp and 450 ft. lbs. of torque. Add that to the TorqueFlite and optional Sure-Grip, and any ’63 Imperial will pull like an ocean-going tugboat. In traditional ChryCo fashion, the torsion-bar front suspension enhanced handling.

Perhaps these clues will take us down the proper trail of ownership. So far we’ve focused far too much on the “N” in NAS, and too little on the “A”. You see, that’s what NAS Dallas truly was: A training station for aircraft pilots, not ship’s captains. And the Imperial’s bird iconography comes through in spades, with no less than two Imperial eagles on the front end plus another on the trunk, each of them highly stylized. 1963 models also retained a vestige of the ’50s Imperial icon, the little gold crown at the bottom of the taillight lenses. This Imperial was built to take flight–not to slide sideways into the ocean, hastened by a champagne bottle.

So who, then, was the owner? I can say this much: This exact vehicle was offered for sale (and may still be) by a small local dealer that seems to specialize in Curbside Classics. I’ll say that the price was far less than five figures…which, considering what it would cost to get her in good shape, is probably about right. Right next to the price–and with absolutely no confirmation offered–the seller was advertising it as “PREZ JOHNSON’S CAR!”. Speculate at will.