Curbside Classic: 1968 Imperial Crown Convertible – Fall Back, Men, Fall Back!

(first posted 6/27/2011)     After its full frontal assault on the U.S. luxury car market in 1957, Chrysler’s Imperial was destined to spend the rest of its days in a long series of small retreats until its unconditional surrender at the end of the 1975 model year.  Other than a modestly successful surge with Elwood Engel’s 1964 restyle, Imperial’s history largely paralleled the slow fall of a military power as it was eventually overrun by superior forces.  Today’s CC marks the final skirmish before one of the more significant fallbacks:  Imperial’s exit from the luxury convertible market.

Before moving forward, let’s get one thing clear.  This is NOT a “Chrysler Imperial”.  Although the Imperial had been the finest version of the Chrysler brand going back to the 1920s, Chrysler was ready for some serious growth in the 1950s and registered Imperial as a separate make for the 1955 models.  From this point forward, there was no such thing as a “Chrysler Imperial” any more than there was a “General Motors Cadillac” or a “Ford Lincoln”.  But in the real world, nobody got the memo and the car would be forever known to the general public as the Chrysler Imperial.

By the mid 1960s, Chrysler’s irrational exuberance of the ’50s was long gone.  In its place was Lynn Townsend, the company president who came into the job in 1961 from Chrysler’s outside accounting firm.  Townsend was a practical man, and to him, the automobile business was all about volume.  Volume was something that Imperial had never been able to obtain.  Even with a freshened 1964 model (a year second only to 1957), Imperial barely managed to exceed 23,000 units, less than half of Lincoln’s production.  By comparison, Cadillac sold over 150,000 cars that year.  Townsend knew that this situation was not going to get better.  The ’64 Imperial, nice as it was, was still a thinly veiled update of the 1957 car.  Meanwhile, the ’64 Lincoln was 2 full generations removed from its 1957 model and Cadillac was one generation further yet.  Worse, both would field wholly new cars by 1965-66, so something would have to be done.

With Townsend’s inability (or unwillingness) to make a business case for a new stand-alone Imperial platform, there was only one other option:  Imperial would have to share the C-body unitized platform with the big Chrysler for its 1967 model.   At least the new Imperial was given a 3 inch increase in wheelbase forward of the cowl (to 127 inches) over the New Yorker, and the car would otherwise have competitive dimensions (width and overall length) with the current Cadillac.   A surprising fact is that the 67-68 Imperial outweighed the 4900 pound Cadillac by 300 pounds.

Chrysler’s 1965-68 C platform was a very good one, one of my all-time favorites.  Unfortunately, it did not necessarily make for a class-competitive Imperial.  While, the car’s sheetmetal was unique, the cars bore such a strong resemblance to the New Yorker that  the differences may not have been readily apparent to the casual observer.  Likewise, the dashboard was plainly a trim job on the same unit used by all Chryslers, even the lowly Newport.  Where Cadillac was obviously a completely different car from a Buick, and Lincoln was clearly different from anything else made by Ford, the Imperial came off as a New Yorker Ultimate.  The fact that the car was virtually identical mechanically to the “regular” Chrysler only caused stiffer headwinds for the car as it tried to be a legitimate luxury contender.

Even though the Imperial shared the Chrysler platform, the company really did spend a lot of money on the car.  The plated die casting used for the grille is simply beautiful.  Chrysler even used a unique door handle with a brushed stainless insert.  It is a shame that these costly touches were so subtle and were probably not noticed by most people.

It was my experience growing up that someone shopping for a new luxury car in the 60s made a choice between Cadillac and (maybe) Lincoln.  The Imperial was not so much a competitor of the big 2 as something for Chrysler to sell to an existing New Yorker customer when he was ready for a more expensive car.  By the late 1960s, Chrysler had never been able to shake a poor reputation for quality, and the result was that Chryslers were very polarizing cars.  A small number of buyers was extremely loyal and would consider virtually nothing else, while a majority of buyers would never seriously entertain the thought of buying a Chrysler product, no matter how appealing it may have otherwise been.  Production figures tell the tale.  In its entire time as a separate brand, Imperial only once exceeded 24,000 cars (1957) and never, ever, sold fewer than 10,000, no matter how bizarrely styled or poorly built.  So, with roughly 15,000 units sold in 1968, it was an average year for the Imperial.

My anecdotal observations were backed up in the motoring press of the period.  Popular Mechanics Magazine featured Owners’ Reports  which polled actual owners of new vehicles.  In its April, 1968 issue (here ), the Magazine featured the ’68 Imperial.  The article noted an extremely loyal base of repeat buyers who were, on average, on their third or fourth Imperial.  At the same time, though, these loyal owners had pervasive criticisms of workmanship.  Wind and water leaks, electrical and carburetion  problems and climate control issues and were the biggies, with fully 46% of owners complaining of a mechanical problem.    However, a properly built car made for a satisfied customer, because when asked what changes owners would like to see, there was nary a response beyond the workmanship issue.

474. What is this number?  It is the total number of  Imperial convertibles that rolled out of the factory in 1968.  Let me repeat  this – the car pictured here is one of 474 ever built.  Anywhere.  I now nominate this car as the rarest passenger car ever profiled as a CC.  Think of it this way:  Most Chrysler dealers never saw one of these when they were new.  Or this way:  Lincoln cancelled its convertible after selling over 2200 of them in 1967.  Cadillac shovelled over 18,000 DeVille ragtops out the door in ’68.  In fact, the entire run of Imperial convertibles (1957-68, as there was no convertible for 1955-56) may be the lowest volume regular production car of its era.  Only once (again, 1957) did the company crack 1000 units.  The Imperial Club’s registry currently lists only 6 of these ’68 models worldwide, although there are likely a few others here or there (including this car that does not appear to be one of the 6).   If you see an Imperial convertible of ANY year, you are looking at one rare automobile.

I saw this car parked outside of a business while driving across a busy street on the far north side of Indianapolis.  Actually, I passed by it maybe 5 times before I had an opportunity to stop in and ask if I could photograph the car.  Rich Kissling is one of the owners of Indy Sound & Performance, and was happy to allow some pictures.  He was also kind enough to take me into the back where his craftsmen are finishing a beautiful restomod of a hemi orange 72 Road Runner.  But as nice as the Road Runner was (and it was amazing), we here at CC will tread the less-travelled paths, so it was back outside to gawk at the Imp.   This Turbine Bronze Imperial drop top is a beautiful  original 78,000 mile car that is awaiting some interior and trim restoration.  But as of right now, we get to enjoy the car with its original patina.  Other than an older high quality repaint, you are looking at this car just as Chrysler built it.

Chrysler would retreat again when it chose to ignore the highly profitable personal luxury segment and yet again when Imperial would cease to be a separate brand.  In 1974, Imperial would revert to its earlier role as the Chrysler brand’s highest  model.  Again, with an all new (and extremely attractive) design, Chrysler sold just short of 15,000 of them.  But after a disastrous 1975, Chrysler would pull the plug (cc here).  8,830 cars was bad even by Imperial’s standards.  But then again, considering the triple whammy of a terrible economy, rising fuel prices and Chrysler’s  plummeting quality reputation,  8,830 cars may not have been so bad.  There would be a couple of ill-fated attempts to bring the name back, but never as a legitimate luxury sedan.

Despite Imperial’s slow but total failure in trying to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln, the 68 Imperial was a very good car.  If you appreciate the charms of the big C-body Chryslers of the 1960s, then you may agree that this car could have been the best ever on that platform.  If the car-fairy were to appear on my doorstep to waive her wand and offer me the chance to choose a single car to love and cherish for the rest of my life, you may very well be looking at my selection, right down to the color.  Oh, well (Sigh).  Very few people will ever get to see one of these, let alone own one.  But for a few minutes on a recent Saturday, I got to stand next to this rare and beautiful car.  As I stood there, I imagined this Imperial in 1968 with its top down and its battle flags raised, preparing to make one last charge at the enemy.  It would again turn out to be an ugly rout.  However, unlike in a real shooting war, the result was pure pleasure for those of us with a thing for big convertibles.