Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Imperial Crown – “The Imperial Is Running Third In A Three Car Race…”

The quote I used for the title is somewhat out of context, as Car Life was specifically referring to the Imperial’s road manners, which were deficient due to its excessively soft suspension and slow and overboosted steering. The vaunted Chrysler handling superiority was absent. But the quote rather does apply in other ways too, most specifically in terms of sales, where the Imperial was running a very distant third, with less than one-tenth of the volume of Cadillac.

That’s not to say the Imperial didn’t show some genuine strengths; it did. But none were in areas that would be compelling to luxury car buyers, most of all its styling, something CL politely didn’t even touch upon. They were staying strictly objective, but that’s not how car buyers are; styling was the most important factor in their decision making.

An initial familial similarity to other Chrysler Corp. cars was noted despite the significant higher price, but the Imperial’s softer suspension in relation to its greater weight was where the similarity ended. Of course it had good “boulevard ride”, but unless measures like more exotic suspension systems were used, the trade-offs were inevitable.

Stability at high speed was one of the prices to be paid for that smooth boulevard ride. as well as handling in general. The issue was exacerbated by the “slow steering (more than five turns, lock-to-lock)” which in turn was excessively boosted by the power steering to “totally eliminate road feel altogether”. In this regard, CL clearly puts the Imperial behind the Cadillac and Lincoln. Note: the specs say that there were 3.5 turns lock-to-lock. Hmm.

CL notes the same point commenters here at CC often make: “it can be argued that Imperials aren’t designed for high-speed cross-country travel, and shouldn’t be expected to handle well at such speeds. This may or may not be true, but the fact remains that the Imperial…must stand comparison with the Lincoln Continental and the Cadillac, both excellent open road cars. As it stands, the Imperial is running third in a three-car race as far as its road manners are concerned.”

I’ll add something to that argument: back then, there weren’t really many choices for someone who did want a car that was prestigious, luxurious and with decent handling at higher road speeds. Yes, these buyers likely defected to Mercedes or such soon enough, but many still preferred a big domestic. In the 50s and early 60s, premium cars were expected to deliver the goods on the full range of automotive qualities; the days when they were seen as purely overstuffed sofas on wheels was still to come. And by then, those looking for high speed road manners had long left. And ironically, it was Chrysler’s own 300 that showed the world how it could be done.

As to acceleration, the Imperial was more competitive, with its 350 hp 413 V8 teamed with Torqueflite giving plenty of oomph, enough to mostly keep up with the fleet-footed Cadillac (0-60 in 10 sec. vs. 9.5), and exceeding the Lincoln up to 80 mph. Over 80, the Cadillac really starts to run away from the other two, thanks to its somewhat more compact size (less frontal area) and lower weight.

CL did note that shifting the TF manually made a not-insignificant improvement in acceleration times (unlike the Cadillac), although only the 1-2 shift could be controlled via the buttons; the 2-3 shift happened regardless of how long the 2 button was depressed.

The square steering wheel came in for criticism, but that’s just about the only stylistic comment made. So I’ll jump in: this dashboard is huge come-down from the two giant round electroluminescent-lit instruments of its predecessor. I find this one quite weak, looking like it belongs in a Plymouth.

The Imperial’s brakes were noted positively, which got some help in dissipating their heat via built in vents in the circumference of the wheel covers, which stand away from the rim by a small distance. That’s a new one for me.

Fuel economy was also a strength, with CL able to average 15 mpg “in normal driving”. That is hard to believe, and significantly higher than the 8-12 mpg that Motor Trend got in a ’61 Imperial. Hmm, again.


Curiously, the generally-lauded Torqueflite automatic came in for some critique. CL claimed that when releasing the throttle, it felt like it was “free-wheeling”, hence the excellent mileage. Which led them to assume that this quality would diminish engine braking in the mountains. I have never experienced either of these issues; it seems to provide the same degree of engine braking as one would expect from a conventional automatic. Hmm.

The Imperial’s interior fabrics were “obviously costing many $$$ per yard”.

The quality interior appointments “along with the external styling differences, is what sets the “Big I” apart from the rest of the Chrysler line”. CL apparently didn’t see the value proposition in that, as they closed by saying “we’d just as soon have two Chrysler Newports—you know, one for summer and one for winter.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but then dynamically, the Newport was undoubtedly superior to the Imperial, at half the price. And although the Newport’s fins and styling also looked dated in 1961, it wasn’t nearly as garish and cartoonish as the Imperial. There, I said what CL wouldn’t say: stylistically, the Imperial was even further behind Cadillac and Lincoln than it was in sales.

These free-standing headlights and the floating taillights might have worked in 1957 (they were new for 1961), and today they’re amusingly camp, but in 1961, they were hopelessly out of date and frankly ridiculous. Not exactly Virgil Exner’s finest moment. Well, he was clearly heading into his retro phase.


Related CC reading:

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Cadillac Coupe DeVille – Still “The Standard Of The World”?

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Lincoln Continental Sedan – “The Best-Looking American Car Built Today”