Imperial was the Chrysler Corporation's prestige automobile brand between 1955 and 1975, with a brief reappearance in 1981 through 1983.
The Chrysler Imperial had been the company's most luxurious model, and in 1955 when the company decided to introduce a separate luxury brand, Imperial was the natural choice for the nameplate of the new spin off vehicle line. The Imperial became a separate marque and division within the corporation. Imperial would see new body styles introduced every two to three years, all with V8 engines and automatic transmissions, as well as technologies that would filter down to the lower rungs of Chrysler corporation's sister offerings.
In 1955, the Imperial was launched and registered as a separate marque, apart from the Chrysler brand. It was a product of the new Imperial Division of Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler introduced Forward Look Styling by Virgil Exner, who would define Imperial's look (and the look of cars from the other four Chrysler divisions) from 1955 to 1963.
The 1955 models are said to be inspired by Exner's own 1952 Chrysler Imperial Parade Phaeton show cars. The bodyshell was shared with that year's big Chryslers, but the Imperial had a wide-spaced split eggcrate grille (also used on the Chrysler 300 "executive hot rod") and "gunsight" taillights mounted above the rear quarters. Models included a two-door Newport hardtop coupe (3,418 built) and a four-door sedan (7840 built). The engine was Chrysler's first-generation Hemi V8 with a displacement of 331 cu in (5.4 L) and developing 250 brake horsepower (186 kW).
The 1956 models were similar, but had small tailfins, a slightly longer wheelbase, a larger engine displacement of 354 cu in (5.8 L) with 280 brake horsepower (209 kW), and a four-door Southampton hardtop sedan was added to the range.
1957 saw a redesigned and larger bodyshell available, based to an even greater degree on Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" styling (also used on other full-size Chryslers of the period). It featured a complicated front end (very similar to Cadillacs of the period) with a bulleted grille and quad headlights, tall tailfins, and Imperial's trademark gunsight taillights. The Hemi engine was available for the first two years that was enlarged to 392 cu in (6.4 L). For 1959, the third and final year of this bodystyle, a 413 cu in (6.8 L) Wedge-head engine replaced it. A convertible was available for the first time on an Imperial and available in the mid-range Crown series. Sales were helped by Exner's "ahead of the competition" styling, with 1957 becoming the best-selling Imperial year ever.
Starting from 1957, Imperials were available in three levels of trim: standard Imperial, (also known as Imperial Custom) Imperial Crown, and the new, super-luxury Imperial LeBaron (the latter named after a coachbuilder, bought out by Chrysler, that did some of the best work on prewar Chrysler Imperial chassis, and not to be confused with the later, cheaper Chrysler Le Baron). Through the late 1950s and into the early 1960s styling would continue to become "Longer, Lower, Wider", with the addition some of the wildest fins ever put on a car.
The 1958 version is credited with the introduction of cruise control, which was called "Auto-Pilot", and was available on the Imperial, and on Chrysler New Yorker and Windsor models.
The 1959 version introduced the swivel out front seats that were part of the six way electric front bench seat. Originally the seats would automatically swivel when the front door was opened activated by a cable but was soon removed and only could be activated manually by a handle.
The 1960 Imperial is in many ways the most emblematic and iconic Imperial ever made. The 1960 look featured a very "1950s" front fascia with a swooping front bumper, gaping mesh grille, giant chrome eagle, and hooded quad headlights, and tall rear fins. Some models had the optional simulated spare tire bulge on the trunklid, though this once-popular feature was largely shunned by Imperial buyers after it was made available on Plymouths in 1959. Its fins were wider, bigger than anything ever made, with the exception maybe of the 1959 Cadillac. These fins had bullet style tail lamps at the peak of the fin, with a halo of a chrome ring surrounding it. The grill and bumper on the front of the 1960 used large pieces of heavy chrome, and the 'furrowed brows' of the fenders over the double sets of headlights gave the car a ponderous look. The push-button transmission and elaborate use of chrome on the dash also made this car stand out.
The 1960 year has been portrayed in several notable movies: in Blade Runner, the 1960 Imperial can be seen on several occasions driving with a mix of exotic, old and post-apocalyptic contraptions on the road. In the movie Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, the 1960 Imperial is prominently displayed, being driven by the character Count Olaf. He abandons the children in the movie on railroad tracks, locked inside the 1960 Imperial. A black 1960 Imperial Crown (Limousine) was used to transport Jacqueline Kennedy during the funeral proceedings of John F. Kennedy.
1961 brought a wholly new front end with "freestanding" headlights on short stalks in cut-away front fenders, and even taller "wings" at the rear. In 1962, the fins were replaced by straight-top rear fenders, and as in 1955, free-standing taillights atop them—but these were elongated, streamlined affairs. The front grille was once again split, and a large round Eagle hood ornament was fitted for the first time. The engineering team delivered as well, giving the 1962 models a new, slimmer TorqueFlite automatic transmission, which allowed for a smaller transmission tunnel "hump" in the floor. This provided greater comfort for the passenger in the center seat up front. 1962 also marked the closing of Imperial's dedicated assembly plant; all later Imperials were built in the same facilities as standard Chrysler-brand models. 1963 saw the split grille disappear again, replaced by a cluster of chromed rectangles, and the taillights were now inside the rear fenders, in ordinary fashion, for the first time. In addition, the designers redesigned the rooflines of the two-door hardtops, giving them a similar appearance to the four-door models. 1963 models were the last Virgil Exner–styled Imperials. While most critics of automobile styling rate the 1955 through 1959 Imperials highly, the styling in this period was more questionable, which was reflected in Exner's increasing struggles with the Chrysler president and board.
The main advantage of Imperials in the 1960s was their strength; their crashworthiness got them banned from demolition derbies for being too hard to take down. Unlike the rest of the Chrysler Corporation makes (Plymouth, De Soto, Chrysler, and Dodge), that went to unibody construction in 1960, the Imperial retained separate full perimeter frames for rigidity through the 1966 model year. These substantial frames were in the form of a full box with crossmembers forming an "x". The drive shaft passed through a hole in the "x" frame. Interestingly, the emergency brake, in the traditional Chrysler manner, was in the form of a clamp that would take hold of the drive shaft, and was not connected to the rear drum brakes.
In 1961, Chrysler scored a coup by hiring Elwood Engel away from Ford, where he had designed the 1961 Lincoln Continental (the same type of car in which President Kennedy was assassinated). Engel's design themes at Chrysler were a far cry from the fins of Virgil Exner, and instead featured the more familiar "three-box" design with more rectangular, angular cars with straight-line styling. The 1964 Lincolns and 1964 Imperials bear many of the same design hallmarks. A split grille returned, and the fake spare tire bulge moved from the trunk lid to the rear, incorporating the rear bumper in a very squared-off lump. A large boss in the center of it was actually the fuel filler door, covered with a large Imperial Eagle, with chromed bars going outward that terminated in the taillights. The base Imperial Custom model was now gone; the cars were now available as Imperial Crown or Imperial LeBaron levels of trim in four-door hardtop sedan, two-door hardtop Crown Coupe, or convertible versions. The LeBaron during this period had a formal rear window—reduced in size.
Changes for 1965 were largely confined to the front fascia and to trim, and replacement of the push-button automatic transmission gear selection system with a more conventional steering column-mounted shift lever. The split grille was gone, replaced by a large chromed cross and surround, and the headlights were inset into the grill behind glass covers (similar to that year's Chrysler 300 and New Yorker models. 1966 saw a change to an egg-crate grill. Also introduced was the 440 cu in (7.2 L) engine instead of the 413 cu in (6.8 L) that was standard from 1960.
1967 saw a completely new Imperial under the skin, as the car changed from a separate chassis to unibody construction to match the rest of the Chrysler Corporation makes. The styling kept the overall straight-line, sharp-edged Engel theme, but there were many detail changes intended to take Imperial away from Lincoln and into its own territory. The spare tire bulge was completely gone from the rear, although the boss remained. The practically full-width taillights spread out from it, straight, but ended before chrome-tipped rear wings. The front end was somewhat similar to 1966's, although the glass lamp covers were gone.
New this year was a new entry-level Imperial Sedan, with full frames around the windows unlike the hardtop frameless style of the other cars. A TNT version of the 440 engine was available as an option, delivering more power.
1968's Imperial was little changed from the previous year. The grille changed to a brightly chromed one with thin horizontal bars, split in the middle by vertical chrome and a round Imperial Eagle badge. At the rear, the horizontal bars over the taillights were gone. This was also the last year for the Imperial convertible.
The Fuselage Look was how Chrysler described the new styling in 1969. Instead of the square lines of 1964 through 1968, 1969's Imperial featured rounded "tumblehome" sides, bulging at the belt line, and tucking in down to the rocker panels. Unlike the 1960-1968 Imperials, it shared a basic body design with Chrysler's full-size line of that year to reduce costs. The front K member was 3" longer than the other full-size cars, but everything behind the front fenders was the same length and size. In keeping with the times, the look was sleeker, with a reduced, more subtle level of trim. For the first time, the lights were hidden behind doors, giving a fashionable at the time full-width grille look using "loop" bumpers. The final year of the Imperial Sedan was in 1969, and it was also the first year for the 2-door Imperial LeBaron.
Under the skin, little had changed; construction was still the same unibody, the engine and transmission were the same, and the torsion bar front suspension was still used.
1970 models differed only in minor ways. The grill pattern changed to a larger eggcrate design; the front cornering lamps were now rectangular instead of the "shark gill" pattern of 1969. A wide chrome strip was added at the rocker panels, vinyl side trim was made optional, and (for this year only) the fender skirts were gone. The Imperial was the longest car available in 1970, at just over 19 feet (5.8 m) long, except the Cadillac Fleetwood Series 75. It was the final year for the Imperial Crown series; only the LeBaron would continue.
In 1971, there were only two models left, the Imperial LeBaron in two-door or four-door hardtop form. The Imperial Eagle at the front of the hood was gone, replaced by the word IMPERIAL; the deck lid badge said, for the first time, "IMPERIAL by Chrysler". The 1971 Imperial is notable for being the first production car in America with a 4-wheel Anti-lock braking system (ABS) from Bendix, a rarely selected option at that time. The 1966 Jensen FF from England was the first production car in the world to have ABS. Both had ABS for almost a decade before the Mercedes-Benz S-Class which claims to be the first production car with ABS1978.
Although the vinyl top was standard, for a short time a unique paisley-patterned vinyl top in a burgundy color was available as an option on burgundy-painted cars. It has been rumored that this top had actually been overprinted on waste "Mod Top" patterned vinyl, which had been available on some Dodge and Plymouth models in 1969 and 1970, but, according to Jeffrey Godshall, a Chrysler designer and frequent contributor to the magazine Collectible Automobile, this was not the case. With exposure to the elements, the burgundy overprint faded, and the pattern began to show through in a purple "paisley" pattern. Chrysler replaced many affected tops with either white or black standard vinyl, but some survive.
1972's sheetmetal was completely new, although the styling was an evolution of the previous Fuselage style, somewhat more rounded in side profile, without a character line down the side and chrome trim on the top seams of the fenders from the rear windows forward. The front fascia was all new and imposing-looking, and the back featured vertical teardrop taillights for the first time, while the rear side marker lights were in the form of shields with eagles on them.
New federal bumper standards for 1973 meant large rubber over-riders front and rear, which added six inches (152 mm) to the car's length, making it the longest production car in North America for that year and the longest postwar (non limousine) production car at 235.3".
1974, Chrysler's 50th anniversary, saw the final redesign of the full-size Imperial. The new car had Chrysler's new trademark 'waterfall' grille, which started on top of the nose and flowed down. It was a shorter, lighter car than the previous year's, built on the Chrysler New Yorker chassis. The 1974 Imperial was the first regular American passenger car to offer 4-wheel disc brakes since the 1949-1952 Crosley and the Chrysler Imperials of the early 1950s; only the Chevrolet Corvette had recently offered them previously. The ignition system was electronic, another first in the market, as was the optional burglar alarm. As well as the two regular LeBaron models, a 50th Anniversary 2-door LeBaron Crown Coupe was also produced, finished in Golden Fawn; only 57 were built.
For 1975, little changed but for the waterfall grill and the front bumper was enhanced, as well as a few detail improvements. This was to be the last year of the independent Imperial marque; instead, the same car was sold, rather more cheaply, for three more years as the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham. Justifying the price differential over the full-size Chrysler had become increasingly hard to do as the cars became (to save costs) more and more similar over the years, and the costs of maintaining and marketing a separate, poorly selling marque were possibly just too high.
The final bow of the Imperial as a separate division of Chrysler came in 1975, brought on by rising oil prices that made the Imperial's weight and poor fuel economy a luxury that fewer people could logically embrace.
This generation represented a fairly radical attempt to reinvent the Imperial as a personal luxury car. It is probably not coincidental that this came about after Lee Iacocca took the helm at Chrysler, since he had been instrumental in creating the successful Lincoln Mark series for this market while he was at Ford in the late 1960s. Although the company was facing bankruptcy, Iacocca decided that "a new flagship would assure the public that Chrysler had a future."
The new Imperial was a smaller, two-door only package, sharing its 112.7" wheel base chassis with the second generation Chrysler Cordoba and Dodge Mirada. These were designated the J-bodies. The Imperial was so well-equipped that there were virtually no options, other than a choice of wheels and sound systems. The 318 cu in (5.2 L) V8 was the only engine, but in a fuel-injected version. This particular generation of Imperial (1981-83) also did not bear the Chrysler name.
Unlike all other modern Imperials, it did not use the Imperial eagle logo, as that had been moved to the Chrysler LeBaron model in 1977. Instead it bore the Chrysler Pentastar, as did all the company's products of that era. The Imperial and the Mark Cross Edition of the LeBaron Convertible were the only vehicles, however, which wore it as a jewel-like, cut crystal, stand-up hood ornament. Rather astoundingly, several of the cars raced (despite the absence of any Chrysler factory support) on the NASCAR circuit from 1981 thru 1985 (driven by Buddy Arrington, Rick Baldwin, Cecil Gordon, Phil Goode, and Maurice Randall) and finished as high as sixth place in the summer 1982 race at Brooklyn, MI. NASCAR enthusiasts were probably surprised seeing a luxury car raced on the circuit. The reason for drivers racing an Imperial was that it was far more aerodynamic than the Dodge (Mirada) made at the time. Arrington's Imperial currently (as of fall 2008) resides in the Talledega (AL) NASCAR museum.
Competing models such as the Cadillac Eldorado and the Lincoln Continental Mark VI had been downsized by 1981, so the Imperial was about the right size for its intended market, and the market was certainly there, since the Eldorado was at that time rising to the peak of its success. Considerable marketing was put behind the new model as well, including commercials and magazine ads featuring singer Frank Sinatra (who convinced several of his Hollywood friends to buy them), a personal friend of Iacocca.
Nevertheless, the car did not take off. Other than its troublesome fuel injection system, it offered no technological advances, and the company's reputation for quality was still suffering from the disasters of the 1970s. Dealers often replaced the fuel injection system with carburetors. The rear styling, which had an odd, bustle-backed look vaguely similar to Cadillac's controversial 1980 Seville, was a styling hindrance. Competition from the much cheaper and mechanically similar (and more reliable) Cordoba, which was sold in the same showrooms, could have been a factor as well.
Perhaps most importantly for the prestige-driven top of the market, by the 1980s the well-publicized misfortunes of Chrysler had simply rendered the name unable to compete in the same class as Cadillac and Lincoln. A marque which was most often associated in the press with the word bankruptcy was unlikely to attract buyers shopping for a car that symbolized affluence. The Imperial also failed because of its tremendously poor reliability. It was known to stall, suffer from premature engine failure, the electronics were known to fail rather continuously, and its overall reliability was just not up par with its competitors.
Today, due to their lack of success, these cars have some rarity value. Examples that did not have the fuel-injection system replaced are as apt to be troublesome now as they were then, though, and parts are scarce. Reportedly some Chrysler dealers used a carbureted 360 cu in (5.9 L) V8s instead of converting the 318s when making the switch, so this configuration can probably be considered "factory", even though the factory catalog does not show it.