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Imperial vehicles


Imperial C 70   (1955)

The 1955 models featured styling by Virgil Exner, inspired by his 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 egg-crate grille (later used on the Chrysler C-300 "executive hot rod") and "gunsight" taillights mounted above the rear quarters. Models included a two-door Newport hardtop coupe (3418 built) and a four-door sedan (7840 built). The engine was Chrysler's first-generation Hemi V8 with a displacement of 331 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 in≥ (5.8 L) and power output of 280 bhp (209 kW), and a four-door Southampton hardtop sedan was added to the range.

1957 saw a redesigned and larger bodyshell available, based on Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" styling newly introduced for the 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 headlamps, tall tailfins, and Imperial's trademark gunsight taillamps. The Hemi engine was available for the first two years (enlarged to 392ci), but for 1959, the third and final year of this bodystyle, a 413ci Wedge-head engine replaced it. A convertible was available for the first time on an Imperial. Sales were brisk for the class, helped by Exner's "ahead of the competition" styling, with 1957 becoming the best-selling Imperial year.

Imperial C 69 ,Newport concept (1955)

Starting from 1957, Imperials were available in three levels of trim: standard Imperial, Imperial Crown, and Imperial LeBaron (the latter named after a coachbuilder, bought out by Chrysler, that did some of the best work on prewar Chrysler Imperial chassis).


Imperial PY1 ,Custom,Crown,Lebaron concept (1960)

These were the last Virgil Exner-styled Imperials. Unlike the rest of the Chrysler range, that went to unibody construction in 1960, the Imperial retained separate frames for rigidity. While most critics of automobile styling rate the 1955 through 1959 Imperials highly, the styling in this period was more questionable, which might have been a reflection of Exner's increasing struggles with the Chrysler president and board.

The 1960 look featured a very "1950s" front end with a swooping front bumper, gaping mesh grille, giant chrome eagle, and hooded quad headlights, and tall rear fins with a fake spare tire bulge on the trunk lid. 1961 brought a wholly new front end with 'freestanding' headlamps on short stalks in cut-away front fenders, and even taller "wings" at the rear. In 1962, the first year to lack Exner's influence, 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 Imperial Eagle hood ornament was fitted for the first time. 1963 saw the split grille gone again, replaced by a cluster of chromed rectangles, and the taillights were back inside the rear fenders in ordinary fashion.

1964's Imperial was the first to be wholly styled by Chrysler's new head stylist, ex-Ford man Elwood Engel. Engel had been the designer of the 1961 Lincoln Continental, and the common hand is clearly visible in the straight-line styling. 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 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 windowóreduced in size.

Imperial PY1 Crown convertible concept (1960)

Changes for 1965 were largely confined to the front end and to trim. The split grille was gone, replaced by a large chromed cross and surround, and the headlights, uniquely, were inset into the grill behind glass covers. 1966 saw a change to an egg-crate grill, but things were otherwise largely unchanged.

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 range. The styling kept the overall straight-line, sharp-edged Engel theme, but there were many detail changes. 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 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. Also introduced was the 440 in≥ (7.2 L) engine instead of the 413 in≥ (6.8 L) powerplant standard from 1960 onward. A TNT version was available as an option, delivering more power.

Imperial RY1 ,Custom,Crown,Lebaron concept (1961)

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.


Imperial Le Baron  concept (1972)

A Fuselage Look was how Chrysler described the new styling in 1969. Instead of the square lines of 1964-1968, '69's Imperial featured rounded "tumblehome" sides, bulging at the belt line and tucking in down to the rocker panels. Unlike 1960-1968 Imperials, it shared a body with Chrysler's full-size line of that year, to reduce costs. 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 the fashionable full-width grille look. 1969 was the final year of the Imperial Sedan and the first year that a 2-door Imperial LeBaron was offered. The convertible was also gone, after its poor sales in previous years.

Under the skin, little had changed; construction was still the same unibody, the engine options and transmission were the same, the torsion bar front suspension was still used.

1970's model 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, 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. It was the final year for the Imperial Crown series; only the LeBaron would continue.

Imperial Le Baron  concept (1973)

In 1971, there were only two models left, the Imperial LeBaron in two-door or four-door hardtop form. The Imperial Eagle hood ornament was gone, replaced by the word IMPERIAL; the deck lid badge said, for the first time, "IMPERIAL by Chrysler".

Uniquely, the vinyl top was available for a short time in a burgundy color that turned out to have been overprinted on waste "Mod Top" patterned vinyl, which had been available on some Dodge and Plymouth models in 1969 and 1970, selling poorly. With exposure to the elements, the purple overprint faded, and the pattern began to show through in a purple "paisley" pattern. Chrysler replaced many affected tops, but some survive.

1972's sheet metal was completely new, although the styling was an evolution of the previous Fuselage style, somewhat less rounded. The front end 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 Imperial Eagles on them.

New Federal bumper standards for 1973 meant large rubber over-riders front and rear, which added six inches to the car's length, making it the longest production car in North America for that year. Little else changed.

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 disk brakes; only the Corvette had 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 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. 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.


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 60s.

The new Imperial was a smaller, two-door only package, sharing its chassis with the 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 in≥ V8 was the only engine, but in a fuel-injected version.

Crystal Chrysler Pentastar hood ornamentUnlike 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 alone, however, proudly wore it as a jewel-like, cut crystal, stand-up hood ornament. Rather astoundingly, the car raced briefly on the NASCAR circuit, as its nose was more aerodynamic than those of the Cordoba and Mirada.

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, a personal friend of Iacocca. For '81 and '82, in fact, Sinatra editions were offered with special blue paint and emblems and included a set of 8-track tapes featuring the singer's hits in a specially designed console.

Nevertheless, the car did not take off. It offered no technological advances, and the company's reputation for quality was still suffering from the disasters of the 70s. The fuel injection system in particular was troublesome on this model, and the company eventually replaced many of them with carburetors. The rear styling, which had an odd, bustle-backed look vaguely similar to Cadillac's controversial 1980 Seville, was probably a hindrance. Competition from the much cheaper and mechanically similar 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 80s 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.

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 just used carbureted 360 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. The extremely rare Frank Sinatra editions in particular will likely appreciate in value.


Idea and design © 1999-2016 van Damme Stéphane.

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