Imperial Second Generation
For the 1957 model year, the Imperial received its own platform, setting it apart from any other division of Chrysler. This would last through the 1966 model year. Imperials during this period were substantially wider, both inside and out, than other Mopars with front and rear shoulder room equal to 64.0 in (1,626 mm) and 62.0 in (1,575 mm) respectively. The front seat shoulder room measurement remains an unsurpassed record for Imperial and would remain the record for any car until the 1971–1976 GM full-size models. Exterior width reached a maximum of 81.7 in (2,075 mm) during 1961–1963, which remains the record for the widest nonlimousine American car. After Lincoln downsized in 1961 this generation of Imperial had no real competitor for the title of largest car for the remainder of its decade-long lifespan.
One advantage of Imperials of this vintage was their strength; their crashworthiness got them banned from most demolition derbies for being too durable. Unlike the rest of the Chrysler Corporation makes (Chrysler, De Soto, Dodge and Plymouth), that began unibody construction in 1960, the Imperial retained separate full perimeter frames for rigidity through the 1966 model year. These substantial frames had a box cross section with crossmembers forming an "X". The drive shaft passed through a hole in the "X" frame. The emergency brake gripped the drive shaft, and was not connected to the rear drum brakes prior to 1963.
Another advantage was that Imperial, and all Mopars, received "Torsion-Aire" suspension in 1957. Torsion-Aire was an indirect-acting, torsion-bar front suspension system which reduced unsprung weight and shifted the car's center of gravity downward and rearward. Torsion-bar suspension on the front combined with multi-leaf springs on the rear provided a smoother ride and improved handling. Tom McCahill, an automobile critic with a reputation for colorful metaphors, quipped that Imperial "cornered at speed flatter than a tournament billiard table", unusual for a car of its prodigious weight and extreme dimensions. McCahill became a loyal customer, buying a new Imperial yearly 1957 through 1962. His visible and enthusiastic endorsement helped Imperial forge a reputation as the "driver's car" among the big three luxury makes.
The 1957 model year was 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 (similar to Cadillacs of the period) with a bulleted grille and quad headlights, tall tailfins, and Imperial's trademark gunsight taillights. For the first time on an American car curved side glass was used. The Hemi engine was available for the first two years that was enlarged to 392 cu in (6.4 L). Power seats and dual exhaust were made standard across the line. 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. 37,593 were produced, but Cadillac by contrast sold over 120,000 cars in 1957. Quality control also slipped considerably, a consequence of the second total redesign in two years.
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 (not to be confused with the later, cheaper Chrysler LeBaron). Through the late 1950s and into the early 1960s styling would continue to become "Longer, Lower, Wider", with the addition of some of the wildest fins on a car. The "FliteSweep Deck Lid", a fake continental tire bulge, was an option from 1957 through 1961 and again in 1963 (due to demand). It was shared with contemporary Mopars, including the Valiant. Exner's love of this feature extended back to early-fifties concept cars like the 1953 Chrysler D'Elegance.
Styling changes in 1958 were limited to the front grille and bumper. Quad headlights became standard. The 1958 Imperial 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. Power door locks were another new option. Sales slipped to 16,133 in a recession year. Dealers were frustrated with buyers referring to the cars as a "Chrysler Imperial", which inhibited sales as Chrysler was not seen as having Cadillac or Lincoln's prestige. It didn't help that Imperial continued to be sold at Chrysler dealerships, instead of standalone dealers, although it did have a separate "Imperial" dealership sign.
Exner's last Imperials
While many critics of automobile styling rate the 1955 through 1959 Imperials highly, the design of the 1960–1963 period is more controversial. At that time, Exner was increasingly struggling with the Chrysler president and board. "It was during 1962 Exner was dethroned as president of design in Highland Park. His successor was Elwood Engel, lured away from Ford to lead Chrysler Corporation along a more conventional path. Exner continued as a consultant through 1964, after which he had no further involvement."also states," When he was good, he was very good ( re: styling). When he was bad.... it was the epitome of excessive design. Sales dropped off and the board stepped in."Exner's son went on further, in a 1976 interview, "it was time for a change. Their image needed changing. Dad was a great designer and he was always ahead of his time. He gained more freedom from Chrysler in his designs of the modern Stutz."gives blow-by-blow accounts how Chrysler Corporation was revived through corporate changes in leadership. "But on the product front, the influence of Tex Colbert (ousted President of Chrysler in 1961) and Virgil Exner was still present, and it wouldn't be entirely washed away until 1965".
Despite the annual styling changes, all 1960-63 models featured a similar space age dashboard. The steering wheel was squared-off at top and bottom, designed for better leg room and view through the windshield in the straight ahead position. Dashboard lighting was electroluminescent, which used no incandescent lamps: electricity running through a five-layer laminate caused the phosphorescent paint to glow in the dark. Chrysler called it "Panelescent", and it was shared on some Chrysler models. The effect was eerie and surprisingly modern, with its glowing green face and bright red needles. The 1960-63 models were also united by a distinctive side trim that started above the headlights and that ran at a slight downward angle almost to the end of the rear fender (except in 1963 when it would actually wrap all the way around the rear of the car) that was undercut by a slight indent in the sides from the front until just before the rear wheel housing.
More importantly, but perhaps less obviously, a significant change in the car's proportions had occurred between the 1959 and 1960 model years. Although, at 226.3 inches, the 1960 Imperials were exactly the same length as the previous year, the whole body had been shifted forward, with a 2.1 inch reduction in the rear overhang, and a corresponding increase at the front. This led to a look that, due to a relatively smaller rear deck and more expansive front hood, was closer to Exner's classic car era ideals, and it would persist, by one means or another, for the remainder of Imperial's existence as a separate marque.
The 1961 model year brought a wholly new front end with free-standing headlights on short stalks in cut-away front fenders (a classical throwback favored by Virgil Exner. He would continue his look with the modern Stutz), and the largest tailfins ever. Inside, the Imperial gained an improved dash layout with an upright rectangular bank of gauges. The pillared four-door sedan was cancelled and would not return until the 1967 model year. With the downsizing of Lincoln, at 227.1 inches (later increased to 227.8 inches in 1963), the Imperial would once again be the longest non-limousine car made in America though 1966. Sales fell to 12,258, the result of bizarre styling and continued poor quality control.
The tailfins were largely truncated in 1962, topped with free-standing gunsight taillights, but these were elongated, streamlined affairs. The front grille was split, as in 1955-56, and a large round Eagle hood ornament was fitted for the first time. The 1962 models had a new, slimmer TorqueFlite A727 automatic transmission, which allowed a smaller transmission "hump" in the floor. This provided greater comfort for passengers in the center seat up front. Dual exhaust was now only standard on convertibles. 1962 also marked the closing of Imperial's dedicated assembly plant. All later Imperials were once again built in the same Jefferson Avenue facilities in Detroit as Chryslers, as sales were insufficient to maintain a separate facility. 1962 production totaled 14,337. Shortly before leaving Chrysler, Virgil Exner had planned for a smaller Imperial to go along with the downsized 1962 Mopars, but the idea never went anywhere.
The 1963 models 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 base and Crown, two and four door models to be more squared off with thicker c pillars. 1963 models were the last Virgil Exner–styled Imperials, however Elwood Engel began applying some of his own touches to them, especially in the form of the redesigned base and Crown roofs. LeBaron roofs remained the same with formal styling and closed in rear window. 14,121 cars were produced for 1963.
Engel's first Imperials
In 1961, Chrysler scored a coup by hiring Elwood Engel away from Ford, where he had designed the 1961 Lincoln Continental. Engel's design themes at Chrysler were a major departure from the fins of Virgil Exner, and instead featured a more familiar three-box design, but with more extreme rectilinear styling. And, at first glance, the total re-styling of the Imperial in 1964 was thought to strongly resemble Elwood Engel’s previous efforts for the 1961 Lincoln Continental. Both cars shared clean, slab-sided body panels, thick C-pillars, and a chrome molding outlining the top of the fender line. However, Engel used subtle curves and parallelogram angles to give the Imperial a distinct and novel look.
The 1964 Imperials were the first designed entirely by Engel. Predictably, they bore a strong resemblance to the Lincoln Continental. The dashboards seemed more conventional because the squared-off steering wheel and electroluminescent dash lighting were gone. However, there remained the ribbon-style speedometer. A split grille returned after one year's absence, and the fake spare tire bulge atop the trunk lid gave way to a squared-off protrusion at the rear, carrying downward into the rear bumper. 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. Heat and defrost, always a popular option, were now standard.
The base Imperial Custom model was now gone; the cars were now available as a four-door hardtop in the Crown or LeBaron levels of trim, or as a two-door hardtop or convertible in the Crown level of trim. As a result power windows were now standard on all Imperials. Imperial Crown coupes adopted the smaller style LeBaron "formal rear window" that had been introduced in 1960, and both body styles could now be ordered with a vinyl roof. With 23,295 produced, 1964 was Imperial's second best tally ever. A padded dash, power seats, power steering, power brakes, and head rests were standard. A new option this year was an adjustable steering wheel.
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 crossbar and surround, and the headlights were inset into the grill behind glass covers (similar to that year's Chrysler 300 and New Yorker models) with etched horizontal lines imitating the grill. As pointed out by the sales literature, 100-year-old Claro Walnut trim was added to the interior. Production totaled 18,409.
This was the final year for the Imperial platform that was first created in 1957. All subsequent years through 1966 used this same basic platform with annual changes to the body sheetmetal. However, the Imperial still used the wrap-around windshield that had been dropped by most other makes for entry and exit room when they almost all simultaneously downsized in 1961.
The 1966 model year saw a change to an egg-crate grille. The glass headlight covers lost the etched lines but gained twin 24k gold bands around the perimeter. The trunk lid bulge became more squared off with a smaller Imperial script off to the side. The back-up lights were moved to the rear bumper. The Claro Walnut trim that had been introduced the previous year was used more extensively and would be replaced the following year. The 413 cu in (6.8 L) engine that had been standard since 1959 was replaced with a 350 hp (261 kW; 355 PS) 440 cu in (7.2 L) engine.
Production totaled 13,752. There was a 1966 LeBaron that was presented to Pope Paul VI at the UN in New York for his use. Also this year, Imperial was the basis for the "The Black Beauty" a rolling arsenal on the ABC-TV series The Green Hornet, starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee. A black Imperial of this year would also be restored as a wedding anniversary gift for Richard "The Old Man" Harrison on the History Channel show, Pawn Stars.
The Green Hornet Black Beauty With Bruce Lee
1959 Imperial Crown Convertible in Heartbeat tv series