Automotive Mileposts

1955-1975 IMPERIAL
and 1981-1983 IMPERIAL
by Chrysler


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About the Chrysler Imperial and THE Imperial

The word "the" in all-capital letters in the title is not a mistake; Chrysler's top of the line nameplate was highly revered at Chrysler. So much so that it was registered separately from the rest of the Chrysler line for quite a few years. So, it is entirely appropriate to place emphasis on the word "the" when mentioning The Imperial. An automobile of this stature, elegance, performance, and appearance deserves the consideration!

In the 1950's, Cadillac, Lincoln, Imperial, and Packard were generally considered to be the finest automobiles built in America. The Imperial had never managed to establish a look that was distinctly its own. Nor had Lincoln, for that matter. Cadillac had the fins in back, and Packard had a unique grille treatment that identified them immediately, but Imperial and Lincoln were always looking for something new, never finding anything worthwhile to call their own. Lincoln would eventually attain a presence worth capitalizing on in 1961, but Imperial would continue to change every few years, never managing to grasp anything that was distinctly Imperial.

In 1955, Imperial would begin to break away from the rest of the Chrysler pack with unique styling touches, but at first glance an Imperial could be mistaken for a New Yorker. This was not good for a car in the prestige class, as appearances are given top consideration by the folks purchasing such a car. Imperial's break away year would be 1957. The dramatic new Imperials set the luxury car market on fire. Suddenly, the Imperial was the talk of the town. Suddenly, it was 1960 and everything else on the road looked like last year's model. Everybody knew about the spectacular new Imperials, with their soaring tailfins and their sleek, uncluttered styling. 1957 would be Imperial's best sales year ever. Packard ceased to be a consideration after 1956, as the struggling company wasn't able to carry on and compete in the luxury field. No doubt this helped Imperial to some degree.

Regrettably, the Imperial was not able to sustain its 1957 sales levels, as they dropped considerably for 1958. In Imperial's defense, America was in the midst of a bad economic period during this time, and sales of all 1958 cars were pretty bad. Imperial would soldier on through the sixties and seventies, always striving for better build quality and a look to call its own. And year after year, Imperial would find itself - predictably - in third place behind Cadillac and Lincoln. And this wasn't exactly a bad place to be, since exclusivity was a big part of the prestige market. A Cadillac driver was more likely to see a carbon copy pull up in the next lane, which was not a good thing to have happen, especially if impressionable friends are in the back seat!

The Imperial held on to the tailfin look perhaps a year too long, as by 1961 most other cars were shedding them as quickly as possible. They were a distinct fifties look, in a time when America was looking only to the future. They would be chopped off for 1962, which somehow made the car look even longer. The man largely responsible for the elegant 1961 Lincoln Continental moved to Chrysler and put his magic touch on the 1964 Imperial. Overnight, the Imperial had shed what was left of its fifties-inspired styling, and stepped right into the sixties! Few cars exhibited a more elegant look in 1964, and Imperial's restrained use of chrome and distinct body lines gave the car an air of prestige and affluence. It was, perhaps, Imperial's best look to date.

A totally restyled Imperial arrived for 1967, continuing the sleek, clean lines established in 1964. Sales would continue to fall behind Cadillac and Lincoln, in spite of Imperial's improved quality control, and one of the most functional, best laid out instrument panels on any car. Chrysler rolled out the fuselage look for all of its 1969 cars, and the Imperial looked especially good in this form. Sales would improve considerably over 1968, but still didn't come close to the competition. Minor styling changes would continue each year through 1973, and unique teardrop-shaped tail lamps would debut for 1972, giving the Imperial an elegant styling touch that it could call its own.

For 1974, the Imperial was all new, and wore its new styling especially well. It was clean, elegant, luxurious, distinctive...everything one could want in a prestige car. But sales still trailed behind the competition, and Chrysler decided to stop production after the 1975 model year. And it was a shame, because it appeared the Imperial had finally found a look it could call its own. The distinctive and elegant chrome waterfall grille was flanked on either side by concealed headlamps, and the teardrop tail lamps introduced in 1972 finished off the back of the car in high style. The pillowed interiors were breathtaking, and the car drove and rode like you would expect a luxury car to drive and ride, but was surprisingly agile and responsive for such a large car, so it was a delight to drive as well.

Image: 1981 Chrysler ImperialThe Imperial was not forgotten, and returned in 1981 as a two door coupe, with a bustleback deck lid treatment that was reminiscent of the current Cadillac Seville, (although the Imperial design was actually done before the Cadillac design). To say the car was distinctive is an understatement. Up front, concealed headlights framed a beautiful grille, which was topped off by a simulated crystal hexagonal ornament. The sharp, crisp lines of the car encouraged the eye to travel from one end to the other, and then around to the other side. Everything made sense, and was proportionate to everything else. The designers did a good job on this one.

Almost everything was standard, only a handful of options were available, including a lush Mark Cross leather interior. Digital instrumentation was standard, and the panel was very high tech looking for 1981. A Frank Sinatra Edition came later, which included some of Sinatra's tapes to play on the high fidelity sound system.

But as distinctive as it was, it was not to be for long. Sales were not strong enough to justify continuing the line, and it was dropped quietly, again, when the 1983 model year production came to a close. This was a familiar scenario for Imperial, and it would return yet again, a few years later, only to be discontinued once again. Certainly a disgrace for such a proud nameplate, but the Imperial name lives on proudly in its heritage.

For the 2006 auto show circuit, Chrysler unveiled an Imperial show car, built on an extended Chrysler 300 chassis. This car featured center opening rear doors, often called suicide doors, and were a styling trademark of the Lincoln Continental during the sixties. Television actress Eva Longoria, of Desperate Housewives fame, commented that she was "desperate for an Imperial" after viewing the show car. So, there is perhaps hope that The Imperial will rise again. Proof that The Imperial name is timeless.

Imperials were always preferred by automotive magazines for their performance and drivability. When compared to the Cadillac and Lincoln, testers preferred the Imperial's roadability in almost every instance. Why sales didn't follow these recommendations is a mystery that likely will never be solved. While the Imperial may be relegated forever to third place in history, the fact remains that the Imperial was the finest car built by Chrysler Corporation, and it is to this day appreciated and respected by people who don't look at luxury cars in the traditional way. The Imperial was not traditional, because it stood apart from its competition. It handled well in a day when handling came second to styling. It performed well when performance wasn't necessarily something a luxury car had to do. And more than a few times, it sent its competition scurrying back to the drawing board to rethink what they were doing.

The Imperial was not a familiar presence on American roads, and for a prestige car that was, and is, perhaps its greatest quality. In a time when luxury cars no longer stand apart from the rest, cars like the Imperial prove that rarity is perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments a prestige car can offer.