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The Imperial That Almost Never Was

Image: 1974 Imperial LeBaron CoupeThe strikingly beautiful, all-new 1974 Imperial was breathtaking, yet it was the Imperial that almost never was. Always a distant third in the sales race for top luxury make in America, the Imperial's best sales year was 1957, when its new styling with soaring tail fins sent the stylists at General Motors and Ford rushing back to their drawings to revise them. In 1957, the future looked bright for Imperial, but quality control was lacking, which gave the Imperial (as well as other Chrysler products) a bad reputation, and 1958 was a recession year, so most makes saw a drop in sales that year. But the Imperial was never quite able to recover.

First, the Imperial lost its exclusive assembly plant in 1962, then in 1969 it lost its unique body, next came its exclusivity, bearing the Chrysler name in 1972 after having been a separate make for years, and by 1973 it appeared the end of the road was approaching for the Imperial. Without its own unique body and styling, it would be difficult to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln, which of course had their own bodies. This meant sales were likely to remain elusive, as image and appearance was an integral part of the luxury car appeal at the time. And without sales, there was no money to tool a special body for the Imperial. It was a vicious circle to which there appeared no easy way out for the Imperial, and Chrysler had planned on quietly discontinuing the line at the end of the 1973 model year.

The full sized Chrysler New Yorker and Newport were due for an all-new body for 1974, which would be one inch lower, one inch wider, and five inches shorter than the 1973 models. They would also have crisp new styling that did away with the "fuselage" look the cars previously had. Chrysler's new 1974 styling gave the cars a very upscale appearance, and an elegant air. But they also looked leaner, and had more presence.

Image: Imperial 1974 designWith the work for the 1974 models done, the Chrysler/Imperial Exterior Studio wasn't terribly busy, and the stylists there were passing the time working on speculative drawings for future models. But things were about to get busy in the studio, and very quickly, too! One of the senior stylists in the studio, Chet Limbaugh, had a front end sketch on his drawing board of a design he envisioned for the Imperial, which was dead at this point. It just so happened that Elwood Engel, Chrysler's styling vice president, was in the studio and happened to see the sketches. One in particular caught Engel's eye. It was a front end design that featured a waterfall grille composed of thin vertical chrome bars, separated by a body-colored band running down the center. "Do you like this?" Engel asked. Not certain of the reason for the inquiry, Limbaugh responded, "Well, sure." Without uttering a word, Engel walked away with the sketch in his hand.

Engel returned shortly with Gerry Thorley, the studio's chief stylist in tow. "This will be your next Imperial," stated Engel. He gave the studio two days to put the waterfall design on a full-size clay model that was sitting in the studio. Not a lot of time, but fortunately there were two top modelers in the studio working on it, and they were able to meet the deadline.

When finished, Engel brought Chrysler president John Riccardo to the studio to view the design. "How do you like this front end?" Engel asked. When Riccardo indicated he liked it very much, he was told that he couldn't have it, as it wasn't in the program. Once confronted with this news, Riccardo liked the design even better, and right then and there, on the spot, the decision was made that yes, there would be a 1974 Imperial! No other designs were even considered, the Imperial was brought back to life because of one design.

Suddenly, the Chrysler/Imperial Exterior Studio got very busy, having to complete a design on an almost impossibly tight schedule. A unique front bumper was designed to go with the front end styling. The center of the bumper jutted out, and required the license plate to be mounted on the driver's side of the car. The outboard corners of the bumper were sharply pointed, and created problems for the stampers. Lots of bumpers were brought into the studio with 'blown-out' corners, which meant a redesign of those areas was called for. After many attempts, an acceptable design was decided upon.

One of the most notable components of the 1974 Imperial's front end design was its hidden headlamps. They were tucked behind body-colored covers, which made the grille stand out even more. The grille was vee'd where the body-colored band split the grille vertically in half. On either side were fine vertical bars that cascaded down over the header to the bumper. Three thicker bars divided each side into four sections. At the top, perched on the center of the header panel was an Imperial emblem. Front parking and turn signal lights sat in the leading edges of the front fenders, acting as bookends to the design. The result was stunning, and resembled something one might expect to see on a Lincoln Continental, although this grille design was much fresher looking, and didn't resemble the Rolls Royce grille design Lincoln was using on its Continental Mark series at the time, but it was every bit as distinctive.

Obviously, the new Imperial would have to share the new Chrysler C-body, which meant stylists were on a very tight schedule to play catch up so the Imperial could enter production at the same time as the other cars, which were much further along at this point. A reduction in the Imperial's wheelbase to 124 inches, the same as the New Yorker and Newport, was necessary since there wasn't time or money to stretch the frame forward of the cowl.

Four or five people were assigned the duty of sketching a new rear end for the Imperial, and they used the narrow vertical taillight design of the 1972-1973 Imperials as their inspiration. Don Hood, a stylist in the Plymouth Exterior Studio came up with the design that was finally chosen, which required a rear bumper that was notched to accept the lower extremities of the taillamps, and new quarter panel end caps.

Despite the fact that the Imperial wasn't planned for and there was no money in the budget for it, the planners were able to find funding to allow for a new decklid for the Imperial, to give the rear some added distinction. The decklid styling consisted of a "hump" that covered 80 percent of the horizontal surface. The angled transition between the two surfaces wasn't originally in the design, and was added by Engel himself after the rear end had already been approved. Engel took a knife to the clay model and cut an area of the chamfer right on the decklid.

Image: 1974 Imperial rear side markerBecause the Imperial had always represented Chrysler's most exclusive motorcar, the stylists had to respect that and provide distinction for the car so it would stand apart from the other Chrysler models. This was especially difficult, given the fact that the 1974 Imperial would have more in common with the other models than ever before. Add to that the short time frame and limited budget they had to work with, the end result was almost miraculous. In keeping with Imperial's tasteful heritage, side trim was limited to sill and wheel lip moldings. A vinyl roof would be standard on all cars, which would allow for a smaller backlight, a long-time styling trademark on the LeBaron models. Color-keyed dual accent paint stripes would follow the upper character line of the car, and the shield-shaped rear marker lights that had been introduced in 1972 would be placed on the rear quarter panels. Rear fender skirts and unique wheel covers would also be provided to ensure exclusivity.

Inside, Imperial's tufted, loose cushion seating was retained and upscale fittings were provided to distinguish the Imperial as Chrysler's premium offering. Despite the lack of time and money, the 1974 Imperial offered four wheel disc brakes as standard equipment, the first American luxury passenger car to offer this feature. (Chevrolet's Corvette also had four wheel disc brakes, introduced in 1965, but it is a sports car, and as such has a very different market.)

The 1974 Imperial should have been a big hit in the marketplace. It had distinctive, elegant looks, one of the most luxurious interiors ever offered in a production automobile, it handled, rode, and stopped better than its competition, and it had the added benefit of being less common that the Cadillacs and Lincolns that were pretty much everywhere at this point. Exclusivity does come at a price, and for those willing to pay it, their Imperial was likely to be the only one at the finer events and gatherings around town.

1974-1975 CHRYSLER IMPERIAL PARTS AUCTIONS

1974 Imperial | 1975 Imperial