While the 1961 Imperials were certainly new in appearance, there was also a very strong historic statement about them. Up front, the four chrome individual free-standing headlamps were a new Imperial detail, certainly a beautiful touch that set the Imperial apart from all other cars, and a throwback to the classic days of elegant roadsters and open touring cars.
Out back, the soaring tail fins that debuted on the 1957 Imperials—the ones that started an automotive styling craze in the late fifties—returned, although by this time, they were losing popularity with the style conscious public, and seemed a bit dated for 1961.
In between the new front and rear treatments, the Imperial generally retained the same overall appearance it displayed in 1960, although a completely new instrument panel appeared inside, designed to make visibility and operation of controls easier for the driver.
If ever there were a time to be competitive, this was it. Lincoln Continental came out with its simple and elegant new appearance in 1961, which featured center opening rear doors and a gorgeous 4-door convertible model. This was the car that put Lincoln on the map, and set the tone for Lincoln styling through the rest of the decade. Cadillac also had all new styling in 1961, a bit fussier than its 1960 models, but very distinctive overall, and with rapidly fading tail fins.
Imperial advertising for 1961 placed brilliant black, white, and red Imperials against an equally brilliantly-colored backdrop, which featured the Imperial Eagle emblem prominently. High brow verbiage, directed at America's most successful citizens, appeared below. So convincing were these ads, one almost felt second rate if they drove anything less than an Imperial. And the people appearing in these ads were all very attractive, dressed in the very finest of attire, and the ladies bejewelled in a manner appropriate for a luxury car driver. Their appearance alone indicated they were deserving of Chrysler's finest motor car: The Imperial.
Cadillac retained its number one sales status in the luxury field for 1961, with Lincoln at number two and Imperial closing out the top three. A familiar place for Imperial, and it almost seemed as if the Imperial were a bit more exclusive than the other cars, due merely to the fact that they were not as common a sight on the road. And while Chrysler certainly wouldn't argue this point, it would have been happy to have had orders for an additional 10,000 or so cars, but exclusivity apparently has its price, and it was a high price for Chrysler.
People have debated for years exactly what "type" of person owned a new Imperial instead of one of the other luxury cars. Some say it was the segment with recently acquired wealth, they wanted something flashy that told the world they had made it, and The Imperial was it. Others say it was a group more interested in quality than name alone. Drivers will be quick to point out that The Imperial is a driver's car, a superb road car that was more surefooted than its competition. Or perhaps it was a dislike of General Motors or Ford products. Whatever the reason, Imperials were rare sights on America's roads when new, and they are even more so today.
Quality issues still dogged the 1961 Imperials, although Chrysler had taken great strides to improve overall quality during the past few years. The materials used were the finest available, but assembly quality and rust proofing still needed more attention. Cadillac and Lincoln both had a few quality issues in 1961 as well, but they were often not as obvious as the issues on the Imperial.
Automotive journalists of the period generally rated the Imperial highest of the top three luxury cars in roominess and performance. If you were going to take a long trip across country with a car full of passengers, The Imperial was the car to do it in.
Perhaps the thing that has hurt The Imperial over the years more than anything else was its lack of identity. Cadillac established a strong identity with the rudder-type tail fins in 1948, and continued to emphasize them over the years, keeping them an integral part of the design even as they retreated into the quarter panel. Lincoln initially floundered a bit in finding an identity, but had a real winner in the new 1961 styling, and would allow this design to evolve very deliberately over the next couple of decades. Imperial, meanwhile, never seemed to grab hold of any one thing that said "IMPERIAL!" The Flite Sweep deck lid was very distinctive, but was shared with lesser cars, and as such couldn't be called truly Imperial's. The free standing headlamps and the taillight pods that seemed to be suspended in mid-air when lit at night were both unique and distinctive, but were so trendy it was difficult to update them every year and keep the look fresh.
In 1969, The Imperial finally developed a look that was all its own. The full-width grille with concealed headlamps and massive bumper structure was very distinctive, and very commanding when compared to other cars. Later, the tear drop taillights would become another distinctive Imperial styling touch. Alas, this was all too late for The Imperial. A struggling Chrysler Corporation couldn't continue to compete in the top of the line luxury class in the seventies, and discontinued the elegant Imperial in 1975. To add insult to injury, the 1976-1978 Chrysler New Yorker was a dead ringer for the 1974-1975 Imperial, although at a much lower price. The Imperial wannabe was competing with the likes of Buick Electra and Oldsmobile Ninety Eight. Both wonderful cars, certainly, but not in the same class as the once mighty Imperial.
The Imperials of 1961 did serve their intended purpose. They were elegant and distinctive, while being great driver's cars that offered comfort, pampering, and great handling like no other. They were surprisingly agile when the accelerator was pressed, and the huge brakes brought them back down from speed without any dramatics. They offered every comfort and convenience one could want, including a few the competition hadn't yet thought of. They were rare and exclusive, a must for luxury car status. They appeared at the most important events in the nation, were seen parked in the driveways of America's most fashionable homes, and were the envy of the country club parking lot.
And perhaps that was good enough. Perhaps that's the way it was intended to be. Chrysler could have advertised that Imperials were more exclusive, more elusive than other luxury cars because they were so rare. Imperial owners wouldn't be passing other Imperials that looked just like theirs. Imperial owners wouldn't have to determine which blue Imperial in the parking lot was theirs. For they would know theirs would be the only one. And not just the only blue one, but the only one, period.
Imperial's updated styling for 1962 would lop off the huge tail fins with apparently little regret or sorrow, and sales would improve. Only the taillight pods would rest upon the top of the rear quarters for 1962, and by 1963 they too would be integrated into the rear quarter, almost as if Chrysler stylists acknowledged they held on to the tail fin a bit too long. Somehow in retrospect, this all seems right. This seems to be the way it should have been. After all, The Imperial was the one that really made the soaring tail fins a styling trend. It was the first in 1957, along with the rest of the Chrysler line, to really make tail fins something to behold. As the last of its breed, The 1961 Imperial was certainly an elegant and worthy way of bidding farewell to one of America's all-time most distinctive automotive styling touches.
1961 Imperial Television Commercial
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