Not long ago, apropos of I don’t remember what, I posted on this site about a 1960 Imperial and its owner, Jim Byers. Byers had been an impressario of jazz for the Kennedy Center. I met him in the mid-90s while photographing his car. Byers saw my post on TTAC and emailed me. He’d replaced the ’60 with a ’67. Coincidentally, I had fled Boston’s snows for several weeks. We arranged to meet down by the Potomac so that I could test drive the ’67.
Of the top-of-the-line luxury cars of the ’50s and ’60s, Caddy had serious bling. Lincoln Continental had a dignified grace, and served as presidential limos to JFK and LBJ. The Imperial was too baroque for Washington, DC, but its elaborate elegance would have made it the perfect chariot for the Italian renaissance. Had Venice had roads instead of canals . . .
The 1960 Imperial’s luxuries are ample, starting with soft leather seats that hug you like a long lost friend. There’s a mirror inside the glove box for your lady, which folds down when she’s not using it, and a cigarette lighter on the right-hand door console for her smoking pleasure. Should you drive a bit too enthusiastically, she can grab the little security handle carved into the far right extremity of the dash.
For the rear passengers, a button slides either front bucket seat forward, ensuring graceful egress. All passengers are surrounded by a genuine walnut trim. The Imperial’s luxury aura takes a hit from the downmarket, colorless gray gauges and radio, reminiscent of those found on my parents’ 1970 Valiant, a near-stripper.
Like many classic cars, the Imperial comes with a history. In the 1940s, a small airplane embedded itself in the Empire State Building. The ’67’s first owner: Harvey B. Moyer, proprietor of the demolition company that had extricated plane from spire. Byers, owner number three, has added some of his own color to the Imperial’s history. For several years, he ran the Straight Eights, a DC area vintage car club for gays and lesbians.
To drive the Imperial is to feel elevated. President Obama must have felt something like this the first time he was chauffeured in that fortress of a Cadillac. President Obama, as you may know, drove a 340 hp Chrysler 300C until he was outed during the campaign, after castigating the D-3 for building “bigger, faster cars.” Poor Barack then felt obliged to purchase a Ford Escape hybrid, just like Hillary, and John Edwards, and Christopher Dodd (who had owned a Mustang). Hewing to political correctness can take the fun out of driving, but I digress.
Anyway, I set off at a leisurely pace from the Jefferson Memorial, along Potomac Park East. I pushed the Imperial ever so slightly as I rounded the corner that hooks back towards the Jefferson, just enough so she leaned like a yacht in a strong wind. The road was empty, so I floored her.
The Imperial weighs close to 5,000 lb. Despite my attempt to muster the Chrysler’s alleged 480 lb·ft of torque (at 2,800 rpm), she seemed in no hurry to reach 50 mph. I jerked the wheel to check the front end. After the helm returned to the straight ahead position, the big lady performed a little wiggle-woggle.
We cruised the Mall towards Air and Space, turning left onto fourth street, so that we could roll by I. M. Pei’s East Wing, my favorite Washington building, and on down Constitution Ave. I don’t need no stinkin’ SUV to sit high in this thing. I WAS high, looking out over all the people crowding the American History and Technology side of the Mall, hoping to see some Power, or maybe just a museum.
I was expecting them to notice ME, and this grand chariot. But no one seemed to notice, and then some stupid SUV actually cut in front of me. The whole family suddenly noticed that they’d just cut off President Holzman (that’s me, the first Jew to lead the Free World). They waved and smiled.
Besides the Imperial’s wonderfully floaty, boaty feel, and the effortlessly numb steering, this land yacht’s four disc brakes feel as competent as those on any contemporary appliance. The silky V8, with 72,000 original miles, feels like it could easily do another 72,000, and who knows, maybe another 72,000 after that, although I can’t help wondering if this beast felt far more puissant during the Nixon and Ford administrations than it does now.
My strongest impression of the Imperial came after I got back into my ’99 Accord LX with the 2.4-liter engine and the five speed stick. The Honda felt the way my brother-in-law’s Audi TT had felt just days earlier when I had driven it for the first time. Major torque and steering fit to carve up Skyline Drive––even with the snows on! That effect stayed with me for the rest of the day, through another 25 miles or so. It wasn’t until the next morning that my sense of Accord returned to normal.