By on November 9, 2010

Calling a car from this period a monster is not exactly uncommon or uncalled for. But what if its own daddy called it that? Virgil Exner, the father of the definitive automotive fins created a sensation in 1957 when they appeared on the all-new “Suddenly it’s 1960” models. With a straight face, Exner then claimed they were rooted in aerodynamics and highly functional. But with the ’57s he painted himself into a corner; there was no where further to go with them except ever greater absurdity, quickly turning them into caricatures of themselves. Even Exner admitted as much: “by 1959, it was obvious that I’d given birth to a Frankenstein”. I credit him for his honesty, if not good taste.

Let’s briefly take in the Frankenstein in its full glory, then jump back three years to where it all started.

The 1957 Chryslers were probably the finest of the Mopar crop that year, their fins being the best expression of Exner’s bold new look. In addition to the alleged aerodynamic benefits, Exner saw the fins as away to dramatically change the poise of his cars. His son Virgil Exner Jr. speaks for his father’s intentions: “The idea of the fin was to get some poise to the rear of the cars, to get them off of the soft, rounded back-end look, to achieve lightness.”

These ’57s were certainly dramatically ahead of the competition in terms of length, lowness, width and of course fins. And they work quite well here, given the objectives of that moment, questionable as it was.

Exner was a creative designer whose two main influences were the Italian school of design, especially the Alfa Romeo BAT cars, and the classic era of the thirties such as the Duesenberg. The perpetual battleground of integrating such disparate influences plays out repeatedly in his work, for better or for worse. The truth be told, he was a bit of a two-hit wonder with the 1955-56 and the 1957 Chryslers. Everything that followed until he left in 1961 was problematic, exacerbating Chrysler’s other issues at the time.

The 1957 Imperial was a bold and expensive gamble by Chrysler to challenge the near-monopoly that Cadillac enjoyed in the fifties. Lincoln was struggling with its own design issues, and the Imperial was certainly years ahead of the pathetic ‘57 Cadillacs, even if it wasn’t quite as harmonious a design as the Chryslers (note: this was during the time when Imperial was a separate brand from Chrysler).

The ’57 Imperial even got its own distinct body shell, unlike previous and later Imperials. One of its most unique features was curved side glass, an industry first. There was no question; the ’57 Imperial was the most advanced of the luxury cars when it appeared, in the context of that moment in time. But like all of Exner’s cars, it was a bit over the top, and not everyone’s taste. Sales tripled in 1957 over the prior year, reaching 35k, an all-time high water mark for both its fins and Imperial sales ever.

Of course, the rampant quality problems of all ’57 Chrysler products did not escape the Imperial. and the deep recession of 1958 created a remarkable change in attitude. Suddenly yesterday’s rocket ships became giant finned monsters overnight, now being seen the same light that over-leveraged MacMansions are today. A recession can be a remarkably sobering experience.

Imperial sales dropped by over 50%, and the whole upper end sector took a huge bruising as everyone clamored for Ramblers and VWs. Imperial sold 18k cars in 1960 to Cadillac’s 143k, so maybe it wasn’t all the recession, but perhaps in part to that ridiculous fake spare tire “toilet seat” that showed up in 1958. This was Exner’s jumping the shark moment, although I know some will disagree. You’re wrong! What a hodge-podge of mish-mashes. Suddenly it’s 1974!

At least Imperial didn’t drop as much as Lincoln; their disastrous over-the-top 1958 models dropped Lincoln into the number three sales slot of the luxury brands. For two brief years, Imperial savored silver, even if sales were in the toilet of its own making.

The failure of the Imperials to properly catch on put them into weird sort of limbo: from 1957 through 1966, they used the same basic body shell, despite ever more desperate efforts to conceal that fact. But there was a royal give-away: that very expensive compound curve windshield. Chrysler could screw around with a fin here and a floating headlight there, but it was stuck with that distinctive tell-tale windshield for way too long. I figured this out in real time, and each fall as the new cars came out, there it was: that same damn windshield. It wasn’t until 1967, when Imperials went back to using a slightly disguised Chrysler body that it finally disappeared.

When the rest of the Chrysler family switched to unibodies in 1960, the Imperial got a pass. Ostensibly because the frame gave it a quieter ride, the real reason was that Chrysler couldn’t afford to spend anything more than nickles and dimes on the slow selling Imperial during its 1957-1966 body era. Hence the tell-tale windshield.

If this 1960 Imperial is a Frankenstein, than what is its 1961 successor (above)? That’s when Exneruberance started to really go off the deep end, marrying the free-standing headlights inspired from his beloved classic era with the tail end of the fin era. And free-standing taillights to go along, no less. But freaks can be so lovable; I’ll take one home, thank you.

Consider that by 1961 the rest of the industry had already moved on, and even Cadillac fins had returned to earth. The rest of Caddy’s clean and trimmer new looks, never mind the stunning new ’61 Continental made the former leading-edge Imperial look like a retro-mobile, the forerunner of the seventies’ customs like the Bugazzi and such.

After Exner departed, former Ford designer Elwood Engel was brought in to subdue and tone down the the monsters. His reskin of the old ’57 body added very ’61 Lincolnesque slab sides to the ’65 Imperial, but still there’s that old wrap-around windshield again, looking very out of date by then.

Seems like we’ve talked about everything but this 1960. Well, it was an interim year, just before the floating headlights, but the fins were already well past their prime. As a compensation, there’s a quite dramatic dashboard to savor, including those push buttons for the TorqueFlite transmission.

Let’s not shortchange Chrysler’s squared-off steering wheel, which was as prescient of future tillers as the fins. Looking out over it was presumably easier, to better appreciate the acreage under which sat Chrysler’s 413 CID wedge V8, which replaced the legendary and legendarily expensive to build hemi a couple of years earlier. With a 350 hp rating, the big wedge did everything the hemi could but even better, except to power a dragster after it was yanked out of its first role in life.

A Frankenstein the 1960 Imperial may well be, but we all loved that monster too. Now it’s hard to fathom how such bizarreness was once considered elegant and chic. Stranger things have happened, but not that many more than the 1960 Imperial.

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60 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1960 Imperial Crown Southampton – The Frankenstein Of Cars...”


  • avatar
    getacargetacheck

    The 1960 Imperial Crown Ghia limo is one of the coolest looking cars ever.  http://www.imperialclub.com/Yr/1960/Limo/index.htm

  • avatar

    I missed out on a couple of different Imperials of this era, but did have a white on brown 1958 Southampton 4-door hardtop for a while. This was a heavy automobile – I’ll bet it weighed half a ton more than a New Yorker – but the 392 hemi could move it well enough. There were a few little difficulties with the design. The “spare tire” would catch water and allow it to run into the trunk if you opened it in the rain, and like the 1960 car shown it had drip rails over the doors that didn’t go anywhere because of the construction of the C pillar. It was as though no one ever thought that the cars would ever be used in wet weather. On the other hand, panel fit was excellent throughout, and all the trim pieces (and there were a lot of them on these cars) were of high quality. My car was ten years old or so when I had it and had been reasonably well cared for, so it didn’t have any rust issues, and was more solid than the 1957 New Yorker 4-door hardtop I also had at about the same time. For big cars, these were easy to drive, and with the excellent visibility you could see all four corners of the car from the driver’s seat, so they were easy to park too.

  • avatar

    I love these cars, both the baroque earlier models, and the ’65, which is, as you say, gorgeous in a Lincolnesque way (but imo having a distinctly Chrysler personality). More of my thoughts in my review http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/capsule-review-196-chrysler-imperial/

  • avatar

    thanks getacargetacheck! Very interesting that Jackie Kennedy had one. I would have guessed she’d have a Lincoln.

  • avatar

    I might add that I suspect you were lucky to find such a sharp-looking example as that white 1960 car on the street. It doesn’t look like the type of car one usually sees parked near a trailer court. Make that mobile home court. Again, it looks to have its original license plates from when it was new, which is often a sign that a car has always been well cared for.

  • avatar
    tced2

    I had two Imperial “encounters”.
    Neighbors had a 1960 model.  We vacationed with them and their factory air wasn’t working very well during the summertime in Kansas.  We were driving (my grandfather’s) 1960 Cadillac Sedan de Ville which had very powerful air conditioning.  The neighbor was very irritated at our superior air conditioning.
    Some years later, my grandfather had a 1967 Imperial.  I was able to drive this model and it seemed to have better handling than the Caddy.  One neat feature was the floor mounted button for the driver to move the radio to the next station.  Another neat feature was a full gauge set with a single warning light that would warn the driver of a gauge reading that was not normal. The 1967 had very restrained styling compared to the 1960. I especially liked the wall-to-wall taillights.

    Isn’t the “toilet seat” just a variation of the “Continental kit”?

  • avatar
    Hank

    Ahh, so close, yet so far with my early 60s Dodge guess.  Imperial never crossed my mind.  Nice find, these are such rare breeds.  Love the ’65, out of date windshield and all.

  • avatar
    Monty

    I will take any one of the cars in the accompanying photos, please. They’re so over the top, so baroque, so garish, and I love, love, love them all.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    I remember my aunt having an old Dodge(?) like one of these. White, blue interior, hardtop and especially that square steering wheel, which always intrigued me. I was very young, but when I would go places with her, she always had a bottle of Coke (6½ oz.) placed next to her on the seat, a cigarette in her mouth/hand, pointy sunglasses on, a shawl keeping her hair neat, all windows rolled down, her dog would hop in and immediately jump up on the rear shelf (huge!) and lay down, and we would take off somewhere. I felt as if I were in some sort of rocket ship, that thing was so big! Riding around town was always an adventure I looked forward to! I think she was a “California Girl” at heart, stuck in a far-out St. Louis suburb! Seat belts? Safety features? You’re kidding, aren’t you? Did I mention I really liked that square steering wheel? I did now.

    Thanks, Paul – this is one TRUE CC!

  • avatar
    V572625694

    My avatar is the 1960 Chrysler in which I got my first license, although ours was the mid-level Windsor model. So I’m a bit sentimental about these barges and enjoyed this article very much. The history and information about the stylists and sales is very interesting.

    • 0 avatar
      thornmark

      THE 1960 NEW YORKER convertible is one of my favorites.  That body was a true grinmobile, especially the 2 doors. I believe the 1960 300F is the most valuable of all the years.
      http://300f.com/media.htm
       
      The “astrodome” instrument cluster was the best ever.

    • 0 avatar
      jimboy

      The ’60 New Yorker and 300 are my all time favorite Chryslers. I think Exners best work next to the ’56’s. My neighbors dad had a really, really, red  2-door hardtop, New Yorker and it was the baddest thing I’d ever seen, to this day.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I’ll take a 61, if you’re going to go over the top you might as well go all the way.  Hard to believe that’s a production vehicle.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I love the baroque Imperials, especially the “floating headlight” models.  Here’s why.  When I look at one of these cars it is as if someone in a foreign country was trying dream up the most outlandish, outrageous pantomime of an American automobile that their fertile imagination could create.  Having that image cemented in their heads and then traveling to America and finding out that we did actually build the sucker!  UNBELIEVABLE!

  • avatar
    Contrarian

    The rear of the white one (esp the bottom picture) reminds me very much af the face of a science fiction alien, but I can’t for the life of me remember which movie it was in.

  • avatar
    relton

    I don’t think you should be so hard on Virgil Exner. Far from being a “2 hit wonder”, he had great influence on cars both from Studebaker, and his influence is seen even today on cars like the Bentley Continental. Exner’s show cars from the 50s were copied outright by Karmann Ghia, and the aforementioned Bentley Continental coupe could easily be an updated KC310 from 1953. The Volvo 122S coupes look like a 56 Chrysler with less side sculpturing. The Volvo P1800 has tons of Exner influence, from the reverse fin of a 61 Dodge to the greenhouse from a Plymouth Fury. I could go on.

    Exner’s line of 57 Chrysler products was one of  the few cars, and perhaps the only full line of cars, to win the Industrial Design Society of America Design Excellence award.

    Note that Exner’s wraparound windshields managed to avoit the extremes of GM and Ford. They wrapped, but they didn’t create “knee knockers” like most other American cars, and they were optically correct, again unlike the competition.

    I had several Imperials, a 57, 63 and 64. The 64 was the Imperial that looked like a Lincoln. While all of them had Chryslr foibles, they were pretty neat cars, even years ago.

    Now there’s a 60 New Yorker in teh garage, which is a keeper for me. The tire on the trunk was an option on the New Yorker, and I have one which I may add when I finally restore this car.

    I think the tire was an option on the 60 Imperial. I know it was on the 63.

    FWIW, the Windsor was not the midline Chrysler in 60, the Saratoga was. The Windsor had a shorter wheelbase than the Saratoga and the New Yorker.

    It’s great to see this old MOPAR.

    Bob

    • 0 avatar
      postjosh

      +1 my taste runs towards modernism and “form follows function” but even i can see the beauty in these extravagant beasts! i have a particular soft for the ’62 imperial.
      http://tinyurl.com/lgo39l
      i used to see one every year all shiny parked on the street by the synagogue during the high holidays. growing up in 1970’s jersey, i despised the vestigial fins on the nouveau riche cadillacs. the simonized deep black ’62 imperial with gun-sight taillights, however, was a spaceship from a far away galaxy…
       
       
       

  • avatar
    geeber

    I love seeing the old “Exner” Mopars – especially the more bizarre ones! They’re a rare sight, even at old car shows, around here. Rust and poor assembly quality sent many to the junkyard at an early age, and for many years, they were ignored as collectors spent time and energy restoring the various GM makes, Fords, Thunderbirds and post-1960 Lincolns.

    What is interesting is how fast Chrysler’s 1957 models faded. For one year they set the industry on its ear, but by 1958 sales were sinking. That year’s nasty recession didn’t help, but Chrysler’s market share also fell – it lost about three percentage points of market share from 1957 to 1958! The 1958 Ford Thunderbird, with its squared-off roof and bucket-seat interior, made the Mopars look old already. The GM cars had the market acceptance and brand identity necessary to carry them through the lean years, until Bill Mitchell was able to set the corporation on a new design direction.

    I do love the dashboard of that Imperial. Bold but not overdone. Interestingly, starting in 1957, and for several years after, Chrysler eliminated the turn signal stalk on Imperials. You activated the turn signals via a switch on the dashboard. Like tailfins and rectangular steering wheels, it was not an idea that grabbed the public’s fancy.

    In the one photo there are records on the floor of the car…did this car have Chrysler’s old Highway Hi-Fi?

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Wow, I almost nailed it there (I said 61) . I must say I’d never expect something like this to appear as a Curbside Classic, and I guess this is no daily.driver either. It is a bit sad that Virgil Exners hit with the 57’s clashed with the quality of the cars, and also the recession in the late 50’s. But I guess you could never really top the 57’s. (the 57 Desoto is probably one of my favourite designs ever) And I guess the slightly more ‘over the top’ 61 Imperial is a better looker than the ’60, as that frontbumper is something only a mother could love… tailfins are always fun though, and I like that the new 300C hints to  them at the top of it’s rear quarters.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Admittedly, it’s not the typical CC, and obviously not a daily driver. I make exceptions from time to time, especially when I run into them on the street like this one.

  • avatar
    tsofting

    “1957 through 1996, they used the same basic body shell,” – ok, I see what you mean, I just couldn’t resist :-)!

    That typo is of no importance, thanks for another great walk down memory lane! I was just a toddler when those cars surfaced, but think of the spirit and optimism they represented! Things were going only one way, straight up – ok, we forget about the 1958 recession – rockets were the rage, the future was literally so bright you had to wear shades! These days; dwindling resouces, exploding world population, caps on emissions, rising oceans, global warming, totalitarian/fascist religions, deforestation, need I go on…

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Tom McCahill loved these things.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2008/12/29/mccahill-reports-on-the-1960-cars/

      http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2009/03/25/mccahill-previews-the-59-cars/

      From Wiki: “In the 600 road tests he performed and reported on, his favorite cars were the 1953 Bentley Continental and the 1957-62 Chrysler Imperial, each model year of which he owned as his personal vehicles.”

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    This piece really hit at ground zero for me-I have 5 Exner era Mopars and while I recognize the reality of this backward look at the “Forward Look” I can’t help but feel a great deal of pride every time I’m out in this big red finned monster .
    You wouldn’t believe how many people flock to these cars at shows or on the street simply because they are so visual. You could have a row of Hemicudas at a Mopar show and the biggest crowds will still be around the fin cars. Here’s how much I paid my dues to enter the most loyal and committed car owners group in the world-the fin car brotherhood.
    http://www.mystarcollectorcar.com/3-the-stars/stars-in-rehab/179-the-restoration-from-hell-part-ten-its-over.html

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Can you imagine a Rolls Royce looking like this? Can you imagine any Mercedes looking like this? Imperials, Lincolns and Cadillacs of this era totally screwed up, going from looking like sedans for the wealthy, to sedans for Martians. What were these stylists smoking in their Luckies? One of the reasons we enjoy these vehicles today is due to the recognition of what hopefully for them is a dementia from which they will never return.

    Exner went from daring to stupid in five years. When we take a look at his and his team’s Imperial clay models, we see visually entertaining, but bizarre auto exercises. Honestly, can you imagine being an engineer expected to put these silly creations on the road?

    These cars were different for the sake of being different. They altered shapes and placements of safety features, aerodynamic shapes, and did so just to do them differently, not once in a nod to actually improving the cars. These cars are inherently dishonest in their designs.

    Italian design? I know of no Italian design schools of thought that promote the idea that someone should spend two year’s worth of their wages in order to drive something so flamboyant and ridiculous. There is a difference between an Italian toaster and an Imperial, namely the recognition of the function and costs involved.

    There is a reason we don’t see cars like this anymore. There is a difference between luxury cars of this era, and distasteful tacked-on appearance of the Chrysler Fifth Avenue thirty years later, or of a Pontiac Gran Am of the same era. We knew that if one stripped away the tacked on plastic and padded vinyl, there would eventually appear a basic tasteful shape. In the case of these cars, that wouldn’t happen.

    Imagine if Datsun decided to make the F-10 the size of one of these things. Imagine if the first generation Datsun SX 200 would be this size. Thankfully, those ugly things were subcompact and cheap. Sadly, these ugly things were not.

    A pitiful embarrassement within auto history.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    Italian design? I know of no Italian design schools of thought that promote the idea that someone should spend two year’s worth of their wages in order to drive something so flamboyant and ridiculous.

    Lamborghini Countach

  • avatar
    NoChryslers

    The 64-67 generation is first, last and always my favorite of all the Imperials.  But I’m shocked to hear why the windshield stayed the same.  I mean, they had no problem overloading the car with all sorts of gadgets and whizzmajigs, they didn’t have the $$$ to change the basic frame?  That being said, I love, love the way that particular version looks.  The previous versions don’t suck, but the car is not the sum of its parts.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    I always thought the Forward Look cars were supremely cool looking, real rolling works of art, and a nice bridge between backward looking design (i.e. Truman/Eisenhower era) and forward looking design (post-Eisenhower era) it was as if Art Deco had made a short revival before going back to sleep.

    Though I bet he would say differently of the designs today (were he alive), my dad (not even a car-guy really) used to refer to Ex as the guy that nearly designed Chrysler into the grave.  (But given my fondness for these designs, I never could understand this, how Fwd Look could have been that bad, and since he was not a car-guy, I wondered how he developed this opinion … I always guessed that this was the opinion of my grandfather, during those days employed at Chrysler (and thus reflecting some kind of conventional wisdom critique within Chrysler), echoed by my dad.)

    p.s.  I always loved the rectangular wheel too … reason for the shape is clear visibility above the wheel, and of the large gauge dials from side to side being framed by the wheel… only uncool thing about these cars as far as I can tell is that that J. Russel Finch owned one (and, perhaps it could be said, that was the 2nd coolest thing about Russel.)

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      I’m guessing that the first coolest thing about J. Russel Finch was his much-younger wife, even considering the mother that she brought with her?

      I loved that movie as a kid…

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Hi Geeber!  (Said like Allan Ludden or Jack Barry) “Correct, you win the MILF-award!” (And I always suspected Russel’s weak nerves were due, in part, to his over-bearing MIL and waacked-out BIL – who btw, also had a hot little Dart and just the right chick to put in it!)

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      Hey, it was a ’62 Dawn Blue Imperial convertible in a movie with lots of great action scenes. They could have had Phyllis Diller driving it and it still would have been cool.

      Maybe it’s just me but it seems like one of the best ways to tell how ‘cool’ a car (or car company) was is how many movies their products were most often featured. Without a doubt, it seems like the most memorable movie cars are Chrysler products. From the Charger in Bullitt, to the Monaco cop-car in The Blues Brothers, to the ’58 Fury in Christine, there’s just something about those Mopars.

      Hell, even the lowly Valiant was featured in a couple of noteworthy movies (The Flim-Flam Man and Duel).

    • 0 avatar
      Monty

      Without a doubt, one of the best movies ever for spotting contemporary cars – sometimes I don’t watch the action, just all of the cars in the background. I love movies from the twenties right through ’til the sixties; sometimes just for the rolling iron.

      My favourite car in the movie is Peter Falk’s Plymouth taxi.

    • 0 avatar
      fastback

      IIRC,

      BIL, Sylvester drove a Ragtop Valiant, no?

      Mama! Mama! Mama! you ‘re little boy is coming to rescue you! 

      dick shown always killed me! 

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      Sylvester drove a ’62 Dodge Polara convertible. The mistake is understandable since the ’62 Mopars were largely based on a stretched Valiant chassis and, in many respects, looked a lot like bigger Valiants.

      But he was pretty funny with his “I’m comin’, Momma!”.

  • avatar
    geeber

    If I recall correctly, weren’t the crests of the LeBaron versions of this car subject to the federal excise tax on jewelry? And weren’t all versions of these Imperials constructed so that no exterior body seams were visible, which must have cost a pretty penny?

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I have to agree that 1960-61 marked Imperial’s low point.  Between the front end of the 60 and the rear of the 61, these were just not great looking cars.  In fairness, these were designed after Exner had a heart attack and during an emergency restyle of the 62 Plymouth and Dodge, but still, they are not very attractive.  But the rest of this body shell were quite good looking.  I have always liked the 62-63 years.

    I once owned a 64 Crown Coupe.  It has already been pointed out that 64 was the Elwood Engel restyle, followed by mildly facelifted 65 and 66 models.  64 was Imperial’s second highest production year (after 1957) at about 20K units.  These cars used really expensive pieces.  The diecasting that made up the grille on my 64 was almost jewel-like, particularly compared to the aluminum stampings that made up the grille of my 63 Fleetwood.  There was a lot of hand work on these cars during assembly.  If you ever get the chance to look at the front clip of a 61-66 Imperial, notice that there is a complete lack of seams between each front fender and the header panel that surrounds the headlights.  These seams were filled and sanded so that there was a single, unbroken expanse of metal from one corner of the windshield all the way around to the opposite windshield corner. 

    I think that you are being too hard on Exner.  When you consider where design went between 1946 and 1966, there were few who did better in the transition than Exner.  Harley Earl at GM certainly ran out of gas sooner (the 59 Cad was just awful), as did George Walker at Ford.  The Elwood Engel/Bill Mitchell/Gene Bordinat group that was so influential as the 60s began was a new generation who started from a different perspective.

    Today, give me the choice of a 60 Cad, Lincoln or Imperial and I take the Imperial hands down.  It was far and away the best driver of the 3.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Earl ran out of gas sooner?? He started with GM in the twenties.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      Paul, Harley Earl had a long and illustrious career that resulted in some of the most beautiful cars ever, but I think that by the mid 50s his era was over.  Earl’s designs of 1957-58 were probably the worst of his career, and his direction with 59s (that were forced on him from outside influences) was not very good either.  Can you imagine the impact of the 58 GM line if it had been brought out by any other company?  Anybody but GM would never have been able to scrap the line for 59.  Anybody else would have been forced into multiple facelifts of those woeful 1958 dimensions and hard points.  Who is to say they would have looked any better for 1960 or 61 than the 60 or 61 Imperials?

      Exner was probably 10 years behind Earl, with a career starting in the 30s.  Where Harley Earl shows a long evolution in design, Exner was more revolutionary, first with the 47 Studebaker, then with the series of Chrysler show cars of the early 50s, and finally the drop-dead gorgeous 57 Chrysler line.  We can agree that his final designs were somewhere between awful and unfortunate, but we will never know how much of this resulted from his diminished health and the dysfunctional disaster that was Chrysler management of the period.  I think that Exner, as much as anyone, set the basic dimensions and proportions of what a car should look like that lasted into the 60s, if not into the 70s.  Can you imagine any other 1957 car that could remain competitive through 1966 with no more than re-skins like the 57-66 Imperial?  Other than the windshield, the 66 Imperial looked every bit as though it belonged right alongside the contemporary Cadillac and Lincoln.

      There may be another stylist who made the transition from pre-war to the Bill Mitchell/Elwood Engel era better than Ex, unless it would be Raymond Loewy.  This would be a fascinating topic for more discussion.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      Somebody once wrote that Harley Earl set the basic parameters for American car design – the goal should be designs that are longer, lower and wider. Exner then shaved off the excess and completed the process.

      The 1957 Ford and Mercury adopted the same proportions as the Exner designs, but they are not remembered for this today, even though that Ford knocked Chevy out of the number-one slot. One could argue that the 1957 Ford, which wasn’t blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with prominent tailfins but still had the long, low look, was the car that more accurately predicted what American car design would look like in the coming years.

      Whoever deserves the credit, for the next 30+ years American cars followed these basic proportions.

      The 1961 Continental adopted those basic proportions, then eliminated what the late Dick Teague called the “gorp” (the excessive chrome and space-age ornamentation and design flourishes), thus setting the style for the rest of the decade.

      I’ve seen photos of what Earl had proposed for GM’s 1959 line, before the GM designers caught a glimpse of Exner’s 1957 Chrysler line. They were awful – even more roly-poly and fatter than the 1958 models. Earl seemed to be a bit lost after 1955-56.

      But Paul is right. Earl still was the master – Exner actually got his start by training under him in the 1930s.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      You both make good points. When I questioned jp’s statement of Earl “running out of gas sooner”, I took it to mean in terms of the length of his career, vs. Exner. I do think Earl was able to be successful for a longer period of time, perhaps because he was less of a designer and more of a design executive. Whatever.
      I agree with geeber about the ’57 Ford. And I disagree with jp’s comments about the Imperial being looking competitive in 1966. That’s opinion, but to me, as a kid, it looked exactly like what it was: an old obsolete body tarted up desperately to look “contemporary”; like an old lady overdoing it. If it still rode and handled well, that wasn’t Exner’s doing.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      I always thought the Imperial looked like it was a step or two behind the Cadillac and Lincoln, even after it adopted the Lincolnesque body for 1964. Somehow, the 1964-65 Lincoln still looked newer and fresher, probably because the 1964-66 Imperial looks like a suicide-door Lincoln with a few 1950s styling flourishes added for effect.

      That windshield was a big part of it…one wonders why Chrysler didn’t just spend the money to tool for a new windshield, too.

      For 1966, the Lincoln adopted a facelifted body, which further distanced it from the Imperial. In 1967 Chrysler moved the Imperial back to the Chrysler body shell, which was an improvement, both from a styling and a functional standpoint. But by 1968 we had the Cadillac Eldorado and Continental Mark III, both of which added sales and luster to their parent brands, and left Imperial even farther behind in the dust. Chrysler never had the money to match Cadillac, and its management lacked the necessary creativity to make end runs (like the 1958 Thunderbird) around GM.

  • avatar
    gnekker

    The steering wheel on this thing looks like Crazy Frog :-)
    I can imagine driving it and singing all the time
    Rrrring ding ding ding ding ding, Rrrrrinng ding ding Booooo Booooo…..
    “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k85mRPqvMbE”
     
     

  • avatar

    I think the interesting Imperials are a lot more interesting than the interesting Caddys, and the beautiful Imperials are a lot more beautiful than the beautiful Caddys, BUT…
    @JPCavanaugh, the ’59 Caddy is an amazing piece of design.
    My favorite Mopar is the 1960 Valiant. Second, the ’64 NYer. third, the ’64-65 Imperial. Fourth, the style of IMperial in these photos. Maybe of all of them, the ’59. And there are only a handful of cars of that era that I like as much as these.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    The full-on rear-view pic reminds me of the back of an early Corvette! 

  • avatar
    NoChryslers

    But, why the square steering wheel?  I’ve always wondered.

  • avatar
    pb35

    My mom had a 62 when I was a kid back in the 70s. It was turquoise and I remember driving all over, sitting in the back seat listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio. I remember that horn ring coming off in my Dads hand after honking at someone. I also remember sitting on the fender next to the floating headlights. There was a shelf-like area there to sit. 

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Nicely written article about a fascinating brand.  Truth be told, Çhrysler really wasn’t big enough to have a stand-alone luxury brand.  But in the late 50s, with Ford throwing bags of money into expanding its presence in the premium and luxury markets, I guess Chrysler executives felt like they had to also do the lemming leap in order to be taken seriously at the Grosse Point country club.
     
    It’s no small irony that the four-seater 1958 T-Bird outsold what was supposed to be a mass-market Edsel.  The T-Bird illustrated that the road to success wasn’t to compete model-for-model with GM, but to try something substantively different.  I give Ford credit for realizing this, e.g., and taking a different turn with the 1961 Lincoln Continental.
     
    It’s also ironic that Chrysler up to that point had been the industry leader in modular platforms, e.g., its 1956-57 Chrysler and DeSoto designs were wonderfully clever in distinguishing almost identical sheetmetal.  If the Imperial was offered at all it should have been on the base Chrysler platform.  Alas, Chrysler got in over its head instead.
     

  • avatar
    Nick

    I remember once nominating the 61 Imperial as the ugliest North American sedan ever and I stand by that.  It’s revolting.  I can’t believe that it wasn’t a laughing stock, even then.  The only good thing was the engine, which you could yank and drop into something worthwhile.

  • avatar
    zenith

    It’s vulgar and excessive and if I ever win the lotto, I’ll take 2 of each body style!

  • avatar
    denvertsxer


    Coming from a Chrysler family, I’ve always had a soft spot for them in general and the Imperial specifically. A ’57 New Yorker much like the one pictured above is the first car I remember my parents owning (and boy were those fins were gorgeous). Then a ’63 New Yorker; and later a ’71 Imperial LeBaron four-door hardtop was the first car I ever drove at about ten years of age. I was ten; the car was about half that age. For me, that was the pinnacle of Chrysler’s fuselage cars. Loved the foot operated radio station seek function and the squeeze-to-honk steering wheel. I still have the badges from a beautiful ’66 Imperial parts car my dad had in the ‘80s.
    I would agree though that the Imperials of the early ‘60s were rather monstrous in appearance. I recently saw a quite decent, faded black, all-original ’62 Crown Coupe — floating headlights, vestigial fins, gun-sight tail lamps, wrap-around windshield and all. Not exactly beautiful, but striking. Honestly though, the outrageous fins on the ’61 are easier to love. Though the color of that convertible pictured above is kinda monstrous.
    Like somebody said earlier, I’m kinda glad to see slight peaks atop the new 300’s rear flanks.

  • avatar
    nrd515

    The first car I remember my parents buying was when we went to some dealer 40 miles away and bought a 1960 New Yorker. It was black inside and out, and had the 413, I think. I was 4, and we had just gotten my dog, Gus, who went with us. My sister and I walked the dog around to avoid any “incidents” with the dog (He hiked his leg everywhere and had an attitude problem with strangers) while my parents dickered with the salesman. They finally called us in and we were disappointed that we wouldn’t be going home with it, since they had ordered it, and not taken one off the lot. My parents always ordered cars back then, I think the first car bought off the lot was my mom’s 1974 Lincoln MKIV battlecrusier.
    When we went back a couple months later, it was really hot out, and I remember seeing it pull up in front of the showroom like it was yesterday. Sadly, it had electrical issues from day one, and in two years it was gone, replaced with a hideous green ’63 Dodge (Coronet?) that barely lasted a year, since my mom hated it, replaced by a baby blue 64 Caddy that hung around until 1969 when it got traded in for a Lincoln MkIII that my dad hated to the point he traded it straight up for his brother’s avacado green Caddy straight up. My dad had a 66 T-Bird in that period too, that was his last Ford product (Not counting the MKIII) and left a very bad taste in his mouth for Ford. He had a 68 Imperial for about a year and a half, with a hopped up 440 in it that idled like a well muffled musclecar and was very quick. He really liked the car, but the AC kept getting stuck on Max and it was like a refrigerator inside it unless it was over 90 outside., and even then, sitting down with shorts on was a shock if bare skin touched leather. In 1970, he sold it to somebody he knew from work, and I saw it from then on until 1975 parked on a nearby street, slowly rusting away. I moved away until 1982, and just missed seeing it as it was towed off to the scrapheap a couple weeks before Easter after the tranny failed. The owner told me it was dead reliable until the last year, except that if the AC was ever used, it would get stuck in that position, and couldn’t be shut off without a trip to the dealer. A switch was finally added to kill the clutch on the compressor to get around the issue.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    Nochrysler, the reason for the square steering wheel was to make for easier entry/exit, and more room for the legs while driving.  Those were the days before tilt steering columns.
    As the owner of a 63 Imperial Lebaron 4 door hardtop I have magazine road tests of late 50’s to early 60’s Imps.
    They got great reviews, and blew the lincolns and caddies away in many categories, espeically in performance and handling. I also own a 73 lebaron 4 door and 78 new yorker brougham 2 door.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    http://www.imperialclub.com/Articles/60MotorLife/Page04-reg.jpg


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