It’s possible that the Ghia-built 1957-58 Crown Imperial limousine was Chrysler’s effort to show the other members of the Big 3 automakers that they too could sell an extravagantly assembled and appointed ultra-luxury car and lose big money on each and every unit they sold, just as Ford did with the Continental Mark II and the General Motors did with the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. More likely, though, Chrysler executives saw the Imperial limos as carrying on a nameplate that had graced Chrysler’s most elegant and exclusive cars since the 1920s. Perhaps more than the other big Detroit automakers, Chrysler had a reputation for innovative engineering and it used that reputation to give the Imperial some cachet. The Hemi engine, disc brakes, power steering and the Powerflite, Chrysler’s first automatic transmission, were first offered on the Imperial. Still, as the 1950s went on, Cadillac’s dominance in the luxury class went from strength to strength. Though Packard fell by the wayside, Chrysler managers soldiered on with the company’s luxury marque.
However, when combined 1955-56 sales of the 149.5 inch wheelbase 8 passenger Crown Imperial amounted to less than 400 cars, it was clear that a different plan was needed for the corporate flagship. The 1957 models would be the ultimate expression of Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look” and the Imperial couldn’t be left behind. However, a study in May 1956 concluded that with estimated tooling costs and related expenses, it would cost more than $3.3 million to start in-house assembly of an all-new limousine. Amortized over just a few hundred cars that meant a loss of thousands of dollars per car. Much as the thought of not selling an Imperial limousine bothered Chrysler brass, they couldn’t justify that kind of a loss.
They decided to look into subcontracting limousine production. Sources say that they tried to find a coachbuilding company in the United States but failed to find a partner so they turned to Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin, Italy. That’s a good story but Chrysler had been using Ghia to build concept and show cars starting in the late 1940s. Exner and Ghia’s president Luigi Segré were friends and it was not uncommon for Ghia and Chrysler’s stylists to borrow ideas from each other. In addition to respecting the quality of Ghia’s work, the fact that the Italians, in a country still rebuilding after war, worked much cheaper than correspondingly skilled [union] workers in Detroit made a deep and lasting impression on the folks running Chrysler in the 1950s.
However Ghia came to be chosen, chosen it was. Exner’s team came up with a design that was 244.7 inches long and 58.5 inches tall, per Chrysler chairman K.T. Keller’s dictum that a gentleman should be able to wear his fedora in his motor car. Since the doors were considered too low for elegant ingress and egress, the window frames went into the roof. The rear end was borrowed from the Imperial coupe as its lines worked better with the long car. Managing the relationship between Chrysler and Ghia was Chrysler engineer and designer Paul Farago (who had a hand in the design of the Chrysler based Dual Ghias), who spoke Italian and was friendly with both Exner and Segré.
To produce the Crown Imperial Limousines, Chrysler shipped partially assembled Imperial hardtop coupes with 129 inch wheelbases and a reinforced X-frame. The chassis and drivetrains were complete and the bodies were fully assembled with appropriate bumpers and trim. Inside the stripped interiors were the rest of the parts needed to complete the car: four sedan doors, seat mounts, glass, a wired dashboard, dual A/C unit, leather for the upholstery, carpeting, and station wagon leaf springs for the rear, stiffer torsion bars for the front, and a lengthened driveshaft.
Once the car arrived at Ghia in Italy, the body was removed from the frame which was stretched 20.5 inches and reinforced. The body itself was sectioned, with the floor pans and roof lengthened. As mentioned the roof was cut out to accommodate the altered, taller doors. The sheet metal shaping was done by hand, something that would have been prohibitively expensive in Detroit.
There was so much body work done that to get a smooth finish the entire shell was coated in about 165 lbs of solder. All body joints, including those that can’t be seen, were filled. Over two days were devoted to adjusting panel gaps to no more than a sixth of an inch, not far off from the 4 millimeters that many manufacturers use today as a standard almost 60 years later, though the adjustments then were done by eye, not with the aid of lasers. A bath in dilute acid removed any surface rust and flux from the solder in preparation for a rigorous painting process.
A coat of zinc chromate primer was covered with a guide coat of black to expose imperfections. Once sanded for smoothness, the car was painted with several coats of lacquer in the customers choice of black, brown, dark green, dark blue or burgundy, with polishing in between coats. After a final polish, a cream colored pinstripe replaced the chrome molding strip. Some of the trim, like the eagle on the trunklid, was gold plated. Once painted, the exterior trim and leather landau styled roof cap were installed, as was the interior, which featured sheepskin carpet.
Once completed, each car underwent a road test before shipment to the United States. Early models had some flaws, the tires were not big enough to bear the massive weight and the Italians had issues getting the complex wiring harness fully connected, but those problems were rectified with post production inspections.
It took so long getting the limos into production that they used the bumpers and front fender trim of the 1958 Imperials. Prospective buyers were encouraged in advertisements to write directly to Mr. E.C. Quinn, president of the Chrysler division, about purchasing one. Among the customers who were willing to wait for the six-month build time were David Sarnoff, who started and headed RCA (and drove FM pioneer Major Armstrong to suicide), novelist Pearl Buck, Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s dictator, and then New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (later to be Vice President).
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy rode in her personal Crown Imperial limousine in her husband’s funeral procession. The monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar also bought Crown Imperial Limousines. Though all of them were special, with custom ordered features, a special one-off with a removable acrylic roof panel that replaced the landau cap was made for another member of royalty, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, for her 1959 visit to Canada. It wasn’t the only Imperial Crown Limousine made for her use, as we’ll see later.
As impressive as the cars were, the figures just weren’t adding up. Taxes, customs, credit transfers, and other international issues affecting U.S.-Italy relations added to the cost of production, as did the necessary quality inspections of the cars once they reached port in the U.S. In 1957 and 1958, $15,075 was a lot of money to pay for a car, even if you were wealthy, and there also were a limited number of heads of state. Though the contract with Ghia called for 75 limousines to be made for the 1957 model year, with Chrysler obligated to pay the full amount for all of them, only 36 were produced, effectively doubling the production cost. As a result, the 1958 and 1959 limousines were revised 1957 models. The contract was renewed in 1960, but for only 25 cars, an exclusivity that Chrysler touted in print advertisements. Ghia would keep producing Crown Imperial limousines until 1965, when it sold off the tooling to Barreiros of Spain, which built another 10 cars. The last Ghia built Crown Imperial limousine was a 1965 model for the Shah of Iran. Not wishing to walk away from the limousine market entirely, remember, Cadillac was still factory building Series 75 limos at its Clark Street Fleetwood plant, Chrysler would contract with Stageway Coaches of Arkansa and later Hess & Eisenhardt to build a small number of limos, the latter for the U.S. Secret Service, apparently for the use of President Richard Nixon.
The 1958 Crown Imperial limousine pictured here is a 1958 model and it, too, was made for the use of Elizabeth II when she visited Canada, though this was not really a state parade car. Rather it was purchased for her use by the wealthy Canadian Eaton family and used for her private transportation as well as for shuttling between county fairs she attended. Going back to the 1800s, for a century and a half, Eaton’s department store was Canada’s premier retailer and the Eatons and Mountbattens were personal friends. Queen Elizabeth would stay with the Eatons on her trips to North America. This isn’t the first limousine made for Elizabeth II’s use that we’ve covered here at TTAC, by the way. Back in January I posted an article on a custom Daimler limo made for the Queen’s use while in North America that was sold at auction by Detroit area collector Dick Kughn for what I considered to be a ridiculously low price.
Another Detroit area collector, Ed Meurer, bought the Crown Imperial limousine from the Eaton family in 1991. He’s restored it and it’s now part of his family’s rather extensive car collection. He says that a restoration revealed armor plating, not surprising in light of the fact that it carried a head of state. When Meurer bought it, the Crown Imperial was mostly complete, missing just the elaborate chrome and gold eagle for the trunklid. Since it was well maintained by a family that could afford it, however, the restoration mostly meant a new interior and new paint. Other than that, Meurer, who had the car on display at the Packard Proving Ground’s 2014 Cars R Stars show, said it is mostly original. He said it was in fine mechanical shape. The only reproduction part is apparently that trim from the trunk, which he had fabricated at some expense.
Shooting as I do in 3D, I’m used to stepping back to properly frame the image on both sides. With this Crown Imperial limo I had to step back, and step back, and step back. A 244.7 inch car is more than 20 feet long. Chrysler advertised it “the most magnificent limousine” that you could buy. The dictionary defines magnificent as “impressively beautiful, elaborate, or extravagant; striking”. I happen to be a fan of Exner’s Forward Look cars but I recognize that they’re an acquired taste. While you may or may not regard the 1958 Crown Imperial limousine as beautiful, I don’t think that you can deny that it is impressive, elaborate, extravagant and striking.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS