By on November 19, 2021

Our Rare Rides Icons series on the Chrysler Imperial picks up today at perhaps the most pivotal time in Imperial’s history. As the model’s fifth generation concluded in 1954, Chrysler was also concluding development of its big secret plans for Imperial: A new luxury brand of exclusivity and prestige.

By the early Fifties, it was apparent to Chrysler that in order to compete with domestic luxury players like Lincoln and Cadillac (Packard was headed into the sunset by then, but offered the Patrician) that Imperial needed set apart from the rest of Chrysler. Recall from our last entry that by the early Fifties, Imperials with the exception of the long-wheelbase Imperial Crown were basically de-chromed versions of the New Yorker.

A clear break occurred for the 1955 model year when the sixth-generation Imperial appeared as the first generation of a new marque – the Imperial Division of Chrysler Corporation. Imperials wore no Chrysler badges, and Chrysler made sure to notify all 48 states that Imperial was a legally separate brand, and titled as such. The change meant that in ’55, Cadillac removed the Imperial name from its highest trim limousine models. More glamorous and luxurious than their predecessors, new Imperials were penned by lead Chrysler designer Virgil Exner, who led all Chrysler’s design work from 1955 through 1963.

Imperial’s new lines were a part of the incredibly Fifties sounding “100 Million Dollar Look,” as all versions wore more eye-catching styling than before. Not reserved exclusively for Imperial, 100 Million flowed down to Chrysler’s less glamorous offerings as well. Smoother hood lines met with more aerodynamic shapes, in a style where rear fenders were blended almost entirely into the side of the body. Chrome was much more present in 1955 than it was in 1954, as American car design entered a new phase: make everything flashy. There was more detailing in the new independent Imperial; no longer the more conservative sibling of the New Yorker. Notably the rear tail lamps were free-standing on the fenders, and looked like gunsights.

However, the 100 Million Look actually debuted previously, so it’s time for a parade car side bar. Keen observers at the time recognized the ’55 Imperial’s styling from a very special Imperial from three years prior. For 1952 only, Chrysler built a trio of Imperial Parade Phaetons that wore different styling to the production Imperial. The genesis of Exner’s 100 Million Look, the Parade Phaeton used a wheelbase three inches longer than even the Imperial Crown, at 147.5 inches. Bodywork on the 240-inch cars was entirely custom. Only the grille, bumpers, and front and rear trim were grafted from the standard Imperial Crown. Set up as a dual-cowl phaeton (a body style gone by the Fifties), front and rear passengers were separated by a wall, and had their own windshields. Intended purely as a car for event usage and indoor storage at all other times, the Parade Phaeton had no side windows. In the event some shade was needed, the convertible covered only the rear passengers. Three total Imperial Parade Phaetons were produced, and they were sent to New York City, Los Angeles, and finally Detroit. Chrysler owned and maintained all three phaetons, and in 1955 brought them all back to Detroit for a visual update to match the 1956 Imperial. All three Imperial Parade Phaetons exist today. Now, back to 1955.

Again Imperial had a standard wheelbase, and a long wheelbase reserved for the Crown. The standard wheelbase was 130 inches; three and a half inches shorter than the standard length Imperial of the year before. The Imperial Crown used a very long 149.5-inch wheelbase. Underneath, Imperial was on the same basic platform as the other large Chrysler offerings like the New Yorker. However, its wheelbase was four inches longer than any Chrysler. Power arrived from the same 331 cubic inch (5.4L) Hemi V8 as the prior-year Imperial, and it was still paired to the same two-speed PowerFlite automatic.

Several different body styles were available in 1955, with standard length cars around 223 inches long. Imperial kept its traditional model numbering system, with C-69 and C-70. C-69 models were the two-door Newport hardtop, and the standard four-door sedan, while C-70 was reserved for the Imperial Crown eight-passenger sedan and partitioned limousine. Sales of the exciting new Imperial were immediately better (more than double) sales in ’54. Chrysler sold 3,418 Newports, 7,840 sedans, and 172 Crown limousines. AirTemp was an optional extra in 1955, and consumers who checked the box spent $535 ($5,542 adj.) for the privilege of climate control. But air conditioning was not a considerable expense with base asking prices like $4,720 ($48,895 adj.) for the Newport coupe, $5,187 ($53,732 adj.) for the sedan, and $7,737 ($80,148 adj.) for the Crown limousine.

With their newfound success, Chrysler moved Imperial proudly into 1956 with several changes. The Newport wasn’t luxurious enough for the Imperial brand of 1956, so it was renamed Southampton. In addition to the extant two-door hardtop, Southampton was also applied to a new four-door hardtop that year. The wheelbase for all models was extended by three inches, to 133 overall. That increased the exterior length of standard models by more than six inches, to 229.6. At a time when length really mattered in a luxury car, Imperial was the longest American car that was not a limousine. It was a length record that would stand until Chrysler trumped themselves with the Imperials of the 1970s, but we’ll get to those later. Imperial for ’56 was slightly narrower than before, as width shrunk from 79.1 inches to 78.8. All cars were taller as well, 61.5 inches over 61.2 from Imperial’s introductory year.

Power was upgraded for 1956, as the FirePower Hemi V8 grew to 354 cubic inches (5.8L). Chrysler got more with the times on the transmission front, as mid-1956 was the debut year of a long-lived transmission line: TorqueFlite. The first in the series was a three-speed, the A466. Along with the new transmission came a new selector, a push-button setup that reflected neutral, drive, low, and reverse in north, east, south, and west placements respectively. There was no parking gear on TorqueFlite until 1960, so don’t forget that parking brake. Notably at the time, GM and Chrysler automatics started out in first gear when in drive, while Fords started in second.

On the infotainment front, as it were, there was a new radio option for Imperials in 1956, the all-transistor. Developed in conjunction with Philco, the 914HR by Mopar was the first all-transistor car radio in the world. The advantages of a transistor radio were its reduction in battery use – 10 percent of the power required by a tube radio – and relative reduction in maintenance. At $150 ($1,548 adj.), the 914HR was priced separately from the optional Highway Hi-Fi, Chrysler’s in-car record player.

The sixth-generation Imperial lasted just two years as the brand’s first foray into independent brand land. Sales decreased overall slightly after its debut year, at 10,458 in total. Sales for the Crown actually increased, and 226 were sold in 1956. Chrysler wanted more of the luxury pie, so in 1957 Imperial got even more independent, and Virgil Exner started to spill more and more ink from his design pen. Until next time.

[Images: Imperial]

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32 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The History of Imperial, More Than Just a Car (Part VI)...”

  • avatar

    Lovin’ this series, Corey!

  • avatar

    “More glamorous and luxurious than their predecessors, new Imperials were penned by lead Chrysler designer Virgil Exner, who lead all Chrysler’s design work from 1955 through 1963.”

    This is by far Virgil Exner’s most sedate Imperial. Beautiful, classic and somewhat timeless elegance was about to give way to Virgil’s “Forward Look”, that is once they took Virgil off his meds

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Wonderful series Corey. Thoroughly enjoy this series.

  • avatar

    This Generation of Imperials were well made cars put together with craftsmanship and care. the 57s were radical and iconic, but were a hot mess rushed thru with poor designs for water drainage, rust control, and horrid build quality. All was done on Exner’s insistence to remove Chrysler Divisions’ “Stogy” look. CaddyDaddy still says the 55′ and 62′ were Peak Imperial.

    • 0 avatar

      ^ This is true, if you ever took a good look at this Imperial compared to the next gen this one runs rings around the next in terms of fit and finish, build quality and reliability. In Chrysler’s hurry to bring out the “Forward Look” Chrysler sacrificed everything. The next gen leaked, rattled and rusted away. Chrysler never really fully recovered from the compromises made to be “Suddenly it’s 1960”

    • 0 avatar

      I’m going with the ‘64 (make mine a red Crown convertible with white seats like Don Draper drove in “Mad Men”). The previous years were a bit “out there” for me styling wise but I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting one.

  • avatar

    The 56 Southhamton… I noticed what appears to be a “rear clip” on the ends of the fenders. The illustration shows a cut line. Does this presage the hind end of all GM cars of the 70s and 80s?

  • avatar

    Only 3-4 more posts until it’s Fuselage Time.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    “Notably at the time, GM and Chrysler automatics started out in first gear when in drive, while Fords started in second.”

    So, why did those Fords need a first gear at all?

  • avatar

    Good series.
    Ugly cars.

  • avatar

    It’s just so crazy. How can they not answer Cadillac and Lincoln, ’70s forward?

    Anything one or two of the Big 3 are doing that makes money should be copied immediately, think later, or they’re screwing themselves. Chrysler Corp has screwed itself more than Ford and GM combined.

  • avatar

    Great series. Next up: the history of the Golf sportwagen.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Lie2me–My parents bought an early 57 Chrysler Windsor in the Fall of 56 and I remember within less than 2 years the metallic blue paint was faded and that was a car that was parked in the garage when not used in the first 1 and 1/2 years in Dayton, OH. We moved to Houston, TX in Aug of 58 and by that time the paint was faded even more. My father had to replace the alternator and a few other things and that fall traded the Chrysler for a white 59 Plymouth Sport Suburban 9 passenger wagon with air. I remember seeing the Chrysler later on with an all new white paint job. My father’s sister (my aunt) had a 56 Chrysler Windsor in pink and white in Dayton, OH and she and her husband drove that car for over 10 years and then sold it to someone who worked with my uncle and drove it least another 10 years with at least 200k miles and the paint was still like new. Before 1957 Chrysler built solid cars although might be stodgy but they held up. My parents had traded in a 2 door 51 Dodge for the Chrysler and they told me it was a great car so good the owner of the dealership’s wife took it as her own car. After the 59 Plymouth wagon was totalled my parents bought Chevrolets which were more reliable and my mother bought a 72 Cadillac Sedan Deville which was a very good car except it drank gas like a drunken sailor drinks booze. My mother’s last car was an 84 Chrysler 5th Avenue which was a good car but it had electrical issues and the body hardware was not as good as GM and Ford. I would never buy a Stelantis product.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Jay Leno’s Garage had a video on the 1952 Imperial Parade Phaeton in Los Angeles, one of the 3 that had been updated with a 1956 front and rear.

  • avatar

    Transistor radios did not require warmup time like tube radios. Just one more step into universal ADHD.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Great series.

    I have long wondered when TTAC would mention the Imperial Parade Phaetons. They have played an important role in American history for decades.

    Do not denigrate the work of Virgil Exner. I am a big fan of his work in particular the Dodge Royal Custom Royales/Caronets of the the 1950’s Personally I prefer Exners’ work to that of any of the Italian design firms/houses.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    The Chrysler Ghia would make a good article in itself.

  • avatar

    Chrysler’s styling theme was “The 100 Million DOLLAR Look,” not “The 100 Million Look.”
    >> Virgil Exner, who lead all Chrysler’s design work
    That should be LED, not “lead.” The past tense of lead is led.

  • avatar

    These were strikingly handsome cars, but their obvious relationship to the lower-priced 1955 and 1956 Chrysler and DeSoto models on which they were based made them a tough sell. They kind of seemed like over-priced fancy versions of the lower-priced models and not really as distinctive as Cadillac or even Lincoln.

  • avatar

    This series and rare rides overall is highly entertaining and amazing. Great work.

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