By on December 13, 2021

Today marks the ninth installment in our history of Imperial, as the calendar flips over to 1961. The second generation Imperial is not quite to the middle of its tenure on its own platform, the D-body. Virgil Exner imposed a wild new styling direction on Imperial for 1960 that was both outlandish visually, and heavy-handed in its execution. “More of that,” said Exner for ’61.

The 1960 Imperial’s front end proved a one-off, as for 1961 the new Series RY1 (with L, M, H trim designations) sported an entirely new visage. Gone was the grinning V-shaped grille and bumper, its wrap-around grille, and half-lidded headlamps. In their place was a front end of a much more horizontal design. The grille was rectangular and constrained between the headlamps. Said headlamps were free-standing, four in number, and rested upon sticks like lollipops. The bumper was much thinner than in 1960, almost completely horizontal, and featured minimal design and adornment. The front fenders were recessed and sculpted behind the lamps, and front-wheel wells implemented a cutaway effect like a car from the Thirties. Script Imperial logos were larger and depicted in an even more dramatic font. Chrome body trim continued all the way to the rear like the prior year but ended in the largest tail fins ever fitted to any Imperial. Tail lamp placement moved to be more inset into the rear fin, and the lighting position was lower. The bumper carried over from 1960, but the trunk’s popular continental kit option gained more detailing and trim. Inside, electroluminescent gauges were no longer in separate circular pods but were grouped together in a horizontal rectangular fashion, just like the car’s new front end design.

Imperial lost a body style this year, as the standard pillared sedan (a basic model) was no more. That left a hardtop and convertible with two doors, and the four-door pillarless Southampton hardtop. The Ghia-built Crown Sedan and Limousine continued with similar changes to production models and were still made as special order vehicles in incredibly small numbers. The new styling in ’61 meant Imperial was slightly longer than before and spanned just over 227 inches overall. Width increased to 81.7 inches, a figure that remained static through 1963. Height remained at 56.7 inches for 1961. The enormous length was notable: In 1961 Elwood Engle at Lincoln restyled the Continental for its fourth generation, and the flagship’s overall length shrunk to 212.4 inches. From 1961 to D-body’s conclusion in 1966, Imperial came with considerable length compared to Lincoln. Imperial was the longest standard (non-limousine) car made in America. The size came at a price: A top trim LeBaron with its crazy styling asked $6,428 ($59,900 adj.).

The awkward styling didn’t go over as well in 1961 as it had in 1960. Sales fell by over 5,000 units to 12,258, a decline of 30 percent. Matters were made worse by a continual decline in overall quality as the D-body aged, a notable issue for discerning luxury customers. Imperial no longer held the prestigious sales crown and handed it over to Lincoln. Chrysler execs ordered up more changes for the 1962 Imperial to try and reverse the company’s fortunes. Production moved back to Jefferson Avenue Assembly where Imperials had traditionally been built, as sales had fallen to a level where it was no longer necessary for Imperial to have its own factory. Illustrious Imperials were built alongside Chryslers once again.

Visuals were more restrained in 1962, as Imperial started to back itself out of the styling corner Exner was so fond of. Given his disagreements with Chrysler’s management, design associates made required edits to the cars after Exner finished them. Known as SY1 (L, M, H), The ’62 model saw only modest changes to its front end as free-standing headlamps remained, but were separated by a new and more pronounced split-wing grille. An upright Eagle hood ornament appeared for the first time, while the bumper below was entirely unchanged from the prior year. Body side trim still ran the full length of the car, but was thinner than before and had less detail. Fenders were clipped of their large fins; only modest ones remained. Like the 1955 and 1956 Imperials, tail lamps were free-standing atop the fenders, and of a gunsight design. Interiors for 1962 remained much the same as the prior year.

There was a change on the mechanical front that year, as the old Torqueflite A466 was replaced by an updated three-speed, the A727. The cast-iron case of the A466 was replaced by a one-piece aluminum case on the A727, which saved on both space and weight. There was a 60-pound difference between the two, and space-saving aluminum meant there was a smaller central transmission hump in the Imperial. That improved the comfort outlook for front middle passengers. For the first time, Imperial had a park button on the gear selector, as A727 had a parking pawl. The A727 gained a reputation for reliability, strength, and ease of repair.

Sales increased slightly with the more restrained look of the 1962 Imperial, up to 14,337. By that time Virgil Exner was headed out the door at Chrysler. He’d had continual disagreements about styling direction with Chrysler’s top brass over the past handful of years, and wanted large fins to continue on cars. Said fins were falling out of fashion by the start of the Sixties, but Exner would hear none of it. He criticized the Dodge and Plymouth designs of 1962, shapes that were downsized by other design associates at Chrysler and had no fins, contrary to Exner’s protests. He declared the Mopars were like “plucked chickens.” 1963 was the last time Exner exerted any influence on Chrysler’s styling, as he’d been fired. Chrysler let Exner stay on as a consulting employee until 1965, where he could retire with his pension at age 55.

Chrysler execs saw the work Elwood Engel did on the 1961 Lincoln Continental and were most impressed. In a timing coincidence, Engel wasn’t thrilled to be at Ford any longer as the company selected Eugene Bordinat to lead Ford’s design department in 1961, instead of Engel. Chrysler hired Engel away immediately as Exner’s replacement, and his design cues started to appear on Imperial for 1963.

The ’63 Imperial was a last-of moment for the D-body, as Exner’s 1961 design received one final showing. The series this year was TY1 (L, M, H). Gone was the split grille of the 1962 model, as it reverted once more to a one-piece horizontal grille, albeit with larger chrome segments than in ’61. Other elements of the front end remained unchanged in the Imperial’s hold-out year. At the rear one of the few changes that year was the tail lamp design, which became much more conservative than before. Set into the rear fenders, the rectangular and upright lamps bore no Mid-century design; they were just lamps. Roof shapes grew more upright this year, as Engel-derived formality took the place of more wacky curved shapes from Exner. Overall length was the only dimension to change in 1963, up slightly to 227.8 inches.

With a new director of design, the Imperial was completely reworked for 1964 as it shored up its final two model years as a D-body. We’ll finish up with this long-lived generation next time.

[Images: Chrysler]

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

  • avatar

    I like the 61 in an over-the-top way. The 62 would be nice if they could have figured out what to do with the tail lights. Too bad they didn’t have LEDs back then.

  • avatar

    To this day the “free standing” headlights were quite polarizing. I like them, they could be the first know attempt at retro styling. I do remember as a little kid going up to Imperials and grabbing those free standers to see if I could move them, my 5 year old self couldn’t budge them, but I could get my whole arm behind them

    • 0 avatar

      HA! I remember doing that, too. There was a neighbor down the block from us that owned one. I thought the freestanding headlights were so cool.

      A friend of mine owned a ’62 four-door for a while, in the early ’90s. The unibody was pretty flexible – If he jacked a front corner up very high, the doors on that side wouldn’t close properly.

  • avatar

    As a young lad of 11 at the time, I thought the 1961 Imperial was the pinnacle of style. There was an older lady at our church that had the Crown/Le Baron sedan (don’t recall the exact trim) in black and I just loved that car then and still do hence my image profile! I would imagine this car would drive terribly compared to today’s vehicles but to ooze around in one of these today would be such a kick.

  • avatar

    My ’61 Crown Convertible sits right between my Chrysler Turbine and ’61 Contintental convertible.

    Of course, they’re all 1/18 scale die casts…

    Again, for my money, Peak Imperial was the ’64. The styling excesses were toned down into a pretty timeless design.

  • avatar

    Real fugly cars.
    Real good series.
    (the best imperial from those years is ugly compared with the worst Caddy of the era. Toss in the palate of color GM used and it s NO CONTEST. HARD STOP.)

  • avatar

    Love this series. Looking forward to next installment, as family friends had a 65 that was pretty awesome. They drove it a lot while they had it and sold it a couple years ago. Before that they had a 60 DeSoto. As boomers my parents age, they churned through a lot of “classic” cars over the years, but they trended towards original (or close) cars that were not perfect show cars, but excellent for actually driving and enjoying as part of their everyday fleet. They also gravitated away from the usual Mustang, Camaro, Tri-5 fare, instead going for survivor cars and the less-expected.

  • avatar

    Tail fins were passé by 1961 but the era Exner ushered in with his 1957 models were a high water mark in American car design. I’m glad Exner got one more opportunity to put his stamp on a car design with the lovely Stutz model.

  • avatar

    Take My Money! Please Build CaddyDaddy the exact Imperial in Pic 5,6 & 7.

  • avatar

    Peak land barge, the ’61. In such bad taste, children would run away and hide after a peek. Self-satisfied glorious excess. Appealed to the ridiculous side of me, because I was sure no serious person could actually drive around in this and keep a straight face, knowing at heart it was as phoney as it looked. Trowelled on luxury, not innate.

    I was 13 when this barge arrived, and I’m sure there’s a pic of the intrepid muttering rotter Uncle Tom McCahill leaning on the hood from the front showcasing the right front freestanding headlamp. My memory is that the lamp had a purply-bronze bullet housing behind the chrome headlamp surround. But Mechanix Illustrated printed on very low grade paper even on the color cover, though as a unit, it was better than the Sears catalog for the two-holer.

    Bench seats, take them. Please! If your driver was short, then you as front passenger were jammed into the dash – no damn room at all. Hated that. Huge car, no room, and any dolt of a Chrysler stylist should have realized the basics — separate front seats are the way to go. More room in my mother’s Ford Anglia for the front passenger because of two seats. When she drove a friend’s ’60 Plymouth Fury, I made sure to sit in back, because a five foot two driver is well, short.

    But ergonomics wasn’t what interested designers. Maximum flash and broadcloth upholstery and rich carpet, that was the ticket, and to hell with ergonomics, which was a word invented somewhere else where eggheads lived.

    Today at old car meets, you see these old mastodons all shone up, and parades go up and down the streets. Despite their weight, these old monsters look spindly with aircraft carrier bodies on tiny skinny tires that are six inches in from the body sides and look unfit for purpose. Man, these late ’50s through mid-late ’60s cars just look old, yes, old. As out-of-date as the local service-station guy’s mint 1925 Marmon did in 1962. The dash switches, knobs and sliders have crude die-casting surrounds and wobbled because assembly was approximate, and it was a feat to get anything to line up with the tolerances they worked to. A few uses and all the buttons ended up at different angles. Yup, luxury. GM perpetuated clacking loose power window and power door switches into the ’80s when the damn furriners had moved on years before.

    Better to just gawk at these things and be happy someone is delighted to be living their dream and coping with all the problems. Drive a ’60s car today and you will be amazed at how vintage and wobbly it feels, power steering or not. Just a bygone era.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup, could not be more true, having sat in many Imps of the era. ……”The dash switches, knobs and sliders have crude die-casting surrounds and wobbled because assembly was approximate, and it was a feat to get anything to line up with the tolerances they worked to. A few uses and all the buttons ended up at different angles”

      As far a rattling power windows, GM F Bodies did this off the line. It really was that bad.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Yes in general what @Conundrum posted is perfectly correct (w may disagree on the ‘definition’ of luxury in vehicles circa 1945- 1979). Yet I do not care. I truly appreciate these cars. And Virgil Exner was a genius. Perhaps a ‘mad genius’ but a genius none-the-less. Just swap out the bench seat for a 60/40 powered split bench. The most comfortable and useful of all vehicular seating arrangements.

  • avatar

    Did anyone try that headlight treatment again until… the first-gen Chevy Sonic?

  • avatar

    Absolutely hideous and proof lead was sneaking into Michigan’s water supply in a big, big way long before it bubbled to the surface in Flint a few years ago.

    Either that or gigantic quantities of Canadian Club were served before Chrysler design meetings — because you’d have to be drunk enough to forget to unzip your fly in the men’s room to approve that crap.

    Just think, in 2070, there will be articles written about the grotesque BMWs being sold today.

  • avatar

    I am told that back in the day my dad’s dad (World War I veteran – OLD guy) was a Chrysler guy. I am finally realizing that at some point in time that probably made sense from his perspective. (By the time I came along learning about cars [early 70’s] it was tough for me to understand. My mom’s dad was an Oldsmobile guy. My dad and my mom’s brother drove Chevrolets. There were frequent discussions about all the weirdness of Chrysler engineering.)

    So, to the grandfather I never met, my apologies – I kind of get it.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I really don’t care if these Imperials look out of date they are 60 plus years old and they will be some what out of date. I like them for what they are and at least they are not the rounded blobs on stilts we have today that all look alike whether they are a Nissan or a Mercedes. Most of today’s vehicles are so boring and few are distinctive more like washing machines and dryers. I miss split bench seats and different color and texture interiors. At least the accountants did not run the car companies then as they do now. Corey thanks again for this wonderful series about Imperials it is more than I could have dreamed for.

  • avatar

    They used more steel to make the ash trays in a 60s Imperial than is in the entire body of 2022 Hyundai Elantra.

  • avatar

    Looking at all the publicity photos of the Imperials, there are no mufflers or tailpipes visible in any of them.
    In real life they are visible on almost every car on the road.
    Somehow they get photoshopped out, or are not included in the publicity car in the first place. It’s kind of how license plates are the same color as the car in modern pictures, and it’s the same on TV commercials.

    • 0 avatar
      Ol Shel

      Photoshop? Bless your heart, child.

      I like thinking about the artists they had working for them, masters of pastels, colored pencil, pen, acrylic, and yes, airbrush. These renderings are gorgeous. I wish I had the patience to build my skills to that level.

      Did they alter the photos to eliminate the tips? Maybe, but a lot of these car had turn-downs that would barely dip below the body lines. Better hope all of your trunk seals are intact. I imagine that regulations, or liability concerns, are the reason you can see exhaust tips today.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    I love the “Imperial” cursive script on the fenders- looks like my own writing, but I don’t think I could make the “I” like that.

  • avatar

    ‘Roof shapes grew more upright this year, as Engel-derived formality took the place of more wacky curved shapes from Engel.’

    Read that a couple of times – Corey, did you mean to say ‘Exner’ for the second mention of Engel? I have enjoyed this look at the Imperial. Good job, sir!

  • avatar

    Corey, regarding the drop in sales of the ’61 models – you’ve got to keep in mind that 1961 was a recession year in the US, so that could be a part of their sales drop.

  • avatar

    So Corey, how many Imperials do you own, or want to own?

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    True 1958 and 1961 were both recession years. Compact cars did well in both those years with the Rambler American in 1958 and the Ford Falcon in 1961.

    A good series to write about would be which cars did well during each recession.

  • avatar
    exner fan

    “…as for 1961…The Ghia-built Crown Sedan and Limousine continued with similar changes to production models and were still made as special order vehicles in incredibly small numbers…”

    A little vague. Actually, the 1961 Ghia Crown Imperials retained the 1960 exterior styling. There were no 1962 Crown Imperials assembled.

    Arthur Dailey wrote:

    “And Virgil Exner was a genius.”


  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Corey–The 55 and 56 had better quality and less extreme styling. I appreciate the Imperials for what they were but that doesn’t mean that I want to drive one daily. Thank you again for the great series on Imperials.

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