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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

Imperial Dreams: Why Chrysler's forgotten luxury brand couldn't make it with the Sinatra set

It feels like the domestic luxury pantheon has been set in stone since nearly the end of World War II. Ford has Lincoln. GM has Cadillac. And Chrysler has ... Chrysler, right? Not quite.
https://www.hagerty.com/media/automotive-history/imperial-dreams-why-chryslers-forgotten-luxury-bran...
69 REPLIES 69
Inline8OD
Technician

Imperial was a stand alone marque early on, despite being called Chrysler Imperial. No better of the heavy iron "Classics" in the '30s than Imperial, from 1931-33, among the best-looking, best-engineered, only 10 mph less top speed than Marmon 16 or most Duesenbergs in road trim and for a fifth the price the latter.
The Airflows were hands down the best built car of the decade.
Independent polls showed Chryslers the leading choice of educated professionals; engineers, scientists, chemists, tenured professors in the 1950s into the '60s. The dean of road testers, the unerring Tom McCahill, as one of the posters mentioned, always rated Imperial over Cadillac, Lincoln, the last Packards. A Chrysler or Imperial had better brakes, shocks, faster steering than a Cadillac, got as much or more power from regular gas while the Cadillac and others required premium.
Imperial's tragedy was strictly marketing, and that most Americans drawn to glitz, GM long since honing the ability to provide just enough engineering in a blousy package, while Mopar always went the extra engineering mile, lost on most people led by advertising, image.
JSievers
Instructor

Let me offer a second opinion. My uncle drove fuselage Imperials and they were great cars. The 1981-83 Imperial was a fine car in its own right, and has a dedicated following today. Finally, the K-car (actually E-body) Imperials offered exceptional luxury at a reasonable price point on a proven platform. Granted, none of these cars are historic luxury icons, but for the most part neither are the earlier Imperials. They were, and are, good values for personal luxury transportation.
MARK400
Detailer

Bottom line................ the ultimate Imperial, the 1966 Imperial "Black beauty" from the Green Hornet TV show.
TG
Technician

I don't know... I've read a few of these types of articles, and I don't know that one can conclude that if a brand doesn't flourish, it's because someone made a critical, unforgivable error. Trying to design something today that will not hit the market until four years from now is borderline guesswork. And if Chrysler threw a boatload of money into the Imperial and it failed anyway (because perhaps there are already enough luxury cars to go around), that would have been an even bigger business blunder. There is a lot of lose-lose in these scenarios
Impsrule
New Driver

Glad that this article was written, as it's always a great thing to see the spotlight shine on Imperials. I do wish it had gone a little deeper. For starters, the article seems at first to say that the stand-alone "Imperial Division" launched in tandem with the industry-leading 1957 "Forward Look". This is not correct.

Imperial Division officially launched in mid-1954 in anticipation of the "One Hundred Million Dollar Look" models of 1955 - the first Chrysler Corporation cars designed fully under Virgil Exner's leadership. While not 'revolutionary' in the manner of the tailfinned, slim-roofed 1957 designs, the handsome 1955's bore crisp, modern styling that finally left behind the conservative lines favored by a Chrysler Corporate management system still smarting from the Airflow debacle of the mid-1930's.

With their full-radiuses wheel openings, unique split grille and free-standing taillights, the 1955 Imperials looked great. But Chrysler Corporations lack of judgement as to how to market a luxury car began to show before the car itself even hit the streets.

Mistake Number One: the cars of the Imperial Division were introduced without Model Names for 1955 and 1956. The model designations "Custom," "Crown" and "LeBaron" didn't materialize until 1957. Thus, the public - which had been calling the cars "Chrysler Imperial" for 29 years - was given no new monikers to help shift public perception for two full model years. It was especially odd, since they continued to discreetly use the 'Newport' trim designation for the hardtop coupe, they could have easily introduced the "1955 Imperial Newport." In addition to Crown, and LeBaron (...which was genius) names that would emerge for 1957, there are so many other names that might have been used: "Imperial Regency". "Imperial Scepter" "Imperial Viscount", and on, and on. By not giving the public a new combination of 'sounds' to retrain itself with, they condemned the new division to continue being a "Chrysler Imperial" to the average person.

Mistake Number Two: Just months after Imperial Division's auspicious debut, Chrysler Corporation authorized the Chrysler Division to "borrow" the Imperial grille and put it on the new Chrysler 300 performance coupe. From a branding perspective, that was positively inane. Imagine for a moment that the Buick Skylark convertible had carried into 1955. Now imagine General Motors permitting Buick to "BORROW" the Cadillac grille. You can't imagine it, because GM understood the importance of exclusivity in branding a luxury car.

Furthermore, had the Imperial Division been introduced with actual model names, Chrysler Corp. could have made a really bold statement: instead of the Chrysler 300, they could have introduced the "1955 Imperial Three Hundred" as the upscale 'Eldorado-fighter' of the new luxury division!

Make no mistake, I love Imperials, having owned four: a 1960 Crown 2dr hardtop, a 1960 LeBaron 'Southampton', a 1967 Crown convertible, and currently a 1966 Imperial LeBaron 4dr hardtop. However, that love doesn't change the fact that Chrysler Corporation dropped the ball when it came to branding and marketing the car for a successful run at the luxury car market.
Reinhold_Weege
Instructor

Thank you sir. I own '51, '61 and '69 Imperials (those are some of my landmark favorites, but I've had many others). Your comments helped me regain some of the brain cells lost from the article. I've thought about the mistakes made in the Imperial line; again, largely poor marketing, but I'm adding your points to my thought process as well.

Once place where we have common ground is the idea of the 300 becoming a flagship personal-luxury (as in no 4dr) for the Imperial marque. If they had pursued this route, it would have brought aspirational prestige and youth to the brand. Shall we join forces on a time machine that has us appearing in the Chrysler Highland Park boardroom circa 1950 or so and show them how to make it happen?
Impsrule
New Driver

Ha! I'd love to hop a ride in that time-machine. First, as you say, to show Chrysler Corp a glimpse of the future ramifications of their branding missteps on the launch of the Imperial Division. The '50's was all about evocative, glamorous brand names. To introduce the car as just "Imperial" was just... Too many "liquid lunches" I suppose. The other reason would be to go back with todays dollars and buy up a fleet of these fabulous cars (...and then return with them to 2021)! Cheers!

gfviperman
Detailer

The 1955 Imperial is one of the most beautiful cars ever.
KYColonel
Detailer

I agree. The 1955 Imperial Newport 2-Door Hardtop is a beauty.
SJ
Technician

The Edsel's of Chrysler.
Inline8OD
Technician

1955-56 Chrysler New Yorkers and Imperials were clean-limbed, quietly elegant yet looked powerful and fast as they were,  made concurrent Cadillacs, Lincolns, Packards look comical.  Adage shared by boat and aero designers: If it looks right, it sails (or flies) right"  certainly applies.

TonyT
Technician

Chrysler missed a golden opportunity in 1977. A tie-in with George Lucas could have resulted in a limited number of all-white cars with special trim, and would have included a weather band radio as standard equipment. In 2021, the few surviving "Imperial Storm Trackers" would be worth zillions!
terryjudd
Intermediate Driver

The writer incorrectly states Chrysler President L.L. "Tex" Colbert ordered the downsizing of company's 1962 models after overhearing GM executives talking about the Chevy II. It's common knowledge among Chrysler historians that it was William C. Newberg, who served as company president for just 64 days in 1960, who ordered the 1962 models downsized. Newberg overheard the GM small Chevy discussion at Bloomfield Hills Country Club. Colbert served as president from 1950 until Newberg's appointment in April 1960. He replaced Newberg in June 1960. Lynn A. Townsend replaced Colbert in 1961.
Eric2
Intermediate Driver

Back in mid 70's I bought a 62 300 Imperial from a shade tree local mechanic for $100. He had fitted it with a 64 doghouse. I was looking for cheap transportation at the time. That thing was a tank! I was driving it home the night I bought it and was coming up on a country road intersection. I had stop sign on my part with a car coming from my left. Went to hit the brakes and found I didn't have any. Had to run it off the road and hit a big concrete corner fence post to stop. Anyway, I was able to stop. Almost pulled the fence post out of the ground forcing it to an angle. Looked at the car and it put a tiny dent in the bumper the size of a fifty cent piece. After fixing the brakes I drove it everywhere for 3-4 years putting 40 thousand miles on it and it was still running when I sold it. Might I add I sold for $300 too!
CliffCherry
Pit Crew

Wow, I'm amazed that Hagerty deigned to insure my "Malaise-Era me-too" 1974 LeBaron.
MadMac
Intermediate Driver

A bit of Imperial presidential trivia.

 

Eisenhower had custom dual-cowl roofless, windowless,

Parade Phaeton 1953 Imperials with suicide doors.

https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a26410397/1953-chrysler-imperial-presidential-limousine/ 

 

The White House leased a 1960 black Crown Imperial Ghia limousine

for the use of the First Lady.  It would become the lead limousine

in the funeral procession upon the assassination of her husband,

President John F. Kennedy.

https://www.web.imperialclub.info/Yr/1960/Kennedy/index.htm 

 

In addition to their presidential state car, the Nixon and Ford administrations

had armored Imperial limousines for use by foreign dignitaries and the like.

https://www.web.imperialclub.info/Yr/1972/Limo/index.htm 

 

The presidential connections were not enough to save the marque.

Autostocks
Intermediate Driver

60 years later, FCA made the same mistake assuming Fiat dealers could sell Alfa Romeos against BMWs. The Giulia is arguably a better car than the 3 series, but the dealership experience is like night and day. History repeats itself.
Rider79
Technician

Does anyone recall the "Chrysler Imperial" breed of rose? It was quite popular among growers back in the 1960's, I believe.
Kay1955
New Driver

I have a 1963 Chrysler imperial in great condition great for a cruise on the weekends available for 18,000
MrJ
New Driver

Lol this is a dumb article.... What was Cadillac's message as why they should desire a Cadillac? it was the same message... Luxury, prestige, quality craftsmanship, etc etc... Yes Chrysler and Lincoln sent out the same messaging... The problem was Chrysler was barely hanging on... and Chrysler was also a Luxury brand and they were eating each others lunch... The rich and elite also drove Chrysler's... Imperial was one too many Luxury brands for Chrysler... Olds, Pontiac and Buick were not considered at Chrysler's level. You should talk to people who bought cars in the 50's and 60's... A Chrysler 300 was an expensive "rich" guys cars... Jay Leno told you it was a "bankers" hot rod. The New Yorker and 300 was right up there with Cadillac. The brand "dwindling" has continued until this day... Pontiac gone... Olds gone.. Buick barely hanging on...

Chrysler is the now the step child that has been handed off too so many adoptive parents... I'm surprised its lasted this long. Cadillac only survived due to the Escalade popularity...