The next time you're in a rented Chrysler Sebring convertible, run your fingers across the vista of hard interior plastics, making sure not to cut yourself on sharp edges and mold seams. Inhale deeply and savor the chemical-icious aroma of the glues holding down the industrial-grade carpeting. And press firmly on the accelerator pedal to hear the discordant engine note of the car's wheezing V-6.
Poor Chrysler. Things weren't always this way. Twelve years ago, Germans took over the smallest of the Big Three and then starved it of resources, resulting in cars like today's Sebring. But only a few short decades before that, Chrysler was polishing the glossy paint on cars like this 1966 Imperial Crown convertible, which competed with the world's best luxury cars. Atop one page in the 1966 Imperial brochure, someone penned the words, "more standard luxuries than a Rolls-Royce." And the copywriter meant it.
If you watch television, you might recognize this big, black convertible - and its owners - from the hit History channel show Pawn Stars. The series - think Antiques Roadshow with a Vegas twist - chronicles the day-to-day happenings at a Las Vegas-based pawn shop. The show's stars are the three generations of men from the Harrison family who run the store, and the only thing more impressive than the diversity of obscure and fascinating objects that show up is the depth of knowledge that these men have about such a broad variety of stuff.
That encyclopedic knowledge is key to any pawn shop's success - but it's no less important if you're interested in understanding the history of today's automotive landscape. Elsewhere in this issue (see page 72), we examine two books that chronicle the Big Three's long descent from the top of the automotive heap. But if you ask anyone under the age of forty about a brand called Imperial, they'll likely cock their head to the side and say, "Huh?"
Any quick look into Chrysler shows painful, cyclical highs and lows. And for a company we sincerely hope is about to emerge from its post-Daimler low, it's the perfect time to look at Imperial - a distinct high point in the company's history.
There's a lot of confusion about Imperial, because it was originally the name of a Chrysler model but became its own brand in 1955. When speaking of the Imperial Division's cars, you shouldn't say "Chrysler Imperial," just as you don't say "Chrysler Dodge" or "Ford Lincoln." Unless, that is, you're talking about one of the many Chrysler Division models that were called Imperial. Those existed for more than a quarter century (1924 until 1954) before the Imperial Division was formed. Adding to the confusion, Chrysler resurrected the Imperial nameplate a couple times after the division closed its doors in 1975. And around the time that the Imperial Division was founded, you could buy an Imperial Crown or a Crown Imperial. (The latter was a limousine finished by Italy's Ghia.)