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.)
Imperial may have broken just about every Marketing 101 rule with its name, but none of that mattered in 1957 when, at the sight of Imperial's new models, jaws dropped and wallets flew open. Designer Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" styling produced a stunning sedan, coupe, and convertible, all with elegantly incorporated, enormous fins. That year, the Imperial lineup accounted for a staggering 24 percent of the Chrysler Division's sales (yes, even when Imperial was a separate marque, it was at times still lumped in with Chrysler), selling nearly as many cars as more-established Lincoln.
The brand's initial success prompted Chrysler to move Imperial production to its own factory for the 1959 model year. But Exner's design proved to be a fleeting success, and by 1960, sales had fallen by more than half. For 1962, Imperial was moved back to a shared Chrysler factory, and Exner was given the ax. In his place, Chrysler hired Elwood Engel, a Ford designer who had just penned the beautiful 1961 Lincoln Continental. With the missive to bring the flagship's style back into the mainstream, Engel's first Imperial to enter production was the 1964-66 model, which, as you might have already noticed, looked a lot like his Continental. Whoops.
For 1967, Imperials switched to unibody construction, a change that lesser Chrysler products had made years before - and by 1969, Imperial models again shared body panels with Chryslers. In 1971, a "By Chrysler" name appeared on Imperial products, and on June 12, 1975, the last Imperial rolled out of the factory. The car continued life as a Chrysler New Yorker Brougham, but the Imperial name was dead. Well, until Chrysler brought it back twice, once in the 1980s and once in the '90s. Just to make it confusing.
Although the Imperial name was used for the better part of the twentieth century, the brand itself was short-lived. Still, it left a legacy of technological innovations and out-of-the-box cool gadgets. In 1958, Auto-Pilot cruise control - which used a rotary controller on the dashboard to dial in the desired speed - was introduced. In 1959, optional swiveling front seats pivoted outward to ease entry. For a more theatrical sound experience in 1964, Imperial offered a reverberator for the rear speaker - literally a spring that delayed the response of the speaker for a simulated music-hall effect. In 1967, an available front passenger seat rotated 180 degrees to access a folding walnut conference table, Swivel 'n Go-style. In addition, Imperials were credited with the earliest use of four-wheel disc brakes (1950) as well as the first-ever four-wheel antilock brake system (1971).
Today, we're not expecting too many innovations from Chrysler. Instead we're waiting patiently for a product renaissance as the bankrupt carmaker reinvents itself under Fiat's leadership. But Chrysler's history books are full of high points and low points - and if history repeats itself, as it so often does, we may be in store for some very cool products in the near future.
The Imperial on these pages belongs to Richard Harrison, patriarch and co-owner of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. Affectionately referred to as "The Old Man," the sixty-nine-year-old says it took him fifteen years to convince this Crown convertible's previous owner to sell it. It was in poor shape after sitting for thirty-some years in the desert sun and then another six years in the back lot of the pawn shop.
In one episode of the show, Richard's son Rick and grandson Corey pretended to sell the car for $1000 to someone wanting to turn it into a lowrider. The Old Man's reaction was, of course, furious. And hilarious, if you have a sick sense of humor. "Both of y'all are fixing to get the wrath of God from me, 'cause I'm so goddamned pissed I can't even hardly talk," he said, shaking with anger. The amazing thing, though, is that in the middle of all this, the Old Man's expertise shines through: "There was only 514 of those made; you don't turn that car into a lowrider."
Rick eventually told his dad the truth: he'd sent the Imperial to be restored as a gift. Since then, the Old Man has had some time to cool down - and to enjoy his Imperial - and the Harrisons were kind enough to spend a day with us. These guys aren't pretend TV characters - some reality television might be scripted, but what you see on Pawn Stars is what you get. The Old Man drives the Imperial regularly, and all of the Harrisons are as personable and knowledgeable in person as they are on the tube. In the business of pawn, you can't fake knowledge - and how many people do you know who could correctly recite the production numbers of a forty-four-year-old car in the midst of a fit of rage?
The Pawn Stars' 1966 Imperial Crown Convertible
Original MSRP and Option Prices
Original MSRP and Option Prices
|Auto-Pilot cruise control:||$94.90|
|Tilt-A-Scope steering column:||$92.45|
|AM/FM Golden Touch radio:||$227.75|
|Outside mirror, right:||$6.75|
|9.15 x 15 three-ribbon whitewall tires:||$54.05|
|Power door locks:||$46.50|
|Power trunk-lid release:||$28.25|
|Leather split bench seats:||$102.25|
1966 Imperial Crown Convertible
|engine:||16-valve OHV V-8|
|displacement:||7.2 liters (440 cu in)|
|horsepower:||350 hp @ 4400 rpm|
|torque:||480 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm|
|steering:||Power-assisted recirculating ball|
|suspension, front:||Control arms, torsion bars|
|suspension, rear:||Solid axle, leaf springs|
|tire size:||9.15 x 15|
|L x W x H:||227.8 x 80.0 x 56.6 in|
|track f/r:||61.8/61.7 in|
An Imperial expert weighs in on the Old Man's ride.
By Christopher Hoffman
An Imperial expert weighs in on the Old Man's ride.
By Christopher Hoffman
This car was a rarity when new. Cadillac found more buyers for softtop de Villes in two weeks than were found for Imperial Crown convertibles in all of 1966. Today, survivors likely number in the double digits.
Collectors seem to value Chrysler products inversely to their original cost and production volume. Vinyl-trimmed Plymouth muscle cars can command six figures, while this one-of-514 leather-lined cruiser might draw only four times its original $7300 price. Despite the easy upkeep of the bulletproof V-8 and TorqueFlite automatic-not to mention the delightful handling of the torsion-bar front suspension-Imperials are the forgotten flagships.
Richard Harrison's 32,000-mile car is neither original nor fully restored. He acquired it as a black-over-white-leather orphan, unused since its first owner's lust for luxe withered in the early 1970s. The data plate reveals that it left the factory painted dove tan, a shade that shunned fashion even then. Although the chrome and the 1966-only backup lenses show their age, the car is strong, solid, and complete. All six power windows (even the pivoting vent panes) operate. Appealing options include the Golden Touch AM/FM radio with foot-button station changer, Tilt-A-Scope tilting and telescoping steering wheel, Auto-Pilot cruise control, and a driver's headrest. The standard passenger's headrest was concealed within the reclining seatback; it extends upward to make the seat look much like an Eames office chair.
Along with its recent repaint, this car was reupholstered with modern low-sheen black hides. Brushed aluminum replaced the faded wood trim. Although expertly crafted, this still lowers the car's value. But it will likely endure top-down daily use under the Vegas sun, and that's the difference between the uncertain investment of a collector car and the daily dividends of a classic driver.