Why do I suddenly like cars that I used to detest? This question occurred to me recently when, for some inexplicable reason, I bought a low-mileage two-door #1957-Imperial
. To the uninitiated, Imperial was a luxury brand built by Chrysler to compete with Lincoln and Cadillac. Virgil Exner was the designer who turned Chrysler around when he joined the company in 1949. KT Keller was the president and chairman of the board at the time and, prior to Exner joining the company, Chrysler’s styling was stodgy, to say the least.
For example, Keller liked a higher roofline on his cars because he believed men should always wear a hat while driving. Exner had other ideas and by 1955 he was able to introduce them, starting with the Forward Look. By #1957
, at the height of his powers, he had designed the Imperial.
By that time Imperial was its own brand with no Chrysler reference anywhere on the car. It was also Imperial’s best year because the Styling was so fresh and new. It even had a great slogan: ‘Suddenly It’s 1960!’ It gave everyone the impression that Imperial was three years ahead in the industry.
These cars were built at a time of unbridled optimism. Gas was 25 cents a gallon, the interstate network was opening up, the space race was starting, climate change and cigarettes causing cancer were all so far in the future that nobody even thought about them.
They were huge, too, built like tanks. I remember Imperials being banned at Demolition Derbies because Their massive frames, far stronger than anything else, were deemed an unfair advantage. Hot rodders in the ’60s cannibalised these cars for their 392ci Hemi engines. When I was a young man, these cars represented everything we hated about American automobiles. They weighed two-and-a-half tons, they got abysmal gas mileage, they couldn’t stop and could barely get around corners. While Jaguar had polished wood and Connolly leather, these American behemoths featured chrome put on with a trowel and an interior like Elvis’s coffin.
‘IT HAS A MASSIVE AIR-CONDITIONER, MORE LIKE A REFRIGERATION UNIT FROM A MEATPACKING PLANT’
By the time I was able to drive, cars from this era were already over a decade old. They were built before steel was galvanised and they rusted almost immediately. By the time the ’70s and ’80s came around, gas prices had started to rise and most of the cars from this era looked like crippled-mastodons flailing around in some tar-pit. So why the attraction now? AmI trying to regain some part of my youth? Possibly. Or is it because it’s just so different from what we think of as an automobile today?
First, let me tell you about the car I found. It’s all original and painted in Desert Sage, which is really just another name for pink. A man bought it new for his wife but it was too big for her to drive. It’s 19 feet long and it weighs just shy of 5000lb. She rarely drove the car, and it was parked sometime in 1964 with 64,000 miles on it. There it sat, indoors, for almost 55 years, so there is zero rust and the chrome is perfect. I drove it home on the tyres that were fitted in 1963.
Modern cars have almost no exterior brightwork. In contrast the Imperial looks like a Wurlitzer juke box. There’s even a massive chrome strip that runs over the roof like some sort of roll bar. The steering wheel is enormous and the gauges are the size of dinner plates. If you have to wear glasses to see the speedometer, you should not be allowed to drive.
It has push-button drive and all sorts of goofy switches; believe me, they couldn’t have cared less about ergonomics. Trying to figure out how to operate the turn signal took 10 minutes. It has a massive air-conditioner which looks more like a refrigeration unit from a meat-packing plant. You actually have to press down hard on the accelerator to compensate for the 25bhp needed to drive it.
If you like buying cars by the pound, this is the way to go. Ferraris are about $1000 per pound and cars like this are about $5 per pound. When you hit somebody in a Ferrari the damage is life-altering. Hit somebody in this thing, and you don’t even know it till you get home and find the other car crushed up under your wheelarch. I don’t think I’ve ever had another car that stops traffic like this thing. In a town like LA, where Bentleys and McLarens barely get a second look, folks jump out at stop lights to ask me what it is. One guy in a hip part of town asked if he could buy my interior so he could make a suit out of the sparkly brown-material.
It’s fun to jump between different automotive worlds. For example, last Saturday was the perfect day; I took the McLaren P1 out for a ride in the hills above LA and then took my wife out to dinner in the Imperial. After all, you need to have one sensible car to drive.