A Look at the Chrysler Imperial

Chrysler Corporation product strategists, stylists, and engineers began the new “fuselage” period to maintain the luxury Imperial’s exclusivity while sharing bodyshells with Chrysler-brand vehicles from 1969 to 1973. After five years, all they had was a fairly good Chrysler to show for their work. Chrysler-Plymouth Division General Manager Glenn White boldly remarked in an August 21, 1968, press statement announcing the new 1969 Imperial, “A manufacturer seeking to sell cars in the costliest price segment cannot afford to take shortcuts. Elegance in design and decor must be combined with the highest levels of quality and performance. This perspective resulted in the 1969 Imperial.” These are courageous statements – and they are true. However, the new Imperial White he was promoting was less than what his words implied. As magnificent as it was, this new Imperial was a compromise necessitated by the harsh reality that Imperial’s meager sales volume could no longer sustain a luxury automobile distinct from the higher-volume Chryslers with which it shared assembly lines at the corporation’s Jefferson Assembly plant in east Detroit.

A Look at the Chrysler Imperial

This revelation necessitated considerable design sacrifices, which resulted in the current incarnation of the Imperial being a throwback to an older generation. But first, a look at the automobile alone. Due to the early to mid-1960s splintering of the American automobile industry into three basic car sizes, none of the Big Three could afford to launch all-new automobiles in all market groups in the same model year. Each product was now required to wait it’s time for renewal. At Chrysler, 1969 was to be the year of a major redesign of the company’s large automobiles, dubbed C-bodies. The redesign was critical for the Chrysler and Imperial nameplates, as there were no “junior editions” to boost sales. Chrysler and Imperial would have to survive solely on the strength of their large vehicle accomplishments.

According to former Chrysler Styling executive Dave Cummins, the development of the new C-bodies began in an advanced lab on Chrysler’s Highland Park, Michigan, site, where Cliff Voss and Allan Kornmiller designed a sedan package/styling concept. The most significant alteration from the 1967-68 automobiles was the introduction of the so-called “fuselage” style, which blended curved side glass above the beltline and a curving bodyside portion below into a single “seamless” surface inspired by jetliners’ aerodynamic cabin sections. This was not Chrysler’s first foray in this direction. Former Styling vice president Virgil Exner had experimented with fuselage styling on the 1960 Valiant and pushed unsuccessfully to bring the look to all large cars in 1962 with a stillborn design.

According to Cummins, the flaw with Exner’s approach was his proclivity for projecting fender blades front and back that did not connect inside view, giving the automobiles a disconnected “start-and-stop” appearance. However, in this newest incarnation constructed by his successor, Elwood Engel, the fundamental fuselage section was carried front to rear uninterrupted, providing a smooth, continuous appearance to the resulting bodyside. Chet Limbaugh, a retired Chrysler designer who worked in the Packaging Studio at the time, recalls that Voss, Exner’s alter ego who had great respect for his former boss’ sense of style and taste, championed the fuselage look. Fuselage styling, like any excellent idea, had its time and place, if not on Exner’s 1962 automobiles, then on Engel’s 1969s.

The Imperial pioneered the curved side window in America in 1957, with a 43-inch radius, while the body sills turned inward more than on any preceding corporate vehicle. The greater curvature of the bodysides allowed for the window frames to be pushed outboard at their bases, adding 3.5 inches of shoulder room in front and three inches in behind. Two-door hardtops with air conditioning had ventless door glass for a more streamlined appearance and enhanced visibility. Adhesives were used to secure the windscreen and backlight, bringing the glass virtually level with the roof sheet metal and boosting aerodynamics. The A-pillar of the windshield was likewise bent. To maintain a clean appearance, the wipers were concealed in a slot at the base of the windshield when parked. The driver-side blade was articulated, resulting in a four-inch larger wipe pattern than in 1968.

Cummins believes the package might have been enhanced by including a narrower belt and increasing the track width of the wheels. “The track was too narrow,” he explains, “and the cars came off the line riding high in the rear” as a result of the ongoing use of leaf springs rather than coil springs. “There was discussion of launching the car directly from Advanced Packaging,” remembers Cummins, who was then-head of the Chrysler-Imperial Exterior Studio. Don Wright, the manager responsible for Chrysler under Cummins, was terrified by this concept, believing that the viability had not been thoroughly investigated. Despite this, Cummins adds, “we were told to go forward” and turn it into a production project, with Wright directing the Chrysler and Ken Carlson overseeing the Imperial.