Ruler of the Road
The 1953 Custom Imperial, by Chrysler. Long live the king.
Words & photography by David Traver Adolphus
Before World War II, “formality” and “luxury” were inseparable. It was taken as law that an expensive car would have a long hood, cycle fenders and classic proportions, and woe betide the manufacturer who tried anything else, as Chrysler's own disastrous Airflow showed.
But after the initial post-war demand for cars been sated, American car manufacturers responded with a bewildering array of new body styles, first in a trickle, then by 1950 in a huge avalanche. Major yearly changes to a model were normal, and cars could be developed for niches that hadn’t existed earlier. It became possible to build a true luxury sedan that resembled a modern car yet retained styling and amenities fit, literally, for kings. That car would be, as it had been for 25 years, the Imperial.
The long story of the car that promised “the Performance of a Lifetime” is as long and complicated as that of any king and empire. From its meteoric rise to the very pinnacle of American automotive supremacy in 1926, through highs and lows culminating in the ignominious exile of 1994, Imperial’s saga traces the middle of the century of the car as no other.
Over the years, the Imperial badge has had a changing relationship to the Chrysler name. It was introduced as a Chrysler trim level, and quickly became a distinct line comprised of the finest automobiles, more than capable of competing with marques such as Packard, Duesenberg and Cadillac. After the Second World War, it was generally referred to as “Imperial, by Chrysler,” up until 1955 when it became a separate product line. By 1971, it had once again returned to its roots as a Chrysler trim level, until the name was retired amidst the company’s declining financial health in 1975. The name was revived again for a small car from 1981 through 1983, and again for 1990 through 1994, but the era of great Imperials had long since come to a close.
Walter Percy Chrysler’s saga itself traces more than the development of the modern automobile; it traces the American Dream. From his early life as a laborer, he worked his way up through the auto industry to become the last person to found a major independent automaker, at least one that lasted to the end of the 20th century.
Around 1922, Walter teamed with former Willys and Studebaker engineers Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer to develop a new automobile, the Chrysler, at the former Chalmers plant in Detroit. Introduced at the New York Auto Show in January of 1924, the Chrysler Model B-70 was powered by a strong L-head straight-six engine, and featured a full range of body styles, including a fully enclosed, five-passenger Crown Imperial sedan.
Chrysler cars quickly developed a reputation as sophisticated, high-quality, high-performance automobiles at reasonable prices, and the Imperial gained its own platform in 1926. By 1927, it was well on its way to becoming a discrete model line, with a 288.6 cubic-inch engine and wheelbases up to 133 inches available by special order.
Coachbuilders began to take advantage of the Imperial running gear and partway through 1928, a line of factory semi-coachbuilt models were introduced, with bodies by Dietrich, LeBaron and Locke on a 136-inch wheelbase, and an optional 309.3-cu.in. L-head straight-six. Locke-bodied customs continued into the Depression.
As with all the automakers, the economic realities of the 1930s hit Chrysler hard. Production of long-wheelbase Imperials dropped from a high of over 2,000 to approximately 151 in 1933. But that fate was staved off for the first few years of the Depression by the all-new, all-steel 1931 Imperials. A straight-eight engine displacing 384 cubic inches made 125 horsepower available, and a rakish, modern, swept-back design closely resembled that of competitors Cord and Auburn. Wheelbases up to 145 inches provided a canvas on which the world’s finest coachbuilder’s expressed their art, and ensured they would continue to be some of the most sought-after luxury cars on the market, at least by those who could still afford them.
But the inevitable could not be delayed, and despite further evolution of the line, resulting in some of the most expressive and desirable true American Classics ever built, it was time for a change. As ever, Imperial would lead the way in styling and technology.
Jeff Koch covered the evolution of 1934’s revolutionary Airflow in detail last month (1937 Imperial Airflow HCC #14), so we will only say that the brave, failed experiment in creating a truly modern car lasted only three years (while Airflows were sold in 1937, they were no longer badged as Imperials). W. P. Chrysler’s decision to force the design on an unwilling company and public, while visionary, was terribly out of step with the conservative buying tastes of a public whose confidence had been rocked to its core by the Depression. Custom Imperial Airflows, while unpopular, were certainly among the very best, most luxurious and technologically advanced cars on the planet.
Nevertheless, near universal scorn in the marketplace dictated that a new design direction be adopted, or perhaps an old one. The sudden loss of the Airflow platform seems to have thrown Chrysler design into disarray, and pre-war Imperials abruptly lost their grandeur and distinction, coming to resemble lesser Chrysler Royals, and later, New Yorkers. A brief run of majestic Crown Imperial limousines and Newport dual-cowl phaetons was quickly ended by the war.
The first post-war 1946 cars were continuations of the pre-war models, a lineage which now dated back to the 1938 Royal. With Walter P. Chrysler’s death in 1940, the Imperial had lost one of its staunchest backers, and the Airflow scare relegated it to limousine duty for a decade. A Fluid-Drive semi-automatic transmission, introduced in the 1939 Custom Imperial, was standard in the sole Crown Imperial model. A new model would not appear until March of 1949.
While the new 1949 Imperial was unquestionably a luxury car, it was now just as unquestionably even more closely related to the Chrysler New Yorker. Former Chrysler designer Ray Dietrich, now working independently, applied a fantastic custom-style interior to a limited run of 50 shorter (131.5-inch wheelbase) sedans. While not a major force in the market, it foreshadowed Imperials return to the realm of the luxury sedan.
On May 1st, 1950, a new Imperial sedan based on the all-new New Yorker platform with a 133.5-inch wheelbase debuted. It was quite clearly a car in which to be seen, as it actually had more glass than the New Yorker, which it clearly resembled. The Imperial’s exterior was otherwise quite restrained, with modest badging and very minimal brightwork. Subtlety was the name of the game, and Chrysler sold over 10,000 sedans, which, with 415 Crown Imperials, made 1950 the best year for Imperial sales since the 1930s.
The dramatic improvement in sales meant that Chrysler could justify a full lineup for 1951. Six different models were available, all motivated by the stunning new FirePower engine, Chrysler’s 331.1-cu.in. 180hp V-8 with hemispherical combustion chambers. As they had during the late 1920s, Imperials could once again claim to be America’s most powerful cars. Together with optional power steering and brakes, (disc brakes were standard on Crown Imperial limousines) and Fluid-Torque semi-automatic transmissions, they were once again the finest cars available. Little changed for 1952 and over 27,000 were built during those two years. The 1953 Imperials received a minor facelift that made them look less like New Yorkers, including the enormous and distinctive eagle hood ornament. For unknown reasons, the company cut back Imperial production dramatically that year, and just over 9,000 of all variants were sold. In June of 1953, the fully automatic PowerFlite transmission completed testing and was gradually rolled out as the new standard drivetrain, although its official introduction was in the 1954 models. Those 1954s began an entirely new era, as new Imperials designed by Virgil Exner-styled joined an all-new Chrysler lineup as their own separate make, and returned the name to the very peak of the luxury car field, a position it would occupy until the end of the 1960s.
Michael Mauss found his 1953 Imperial in Massachusetts in 1999. The metallic Niagara Blue car is amazingly original, having received only some chrome replating and minor repair to the passenger side body to repair a crease. Michael describes the exterior as “50-75% original,” and we would say he is being conservative. The pleated blue mohair and leather interior is complimented by subtle wood inlay in the doors, and a two-tone painted metal dash. The rear seat is as spacious and inviting as any living room, with canted footrests and an elegant chromed bar along the back of the front seat to assist egress.
With just over 60,000 miles recorded, the hemi V-8 fires up immediately on a warm summer evening, idling quietly and smoothly. A slight dip into the throttle reveals a substantial rumble, a surprisingly muscular sound for such a large, formal car. Mauss believes the engine has never been rebuilt, and we have no reason to doubt him.
The high front bench seat is well positioned, although the original wool is showing slight wear and the seat has softened with time. Shifting is accomplished via the Fluid-Torque four-speed semi-automatic, which is a Chrysler M-6 two-speed manual transmission with electric overdrive, coupled to a torque converter. When starting out, one depresses a traditional clutch pedal and shifts using a steering column-mounted lever with an “R-L-N-D” pattern. “L” is low range, with Low and Low Overdrive gearing, and “D” is high, with High and High Overdrive. The clutch is also used when changing from low to high range, although thanks to the torque converter, it isn’t needed when coming to a stop. The 312-ft.lbs. of torque available at 2,000 rpm mean that Low range is only needed for steep takeoffs or heavy loads.
It is all far less complicated than it sounds. To get under way, we shift as in any other column-shifter car, putting us into High. Acceleration of the 5,000-plus pound car is really quite brisk (in 1953, Speed Age hustled an Imperial to 60 mph in a terrific 12.6 seconds), even though the torque converter means that only a reported 88 horsepower is making it to the ground. At 25 mph, we take our foot gently off the throttle for a moment and the overdrive almost imperceptibly kicks in with a gentle surge. Contemporary reports from De Soto and other Chrysler owners describe a distinct “clunk,” but that would have been entirely inappropriate in a car where a chauffeur often conveyed the passengers.
The Imperial is nothing if not relaxed at speed. Flooring the accelerator will deactivate the overdrive, but the car’s manners at all speeds are impeccable. Chrysler engineers went to great lengths to make the steering as relaxed as the rest of the car and the Vacu-Ease steering is as relaxed as can be. No effort whatsoever is required to move the wheel to any degree, and only the motion of the car as it weaves gently down the road informs us that it is connected to anything at all. We are told that with a little practice, a straight line can be steered, but it does not come naturally.
A set of curves encourages one to slow the car down, as the enormous greenhouse puts the center of gravity very high, resulting in alarming lean, despite the “Safety Level Ride.” Whitewall Dayton radials, entirely appropriate for a regularly driven car, go a long way toward making sharp maneuvering possible, but the car is clearly not happy doing it. Braking is initially frightening, but excellent reserves of stopping power from the large 12-inch power drum brakes are found with strong applications of the pedal, and a pump or two firms them up nicely.
Heading off into the late summer sunset, we wonder how cars such as this ever went out of style. While it is deeply formal, it is also completely practical and eminently suited for endless trips through America. Even today, among monstrous SUVs, the Imperial is an appropriate car that conveys you through the world with ease. Perhaps Chrysler’s new renaissance will once again result in an Imperial that is truly “America’s finest motor car.”
Michael Mauss of northern Vermont first became aware of his 1953 Imperial in 1995, when the second owner earned his Hemmings Motor News Photographer cap with a story of how he acquired it from his butcher, the car’s owner for its first 42 years. The car, which evokes memories of his childhood family car, sits next to a beautiful red Pontiac Deluxe Chieftain convertible, which is “almost there.” In the barn next door, a 1941 Lincoln Continental and 1930 Franklin are in various stages of restoration.
“The Imperial is an historical artifact which tells us much about the 1950s, a period of confidence among Americans in our position in the world,” says the former history professor, now a farmer. “It was a far more secure time than today with global marketplace outsourcing, and terrorism.
“I think that the understated body design has held up better than some of the more flamboyant designs of the 1950s, and it is mechanically overbuilt and thoroughly reliable.”
While Michael does drive it regularly though the warmer months and accumulates over 1,000 miles a year in the Imperial, his intention is to keep it in the condition in which it is found today. “I intend to preserve it as an excellent original,” he says. “It is dignified, with enough brightwork to set it off, but not the excess which one finds in late ‘50s cars.”
Postwar Imperials seem to have particular favorites of royalty, particularly in the Middle East. Ghulam Mohammad, Governer General of Pakistan, owned a 1953 Crown Imperial sedan, a car which was originally coachbuilt for King Saud of Saudi Arabia. King Saud also owned a custom-built 1956 Crown Imperial limousine, with coachwork by Ghia. Recently, a 1957 Imperial belonging to a general under the Shah of Iran turned up in Iran.
When the Prime Minister of Afghanistan visited the US in 1958, Chrysler provided five Imperial convertibles for his motorcade.
The most famous Imperial potentate of all is probably Indonesia’s president Sukarno, who owned at least six Imperials, dating from between 1954 and 1966. President Bros Tito of Yugoslavia ordered his first, a 1954 Crown Imperial Limousine, and the car was presented to President Sukarno on a diplomatic visit to the High Conference of Non-Block countries in early 1955.
Prince Ranier of Monaco bought a 1956 Imperial in Manhattan, ostensibly as a gift for Princess Grace. For a state visit in July of 1958, Chrysler of Canada provided England’s Princess Margaret with a fleet of six two-door Imperial convertibles, each one with upholstery in her royal tartan plaid.
In addition, several “Popemobiles’ have been Imperials: A 1952 Crown Imperial limousine with coachwork by Ghia; and a 1966 Imperial LeBaron.
What to Pay
Online Imperial Club
Dues: Free; Membership: 600
Walter P. Chrysler Club
P.O. Box 3504
Kalamazoo, Michigan 49003-3504
Dues: $30/year; Membership: 5,000
Strong Hemi V-8 power
All-day cruising comfort
A time when “Chrysler” and “Quality” meant the same thing
Explaining the name
Reproduction parts? Ha!
Handling is good for a huge 1950s car, but not that good
1953 Chrysler Custom Imperial
Base Price $4,401.50
Options on dR car Fluid-Torque drive, power steering, radio, heater, electric windows
Price as tested $5,004.00
Type 90° overhead-valve V-8; hemispherical combustion chambers, iron block and cylinder heads, forged crankshaft
Displacement 331.1 cubic inches
Bore x Stroke 3.8125 x 3.625 inches
Compression ratio 7.50:1
Horsepower @ rpm 180 @ 4,000
Torque @ rpm 312-lbs.ft. @ 2,000
Valvetrain 53° inclined, lateral in-head, silicon-chromium steel valves, hydraulic tappets
Main bearings 5
Fuel system Dual-barrel Carter WCD-992-S carburetor, automatic choke, water jacketed throttle body
Ignition system Breaker-point, automatic advance
Lubrication system Full-pressure
Electrical system 6 volts
Exhaust system Dual
Type Chrysler M6 Fluid-Torque four-speed semi-automatic, high and low range
Ratios: 1st 3.57:1
Type Hotchkiss-type, semi-floating hypoid axle
Type Center arm worm and roller
Turns, lock-to-lock 3.5
Turning circle 44.66 feet
Type Hydraulic four-wheel Vacu-Ease, Safe-Guard power assist, Easi-Lock parking prake
Front 12-inch double-cylinder drums
Rear 12-inch single-cylinder drums
CHASSIS & BODY
Construction Welded all-steel body, double channel, fully boxed steel perimeter frame
Body Style Four-door, six-passenger sedan
Layout Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Front Upper and lower control arms, coil springs, Oriflow hydraulic shocks, anti-roll bar,
Rear Live axle, 7 longitudinal leaf springs, Oriflow hydraulic shocks, anti-roll bar
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels Drop center, safety rim steel disc
Front/rear 15 x 6 inches
Tires Dayton TB radials
Front/rear 15 x 8.2 inches
WEIGHTS & MEASURES
Wheelbase 133.5 inches
Overall length 219.0 inches
Overall width 76.75 inches
Overall height 63.0 inches
Front track 57.12 inches
Rear track 60.12 inches
Shipping weight 5,060 pounds
Crankcase 5 quarts
Cooling system 26 quarts
Fuel tank 20 gallons
Transmission 3 pints
Bhp per c.i.d. 0.54
Weight per bhp 28.1 pounds
Weight per c.i.d. 15.28 pounds
¼ mile ET est. 19.6 seconds @ 78 mph
Top speed 105 mph
Fuel mileage 13.4 mpg
1953 Imperial 9,018