The wild 1957-60 Imperials and their slightly toned down 1961-63 successors have received their fair share of criticism here for their wacky collection of styling features – tailfins, rocket pod taillights, free-standing headlights, “toilet seat” trunk lids – assembled in varying combinations over the years under Virgil Exner. The criticism is justified, since Imperials had some of the most far-out, excessive styling of a far-out, excessive era. A lot is necessary to surpass the famously over-the-top excess of a 1959 Cadillac, and the contemporary Imperial had more than enough, although in relatively obscurity since Imperial sales were so low. Seeing a well preserved example in the metal for the first time prompted some different thoughts about these over half century old luxury cars, though, thoughts that were far more favorable.
“Classic” or “dignified” are not thoughts that will occur to anyone looking at a 1959 Imperial’s baroque face. Its quad podded headlights, huge horizontal grille bar with five wide teeth, bifurcated bumper, twin fender crowns-in-V’s, and domed hood topped by an Imperial eagle hood ornament make the aforementioned 1959 Cadillac’s nose look almost restrained in comparison. Fussy and overwrought come to mind as ways to describe it.
The tail inspires similar thoughts. Fins tipped with rocket tail cones, each then ringed with multiple annular fins like a new-for-the-1950s guided missile; the “toilet seat” fake spare tire holder introduced in 1958; a bifurcated bumper reminiscent of the mouth of a bottom feeding fish – details, details, details, all of them weird and rather unattractive.
I really cannot bring myself to hate this car, though. Part of it may be that I spotted it outside a Sears Auto Center that is the very same building in which I spent many afternoons as a small child in the 1970s, waiting for my father to shop for car care items, back when DieHard batteries and RoadHandler tires were top aftermarket brands and Sears was a go-to place for auto maintenance and repair. It is easy to be nostalgic in such as situation, even for a car that you have never seen before, from over a decade before you were born. It prompted me to take a look back at that long-ago time when this car was new.
With flamboyant finned cars of the late 1950s long since entrenched in popular memory as symbols of kitsch – the prime example being the 1959 Cadillac, associated by many with Elvis, even though he never owned one since in 1959 he was a draftee serving in the Army in Germany, where he owned German cars (a VW, a BMW 507, and then another BMW 507) – it is easy to forget that the target market of a Cadillac, Lincoln or Imperial was affluent and rather conservative. It is noteworthy that Imperial advertising used camera angles to minimize the 1959’s flamboyant details at its front and rear ends and tried to sell the car as “classic” in design. False advertising, most of us would say, but indicative of the beholder who was supposed to find these Imperials beautiful.
As strange as it seems now, these cars were supposed to appeal to the wealthiest Americans, such as this couple being chauffeured past the statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. This location, then and now, is one of America’s most affluent and expensive areas, and today anything less than a Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Maserati, or Tesla would look out of place there, aside from a taxi or a car service Lincoln Town Car – a Chrysler Fifth Avenue would be painfully out of place on this part of Fifth Avenue.
This advertisement, which once again features the 1959 Imperial at 59th Street and 5th Avenue, hints well at what Chrysler’s Mad Men thought of the work of Exner and his stylists. The profile view minimizes its Exner exuberances even further, giving very little idea of the elaborate front end or the many details of the rear, and completely hiding the toilet seat on the trunk lid. “… heads will turn” it declares, out of “admiration” supposedly, but perhaps equally or more often out of bemusement. Heads would turn, and then buyers would appreciate the car’s engineering substance beneath the surface flash, as described breathlessly in most of the advertising copy. Chrysler’s advertising department appeared to be saying about the styling of the 1959 Imperial, “We are not amused,” to borrow the words of Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India.
With Imperial advertising apparently ashamed to show these details, it is unsurprising that few potential buyers seeing them in the showroom were willing to pay their money to display them on their driveways. Only 17,710 Imperials were sold in 1959 – 7,798 Custom sedans and four and two door hardtops, 7,777 Crown sedans and four and two door hardtops, 555 Crown convertibles, 1,132 LeBaron sedans and four door hardtops, and 7 Crown Imperial Limousines with the lofty price of $16,000 ($129,000 in 2014). Cadillac thoroughly dominated the luxury class with sales of 142,272, and even distant second place Lincoln managed 26,906.
A different perspective on these Imperials is that their strange styling and lack of popularity did not stop many of the wealthiest people in the United States and the world from buying them. The Crown Imperial Limousine, built by Ghia in small numbers (only 132 from 1957 to 1965), had owners such as Nelson Rockefeller and the King of Saudi Arabia. The actually imperial Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ruler of Iran from 1941 to 1979, bought this 1957 sedan and – perhaps finding the standard styling too restrained for his taste – added to it what appear to be front fender portholes and Dagmar bumpers from a 1955-56 Cadillac. These Imperials lived up to, or exceeded, the image created in their advertising artwork.
The Crown Imperial Limousine also made a cinematic appearance as the car of royalty of another sort. In The Godfather: Part II, a 1958 Imperial Crown Limousine was the chauffeured car used by Michael Corleone at his house on Lake Tahoe.
Playing with camera angles, just as Imperial advertising did in 1959, introduces another perspective on these cars. Viewed directly from the side, the excessive details mostly disappear and the car’s fundamental shape comes forward, and it is actually graceful. In 1959, these Imperials retained the basic proportions, roofline, and tailfin sweep of the 1957 “Forward Look” Chryslers that are widely regarded as beautifully styled. Ensuing years would depart from this styling foundation, starting with the fins becoming truncated and lumpy in 1960, then with the roofline and other shapes changing, until only the wraparound windshield remained unchanged at the end in 1966, like the equally curved smile of the Cheshire Cat.
The partial contrasting color roof of this Custom four door hardtop (one of 3,984 produced in 1959, at a base price of $4,910, $39,594 in 2014 dollars) is the only major disruption of the harmony of the design from this angle. It was one of several roof options in 1959, which included a new “Silvercrest” roof with a stainless steel panel and a “Landau” roof with a black leather-like rear canopy – comparable to the roof treatments of contemporary Cadillacs (e.g. the stainless steel roof of the 1957-58 Eldorado Brougham) and precursors to Brougham-era half vinyl roofs and the stainless steel roof panel of the 1980-85 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. Whether this association with styling trends two decades later is positive or negative is debatable.
Another perspective comes from viewing the interior, which is as restrained as the exterior is garish. The simple and symmetrical instrument and control panel, conventional round steering wheel (not the idiosyncratic squared-off wheel of later model years), and clean but well detailed dashboard are a well-executed rendition of 1950s American luxury car interior style.
Symmetry rules the view from the driver’s seat, with Torqueflite transmission pushbuttons on the left, ventilation pushbuttons on the right, and full instrumentation (speedometer, temperature, ammeter, oil pressure, fuel, clock) and six control knobs symmetrically laid out in between. Symmetry was such a styling concern that the usual turn signal stalk disappeared in favor of a dashboard lever below the transmission pushbuttons, to clean up the view around the steering column.
The transmission pushbuttons were part of a drivetrain package that, along with the suspension design, would last into the 1970s. A decade into the postwar era of overhead valve V-8s, in 1959 Imperials dropped the first generation Hemi and adopted the RB series wedge head big block V-8, in 413 cubic inch form, which would later expand into the 440 and last until 1978. The Torqueflite transmission adopted in 1956 set the standard for automatics and would last though the end of the century. Along with the torsion bar front suspension introduced in 1957, these fundamental mechanical elements were substantial strengths beneath the questionable exterior.
If the owner had a chauffeur to do the driving and sat in the rear seat, he or she had all of the room that one could need. Here as well, the interior design was simple and unfussy. The fedora-wearing man and his wife in the pillbox hat shown being chauffeured down 5th Avenue would find nothing to complain about here.
Outside the car, the heads that turned toward the 1959 Imperial would have a distinct sense of awkwardness running through them as they checked out the car’s bizarre back end, however, and Mr. Fedora and Mrs. Pillbox Hat would probably have felt uneasy about the attention of the people peering at them through the fishbowl rear window being mockery. I can easily imagine the “face” created by this car’s rear styling inspiring street kids to put doughnuts on their noses and pull the sides of their mouths outward with their fingers, in imitation. “Hey mister, what am I? Your car!”
It is unfortunate, because the car’s problems were skin deep. It had one of Detroit’s best proportioned bodies of the late 1950s and a well-executed interior, wrapped around a modern drivetrain that was fundamentally sound enough for last for two more decades. On the other hand, coming from a time when around the industry fins were soaring, chrome was metastasizing, and airplane and rocket decorations were proliferating like the real bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles that the United States and the Soviet Union were acquiring in the late 1950s, its stylists gave it tacked-on details at each end that overwhelm everything else. Combined with Chrysler’s 1957 quality problems and the 1958 recession, they have ensured that few bought these cars and few remember them now.
Over half a century later, what is one to think of a car like this 1959 Imperial, which is one of what must be no more than a few hundred survivors from its year? These and other Chrysler Forward Look cars had quality problems when new, but one that has survived for this many years would have been a well-built example or else would have had its problems addressed over the years. If you can ignore its overdone details at its front and rear ends – and I doubt that Nelson Rockefeller, the Shah of Iran, or Michael Corleone would have cared, or cared what anyone else thought – and appreciate its other aspects, then you would have a generally well designed 1950s luxury cruiser that is highly distinctive, unlikely to be mistaken for anything else even though few people will know what an Imperial is. It is not only a relic of a different time; it is different from its contemporaries and definitely striking in appearance. Heads will turn, as stated in the ad.
A possibly enlightening comparison is to an Imperial that I have experience with: a 1967 Imperial Crown convertible, with styling penned by Lincoln Continental stylist Elwood Engel. Owned by the family of a friend, it is one of only 577 convertibles produced that year (out of a total of 17,614 1967 Imperials), and it has clean lines derived from the Continental’s and a high quality wood-trimmed interior, almost identical to the 1968 Imperial Crown convertible described by Tom Klockau. It is a classy and elegantly styled vehicle, but it has a major flaw: it is really quite boring. On the street, no one takes note of it as anything other than an old and large car, because it has no other obvious noteworthy qualities. A 1959 Imperial, like a 1959 Cadillac, does not have this problem. Flawed they are, but their styling excesses make them interesting. No one will ever consider a 1959 Imperial to be timelessly beautiful like a 1961 Lincoln Continental, but it is far more fun to look at if you do not take it too seriously, and isn’t the car hobby supposed to be fun? Even though I doubt that I would have purchased a 1959 Imperial as a new car, since its styling is a bit too weird for a car that I would drive every day, in 2014 I would gladly own and occasionally drive one if I had the funds and the extra garage space, and laugh along with anyone who mocks its details.