The Early Years
Is there a grander name than Imperial? It appeared on a half dozen cars during the automobile's earliest years. Only one, the Imperial Motor Company of Jackson, MI, saw production reach 2-digits, before its owners sold their plant to join in the founding of Huppmobile. The automotive moniker lay dormant as the imperial courts of Europe began to fall.
Imperial was back in 1924, denoting a luxury package for an advanced new performance car called the Chrysler. By 1926, Imperial was a distinct car called the Model E80. The numeral 80 represented its top speed. Ah, the days when luxury cars had alphanumeric names that actually meant something. The 92hp six-cylinder engine was considered quite potent in the day. It propelled one Imperial on a record-breaking endurance run from Denver to Kansas City. Despite less than a third of the route being paved, the big Chrysler covered the 700-mile journey in 13 hours and averaged 52mph.
Beautiful Beast of the Roaring Twenties
The L Series Imperial Dix was introduced in 1929. While the L was longer and heavier that the E, it was also sleeker and less bulky looking. It was a lot more powerful, too, carrying a larger 112hp six-cylinder engine. A version of this car propelled Chrysler to a 3-4 finish at LeMans, and a 2nd place later that year at Spa. The L-80’s fine proportions and potent mechanicals drew some of the best coach builders like Locke and LeBaron to create gorgeous custom bodies that gave grand visual expression to the Imperial’s powerful and purposeful engineering. Together they were beginning to make a case for Imperial. It would take one more step, however, up for the young marque to stand shoulder to shoulder with the finer cars of the day like Packard, Cadillac and Stutz.
Royalty in Proletariat Times
The stock market crash of October 1929 was devastating. But the relatively new automobile industry had survived such catastrophes before. It got through The Panic of 1907 that wiped out many early start-ups. It endured The Depression of 1920-21 that laid waste to a number of established makes. After these disasters, the industry came roaring back, and then on to new heights. Industry leaders like Walter P. Chrysler, were to be forgiven for believing that this one would follow a similar pattern. All would be rosy again in a year or two, and they would be ready for the ensuing boom that would follow. This was the prevailing mindset as the design was being finalized for the grandest Imperial of them all.
The 1931 Imperial Model CG was of Olympian stature, a boldface exclamation on the Roaring Twenties out of which it emerged. Even though the CG was enormous, it was wore its bulk with grace. Its long hood stretched over much of a 145-inch wheelbase accented by sweeping fenders and low beltline. That long low hood served a purpose beyond looks, draping itself over a magnificent new 384 cu in straight-eight engine. Some of Imperial’s peers were offering twelve or even sixteen cylinders. Walter Chrysler was a conservative man and deemed eight as enough. Seeing as the “Red Head” eight, made silky-smooth with 9 main bearings, could propel the 5,000lb car to over 100mph, it seems he was right. And, when a car looked as good and drove as well as this Imperial, one lost track of the cylinder count.
The CG and slightly revised CL Imperials of 1931-33, especially the Le Baron bodied roadsters, epitomized look of the classic era and have been recognized as such by the Association of American Classic Automobiles (AACA). At the 1979 Concours d‘Elegance at Pebble Beach, America’s premier gathering of classics, a 1931 Imperial Model CG Le Baron Dual Cowl Phaeton owned by Jerry Jensen won Best in Show. The 1932 Imperial Model CL Le Baron Speedster, built originally for Walter Chrysler Jr., also won the coveted trophy in 1991 for owner Sam Mann.
Gazing at pictures of the grand Imperial Roadsters of the early thirties conjures up memories of the early-70s bedroom walls of this writer and other pubescent boys. Born 40 years earlier, images of this car would have hung proudly alongside Duesenberg SJs and Auburn Speedsters, instead of Ferrari Daytonas, Citroen SMs and Lamborghini Miuras.
The Airflow Encounters Turbulance
As it turns out, the optimists of 1930 predicting economic revival were wrong. The Great Depression dragged on. The Imperials of the classic era, while prized today, found few buyers in the dark days of the early thirties. The mood of the nation had turned away from opulent displays of wealth. Those who still had the money to buy fine cars sought less visible expressions of wealth and power. The Chrysler Imperial Airflow was imposing without being ostentatious. It was among the purest expressions ever of the art of engineering. The Imperial Airflow’s industrial inspired, art deco shape was like nothing else on the road. Aerodynamic design, unit-body construction, interior packaging, its “firsts” were almost too numerous to count. The Airflow was superior to its rivals in ride, roominess, handling, performance and fuel economy.
As it often happens with advanced designs, the Airflow was heralded by automotive engineers and journalists but rejected in the marketplace. The public did not appear to be ready yet for such and extraordinary leap into the future. Chrysler did not employ professional stylists. The design function was carried out by engineers. They were brilliant in their primary field but had little feel for the tastes of the general public, as the 1934 Airflow demonstrated. Chrysler hired noted carrossier designer Raymond Dietrich to head up a nascent Art & Color department. Dietrich’s first assignment was to design a new grill for the Airflow that would be more palatable to depression-era buyers.
A Return to the Classics
Walter P. Chrysler retired in 1937, leaving his company in the hands of his hand-picked successor and fellow engineer, K.T. Keller. With the Airflow experiment deemed a failure, Keller made sure Imperials and all other Chrysler products remained safely in the realm of convention. Ray Dietrich’s late-thirties cars were intelligently engineered, beautifully built and conservatively attractive. With light barely flickering at the end of the dark tunnel of the Depression, these were probably the right cars for the times.