The story of Imperial, more than just a car (part III)

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Our Imperial series continues today, after a great start in the carriage built twenties turned into a great aerodynamic flop in the thirties with Airflow Imperial. The error of judgment was immediately evident; the Imperial with an innovative style only lasted three model years.

Chrysler was determined to start anew Imperial, and in its third generation it reverted to a much more conservative large luxury car model.

The first and most important part of the return to form was the construction of the Imperial, which was once again body on frame. The 1937 Imperial was built at the Jefferson Avenue Assembly (replaced by the Jefferson North Assembly in 1991) after being moved to Chrysler’s Highland Park plant for its Airflow years. Jefferson made several different strides of the third-generation Imperial, as the car shrank in length at the shorter end, but stayed on the same stride for its more expensive model. The smaller Imperial used a 121-inch wheelbase, complemented by lengths of 125, 140, and 144 inches in between, and the more prestigious CW Custom Series used the same 146.5-inch wheelbase as before. The Custom was a nice step up in length: a midsize Imperial stretched by around 205 inches, while the Custom sat at over 223 inches.

Though a more conservative design, Chrysler still brought their newest technology to Imperial. New features focused on safety and included recessed dash controls for less frequent impalement in the event of an accident, flexible door handles with fewer broken bones and padded backrests. Other niceties included new defrosting vents in the dashboard and engine mounts that were completely insulated. Inside the Imperial’s cabin was a new crank to allow for additional ventilation by tilting the lower edge of the windshield outward.

Two body styles were initially available from the factory – sedan and limousine – and both had four doors. There were no longer the forward-looking curves of the previous year, as the 1937 Imperial adopted a torpedo look that was more in line with the successful Chrysler Airstream model introduced in 1935. In its debut year, the smaller Imperial it was dubbed the C-14 and used the 4.5-liter straight eight of Chrysler’s Royal C-16. The C-15 Imperial midrange was marketed as the Custom and Town Sedan Limousine, while the top trim was once again known as the Series CW Custom. The mansard bodies were once again offered to suit the preferences of customers, in particular by LeBaron.

The neo-conservative Imperial found immediate success over its predecessor. After just 4,500 sales of the less expensive C-10 Airflow Imperial in 1936, 11,976 C-14 Touring sedans were sold in 1937. The base price dropped further for the third generation Imperial, to $ 1,100 ($ 21,400 adjusted). The smallest second-generation Imperial in 1934 was $ 1,625 ($ 34,000 adj.). Imperial has become increasingly accessible at the heart of the automotive market.

The changes in the buyer profile were evident at Chrysler, and 1937 would be the only year an Imperial Custom CW could be ordered. Officially sold Chrysler nobody that year, but there are actually three and they wear LeBaron bodywork. The CW was so exclusive that each of its three buyers was noteworthy: noted Hershey family chocolatiers, NBC and CBS radio personalities, Major Edward Bowes, and Manuel L. Quezon, president of the Philippines. These three special cars used their own engines: a 6.3-liter in-line eight-cylinder reserved exclusively for the Custom CW.

In 1938, as per tradition, Imperial changed the serial numbers again. C-19 and C-20 were the new numbers, as the American public didn’t notice the absence of the Custom CW that no one had bought. C-19 was also used for a new minor offering to Chrysler called the New York Special. He used that name for exactly one model year, before his transformation into the much more familiar New Yorker. The main differentiation between NYS and the Imperial was the body options. The Special was only offered as a Touring Sedan and Business Coupe, while the C-19 Imperial had six different bodywork options directly from Chrysler and could also be bodied by a coachbuilder. Two-door convertibles appeared in the lineup and a four-door convertible joined the sedans on offer.

The new C-20 Custom top cladding also expanded its reach and had three different Chrysler bodies and five additional offered by Derham. The most exclusive Imperial of the time was a Derham-bodied city car limousine. The C-19 Touring Sedan was the popular volume model in 1938, and Chrysler sold 8,554 in the second year of the Imperial torpedo.

1939 was the last year for the third-generation Imperial, and once again the models were updated to C-23 and C-24. Base C-23 was largely the same car as the newly renamed New Yorker and the less expensive Saratoga. The differentiation for the lower-tier Imperial this year has come down to grills, additional chrome and interior upholstery. The C-24 fared better, and again it was available in three different Chrysler sedans, or three Derham-built convertibles. The longer Limousine Sedan version still offered seating for seven, but was much more affordable at around $ 2,695 ($ 52,800 adj.) Than its elite-class predecessors. The Imperial reached high levels however, as it was chosen as the race of choice for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their 1939 tour of Canada. Their Custom Convertible Town Car was built by Derham and was one of three produced.

Although all 1939 Imperials used the same 5.3-liter in-line eight and still used a three-speed manual, there was a notable technological upgrade for 1939: Fluid Drive. Chrysler registered the transmission technology for use in its cars, although its invention was by a German engineer in the early part of the century. The Fluid Drive transmission replaced the traditional flywheel with a hydraulic coupling and its functionality was the same as what a torque converter would do today. The transmissions used a traditional clutch and Fluid Drive was applied to both three- and four-speed manuals. Chrysler introduced the technology in 1939 on its more expensive models like the Imperial and expanded it to DeSoto in 1940 and Dodge in 1941.

The Imperial retired from its third generation format after 1939, as the torpedo style and large bulbous fenders had fallen out of fashion. Soft lines were getting closer, as was a loss of differentiation from its more plebeian Chrysler siblings. We will tackle the 1940s in Part IV.

[Images: Chrysler]

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