Glen Shaw says the impressive chrome hubcaps adorning the wheels of his 1969 fuselage–bodied Chrysler Imperial incorporate five separate components "and you wouldn't believe how heavy they are."
But by the time the next–generation 1974s arrived more than just the decade had changed. The wheel covers on these were "one–piece, stamped–out, dog food bowls," Shaw says.
The Imperial, created in 1926 as a rival to Cadillac and the Lincoln, and which had been the Chrysler flagship, had begun its rapid skid into something worse than obscurity.
The 1974 and 1975 models were no longer built in an exclusive plant of their own and were based on Chrysler's full–size sedans. But Shaw considers even these the last of the real Imperials, because after them the name disappeared until 1981, when it was resurrected by a nearly bankrupt Chrysler to lend some glamour to a tarted–up Cordoba. That car, which apparently didn't fool too many, lasted until only 1983.
The Imperial nameplate remained on the shelf until 1990, when it was dragged out by a once–again desperate marketing department and bolted on to one of Chrysler's abysmal stretched K–car creations. This indignity didn't last long either, with the last ones built in 1993.
These aberrations apart, Chrysler has made do without a true luxury–class passenger car in its fleet for about three decades now, but that could change within a couple of years.
Earlier this year at the Detroit auto show, Chrysler captured headlines with the introduction of a luxury concept car bearing the Imperial name and response has been so positive it could appear as a production version by the end of the decade. It would presumably be built on the stretched platform of the current Chrysler 300 and feature its Hemi V–8 engine, which might arguably make it worthy to carry this once–respected name again.
Imperial enthusiast Shaw, 50, who has been a member of the Walter P Chrysler club since 1978 and founded the Canadian Imperial Owners Association in 1984, would like to see that happen. "It looks like they've put the attention to detail into it that the car deserves," he says of the concept.
And details, along with the size, luxury and exclusivity, are what Shaw likes about his 1969 top–of–the–line Imperial LeBaron.
The Imperial never sold in the numbers Cadillac and Lincoln did and it was always more about prestige than profitability. Shaw says Chrysler only sold 22,000 Imperials in 1969 (522 in Canada) and that was its third–best year. Numbers never topped 40,000 in annual sales, while Cadillac numbers were often four or more times that.
Also a wooden boat enthusiast — he lives in Port Sydney, Ont., in cottage country — Shaw appreciates craftsmanship and finds it, along with innovation, in his Imperial.
As the company flagship, the car was always used to introduce new features and Shaw's has Chrysler's first electronics–based electrical system, sequential rear signal lights (five bulbs that flash in sequence), the Sentinel System, which is a centralized warning for low fuel, oil pressure, temperature and brake failure, and an articulated driver's–side wiper blade that swept more of the windshield.
Interior luxury touches included air conditioning with automatic temperature control, rear–seat heating ducts and fan, power windows, including the vent windows, 50/50 split "armchair–"style front power seats, "glove boxes" in the armrests, C–pillar–mounted pillows in the rear plus reading lights, power antenna and power trunk. And Shaw's car has the optional (it replaced the eight track) floor–pedestal–mounted cassette player with microphone for dictation.
The 1969 Imperial was built in an era when there was no question that size mattered. Its elegant sheet metal, painted in formal black with Levant grain vinyl top, stretches 5,834 mm between its wrap–around bumpers. That's a couple of hundred millimetres longer than today's lengthiest passenger car, the Lincoln Town Car. It is a unibody design (most large luxury cars still had separate frames) and weighs about 2,250 kg, some 250 kg more than the Town Car.
Power is supplied by a 440–cubicinch (7.2–litre) V–8 rated at 350 hp/480 lb–ft of torque, with a three–speed TorqueFlite automatic behind it driving the rear wheels. On the highway, with a light foot it gets about 14.0 litres/ 100 km. Around town? Don't ask.
The Imperial has an unusual torsion bar front suspension that, according to Shaw, gave it better handling than its luxury rivals and disc front brakes (with large, stainless steel, four–pot calipers), which were still somewhat novel at the time in North America.
Shaw, who operates a property management company and a part–time business locating and brokering collector vehicles, became interested in cars early in life.
As an "army brat" who moved around a lot before the family settled in Barrie, he recalls bugging local dealers for brochures. He's not sure why he became a Chrysler guy, his dad drove Fords and his brothers GM products. "I guess I just wanted to be different." And he's remained loyal, running a '93 Chrysler Le Baron convertible, a 2002 Dodge pickup and a 2000 Chrysler Intrepid.
His Imperial was sold in Toronto in the fall of 1968 for $8,664, to a man who put 19,000 miles on it before passing it on to his wife who drove it only 17,000 miles over the next 20 years. Shaw acquired it from its second registered owner with 43,000 miles on the odometer. Since then, he's taken the mileage to 79,000 miles, painted it and recently installed a new vinyl top.
Imperials, 1960 versions at least, aren't exotic classics. — Shaw says the rule of thumb is "if it was popular when new, it will be popular now" — and he says a good one can be bought for perhaps $10,000. By comparison, he says, a friend's 1969 Road Runner, a 440 six–pack with matching numbers and not fully restored, is likely worth $80,000.
"I own it because it's a lovely car to drive. And it is driven," says Shaw. It can often be seen at summer Tuesday cruise nights in Parry Sound, Wednesday nights in Huntsville or Saturday nights in Barrie.
For information on Chrysler Imperials in Canada, you can contact Shaw at email@example.com.