1938 Chrysler Custom Imperial

Limousine
Coachwork: LeBaron
This luxurious LeBaron Imperial Limousine was custom built for Joseph P. Kennedy and used in London from 1938 to 1940 while he served as the United States ambassador to Great Britain.

Chrysler built this Imperial LeBaron on its long 144-inch wheelbase and equipped it with their most powerful 130-horsepower 'Gold Seal' eight-cylinder engine. (Standard Imperials were equipped with 110-hp engines and rode on a shorter 125-inch wheelbase).

This car was specially equipped with European turn signals located between the doors and unique parking lights. The interior features blue and grey broadcloth upholstery, a division window, jump seats, rich carpeted hassocks, double glove compartments, clock, two vanities, rear passenger-operated radio controls, dual floor heaters, seven separate lights, and of course, an electric intercom to the chauffeur. All interior trim is silver-plated. The car cost $4,000 when new.

LeBaron designed privacy into the body with blind quarters and a small oval rear window (with privacy shade). This limousine configuration was very much designed for 'VIP' service.
The Series C-20 Custom Imperial were among Chrysler's largest vehicles available, resting on a 130-inch wheelbase. Power was from a L-head eight-cylinder engine, which it shared with the New York Specials, and offered 115 horsepower. They were fitted with three-speed manual Synchromesh transmissions and had four-wheel hydraulic brakes. The seven passenger sedan was equipped with two auxiliary folding seats in the front seat back. For the five passenger sedans, this space was used for additional storage.

The limousine examples had a division window between the front and rear compartment plus additional folding seats. Most of the C-20s were built by the factory, with 11 examples being sent to custom coachbuilders, mostly Derham.
By Daniel Vaughan | Mar 2010
Town Limousine
Coachwork: Derham
Chassis Num: C202188
Sold for $27,000 at 2011 Mecum.
This 1938 Chrysler C20 Custom Imperial Limousine is one of 11 built. It wears coachwork by Derham Coach builders. The car has been upgraded with a 12V electric system, air conditioning and overdrive. It can comfortably drive at 70 MPH on the highway.
By Daniel Vaughan | Oct 2011
The work of LeBaron is considered to be the most remarkable styling of the CG Series Imperials. LeBaron was one of the greatest design firms of the classic era, and was established as innovative, creative and completely responsive. LeBaron was founded by Wand Ray Dietrich and was later joined by Ralph Roberts, and though Dietrich eventually left the firm to pursue other interests, the company continued to flourish at the hands of Roberts.

Hired to style the CG Imperial, Al Leamy was held in great regard for the L29 Cord, which was considered to be the most striking design in existence. The CG was long and low, much like the L29, and featured gracefully swept fenders along with a v-shaped radiator. The CG's design was improved by LeBaron with a swept-back grille, a much more elegant body-side treatment and a longer hood.

A variety of L29 Cord styling designs were incorporated into the design of the CG Imperial, and since the CG had a larger platform on which to display the styling, it was considered even more aesthetically successful than the Cord. Chryslers have held a reputation for performance the CG Imperial was no exception with 125 horsepower, along with a four-speed transmission. Along with a well-tuned suspension and Chrysler's 'floating power', the Imperial was a refined vehicle to drive. The Imperial was the first vehicle in the country that employed fluid coupling. This was also offered as optional equipment on the 1939 model.

Considered by many to be the most beautiful Imperial ever, the CG series was biggest change in 1931. The CG came with the new corporate work-horse, the Flathead Eight as Chrysler was in the process of narrowing engine production. Much advertising for the Imperial references the '8' in regards to the new engine. Becoming the standard wheel treatment until the 1940's, new tire wheels for the Chrysler Imperial were introduced with the Imperial CG.

In 1927, the first Imperials began appearing on the market utilizing a 92-horsepower flathead-six. Imperials would continue to be powered by the same engine until 1931 when the CG series was introduced in 1931. A Imperial was driven on a double cross-country run from San Francisco to New York, to Los Angeles, a total of 6,726-mile trek, at which the Imperial average 40.2 miles per hour to introduce the new line of luxury Chryslers.

Unfortunately, since the Great Depression was in full swing at the time of introduction, sales of the 1931 and 1932 Imperial were not as high as hoped. At an original list price of $3,575, only a total of 339 custom and semi-custom CG's were sold, making these vehicles even rarer than the Model J and SJ Duesenbergs.

Continuing to be produced until 1933, the Imperial CG's were updated with styling and even smaller semi-custom and custom sales, before eventually being replaced by the radical Airflow Imperials in 1934. These new radical airflow vehicles sold an amazing 2,000-plus models in that year.

Many enthusiasts consider the CG Imperial dual cowl phaeton to be among the best driving vehicle of the era along with one of the finest looking cars. Today this vehicle is extremely rare as only a handful of these vehicles are known to exist. At RM Classic Cars' Novi sale held on November 15, 2002, the CG Imperial dual cowl phaeton was sold at $214,500 that included buyer's premium.

Until 1954 the Imperial was produced with the Chrysler name before retiring until 1990. Wanting to rival Cadillac and Lincoln, the luxurious Imperial moniker stood 'supreme', 'superior' and 'sovereign, which aptly describes Chrysler's most expensive quality model. The first generation Imperial debuted in 1926 riding on a 120-inch, 127-inch, 133-inch and 136-inch wheelbase. Available in a variety of body styles that included a roadster, coupe, 5-passenger sedan and phaeton, the Imperial was also offered as a 7-passenger top-of-the-line limousine with a glass partition.

Powering the Imperial was a 288.6 cu inch (4.7 L) six-cylinder engine with seven bearing blocks and pressure lubrication of 92 brake horsepower (69 kW). At the front were semi-elliptic springs. The Customer Imperial convertible sedan was picked as the official pace car for the 1926 Indianapolis 500. Designated E-80, the name was chosen after the 'guaranteed' 80mph all-day cruising speed.

In 1930 the Imperial received four-speed transmission. The following year the second generation of the Chrysler Imperial was introduced. The Imperial model rode on a 124-inch wheelbase, while the Custom Imperial rode on 146 inches. 1931 brought with it many changes including a new engine, a 384.84 cubic inch I8. This generation was marketed as the 'Imperial 8', in reference to the new in-line 8-cylinder engine, which would also be found in many other Chrysler cars.

Other updates for 1931 included safety glass, automatic heater controls and rust-proof fenders. The limousine even offered a Dictaphone. New wire wheels also became a standard wheel treatment until the 1940s. Harry Hartz, stock car drive, set many speed records behind the wheel of an Imperial sedan at Daytona Beach, Florida.

The third generation of the Chrysler Imperial arrived in 1934 and lasted until 1936. The new 'Airflow' design was introduced with this generation along with the catchy slogan ' The car of tomorrow is here today.' With room for eight, the Imperial was incredibly roomy and was once again powered by an eight-cylinder engine. The first car to be designed in a wind tunnel, the Imperial's engine and passenger compartments were moved forward which gave better balance, ride and road handle. Exceptionally modern and advanced, the Airflow was 'an unparalleled engineering success'. Extremely strong, the Imperial employed an early form of unibody construction. It was also one of the first vehicles with fender skirts.

Unfortunately the public wasn't quite ready for the modern styling and the Airflow cars weren't a big seller at first. The lack of this success caused Chrysler to become overly conservative in there styling for the next two decades. Proving this point, the standard styling on the lower-end Chryslers outsold the Airflow by 3 to 1.

Riding on a 144-inch wheelbase the fourth generation Chrylser Imperial arrived in 1937. It featured innovative features like flexible door handles, recessed controls on the dash, seat back padding, built-in defroster vents and fully insulated engine mounts. Until 1939 the brakes were 13' drums, but then grew to 14' before shrinking once again to 12' drums the following year in 1940. The front suspension on the Imperial was independent.

This fourth generation offered three Imperial models, the C-14, which was the standard eight, the C-15 and the C-17. The C-14 looked very similar to the Chrysler Royal C-18 but featured a longer hood and cowl. The C-15 was only available by special order, had blind rear quarter panels and was the Imperial Custom and the Town Sedan Limousine. The C-17 was the Airflow model and it featured a hidden crank that raised the windshield and had a hood that was hinged at the cowl and opened from the front. The side hood panels were released by catches on the inside. An armored Chrysler Imperial was bought by the Prime Minister of Portugal in, António de Oliveira Salazar following as assassination attempt in 1937.

In 1940 the fifth generation of the Imperial was introduced. Now riding on a 145.5-inch wheelbase, the Imperial received a new designation, the Crown Imperial. This generation was available in two different body styles; an eight-seater four-door sedan and an eight-passenger four-door limousine. The two models had about 10 pounds different between them, and around $100 price difference. At the front and rear were hydraulic telescopic shock absorbers. Standard were two-speed electric windshield wipers.

In 1949 the sixth generation Imperial was introduced, this time in three available body styles. The short-wheelbase model was offered only as a four-door six-passenger sedan, while the 4-door 8-passenger Crown Imperial was offered as a sedan or a limo with a division window.

Taking its cues from the luxurious Chrysler New Yorker, the new custom-built Imperial sedan shared the same trim but came with a canvas-covered roof and leather and broadcloth Imperial upholstery. Derham installed these features on the all-new postwar Chrysler sheetmetal. Actually leftover 1948 models, early 1949 Crown Imperials filled the gap until the new models arrived in March of 1949. These newest models were much sleeker than before, but also conservative and featured fewer bars, used in the cross-hatched grille. Wrapping around the front fenders were upper and center horizontal pieces. Decorating the side body of the Imperial sedan were rear fender stoneguards, rocker panel moldings, full-length lower window trim and horizontal chrome strips on the rear fenders, and from the headlights almost to halfway across the front doors.

The Chrysler Crown Imperial was the first model to have production disc brakes as standard, beginning in the 1949 model year. The Crosley Hot Shot featured disc brakes, a Goodyear development that was a caliper type with ventilated rotor, which had been originally designed for aircraft applications. The Hot Shot was the only one to feature it. Unfortunately the brakes suffered with reliability issues, especially where salt was heavily used on winter roads and caused corrosion. Converting to drum brakes was a very popular option for the Hot Shot. Chrysler's 4-wheel disc brakes were much more expensive and complex than Crosleys, but definitely more reliable and efficient. First tested on a 1939 Plymouth, the 4-wheel disc brakes were built by Auto Specialties Manufacturing Company (Ausco) of St. Joseph, Michigan under patents of inventor H.L. Lambert. The Ausco-Lambert used twin-expanding discs that rubbed against the inner surface of a cast iron brake drum, which pulled double duty as the brake housing. Through the action of standard wheel cylinders the discs spread apart to create friction against the inner drum surface.

'Self energizing,' the Chrysler discs braking energy itself contributed to the braking effort, thanks to small balls set into oval holes leading to the brake surface. After the disc made contact with the friction surface the balls would be pushed through the holes, which forced the discs further apart with augmented the braking energy. This resulted in lighter braking pressure than found with calipers and its also avoided brake fade, provided one-third more friction surface that typical Chrysler 12-inch drums and promoted cooler running. Since they were so expensive the brakes were only standard on the Chrysler Crown Imperial until 1954, and the Town and Country Newport in 1950. On other Chryslers these brakes were optional and cost around $400, meanwhile an ENTIRE Crosley Hot Shot model retailed for $935. The Ausco-Lambert was considered to be extremely reliable with a good dose of power with its downsides being its sensitivity.

The 1950 Imperial was very similar to a New Yorker, with a Cadillac-style grille treatment that featured circular signal lights enclosed in a wraparound ribbed chrome piece. The interior was custom and the side trim was nearly identical to the previous year's model, though the front fender strip ended at the front doors while the rear fender molding at the tire top level and molded into the stone guard. Separating two Crown Imperial from the standard model, the Crown had a side treatment in which the rear fender moldings and stone guard were separate. All Imperials used body sill moldings, but were a smaller type than typically found on big Crown models. The limousine offered a special version this year with unique leather on the inside and a leather-covered top that blacked out the rear quarter windows. The Crown Imperial featured power windows as standard.

Strangely for the chrome era, the 1951 Imperial had much less chrome than the less expensive New Yorker that it was based on. Changes this year included a modified look with three horizontal grille bars with the parking lights nestled between the bars and a chrome vertical centerpiece. The side body trim was limited only to the moldings below the windows, rocker panel moldings, bright metal stone shields and a heavy horizontal molding strip that ran across the fender strips, and the front fender nameplate.

Three 2-door bodies were added to the 1951 Imperial lineup: a Club coupe, a hardtop and a convertible. Discontinued the following year, only 650 convertibles were sold. New for 1951 was Chrysler's 331 cu in (5.4 L) Hemihead V8 engine. For an additional cost of $226 'Hydraguide' power steering, an industry first in production automobiles was available on the Chrysler Imperial. Standard on the Crown Imperial was full-time power steering.

Not many changes differentiated the 1951 and 1952 Imperials. The most accurate way to tell them apart was through reference to serial numbers. The taillights on the Imperial weren't changed, unlike other Chrysler models. Standard this year was power steering and the front tread measurement was reduced one inch. The Crown Imperial didn't receive any changes this year. During the 1951-1952 model run only 338 of these cars were produced.

The Imperial name was changed once again in 1953 and became the Custom Imperial. Though the Custom Imperial still very closely resembled the New Yorker, the Custom rode on a different wheelbase, and had different taillights and side trim. Setting it apart from other 'ordinary' Chryslers were clean front fenders and higher rear fender stone shield. New this year was the stylized eagle hood ornament. Other standard features for 1953 were power windows and brakes, a padded dash and center folding armrests at front and rear. Different from other Chrysler models, Imperials parking lights were positioned between the top and center grille moldings.

Brand new for 1953 was the Custom Imperial limousine with room for six. Standard equipment was electric windows, electric division window, rear compartment heater, fold-up footrests, floor level courtesy lamps, special luxury cloth or leather interiors and a seatback-mounted clock. The Custom Imperial Newport hardtop model was added to the lineup on March 10, 1953. Costing $325 more than the eight-passenger sedan, the Custom Imperial Newport was an ultra exclusive model that brought even more class to the lineup.

Other changes this year included the 2-door Club coupe being deleted and the eagle ornament added to the 1953 Crown Imperial. Custom Imperial sedans grew slightly as they now rode on a 2-inch longer wheelbase than the 2-door hardtops. The limo received moldings on top of the rear fenders, and the nameplate was tweaked slightly. Custom Imperials still featured a 6-volt system, but Crown Imperials came with a 12-volt electrical system. Powerflite, Chrysler's first fully automatic transmission became available late in the model year, it was installed into a very select number of cars for testing and evaluation. Crown Imperials received power steering as standard along with a padded dash. This would also be the final year that the Imperial would have a one-piece windshield rather than a two-piece one.

The first production vehicle in twelve years to feature air conditioning, the 1953 Chrysler Imperial actually beat out Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Buick in offering the innovative feature. Optional Airtemp air conditioning units were much more sophisticated and efficient than rival air conditioners of 1953. Airtemp recirculated the air rather than just cooling the interior of the car. It was also very simple to operation with just the flick of a single switch on the dashboard that marked low, medium and high positions according to the driver's preference. In only two minutes the system could cool a Chrysler down from 120 degrees to 85 degrees. It also completely eliminated pollutants like dust, humidity, pollen and tobacco at the same time. The Airtemp system relied on fresh air and since it drew in 60% more than its competition it avoided the typical staleness compared to other systems at the time. Quiet, but effective, the system had small ducts that directed cool air towards the ceiling before it filtered down to the passengers, rather than blowing directly onto them like other cars.

For 1954 the Custom Imperial received a new grille that was made up of a heavy wraparound horizontal center bar with five ridges on top and integrated circular signal lighting. Spanning the length of the front door to the front of the door opening was a chrome strip below the front fender nameplate. Bigger than the previous year was the rear fender stone guard, though the rocker panel molding and rear fender chrome strip style remained the same. Instead of the lights being divided like in previous years, the back-up lights were now placed directly below the taillights. Basic styling was shared between the Crown Imperial and the Custom Imperial, though the Crown had standard AC, center-opening rear doors and Cadillac-like rear fender taillights.

The Imperial was registered as a separate make, beginning in 1955, in an attempt by Chrysler to compete directly with GM's Cadillac and Ford's Lincoln plush luxury marques, instead of GM's lower-price brands: Oldsmobile and Buick. Continuing to be sold through Chrysler dealerships, the Imperial nameplate became a stand-alone marque since its didn't separate itself enough from other Chrysler models. Through 1976 to 1978 no Imperial's were produced and cars that were previously marketed as an Imperial were rebranded as the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham during this period.

Chrysler and Philco joined together and produced the World's First All-Transistor car radio on April 28, 1955. Mopar model 914HR was a $150 option available on the 1956 Imperial car. Beginning in the fall of 1955, Philco was the company that manufactured the all-transistor car radio at its Sandusky Ohio plant for the Chrysler Company.

The seventh generation of the Chrysler Imperial arrived in 1990. Once again Chrysler's top-of-the-line sedan, the Imperial was no longer it's own marque was once again a model of Chrysler. Representing Chrysler's top full-sill model in the lineup, the Imperial was based on the Y platform and was similar to the New Yorker Fifth Avenue. Directly below that was the entry-level New Yorker. The Imperial was resurrected two years after the Lincoln Continental was Continental changed to a front-wheel drive sedan with a V6 engine.

Though very similar in many ways, the Imperial and the Fifth Avenue differed in various ways. The Fifth Avenue featured a much sharper nose and had a more angular profile while the Imperial led with a more wedge-shaped nose. The back of the two vehicles were very different as well with the Imperial featuring more rounded edges while the Fifth Avenue had more stiff angles. Similar to the taillights on the Chrysler TC, the Imperial had full-width taillights while the Fifth Avenue lit its way with smaller vertical ones. The Fifth Avenue's interior featured plush signature pillow-like button-tufted seats while the Imperial's interior was more streamlined with 'Kimberly Velvet' seats.

During it's four-year production run the seventh generation Imperial remained virtually the same. Powered by the 147 hp (110 kW) 3.3 L EGA V6 engine, the 1990 Imperial rated at 185 lb/ft of torque. The following year the 3.3 L V6 engine was replaced by the larger 3.8 L EGH V6. Horsepower was only bumped up to 150 hp though with the new larger 3.8 L V6, torque increased to 215 lb/ft at 2,750 rpm. Standard with both engines was a four-speed automatic transmission.

With available room for up to six passengers, the Imperial was fitted in either velour or Mark Cross leather. Automatic climate controlled AC, Cruise, ABS brakes, driver's side airbag and its own distinct Landau vinyl roof were standard along with power equipment.
Similar to the LeBaron coupe and convertible, and the New Yorker and Fifth Avenue, the Imperial carried the same distinctive hidden headlamps behind retractable metal covers. Available with the option of several Infinity sound systems, the Imperial also came with a cassette player. Other big ticket options included electronically controlled air suspension system, fully electronic digital instrument cluster with information center and remote keyless entry with a security alarm.

Chrysler's market-leading 'Crystal Key Owner Care Program' covered all seventh generation Imperial models. The program included a 5-year/50,000-mile limited warranty and 7-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty. The program also included a 24-hour toll-free customer service hotline for clients.

After the 1993 model year Chrysler decided to do away with the Imperial model because of slow sales. Imperial sales in 1991 peaked at 14,968 units produced; fell to 11,601 units in 1991, before dropping drastically to 7,643 in 1992, and 7,063 the following year. Its outdated platform dated back to the original 1981 Chrysler K platform. The popular cab-forward styled Chrysler LHS replaced the Imperial in 1994 as Chrysler's flagship model.

Chrysler debuted the Chrysler Imperial concept car at the 2006 North American International Show. Built on the Chrysler LY platform, an extended LX, the Imperial concept rides a 123-inch wheelbase. Sporting 22-inch wheels, the Imperial was met with rave reviews that appreciated it's 'six-figure image but at a much lower price', according to Tom Tremont, VP of advanced vehicle design for Chrysler. The concept design sported a horizontal themed grille, a long hood and front end and an upright radiator. Evoking memories of the freestanding headlamps of previous models were brushed and polished aluminum pods. Reminiscent of early 1960's Imperials were circular LED taillights with floating outer rings. The concept appeared much longer thanks to a rearward pulled roofline that enlarged the cabin.

By Jessica Donaldson

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