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OLD CARS: ’54 Chrysler Imperial marked the end of an era

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Imperial cars from the early fifties are mostly forgotten, their presence overshadowed by the stunning 1955 model and the Imperials built until 1966 or 1967.

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And so it’s interesting to spot a 1954 Chrysler Imperial, as was observed at the 2016 edition of the Old Autos car show in Bothwell. The four-door Custom sedan is owned by Dan Douglas of Strathroy and at the time had 49,180 original miles on its odometer.

Equipped with Chrysler’s 331-cubic-inch Hemi V8, Douglas’ Imperial offered an impressive 235 horsepower. It featured a fully modern automatic transmission, as well as power steering, brakes, windows and power seats. Most of these power features were completely foreign on most American automobiles built in that era, and so their presence – heck, even their availability – spoke to a rare luxury.

Within a few years, however, all of those features, including the tremendous performance, would be made available to the most plebeian of American-built automobiles, including the lowliest Plymouth.

Dan Douglas’ Imperial Custom was among the most expensive of Chrysler cars that could be purchased for 1954. It’s not known how much his Imperial sold for new in 1953 or 1954, but a two-door Imperial Newport hardtop then retailed for $4,560, a tremendous amount of money 65 years ago. What we do know is that the Custom sedan rode on a 131.5-inch wheelbase and weighed somewhere between 4,230 and 4,570 pounds. It was a big car and the longest in that era.

Imperial had been Chrysler’s most expensive and most luxurious car since it was introduced for 1926. Much of the tremendous engineering developed by Chrysler in the late 1920s and 1930s was first showcased in its Imperial, most famously in the 1934 Imperial Airflow, a revolutionary automobile whose unique body style and incredible technology was also revealed in Chrysler and DeSoto brands.

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But the Airflow sold poorly. Its streamlined shape and rounded grill were the result of engineering, science and logic, yet the general public recoiled at the result. It was a car so futuristic looking that it had few admirers and even fewer buyers. Walter Chrysler quickly ordered a return to a more conventional shape and this was accomplished over several model years, even as the Airflow’s scientific virtues were kept intact.

The experience had a debilitating effect on the corporation’s progressive ideas, and it thereafter was hesitant in pushing the envelope on dramatic styling. This was fine in the early forties and in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War when there was a pent-up demand for new automobiles. But Chrysler Corporation’s conservatism continued well into the fifties, even as General Motors, the Ford Motor Company and various independents were building cars that were fashionable and stylish.

Most famously, Chrysler’s automobiles in this era were kept purposely tall, even as the rest of the industry was making an effort to lower the height of their automobiles, as Hudson had done in 1948 with its ‘Step-Down’ models. Chrysler stubbornly clung to the belief that its cars had to maintain a certain height so a man could continue wearing a hat while driving or sitting as a passenger.

The repercussion for such antiquated thinking was not immediate but gradual. By the early fifties Chrysler’s market share had dropped like a stone. GM’s had increased to as much as 50 per cent, while Ford had surged past Chrysler to become Detroit’s No. 2 automaker.

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None of this drama affected the quality of Chrysler automobiles, nor did it budge the corporation’s loyal customers, of which there were many. But Imperial’s identity was being quietly submerged into the Chrysler brand. The corporation’s first all-new cars in the post-war era were introduced for the 1949 model year, and there was little difference between the Imperial and Chrysler’s other expensive model, the New Yorker. For 1950, the Imperial was mostly a New Yorker but with its own interior. For 1951, the New Yorker appeared to have usurped Imperial’s position and featured more exterior chrome.

Such lack of focus hurt the Imperial brand, especially against high-flying Cadillac. Cadillac enjoyed uninterrupted years of prosperity during this era, selling nearly as many cars as the entire Chrysler division, and certainly many more than Ford’s luxury Lincoln division. From 1950 through to 1954, Cadillac sales routinely hovered at the 100,000 mark, a remarkable achievement when you consider it was GM’s most expensive product. But Cadillac’s success was also an indication of America’s economic success. There were a lot of people willing to spend several thousand dollars to purchase a luxury automobile. It just so happened that most of those luxury cars in the early fifties bore the Cadillac name.

There was discussion within Chrysler Corporation of leveraging Imperial’s past glory and prestige by making it a separate division to better compete against Cadillac and Lincoln, as well as Packard, which at the time was still in play. Imperial’s independence from the Chrysler division was accomplished for the 1955 year. Imperial sales for that model year were 11,432, an indication that the nameplate’s sales in previous years were probably much less.

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That said, the pre-1955 Imperial was a quality-built car, and the Douglas Imperial from 1954 embodies this fact.

Automobile stylist Virgil Exner joined Chrysler in 1949 and made improvements to the appearance of Chryslers from 1953 onward. The cars evolved into a more shapely form with more glass and a wraparound rear window. While the Chrysler Imperial’s grille duplicated that of 1951-1952, the near-vertical eagle hood ornament stood out as a unique touch.

But Exner’s design improvements were mostly modest, since his greatest work wouldn’t be revealed until the 1955 model year.

A 1954 Chrysler Imperial Custom was on display at the Old Autos car show in Bothwell in 2016. It is owned by Dan Douglas of Strathroy, Ontario. Peter Epp photo
A 1954 Chrysler Imperial Custom was on display at the Old Autos car show in Bothwell in 2016. It is owned by Dan Douglas of Strathroy, Ontario. Peter Epp photo jpg, CA

For 1954, the Imperial Custom had a new grille that featured a heavy wraparound horizontal centre bar with five ridges on top and integrated circular signal lights. The front-fender nameplate was fixed above a chrome strip that ran the length of the front door.

Imperial’s windshield was one-piece, an innovation introduced only in 1953. By contrast, the Imperial Airflow had been so ahead of the curve 20 years earlier that it had featured a one-piece windshield for 1934 on some rare models – 20 years earlier.

Air conditioning was available for 1954 (it had been introduced for 1953) and the Chrysler-engineered unit was considered to be superior within the industry.

Most importantly, for 1954 Imperial adopted the corporation’s new Powerflite automatic transmission, leaving behind the fluid-drive system that had been used for several years. The Powerflite system was a two-speed and engineered to be lighter with fewer parts than the automatic transmissions built by the other automakers. So durable was the two-speed Powerflite that it could be mated with Hemi V8 engines or, in later years, with the corporation’s popular six-cylinder engines.

Imperial would feature the PowerFlite for only two model years (1954 and 1955), adopting the all-new three-speed TorqueFlite automatic for 1956.

Overall, the Imperial Custom was an exceptional automobile and was endowed with the latest technology from Chrysler Corporation.

Relatively few were produced for 1954, so to spot one at the Bothwell show was a joy.

Just as the 1955 Imperial represented the beginning of a new era, so too did the 1954 Chrysler Imperial mark the end of one.

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