If you were watching a major parade anywhere in this country in the 1950's, chances are you saw the dignitaries riding in a majestic Chrysler Imperial Parade Phaeton. Three of these cars were built in 1952 and face-lifted in 1955 with the 1956 design. They remain today the handsomest and most unusual vehicles of Chrysler’s Exner Era.
Chrysler entered the parade car business in 1939 with a 6 wheeled, Derham-Bodied Custom Imperial Touring Car. Originally built for Grover Whalen’s use as the official greeting car for the New York World’s Fair, this car was followed by a 1940 Crown Imperial Phaeton (Derham Body) also for use at the World’s Fair. The 1940 blue and gray Imperial phaeton carried numerous luminaries in countless ticker-tape parades in New York before being retired in 1960. Both the 1939 & 1940 cars are on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI.
In 1951, Chrysler Chairman K. T. Keller made the decision to augment the 1940 phaeton with three entirely new parade cars, to be stationed in various sections of the country - New York City (Black with light gray interior), Detroit (Metallic Green with natural pigskin interior) and Los Angeles (Cream with rose interior).
The 1952 phaetons were built on a Crown Imperial Limousine chassis that was stretched 2 inches to 147.5 inches. A stock 1951 Imperial grille and front & rear bumpers, to assure Chrysler identity, were about the only stock body parts used on these cars. All steel metal was completely unique. The clean body side had a simple ridge running 3/4 the length of the body, ending in a hop-up rear fender bulge. (Imperial, Chrysler and DeSoto adopted precisely those shapes for 1955, influenced greatly by the Parade Phaetons.) The only ornamentation on the cars, except for the Chrysler nameplates, was an Imperial hood ornament. This eagle, similar to the 1953 production design, was destined to replace the winged V and crown as the Imperial symbol and continued in various forms until the Imperial’s demise for the third time in the nineties.
Of course, the most unusual aspect of these phaetons was their dual passenger compartments. Front and rear cockpits were completely separate, divided by a second steel cowl behind the front seat. The height of the car from ground to cowl was a mere 45 inches. Mounted on each cowl were dual, one piece curved windshields. Both compartments had clocks. In one publicity photo, the clocks showed different times. However, it is not true that the phaetons were so long that front & rear passengers rode in different time zones!
Mechanically the cars had the usual features touted by Chrysler in the 1950's - 180 bhp, 331.1-cid Firepower hemi V-8 (with modified air cleaner to fit under the lower hood); full time Hydraguide power steering, self-energizing Ausco-Lambert disc brakes, Oriflow shock absorbers and Fluid-Torque transmission in which a torque converter replaced the usual Fluid Drive coupling.
The Los Angeles Phaeton’s official debut came at the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena in Jan. 1953, where the cream and rose phaeton carried Grand Marshal and Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon and his family. In a ceremony at the Rose Bowl, the car was presented to William H. Nicholas, Pres. of the Tournament of Roses Assn., for use in the festivities. Chrysler’s presenter was none other than Airflow inventor Carl Breer. After the parade, the car was assigned to the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle. The car’s ownership, garaging and maintenance remained in Chrysler’s hands.
Even a partial list of the great and near-great who rode in these phaetons reads like Who’s Who of the World - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Winston Churchill, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece, Nikita Khrushchev, Gov. Adlai Stevenson, Gen. James Van Fleet, Col. John Glenn, and countless others - senators, governors, mayors, ambassadors, astronauts and assorted movie stars and festival queens.
After nearly three years of service, the phaetons were brought back to the Chrysler factory in mid-1955 for a styling facelift. Exner’s Forward Look had debuted that year and was to be followed by Flight Sweep fins for 1956. Chrysler decided the parade phaetons should reflect the new look. They were upgraded with four-barrel carburetors and other changes to increase the horsepower to 235 or 285. There is a difference of opinion here! Powerflite transmissions were installed, but the phaetons never received the famed Chrysler pushbuttons. The cars were repainted - Off White with a Red interior for New York, Desert Sand with a Red interior for Detroit and Metallic Silver-Blue with an Off White interior for Los Angeles.
The New York car was restored by the city in the early 80's, painted black (its original color before the facelift) and the red interior was restored. It ended up in private hands (Bruce Thomas of the Chrysler Corporation Historical Collection) and now is part of the Imperial Palace Collection in Las Vegas, Nevada (it has been repainted white and the interior has been redone). The Detroit car was reported to have been vandalized and scraped. The Los Angeles car still belongs to the City and was on display at the Petersen Auto Museum, when the photos for this article were taken.
For more information Special-Interest Autos (SIA) #38 has a great article with photos of the phaetons before and after their facelifts.##
(Editor’s note: According to more recent information and as of 12/5/99:
New York Phaeton – remains in/owned by New York, black with a red interior.
Detroit Phaeton – was owned by Paul Stern at one time and most certainly the car now in the Imperial Palace Collection.
Los Angeles Phaeton – owned by the City of Los Angeles, white with a white interior.)
John Lloyd in the Parade Phaeton at the SCIO Annual Meeting, December 5, 1999, LA Maritime Museum (Photo courtesy of Denis Lardner)