2002: An Imperial Odyssey

by Kenyon Wills

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1960 Instruments
Electro-Luminescent Dashboard Lighting
The 1960 Imperial featured some of the tallest fins ever put into production and many exciting engineering items such as torsion-bar front suspension (no coil springs or leaf springs in front). My most favorite items include the squared steering wheel (which is actually quite comfortable to use), push-button transmission controls, electro-luminescent dashboard lighting (Imperial's gauges used electrically charged surfaces, not light bulbs to illuminate the gauges). Hi-Way HiFi
Hi-Way HiFi

Also intriguing was the optional Hi-Way HiFi in-car record player that mounted under the dash on the transmission hump. This record player was a dealer option and has an interesting history that's worth a few minutes to read. Click on the Record Player image to read all about it.


Here's the story of my Imperial Adventure

How this came to be:
I grew up in Pacifica, Ca. just south of San Francisco on the coast, and there is a defunct pair of car dealerships at the south end of town that ultimately became a hardware store. At the time, the place was an auto-body shop with a few cars out front for sale that came from who-knows-where, probably their tow business. I drove by one day in 1995, and there were 2 of the most gorgeous, unique cars sitting out front. One was a shiny black 1965 2D Crown Imperial that was in really good condition and would take little work to be a real decent car; it cost $5000 - way too much for a college kid.

The other was a dirty, but still glossy 1960 LeBaron in rough shape for $1,500.

The LeBaron is the tip-top model, which generally came fully optioned with many of the items that were omitted from the lower models. For most years that it existed, the LeBaron model can be identified by the rear window, which is smaller and was intended to exude a similarity to limousines, which often had a more closed and private rear seating area. LeBarons always have four doors, as well. LeBarons were usually the donor cars that were sent to Ghia in Italy for conversion to the hand-built limos built there for Chrysler.

1960 LeBaron
My grandmother's maiden name was LeBaron, and she was a very classical woman that was cultured, well educated, and quite the sophisticate, having gone to UC Berkeley in the 1920's (women didn't go to college in large numbers back then, I think). I saw the gold cursive script on the side of this gorgeous car and it really spoke to me, right then and there. I went around back and got someone to come out to start it up. The battery was dead, and I sat in the driver's seat and inspected the car as it charged. This was a machine unlike any other that I had ever seen and progressively fell in love with it. It had an old smell that all of them seem to have which is a combination of the crumbling seat foam and whatever they make the carpet underlay material out of. This thing smelled old and it smelled like a mechanical adventure to me.

The thing that cinched the deal was the ignition key. It was made of gold aluminum with a crown embossed on it, like none other. I later found out that this was done to spare the ignition and door lock tumblers for long life, with the key being softer, it wore and did not wear the internals. Anyway, the key went into its slot UPSIDE DOWN! with the teeth facing upwards! This was the car for me. I tend to be a person that does not think along the same lines that others do, and love things that just don't fit the norm. This car was me!

I haggled the guy down to $1,200 on this car that was rough, had dents and rust spots, and had no interior to speak of. This came on the condition that they change all of the belts and hoses before I drove it home to my place in San Francisco. I came back the next day with a good battery, and away I went. I drove the car about 10 miles and was going around a sharp curve when the power steering pressure hose that feeds the steering box popped, instantly making the car steering manual and unassisted. I almost crashed the 5000lb car right there, and it really scared me, because the steering is almost non-functional without hydraulic pressure to assist it and steering the car took all 200 pounds of me to wrestle the wheel around to get the car under control. I am a big guy, and that wheel turns with a pinkie finger when the power steering's running, but the wheel felt like lead when the hose failed!!! I am religious about replacing the power steering hoses on any cars that I acquire, and this experience is the reason.

I proceeded to start to redo the car, doing all bodywork and painting it with my friend in his garage. This experience taught me that bodywork is labor intensive but certainly not difficult providing that one is patient and does not rush things. This first project I sanded but did not do enough finish work and my errors came through the paint as soon as it was on the car, but it was passable at 3 paces, I had other concerns, and I let it go (I was secretly impressed that we'd painted the car and was really pretty happy, but you can't brag about mediocre-at-best workmanship). The next 12 months were a blast, with the car looking like a million on the outside but me riding around sitting on a bed pillow that plugged the hole in the seat where the foam had disintegrated. The car needed work, and I did the mechanical things that came up myself, but was in college and lacked the money to do the car justice.

White 63 LeBaron
My '63 LeBaron
I went to look at a 1963 LeBaron that was a potential donor of parts and front glass for the black 1960. I did buy it but drove it and realized that it was in considerably better shape than my 1960. The brakes snapped you forward when applied, the engine was smoother (same engine design), and it handled better. The interior was nice, and it just needed a paint job to be a daily driver. In a decision that I would come to regret, I placed an ad for the original 1960 and sold it to a guy that was going to ship it to Sweden or Scandinavia. If your 1960 had an SFSU sticker in the rear window when you got it and it was black, please let me know, as I am most curious about my car's fate.

I really missed it when it was gone. I just never developed the same love and adoration for the 1963 that the other car had produced, and couldn't pin it down to why, but just knew that I'd made a bad choice.

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