WICKED FINS: A Story of An Addiction
by Jim Byers
"It's Batman," they screamed as our car pulled up in front of the Montessori School in Montclair, New Jersey!" "Batman's here!!" I knew that it was really my dad. But on those afternoons in 1971-72, the other kids only saw those rakish fins that reminded them of the TV hero! I also saw the tremendous delight that could be offered by a car designed from an artists' pen, instead of a computer.
My father purchased a 1960 Chrysler New Yorker 2 door hardtop (black, with a red interior) as a second car. He had started his own flight instruction school about 30 miles away, and needed a second car. My mother usually drove the 1964 Pontiac Bonneville 2 door hardtop (silver with a black vinyl top, black leather, wire covers). It was beautiful, but the Chrysler was wickedly so.
Each summer, we'd take several trips to the beach/amusement park in Asbury Park, usually with other kids from the neighborhood in tow. We spent most of the trip watching that "Lion-hearted" Chrysler spit the road out from in between those boomerang taillights, screaming "Go, Batman!! Pass 'em," at my father!
My grandmother, a public school administrator, had practically every National Geographic magazine since about 1950, neatly ordered on her bookcases. When I came over, they ended up all over the floor, with me in the center! The articles about nature and stuff were ok, but those car ads were fascinating!
Much to my disappointment, my father sold the Chrysler in 1973. I deliberately set about trying to find an advertisement for a 1960 Chrysler in my grandmother's magazines. Then.....I saw it! It said it was made by Chrysler Corporation, but it was nothing like our car. It was even more amazing, that bright red LeBaron Southampton sitting in front of a farm. When I asked him what it was, my father said, "Oh! That's an Imperial, Jim. Chrysler's top of the line. They're even more luxurious than Cadillacs!" That did it! I was determined that one day, I'd have one of those!
I'd shown a talent for drawing very early on, and my favorite subjects were cars. Meanwhile, I wanted to own an old car like the one's I read about. When I was 10, I told my parents that I wanted to buy an old car. They laughed, until they saw in my eyes that I was dead serious. "Ok," my father said, "if you come up with the money, you can go right ahead." That was all I needed to hear.
In 1974 my father was hired by the FAA in Washington, D.C., and we'd moved to McLean, Virginia. Several friends cut lawns for a extra money, and I started to do the same. During that next year, I must have been hired to cut over half the lawns in the neighborhood. I HATE yard work, but I LOVE cars! By the summer of 1978, I had saved $700. I was 11 years old.
Impressed by my resolve, my parents let me go ahead. I regularly scanned the "antiques & classics" section of The Washington Post. That's where I found my first car: a 1954 Cheverolet 4dr for $100. My father went with me, of course. It was a little rusty, but that "Blue Flame Six" was STRONG! So, we brought it home. Yes, I let my father drive it. :-> At the time, the Dept. of Motor Vehicles said that it was perfectly legal for me to "own" the car, so long as it was kept under my parents insurance.
I was lucky, because the running gear on that car was really very solid. $200 at the local mechanic had the Chevy positively singing! Like Tony, I may not be the greatest mechanic, but I've always been able to scrub! And if there's a bit of shine to be found, I'll bring it out! Two months later, I sold the car for $600!
Well, I already had the plan worked out. My next car was a 1954 Ford sedan purchased for $300. This one even had a decent interior. After some elbow grease and another $150, I sold it for $800. Then came a 1954 Pontiac, same scenario. I also continued to cut lawns. That gave me enough to purchase my first car that actually looked like something -- a 1958 Buick Century 4 door hardtop ...$800. Bright red with a white top. The person I bought it from thought it needed a valve job, but it turned out only to need new gaskets. Two months later, I traded it it in on a 1958 Buick Limited 4 dr hardtop, dark blue, white top, all (working) power options, and air suspension. I kept that car until I went away to college in 1985.
Through all those cars, I never found a suitable running Chrysler, let alone an Imperial. There used to be a an old car dealership in Falls Church, VA, just off of Rt. 7 (can't remember the name). I used to go up there weekly. I almost bought a 1957 New Yorker 4 dr hardtop, but it was on its last legs. The only Imperial I ever saw was a 1956 2 door hardtop that was a real basket case.
I studied illustration intensely through high-school, and thought I wanted to be a car designer. Although accepted at Rhode Island School of Design, some soul searching revealed that I really wanted to be an old car hobbyist!
Through college, my parents divorce, and caring for a mother with cancer, I was unable to return to the hobby for many years. Before my mom passed on New Year's Eve of 1992, she made me promise that I would use a portion of the insurance money to do something fun, after three intense years of caring for her (An Aside: don't be fooled into thinking your insurance will take care of everything! I'm here to tell you it ain't necessarily so). So, rather than to blow the four grand I had allotted for frivolity on a vacation that would be over and forgotten in 2-weeks, I set about finding the car of my dreams -- a 1960 Imperial.
I originally wanted a LeBaron like the one in my grandmother's National Geographic magazine (which I had saved). I joined the local Chrysler Club and started calling folks with late 1950's/early 1960's Imperials if they knew someone who wanted to sell a 1960. One gentleman had a Crown Coupe, which I wasn't initially interested in, and he wasn't selling at the time. Three months later, he called me back and asked me if I would like to take a look. The rest is history.
I've had three joyful years of Imperial ownership. This isn't a car I plan on selling. When I make my fortune :->, I may buy additional cars, and treat this one to a "ground-up" resto. Meanwhile, my goal is to have a car that is as authentic as possible (I am going to have the interior done with the original materials), but a $7,000 paint job just isn't in the cards right now.
I'm really not interested in how many "flaws" some rude collector may point out at a show. After all, if it bothers them enough to go out of their way to point out the perceived flaw on my car, well, they can fork over the dough to fix it so they won't have to look at it anymore!
What I love is the reaction of "lay persons" on the street. For example, I was tooling around the DuPont Circle area in Washington, D. C. late one Friday afternoon. An older gentleman waved me frantically over to the curb. He was in shock! Now a driver for a courier company, it turns out he was the long--time chauffeur of the great 1950's jazz/pop singer Dinah Washington -- "The Queen!" :-> "Every year or two, she bought a brand new Imperial," said the man, with tears in his eyes. "I haven't seen an Imperial this old -- running -- in 20 years. If you only knew how many good memories your car brings back for me."
That's what's fun for me about being in the hobby. The nice people you meet, the stories they share and the excitement of watching the Imperial gobble up the pavement, and shoot it out from between those fins!
From: Tony Lindsey
Jim, you just have no idea how pleased I am by your writing - Every word is singing the same tune that my own Imperial-lovin' heart is crooning every day. Right now, I'm hearing a big, brass band, because your story reminds me why I still own such an impractical, garage-filling, inert (for a short time) piece of exquisite sculpture.
I get a special "zing" of pleasure when I glance over my shoulder and see the fins slashing through the air. I can just sit and stare at my car when it glitters in the sunlight, in awe of the arrow-shape and sensuous curves. I have never, ever regretted the money, time and effort I've expended on this car. I still have a long way to go, but I don't care. I'll do whatever it takes.
It's not my goal to own something to make other people feel envious - If nobody in the world loved my kind of car but me, I'd still endure the insults and jokes with equanimity. Believe me, I did, and for many years.
Imperials with fins were "horrid gas hogs" to most people in the early 1980's when I was starting out in the hobby. The car-books made fun of the '61's styling, which I think is the greatest ever. Most people never gave my car a second glance, and I never cared. I was where I belonged, behind my own rectangular steering-wheel, grinning like an idiot.
I brought my '61 Crown Coupe in to the suspension shop a few years back, and the young man working on the car told me "They should have crushed all of these years ago." Needless to say, I complained loudly to the manager, and told him I'd never bring my cars to that shop ever again. I have extreme pride in my Imperial, and I won't apologize for it.
Subject: Article: In Praise of the 1960!
From: NGLW83A@prodigy.com (JOHN M BRAUNINGER)
Enjoyed reading your treatise on the '60! I agree, the '60 is the styling pinnacle of Exner's '57-63 Imperials. Is there any car the bespeaks IMPERIAL elegance (excluding the Ghia Limos) more than the 1960 LeBaron? My preference is the sedan without the Flitesweep decklid. [By the way, has anyone ever seen a Flitesweep decklid on a '60 LeBaron sedan?]
Here's a thumbnail history of the '57-'63 Imperials...The '57 was definitely the milestone design -- so far ahead that it made the Caddy and Lincoln look stodgy. "Suddenly it's 1960" was the ad campaign. You automotive historians out there know that the GM and Ford response to Chrysler's '57 lineup was a measured dose of fear and panic. In '58 GM shot back with chrome, chrome, and yes, more chrome. Only with the longer, lower, wider cars in '59 did GM start to catch up to in the styling department. Other than the beautiful Continental Mk II, Ford styling wasn't very eye catching but it was, well...different. The '61 Lincoln caught the public's eye and the Forward Look started to lose favor. 1961 was a recession year for the car industry and having cars with outdated styling was a double whammy. The wildest Imperial with the biggest fins ever rolled into the showrooms for '61. "Suddenly It's 1957," cried the critics and Virgil Exner's days as head of Chrysler's design department would soon end. Clipping the Imperial fins for '62 and '63 kept the body style alive until the Lincoln inspired '64 Imperial (designed by Exner's replacement, Elwood Engle, recruited from Ford) was ready for production.
Subject: Article: In Praise of the 1960!
From: QBRW14A@prodigy.com (MS NANCY E KRAMER)
I always thought the '60s had the best looking dash and instrument cluster of all Imperials. The guages didn't work too reliably but they sure do look nice, especially at night. I especially like the stalks that come out of the gauge clusters that light up when to show you that the directional signal is on on that side. Awesomely zoomy, like something from outer space. Don't like the front as it always reminded me of Jimmy Carter's smile. Has anyone ever observed that different '60 Imperials seem to have different smiles like people have different faces? I swear its true.
By the way in our experience most '60s tend to need a valve job at about 100,000 miles other years do not seem to require this. Otherwise '60s are good cars in our experience.
Subject: Responses to "Praise/1960!"
From: ZEKD74A@prodigy.com (MR JAMES F BYERS JR)
Thanks to ImpML participants for taking time to read "IN PRAISE OF THE 1960 (COW CATCHER)."
There were several thoughtful responses to my article. If you will indulge me for a moment, I'd like to offer my feedback on a couple of them. One person wondered if the 1960 Imperial were designed by someone other than Exner, because it seems (at first glance) to be a departure from the models immediately preceding and following. Respectfully, I would contend that it really isn't such a big departure.
First, one of the new styling signatures for the entire 1960 Chrysler Corporation lineup was "a V-shaped bumper, dipped in the middle," observes Collectible Automobile ("1960-62 Chrysler." by Jeffrey Godshall, Dec, 1994. pg. 44). Notice that the "V" theme starts in a very angular fashion with the inexpensive Plymouth line, and becomes more flowing and rounded as one climbs the price ladder. While the theme culminates in the gull-wing Imperial bumper (which had to be expensive to produce), the "V" theme is in evidence throughout. One could think of it as Exner's attempt to create a frontal "corporate identity" (as he had done so successfully with the rear fins). In this same article (pg 42), there are renderings from May, 1957, which show that Exner was considering a bumper very close to the 1960 Imp's for the Chrysler! Indeed, If you outline the frontal area above the bumper, you essentially have the 1960 Imperial grille!
Exner also appeared to be trying to establish "familial design links" between divisions, as in the Chevy's celebrated "Baby Cadillac" status at GM. Notice that the 1960 Dodge follows a similar gull-wing theme to the Imperial! The Dodge is more flamboyant, and uses "negative space" (blackout) for more of a "jet-age" effect, but the relationship is there. Exner's "mistake" was in misjudging the fickle nature of the 1960's auto consumer. Americans wanted a new look every 2-3 years, no matter how good a design was. Lincoln fought a long, uphill battle for sales throughout the Sixties by sticking with the same basic design. Due to management problems, and the quality control fiasco of the late 1950's, Chrysler didn't have the deep pockets of GM or Ford, so there were constant face-lifts. Face-lifts erode such things as continuity of grille design, and the "V" idea slipped into oblivion, a victim of the demands of the marketplace.
The 'humpback' fins exhibit the influence of Italian design on Exner. Specifically, Bertone's Alfa-Romeo B.A.T. (Berlina Aerodinamica Technica) show car series.
Clearly the 1960 Imp is related to the 1958 Imperial D'Elegance show car. However, that car has hidden head lamps under the fender overhangs. It obviously was decided that the 1960 Imp wouldn't (or couldn't) have concealed lights. Further, it needed a bumper to comply with production standards. I contend that Exner was exploring several different ways of including "classic references," and eventually decided to get very bold with the freestanding lamps for 1961-63. For 1960, he experimented with the gull-wing bumper which evoked the line of classic fenders. In my opinion, this VARIATION is very much in line with Exner's design philosophy of the period.
Exner flirted with lots of ideas for the Imperial. The gull-wing bumper effect is implied in the '57-'59 models (in a much more linear way). In fact, "surviving photos indicate that Exner at least considered a trapezoidal, 300-style grille for the Imperial" ("Exner's Crown Jewel," Special Interest Autos #138, Dec., 1993, pg. 38). As we know, the original '55-56 300's borrowed the Imp grille, so maybe the trapezoid was even originally designed for the Imp!?
Whether the 1960 Imperial is as "elegant" as the Imperial D'Elegance show car (or other production Imps of the 57-63 generation, for that matter) is purely a matter of personal taste. I can only state my own feeling, which is that the frontal appearance of the 1960 Imperial is less FORMAL than the D'Elegance, as well as later Imperials, but no less ELEGANT. To my eye it has a certain "jaunty" air that is a privilege, not the burden, among automobiles of breeding. The spirited Deusenberg was less formal than most any Rolls-Royce, but was it less elegant? Automotive elegance bespeaks poise, freedom, swiftness, spaciousnes, and strength of body and spirit. Besides, ANY Imperial is too sophisticated to be hindered by mere convention!
Like Tony said, let's hear from more of you about what you feel makes your preferred Imperial distinctive from the others! How fantastic that this technology provides a forum for us to share our collective passion for Imperials with others all over the globe. SPEAK OUT! You know, CARS&PARTS Magazine has featured no less than THREE 1958 BUICKS on their cover since August, 1989! And how many Imperials...? I am really energized by this group, and I feel that it could be a starting point for raising the visibility of our often overlooked (and maligned) automobile among other collectors. Let's write our own articles, folks! Maybe we can show 'em that the 1932 Ford, and the 1955-57 Chevy aren't the ONLY vintage cars people want to read about!
Thanks again for your attention, and for the many kind responses!
[Back in the late 1960's, the Roman Catholics held the Vatican II conference and made some fundamental changes in their doctrine. One little-known ruling was pronounced by the Pope:
"Pride is still one of the Seven Deadly Sins - Except in the case of Imperial Ownership!"Yeah, it's a weak Imperial joke, but when was the last time you heard one?