By Dick Hamann
from the WPC'er (San Diego Region WPC Club newsletter) - December 1980
"Honey", I said, "I need a hobby, a challenge, something to busy myself with in the evening and on the weekends. I'd like to fix up an old car -- a convertible. How about it?" Thus started, in June of 1974, the story of THE PHOENIX -- one man's challenge against all odds to accomplish a total restoration of a 1961 Imperial convertible coupe.
Within a week, my wife (whose pastime is reading want ads) had spotted an ad in the paper -- a '61 Imperial. Not my first choice, but I was interested. I had gained a son and lost a father in 1961 and was an ardent fan of the Chrysler Corporation. With Imperial being the flagship of the corporation, and this one being a convertible, I took the plunge.
The outcome of some statistical research with the public library and the Chrysler Historical Department pointed out that only 429 Imperial convertibles were built in 1961. This was a fact I reminded myself of time and again to prevent my project from sputtering to a halt. I had indeed found myself a challenge!
There wasn't much of what I purchased that didn't need repairing. The car had 1972 Tennessee plates on it, and had been traded to a fellow I bought it from for a T.V. set. I'm afraid my current beauty can't brag of an impeccable past, but then from the ashes rises the phoenix--or so the story goes. Every body panel was dented or rusty, the chrome was pitted, broken or missing, one of the headlight clusters was only there by its electrical connection, and it was very, very dirty.
But under all that I detected a uniqueness, beauty, a real classic automobile; and even though nothing--but nothing--worked, it was all there -- swivel bucket seats in red leather, automatic headlight dimmer, auto pilot, power windows, etc. Being a tinkerer at heart, I bought it. The fellow I bought it from agreed to deliver it that Sunday--"Probably after dark," he said. The deal was set and the wife and I headed for home. On the way, it occurred to both of us just what I had done. The rest of the trip was made in unbroken silence. Before the stores closed on Sunday, we bought a parachute to cover the car's woebegone condition. What a sight that made in our front yard! The top was in shreds at this point, so the parachute drooped between each crossbrace, drooped into the rear window opening, and then flared up over the most pronounced identification of the 1961 Imperial--the tail fins.
The engineering department at Chrysler headquarters described the new 1961 sheet metal this way. "Striking new features are seen in the unusual free-standing head lamps...in the canopied fenders... the clean central grille... and the crisp hood lines. At the rear, the quarter panel fins are extended (11 inches) to sharpen the dart-like silhouette, accentuating the appearance of length and directed motion." Under a damp parachute, that "directed motion" had raised the curiosity of everyone in the neighborhood.
The first job was to register it so it could be moved legally, After that, the tempo picked up. The auto was stripped of all chrome and upholstery. A parts car contributed a new front fender assembly, hood and flite sweep deck lid, and the doors were replaced. Chrome pieces were replaced or replated, and the upholstery was replaced with vinyl and leather material identical to the original in color and texture. One by one the mechanical and electrical systems were replaced or repaired and made to function with the same care and quality that the Corporation originally used on the production line.
1961 was not a good year for the production of Imperials. Just prior to this year, Chrysler had produced the following numbers of Imperials:
1957 - 37,946
1958 - 13,673
1959 - 20,763
1960 - 16,829
In 1961, a total of 12,249 were produced. These were distributed as follows: Custom 2-door - 889
4-door - 4,129
Crown 2-door - 1,007
4-door - 4,769
LeBaron - 4-door - 1,026
Not many people enjoyed the driving pleasure of one of Detroit's finest handcrafted, quality-engineered products.
The challenge continued with the never-ending search for parts. From far and wide, slowly but surely, they were obtained. With perserverance (there were only 429 made), the ultimate goal was coming closer -- to have every factory installed option included on my jewel. The following list shows all the Imperial optional equipment offered in 1961. The Phoenix is fully outfitted:
1. Air conditioning
2. Automatic headlamp dimmer
3. Auto pilot
4. Door edge protection
5. Electric door locks
6. Flite-sweep deck lid
7. Mirror, outside, right
8. Mirror, outside, left remote control
9. Power antenna
10. Power assist vent windows
11. Radio, search tune, with foot control
12. Solex glass with shaded windshield
13. Sure-grip differential
14. Swivel bucket seats
Most of these items were on the car when it was purchased. Some were installed as the car was restored. All are assembled, installed, and adjusted to factory specifications in accordance with the directions in the 1960 and 1961 shop manuals.
At around 85,000 miles the 413 CID engine and Torqueflite transmission were removed and completely disassembled. The engine was boiled out and inspected. It showed less than .003 taper on the cylinder walls so the original pistons with new rings were installed. The timing chain was replaced and rod and main bearings were replaced with standards as no wear was evident on the crankshaft. The 413 was the best V-8 that Chrysler produced, in my mind. All freezeplugs were replaced, the heads were redone and tho expecting to replace the hydraulic tappets, when they were deglazed and checked, every one was OK.
Back in operation now, the engine is strong, smooth and quiet. The transmission was sent out, and rebuilt with new bands and seals and the torque converter was replaced, just to be safe! During engine reassembly, factory air conditioning was installed necessitating a new water pump, alternator, idler pully bracket, and upper hose connection. There were no surprises and no unusual wear noted during this whole engine overhaul phase.
Before the engine and tranny were reinstalled the center bearing support bushing on the driveshaft was replaced. In as much as these are no longer stocked by the agencies or MOPAR I modified a bearing support housing used in the sedans for use in the convertible. It has worked fine to date.
But the real joy of this hobby is cruising - driving an Imperial with the top down in all of its elegant and classic splendor. What cruisers these flagships are. Designed for the ultimate in motoring pleasure, they draw many an admiring glance and a wave. We've even had our picture taken at 65 MPH on the San Diego to Los Angeles corridor.
The admiration that people have for these automobiles is reflected in many ways. Like the gentleman who followed us into a parking lot in Los Angeles, jumped from his car, and said "Now that's what these cars are supposed to look like!" Or the family who played tag with us, heading east on Interstate 8 from San Diego all the way across the Imperial Valley desert to Yuma. When we stopped for gas, so did they, and proceeded to inspect the car with an unabashed admiration, admitting that they had intentionally stayed close to us those 80+ miles to enjoy seeing our fine car driving along the freeway.
But every coin has two sides, and the height of atrocity came one time when my wife was turning into a gas station. The Phoenix looked her best--top down and white paint sparkling--when from across the intersection a voice yelled to his partner, "Hey, Bill, look at that turkey." Immediately afterwards, as the wife pulled up to the pump, the attendant said "Shut it off, lady, or you'll never fill it." Some folks just don't show any respect!!
Even though some aspects of my challenge remain, the Phoenix has given me untold hours of enjoyment. It is a personal pleasure to know I have restored an example of a very limited production auto that reflects the extravagant opulence of a modern motoring era that most newly licensed drivers will never know.
The car has been shown in four meets since its completion. It has won second place in class, first place in class, sweepstakes in its division and at the 1983 WPC National Meet it was selected as best of show Imperial.. Out of the ashes rises the Phoenix!!