By Tony Lindsey
This is part one of a continuing series of articles about my Mopar mania. I have a bizarre brain disease that makes me want to collect tons of real steel, rubber, leather and glass. I'm glad I have that Mopar malady, and I would never want to change.
I'm plumb loco over 1961 Imperials. For many folks, they're the most bloated, overdone and obscenely styled Imperials ever made. I think they're all of that and more.
In fact, I wish that the 1962 Imperials had been even more outrageous, though I can't conceive how they could have done it and still be able to fit people inside.
My infatuation isn't supposed to be a popular one. I have a massive collection of coffee-table books that illustrate Chrysler Corporation's car-building history and a whole bunch of "Groovy American Cars of the 50's and 60's" books. There isn't a single one that spares any kind words for my car. One of them says "the tailfins look like the rear end of a horse," though I don't personally get the connection. Richard Langworth himself, the gentleman whose name is on scads of reference books, says that you wouldn't want to suddenly see a car that looks like the '61 Imperial in a darkened alley.
Mr. Langworth can go sit on a tack.
Despite all of the nay-saying by people who don't appreciate true art, I think my car is the best-styled work of rolling art ever designed, and if Virgil Exner was still alive, I would shake his hand and give him a blue ribbon. I think he threw everything he had into the design of my car, and I feel as if I own an original Picasso or Van Gogh.
Back when he designed my car, Mr. Exner was at the peak of his powers. He had plenty of big ideas about car styling, and you can see every one of them in my car. The grille is designed to echo the "Coffin-Nose" Cord 810, and the headlights were intended to evoke the 1931-33 Chrysler Imperial Phaetons. Virgil briefly flirted with asymmetrical design, which is why the grille badge is off to one side. The tailfins are the most elegant ever designed. In my opinion, the '61 was designed as a convertible FIRST, and the other body styles were adapted from it. One look at my car's arrow-like profile would convince anyone that its styling was intended for topless driving.
I volunteered the use of my big, black nasty convertible for the '93 San Diego Pride Parade, and there were 40,000 screaming people who made no secret of their approval. I get more than my share of "thumbs up" on the freeway. However, I wouldn't care if I was the ONLY '61 fanatic on earth. I've bonded with the garish old gas hog, and I will never sell it.
Now that I've called my old Imperial all of these seemingly-bad things, I'd like to make it plain that I consider it to be the perfect car. It's swank, luxurious, solid, safe, stylish and well-put-together.
When somebody asks me why on earth I would be so intensely interested in such a beast, here's what I tell them: It's the rarest postwar Imperial convertible (one of 429 made). 1961 was the last year Imperials were made on their own assembly line. A fully-optioned '61 convertible cost as much as TWO 1961 Cadillac Sedan DeVilles. The '48 Cadillac had the first tail fins, but the '57 Chrysler Products impressed the GM designers so much they came up with the '59 Cadillac's fins. The Imperial designers replied with the '61 rear end, with tailfins EXACTLY as tall as the '59 Cadillac's when measured from the top to the bottom. The '61 tailfins are 11 inches longer than those of the '60 Imperial.
The '61 Imperial is 1/8" short of being nineteen feet long, and 1/8" shy of being seven feet wide! When someone exclaims over how big it is, I like to make them stand with their knees against the bumper at one end of the car, while I go to the opposite end and do the same. This impresses them with how far apart we are, and I like to point out that a car that big should have at LEAST eight doors, not two. My '61 was the biggest convertible you could buy in the world when it was new. It also had to be the heaviest: 5,280 pounds fully laden, and I like to tell people that it doesn't go OVER bumps in the road, it pounds them flat!
The '61 Imperial was the ultimate "Buck Rogers/George Jetson" car. I like to refer to it as "Emperor Ming's Rocket Sled". What else would you call a car that offered swivel seats, a record player, automatically-dimming rear-view mirror, typewriter tranny and electroluminescent dash lighting?
Among my favorite 1961 Imperial accessories are the factory-equipped "triple trumpet" horns. This means that my car has the standard "Hi" and "Lo" horns, with an added monstrosity of a horn in between them. If it were straightened out, it would probably reach two feet. When I got my first '61, I used to commit the worst kind of noise pollution. I'd be at a busy intersection, with people walking across the street in every direction. The light would change to green, and I'd sit there, waiting. After a few moments, the little econobox behind me would emit an asthmatic little "Meep!", and I would reply with MY appallingly loud and deep horn. At that moment, every head within a hundred feet would frantically start rotating, looking for the freight train. My sisters say that my horn sounds as if my car is saying "Get off the freeway, peasant! His Imperial HIGHNESS is coming!" If people are waving and yelling to me as I'm in my Imperial, I like to wave my arm out the window, grab upward in the air and yank downwards twice, slowly, while simultaneously honking twice. From outside the car, it looks like I'm an engineer in a locomotive, blasting the horn. It always gets a big reaction.
According to the '61 Imperial factory press release, my car has the thickest front sheetmetal of any production car ever made. It's all one welded piece, called the "Front Clip." A buddy of mine with another '61 convertible is alive and unharmed because of the real steel that was used in our cars. He was on his way to a car show, cruising smoothly at 75 mph, and a truck pulling a trailer was going just as fast in the other direction. Suddenly, the trailer lost a wheel, and it hit the Imperial directly in front of the driver. It crunched the headlights, and it bent the fender, but after bending the metal away from the tire and changing the flat, they were back on their way to the show. After putting an "Ouch!" sign on the dent, they still got a second-place trophy. I can't imagine too many cars that wouldn't have been totaled, along with killing their passengers.
Here's another example of how strong the metal proved to be: I was at a body shop, supervising work on one of my cars. I parked at the end of the row, next to a low pole. I forgot about the pole being right next to my car since I couldn't see it as I pulled out at an angle. Wham! I jumped out of my car and became upset at the sight of the dent in my fender near the front bumper. Suddenly, I noticed that the pole was bent level with the ground, despite being made of thick steel and filled with concrete. Compare THAT with the newer cars, which can be dented by leaning on them with your elbow. I'm not kidding.
I love to tell folks that the same guy who designed the Karmann Ghia designed my car. The folks at Volkswagen hired the Ghia studios in Turin, Italy to design a sportier body for the Bug chassis, but their designs truly stunk. However, Chrysler Corporation's show cars were being built by Ghia at the time, and Exner's Chrysler Special was in one of the studios as the Volkswagen execs walked by. They demanded to have THAT design instead, shrunk down to 3/5-scale, with the grille removed (none was needed) and the taillights changed. After the Karmann-Ghia was introduced, the Volkswagen execs sent a letter to Exner, saying "We apologize if the cars are somewhat similar". He wrote back saying "Similar?!? Hell, they're identical!"
If you want to see another example of a stolen Exner design, check out the Volvo sedans of the early 1960's. If you put little sparrow-strainer taillights on top of the rear fenders and paint them two-tone, they look just like a '55 Imperial that has had the chrome trim removed. The fender lines, front grilles and roof are very similar.
With my car's swoopy fins and black paint, I hear the word "Batmobile!" a lot. On my car's maiden voyage, I drove it to one of the garages I rent a few miles from my home. Along the way, the prostitutes along El Cajon Boulevard were hollering "C'mon, Batman, gimme a ride!" As I came to the last stoplight, I saw a guy in a Batman t-shirt who was staring at my car. I said "Let me guess - Batmobile, right?" and he said "No... '61 Imperial, right?"
Sometimes I'll go to a restaurant in the Imperial, and when I come out, there will be a crowd around my car. Older folks particularly want to stop and chat with me about the car, but I've never yet found them to be deeply knowledgeable about it. For example: a man in his late 70's will collar me for half an hour, telling me about his older cars, and he'll inevitably tell me that he had a "Cadillac" just like mine. I've long since given up trying to correct these kindly folks. I must have accounted for at least 40 of the 429 '61 Imperial convertibles, because folks never tire of telling me they used to own one just like mine.
Go forward to Part Two...