Since the 1930s Chrysler had built 8-passenger cars on a long wheelbase, either limousines with a dividing window to separate passengers from chauffeur, or big "family" sedans without the divider. One or more of such models were sold under all the companys brand names, from Plymouth up, in a time when competitors showed little interest. But at the outset of the 1950s sales dwindled, and in 54 only Chrysler and DeSoto offered 8-passenger models. Chryslers flagship in this field was unquestionably the expensive, haughty Crown Imperial, on a 145.5-in. wheelbase. Nothing was too good for this machine: Disc brakes starting in 1949, "hemi" engine and power steering in 1951, Powerflite automatic transmission and 12-volt electrical system in 1953.
In 1955, when the Forward Look came in,
Chryslers 8-passenger models were down to one Crown Imperial on 149.5-in. wheelbase.
The trouble was that these cars cost too much to build. Combined sales of them in
1955-56 came to fewer than 400. Some retrenchment was needed in the 57 line - either drop the long wheelbase altogether, leaving the field to
Cadillac (as Lincoln and Packard had already done), or continue production with less
damage to the company budget.
How a Crown Imperial was born
An Imperial hardtop coupé on 129-in. wheelbase, with extra-rigid X frame, was shipped to Italy. It was outfitted with the usual trim, bumpers and grille, so that nothing would be lost during shipment. The stripped interior was packed with parts Ghia would need - four sedan doors, seat mounts, window glass, fully wired dashboard, double air conditioning unit, upholstery leather, carpet, lengthened drive shaft, heavier torsion bars, Suburban leaf springs for the rear, and so on.
At the Ghia factory, the first task
was to chop the body and frame, the latter to be extended 20.5 in. and reinforced. The
floor was lengthened, the rear of the body adjusted to suit the lengthened roof and
altered rear doors. The doors are made higher, the roof cut back to accommodate them. All
this was done by skilled Ghia craftsmen, working without body-stamping dies or an assembly
line, not counting the hours spent to get something done - a
situation unthinkable in America in 1957!
Five interior schemes are offered, with gray or beige broadcloth in various patterns. There is a fold-out wood table and a thick sheepskin carpet. The chauffeur doesnt have that much room up front, but its upholstered in leather!
A month had gone by since arrival of the "kit" at the Ghia
plant. Now it was time for a road test of the new limousine. Tires were inflated to 28.4
lbs and the car driven over cobble paving to disclose any rattles or squeaks. As soon as
the limousine passed its tests, it was ready for shipment to Genoa and the U.S.
The financial picture wasnt that rosy. The combined cost of taxes, international U.S.-Italian obstacles, credit transfers, the exhaustive checkups each car underwent on arrival from Italy (a customer paying $12,000 for a car doesnt want to hear a door rattle or see the lights flicker) continued to threaten the future of limousine production. The 1957 contract was for 75 Crown Imperials, the number Chrysler hoped to sell; but in fact only 36 were sold, while Chrysler had to pay Ghia for all 75. That is why the 1958 and 59 limousines are retouched leftovers from 1957. The Chrysler-Ghia contract was apparently renewed in 1960, but for production of only 25 vehicles.
Ghia went on producing Crown Imperials in small numbers until 1965, when it sold its special tools to the Barreiros firm in Spain. Barreiros built the last 10 limousines of the European series that had begun in 1957.
When that contract expired, Chrysler did not want to abandon the limousine line, but now looked for an American subcontractor, with whom dealings would be less troublesome. Stageway Coaches of Arkansas contracted to build 12 cars in 1967-68, using a huge wheelbase of 163 inches.
Fifteen more limos with the new "fuselage" styling appeared in 1969, 70 and 71. Another body builder, Hess & Eisenhardt, supplied 2 limos in 1972 (with 1973 grilles) to the U.S. Secret Service - a perfect car for not attracting attention!
Three years later, the Imperial name itself disappeared...
(1): Same appearance as 1958 models (grille, bumpers etc.)
Other photos (click to enlarge)
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