It may seem odd, but the Korean War never technically ended. North Korea never signed the armistice that halted the fighting in 1953, and by now South Korea is used to regular, bombastic threats of nuclear annihilation from the mouthpiece of its northern neighbor. At the same time, both leaders of the two Koreas—President Moon Jae-in and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un—have recently expressed desire to formally end the conflict.
The war began in 1950 with U.S. forces under the command of one of America's most controversial military leaders, General Douglas MacArthur. The supreme commander of the Allied Powers in Japan, MacArthur already had a lot on his plate. Not to mention how to replace his aging 1942 Cadillac limousine.
While it was still possible to buy a factory-built limousine in 1950, there were fewer options available in 1942. Both the Lincoln Custom, or Buick Limited were gone, leaving the Cadillac Fleetwood Series 75, Packard Custom Eight, and the Chrysler Crown Imperial. MacArthur chose the Chrysler, and the U.S. government footed the bill. One of 209 built that year, the limo shipped out on November 10, 1950, arriving 10 days later in Yokohama, Japan.
Then the nation's second-largest auto company, Chrysler held a reputation for outstanding engineering and conservative—if slightly bland—styling. Company chairman K.T. Keller disliked Harley Earl’s idea of making cars longer, lower, and wider. “We build cars to sit in, not pee over,” Keller reportedly said. Right. Thus, Chryslers of that era were tall, had chair-high seating, boasted enough room to wear a hat, and looked a bit dull. Even though Chrysler came out with its first all-new, post-war styling for 1949, MacArthur’s 1950 Imperial looks nevertheless dowdy next to its contemporaries from Packard and Cadillac.
Something old, something new
The Imperial platform launched in 1940, the year Chrysler founder Walter P. Chrysler died, and it was as imposing as any pre-war ride, with its 145.5-inch wheelbase and 235-inch length. The company proclaimed it the “ultimate luxury in automotive transportation.”
Yet unlike the Cadillac Fleetwood Series 75, the Imperial had neither a modern V-8 nor an automatic transmission. Instead, it used what Chrysler optimistically called the “Spitfire,” a 135-horsepower 324-cubic-inch straight-eight engine that traced its origins to the 1929 DeSoto, mated to Chrysler's “Prestomatic” Fluid Drive semi-automatic transmission. Four-wheel disc brakes were included, which was unusual for any car at that time. The system was a little different than traditional disc brakes, with a set of discs rubbing against the inside of a cast-iron drum rather than a caliper squeezing onto a disc.
The Imperial’s real power was in the details. Unlike most limousines, the Imperial used a lot of glass, allowing the Japanese to see who was in charge as MacArthur rode through the streets of Tokyo, commuting to his office in the Dai Ichi Insurance Building from his living quarters in the American Embassy.
The inside story
Climb inside and you’ll find an interior as restrained as the exterior. The rear seats are trimmed in broadcloth. The passenger compartment is accented with wood trim and nickel hardware. Amenities include a footrest, clock, heater, reading lamps, ashtrays with lighters, and floor-mounted jump seats. There are power windows throughout, including the power-operated partition window. There’s one radio located up front with a separate speaker mounted in the rear parcel shelf.
The driver’s compartment is trimmed entirely in black, except for a red brake handle. The car has slightly more than 57,000 miles on the odometer, with a worn leather front seat and a driver's side front door etched with the names of those who chauffeured MacArthur. The car remains immaculate, with thick, plush carpets and seats as comfy as those in your family room. Cargo space is large but not overly so. The spare tire is located below the trunk in its own compartment, but retrieving it requires unbolting the rear bumper and unlocking the compartment.
In order to ensure privacy, there are two sets of keys. The driver's keys unlocked the front doors and spare tire compartment. The owner's keys opened the rear doors and trunk. And while you might expect the car to be armored or fitted with bulletproof glass, it isn't.
Where is it now?
When MacArthur was relieved of his command in 1951, he took up residence at the Waldorf-Astoria; the car would go back to the New York City motor pool. He continued to using it to commute to Darien, Connecticut, where he served as chairman of the board of Remington Rand Inc. He continued to use the car until it was donated to the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, in late 1963, several months before the general’s death. It has not run since its arrival.
MacArthur wasn't alone in his love for Chryslers. Ironically, President Truman, who removed him from command, was a lifelong Chrysler fan.
While rare, and rarely seen, the 1949–54 Chrysler Crown Imperial has remained flat over the past five years, with future prices expected to decline. If you own one, expect an average value of $11,900, with concours-quality samples fetching as much as $25,800. At the other extreme, a #4-condition (Fair) example would bring $6300. Keep in mind, as with any car, celebrity ownership can often boost value. Still tempted? If so, buy one because you love it, not because you expect to haul in a bundle down the road.