The man who designs the future drives a ‘72 Chrysler Imperial
It’s been 36 years since the sci-fi cult classic film Blade Runner foretold a future of homicidal synthetic humans called “replicants” and flying cars known as “spinners.” That future was supposed to be 2019, and today’s cars, though much faster than 1982’s, are still on the ground. Maybe next year.
The spinners and the remarkable backgrounds were designed by Syd Mead, a “visual futurist” who began his career as a car designer and is still envisioning anti-gravity cars. The official poster Mead designed for the 2017 Eyes on the Classics Concours d’Elegance in Detroit anticipates that event in the year 2047 and featured 1930s classics alongside floating cars. He received an EyesOn Design Lifetime Design Achievement Award at the 2017 event.
In Mead’s long career, he has also designed futuristic spaceships, and, back on Earth, he occasionally drives something close. It’s a 1972 Chrysler Imperial that he says floats down the road. He bought it seven years ago with just 4000 miles and has added another 9000 since.
“It was basically a new car,” says Mead, who explains that the Imperial found him, not the other way around.
“I was interviewed online, talking about cars I’ve owned since high school, and I mentioned that the ’72 Imperial I used to have was one of my favorites. I got an email from a man in Fowlerville, Michigan who said he had one for sale. I asked a friend, retired from Ford, to go see it. He said, ‘You should buy this.’”
Indeed, the Imperial LeBaron four-door hardtop was like a new car, black with a black vinyl roof and a very-1970s gold leather interior. The reason for the low miles, Mead learned, was that the woman who bought it new had developed rapidly advancing arthritis shortly after taking delivery. Her husband kept the Imperial stored and maintained in a garage. Mead bought it from a family member, becoming the car’s third owner.
While attending the Art Center School in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena), Mead designed his vision for the Imperial, with big curving tail fins. In 1959, he was recruited for Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Studio under Elwood Engle. Mead left Ford two years later to illustrate books and catalogs for large global companies and in 1970 launched his own design firm in Detroit.
When he moved back to California in 1975, Mead drove the 1972 Imperial LeBaron sedan he’d bought new through a Chrysler executive. The car was loaded, including the dual A/C system, power sunroof and trailering package. He later sold it to a friend who took it to Germany to use for weddings and airport service.
Mead has owned a string of American luxury cars over the years. His new Cadillac CT6 is his ninth car from the brand since 1961. He’s also owned several Lincolns, but fond memories of the Imperial never faded.
Mead still admires the clean “fuselage” design done under direction of his friend, Dave Cummins, who was design chief of the Chrysler-Imperial Exterior Studio. The design debuted for 1969, with the Imperial based on the Chrysler but with distinct front and rear treatments. The extra three inches in wheelbase over the Chrysler was all ahead of the front door to yield a longer hood, but not increased cabin room.
“It’s quite horizontal and very plain, and that’s what I like,” says Mead.
Other details that caught his eye in 1972 and still please his aesthetic sense today include the front end with the hidden headlights and the peaked fenders with raised hood section.
“The design is more organized than modern cars,” Mead says. “A lot of new cars look like they’re diving or in a permanent panic stop. Car designers worldwide tend to use a formulaic styling cue. If you took the badges off, you wouldn’t know who makes what.”
Mead drives his Imperial once or twice a month, and not just around the block. “We’ve been out to Palm Springs a half dozen or so times, and I’ve taken it to Imperial Club meetings, out to Bakersfield,” he says. “It gets 17 miles per gallon at 70 mph on a flat road. You can hear that faint rumble of the V-8 going through the exhaust.”
Mead’s Imperial lacks the dual A/C and power sunroof of the one owned back in the ‘70s but has the original automated temperature control. “The air conditioning works, though not as well as in a modern car. If it ever goes bad, you have to take apart the whole dash panel,” he says. Mead has a Mopar expert maintain the car regularly. He’s replaced the car’s exhaust and shocks and added Coker tires with the correct-width double-whitewalls.
The 1972 Imperial four-door started at $6800 and was powered by a 440-cu-in. V-8, rated at 225 net horsepower for 1972. That year, the name badge added “by Chrysler” under “Imperial.” The company gave up the pretense that the Imperial was a separate marque like Cadillac or Lincoln. Imperial sales in the 1970s remained quite low; just under 16,000 for 1972 versus nearly 268,000 Cadillacs. (For 1976, Chrysler simply dropped the Imperial name and put the New Yorker Brougham badge in its place.)
Still, Imperial could match luxury with the best and in some ways exceeded competitors’ technology. For example, the 1972 model got electronic ignition. The year before, the Imperial had introduced the world’s first four-wheel electronically controlled anti-skid brakes, a system called Sure Brake. The option cost $344 in 1972 (around $2000 in today’s money), and few customers ordered it, yet it was more than six years ahead of Mercedes-Benz introducing Bosch ABS in Europe.
“Getting out of the Cadillac [CT6], you appreciate 45 years of advances in technology, braking, handling, and safety,” says Mead. “I love driving the Imperial, though. It’s a boat. It’s two and a half tons, six and a half feet wide and 19 and a half feet long. You have to sort of ‘pilot’ it, once you’re used to driving a tight-suspension modern car.”
Mead enjoys using the Imperial for special occasions, and the car was being prepped for ferrying a VIP as Mead was interviewed for this story. “It’s outside waiting for a hand washing. My sister is in town, and we’re using it to go to dinner.”