Optioned for all-out speed.
For 1955, Chrysler introduced the Imperial brand, borne by vehicles designed to fight the best Cadillac and Lincoln had to offer in the 1950s. 1957 marked Imperial’s best year, with sales of the Hemi-engined barges from Chrysler nearly outpacing those of Lincoln. Jay Leno’s shell pink Imperial hails from just this successful model year. He managed to find a ’57 two-door that received loving treatment from an elderly lady and was even kept in dry storage after she decided to part with the Space-Age gas guzzler.
It’s always interesting when a big carmaker decides that, in order for its flagship models to reach their fussy audience, a separate, ultra-premium marque must be established. However, some parent brands have executed the strategy more successful than others. It’s easy for BMW to market Rolls-Royce, or Volkswagen to do the same with Bentley, because those brands never stood for anything but the ultimate in luxury. When Daimler-Chrysler pulled Maybach out of its hat, nobody was shocked; as a historic badge worn by large-engined German cruisers before WWII, the Maybach 57 and 62 pair seemed feasible when positioned above the best S-Class money could buy.
More ill-fated experiments from the past include Rover’s North American Sterling marque and Holden’s Statesman line in Australia. Maybach wasn’t exactly a resounding success, either, with Mercedes-Benz discontinuing it once again after only a decade as a revived brand. Imperial is also no longer with us, demoted from a standalone brand to a Chrysler model designation as of 1981.
In 1950s America, however, an Imperial driver could be proud of his or her choice. Penned at the start of the Space Age by Virgil Exner and wearing the sweeping lines of his Forward Look Styling for Chrysler, the Imperial for ’57 was four inches wider than the largest Chrysler, which left enough room for four people on the front bench. The Imperial swung lower than its more mainstream Chrysler cousins and, to support such an imposing figure, rode on an appropriately robust frame. In the late ’50s, Chrysler threw all the chrome it could find at these cars, along with posh features such as a curved greenhouse, six-way power seats, a radio enhanced by a transistor, and a parking brake that grabbed the driveshaft instead of the rear drums. Though Imperial shared no sheetmetal with any other Chrysler products, it did employ an under-stressed, four-barrel Hemi V-8 rated at 325 hp and connected to a three-speed automatic operated via push buttons.
Imperial’s dashboard-mounted, three-way toggle-switch indicator system may remain a confusing idea to this day, but this regal fuel swiller remains an impressive piece of engineering and a comfortable cruiser that will never fail to put a smile on peoples’ faces. Leno’s ’57 is one of the very few two-doors that survives in original yet perfect condition; most of these cars rusted through before the ’60s could end or got chopped for their “FirePower” V-8s. Enjoy Leno’s shell pink delight in his latest garage tour, filmed solo by the comedian himself: