I never fully appreciated the 1961 Imperial LeBaron until I met Dan Caruth and saw his car up close.
First of all, it is huge: about 19 feet long, almost 7 feet wide and weighs in at 4,875 pounds. Chrysler's corporate slogan was "The Forward Look," and apparently to designer Virgil Exner, that meant combining massiveness, tail fins and classic car features. These characteristics showed up in the 1961 Imperial LeBaron, but only 1,026 of this model were built.
The Walnut Creek resident paid $40,000 for his car. "I bought this Imperial in 2008 from a man in Texas who had spent five years and $150,000 on it, then ran out of money. It was in pieces, a shell, no trunk lid, no interior, no wiring."
It's a mystery where the money went, but some of his money was spent on trim moldings, mostly made of stainless steel, and he souped up the 413 c.i. V8 engine from 350 to 400 HP.
"When new, the way this one is equipped, it was $8,400," Caruth said. "That's equivalent to $65,000 today. There are a lot of unexpected things about this car. One is the fact that the car has 24k gold plate behind the Imperial script on the fenders, eagle emblems in the wheel covers and the trunk lid, as well as other exterior and interior locations. Chrysler actually paid a jewelry tax on the emblem," Caruth said.
There are four large chrome "suspended" headlights just above the bumper that are a reminder of some of the classic cars of the 1930s. The front of a car always looks like a face to me, and the large parking lights hanging over the headlights look somewhat like eyebrows. The grille is modeled after the famous Cord sedans of the 1930s, with the Imperial logo on the right side.
The aerodynamic tail fins and the suspended taillights are indicative of the jet age of the early 1960s. The taillights, sometimes referred to as a "Sparrow-Strainer" design, were intended to look like a jet engine with the device to keep birds out of the engine. The trunk deck, called a FliteSweep decklid, suggested a "Continental Kit" spare tire, but it was strictly a design item.
Inside the car, the owner pointed out such features as the oblong steering wheel.
"The whole idea was that it would be more comfortable in getting in and out of the car," he said.
The beautiful period-correct interior of two-tone brown and tan leather was done by Jack's Auto Upholstery in Healdsburg.
The seating is for six, with the front seat being a 40/60 divide allowing the driver to adjust the six-way power seat for comfort without disturbing the other passengers. The driver seat also swivels for easier exit or entrance.
To the right of the steering wheel are perpendicular heater controls identical in appearance to the push button, torqueflite automatic transmission controls on the left. Maybe a "minor" oversight by the Chrysler people in those days -- there was no "park" position for the transmission.
The emergency brake worked on the drive shaft and was excellent under most conditions. But if the car was warm and being driven in cold weather, then parked on a hill, the emergency brake may have contracted some, loosening the brake on the drive shaft and allowing the car to slide downhill. So, included for your $8,400 was a triangle-shaped wooden block that could be placed under a tire when parked on a hill. For 1962, a "park" gear was included in place of the wooden block.
The exterior paint is close to the factory color; it is a clear coat DuPont paint called Desert Silver. This top of the line Imperial LeBaron is the only Imperial model that has "Silver Crest" stainless steel panels above the doors. Also unique to this LeBaron is the limousine-styled roof line around the back window. The design added a luxury look and provided the rear passengers more head room and privacy.
Other features include separate front and rear air conditioners; electric windows, including the vent windows; left and right side remote-control mirrors; a radio with a power antenna; cruise control, and an electronic eye headlight dimmer. It was the first year Chrysler used an alternator to replace the generator, which allowed the battery to charge even when the engine was idling.
As Caruth and I were standing in his driveway discussing the features of his beautiful car, two neighbors walked by. The women stopped, came up the driveway for a close look and asked the owner questions about his car.
After they left, Caruth and I agreed that the 52-year-old Imperial is still a chick magnet.
Have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at MOBopoly@yahoo.com.