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|Empire Building: Three Stories about Chrysler's Imperial|
|Written by Aaron Severson|
|Saturday, 01 August 2009 00:00|
We thought we'd take a slightly different approach with this week's subject. We've already talked about the origins of Chrysler's luxury brand and its lackluster career as a separate marque, and we've touched on the company's financial problems during this period. So, rather than a lengthy recap of the origins of the car itself, we've decided to present you with three short stories about this 1961 Imperial LeBaron: its name, its engine, and its transmission.
First, an introduction. Our photo subject is a 1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton sedan. It is a rare car, one of only 1,026 LeBarons and 12,258 Imperials built that year. The Imperial LeBaron was Chrysler's top-of-the-line automobile in 1961, and it carried an appropriately regal price tag. Its base price was $6,426, and, lavishly optioned like this one, carried a retail price of just under $8,000. That doesn't sound like much today, but it's the equivalent of about $57,000 in inflation-adjusted modern dollars (around €40,500 or £34,500, for our European readers). At the time, that was enough to buy three Plymouth Valiants, or a Mercedes 220b -- serious money indeed.
The photos do not fully convey the sheer size of this car. At 227.3 inches (5,774 mm) on a 129-in (3,277-mm) wheelbase, it is actually five inches (127 mm) longer than a contemporary Cadillac, and 14.6 inches (371 mm) longer than a Lincoln Continental. Its width is similarly daunting, at 81.7 inches (2,075 mm), and its curb weight is in the neighborhood of 5,250 lb (2,380 kg).
A CHRYSLER WHAT?
Even if you know otherwise, it's difficult not to reflexively call this car a "Chrysler Imperial." Chrysler first used the Imperial name in 1924, but it was not until 1955 that the corporation registered it as a separate marque. The Imperial's sales figures suggest that buyers were not entirely convinced: in 1961, its sales were about half those of Lincoln, and less than one tenth those of Cadillac. Even Motor Life magazine listed its July 1961 Imperial test car as a "Chrysler Imperial Le Baron."
In many respects, that was a reasonable assessment, for the Imperial was much like any Chrysler under the skin. It used the same engine and transmission as other big Chryslers -- about which we'll have more to say shortly -- along with the same Torsionaire suspension and "Constant Control" power steering. As Car Life observed in July 1961, despite costing twice as much as a Chrysler Newport, it was very much the same kind of car.
Beyond its price, size, and delirious styling, the Imperial's biggest distinction was its body-on-frame construction. In 1960, all other Chrysler cars had adopted unitary construction, which offered advantages in strength, rigidity, and packaging efficiency, but Chrysler was wary of unibody construction for cars this big. In those days, the use of computers for structural analysis was in its infancy (although Chrysler did so for the compact Valiant), and building a monocoque automobile of this size was largely uncharted territory. When Ford adopted unitary construction for the gargantuan 1958 Lincoln, they ended up having to beef up the body so much that it was actually heavier than it would have been with a separate frame. Moreover, unitary construction made it more difficult to provide the kind of tomb-like isolation from noise and harshness that American luxury buyers expected. Chrysler did eventually convert the Imperial to a unit body, but not until the 1967 model year.
The Imperial was generally a match for its contemporary in performance and features. In fact, it had more power than either, beating Cadillac and Lincoln by 25 hp (19 kW) and 50 hp (37 kW), respectively, and it had the best handling of the bunch. Still, buyers were not impressed. No '61 Imperial sold more than 5,000 copies, while Cadillac sold 66,177 Series 62s and 51,418 de Villes that year. The Cadillac Sixty Special, the closest equivalent to our photo subject, outsold the Imperial LeBaron by more than 15 to one. We attribute the Imperial's poor sales to its lack of badge cachet and its curious styling, which represented Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner at his most outré.
Let's look more closely at three aspects of the Imperial LeBaron: its name, its engine, and its transmission.
WHAT'S IN A NAME
We mentioned above that our photo subject is an Imperial LeBaron Southampton. The "Imperial" part we've addressed already. "Southampton," meanwhile, was Imperial nomenclature for a hardtop with no B-pillars. The term was somewhat redundant by 1961; Imperial previously offered pillared sedans, as well as two- and four-door hardtops, but they were dropped after 1960. The only 1961 Imperials that were not hardtops were the convertible and the rare Crown Imperial limousine.
What of LeBaron? It's a familiar name for Chrysler fans, having been recycled many times from the seventies through the early nineties, but not many now recall where it came from.
LeBaron was originally a freelance design firm, found in 1920 by Ray Dietrich and Thomas Hibbard. Dietrich and Hibbard were young stylists who had previously worked at Brewster & Co., the famous coachbuilder immortalized in song by Cole Porter ("You're the top / You're a Brewster body"). Both had dreams of starting their own business, and they made a plan to leave Brewster to found their own company. Their plans were accelerated unexpectedly when Willie Brewster learned of their ambitions and promptly fired them both. Undaunted, Dietrich and Hibbard rented office space in New York's Columbus Circle and established themselves as LeBaron Carrossiers. Neither was French -- Hibbard was from Brooklyn and Dietrich from the Bronx -- but they wanted a name that sounded Continental, and that was easy to pronounce over the telephone. After a slow beginning, they got a small contract from Grover Parvis, the influential New York distributor for Packard, and they were off and running.
Despite the "Carrossier" name, until 1924, LeBaron was not, technically speaking, a coachbuilder. Dietrich and Hibbard described themselves as "automotive architects," designing bodies for clients that would then be assembled elsewhere. In January 1924, the company merged with the Bridgeport Body Co., and reorganized as LeBaron, Inc., now with the capacity to built custom bodies, as well as design them.
Both the company's founders left early on. Hibbard, sent to Paris in 1923 to oversee the construction of two customer cars in Van den Plas's Belgian factory, ended up joining Howard (Dutch) Darrin, who wanted to started a new Paris-based design firm. Dietrich, meanwhile, departed to start his own Detroit-based business in 1925. (He later joined Chrysler, where he did the facelifts for the 1935-1937 Airflows; he was dismissed in 1940, after the death of Walter Chrysler, and subsequently became a consultant for Checker.) LeBaron, Inc. went on, however, developing an impressive reputation for stylish coachwork, built on some of the world's most prestigious chassis, including Isotta-Fraschini, Packard, Stutz, Lincoln, and Duesenberg.
In 1927, the Briggs Company purchased LeBaron, and set up a separate facility in Detroit. Briggs, founded in 1909, built bodies and components for a variety of manufacturers; one of its earliest contracts was for convertible top mechanisms for the Ford Model T. It was Briggs that built Hudson's highly influential 1922 Essex coach, the first popularly priced closed sedan. By 1925, Briggs built half a million bodies a year, and it eventually controlled 11 separate factories. Acquiring LeBaron allowed Briggs to offer design and styling services, as well as bodies, for both production cars and limited-production "factory customs." (Among LeBaron's post-Briggs achievements, notably, were several genuinely magnificent Chrysler Imperials.)
Without the backing of Briggs, LeBaron probably would not have survived the Depression, which saw the demise of most of the prestige cars that had been its bread and butter. For a time, LeBaron was able to make ends meet with consulting work for various automakers. By the end of World War 2, most of its regular clients had their own in-house design studios, and work became scarce. Many stylists were laid off, although quite a few LeBaron alumni, notably John Tjaarda, Alex Tremulis, and Bill Flajole, went on to successful careers elsewhere.
Walter O. Briggs died in early 1952, and his family decided to sell their stake in the company. Chrysler, which was by then Briggs' principal client, purchased the company and its factories in late 1953, for a reported $35 million. LeBaron still existed as a division of Briggs at the time of the buyout, but it was now redundant, and quickly ceased to exist in any meaningful sense.
Chrysler first used the LeBaron name as a model designation on the Imperial line in 1957. By 1961, it was the top trim series (barring the rare Crown Imperial limousine, of which only nine were sold). In 1971, it became the sole Imperial model, a distinction it retained until the Imperial marque was canceled in 1975.
Two years later, Chrysler applied the LeBaron name to its new M-body cars, which were essentially plusher versions of the humble Dodge Diplomat. In the eighties, the name was applied to several front-wheel-drive models based on the ubiquitous K-car platform. The Imperial, at least, had been the sort of car on which LeBaron would have worked, but its latter-day successors were humble, undistinguished compacts. The LeBaron nameplate made its final bow on the 1987-vintage J-body, the convertible version of which was the most popular ragtop of its era. The J-body LeBaron died in 1995, and Chrysler has not revived the name since then. Given the company's current state, it probably never will.
As we mentioned in our article on the Chrysler 300, back in 1951, Chrysler introduced its first V8 engine, the formidable Firepower "Hemi." Thanks to its hemispherical combustion chambers, the early Firepower made 20 horsepower (15 kW) more than Cadillac's V8, despite a nearly identical displacement of 331 cu. in. (5.4 L). By 1957, Chrysler had boosted the hemi to a then-unheard-of 390 gross horsepower (291 kW), making it the most powerful engine in the industry. It also became an enormously popular racing engine, which still powers dragsters today.
What's a hemispherical combustion chamber, and why does it make a difference? In a "hemi" engine, the combustion chamber is a partial sphere atop each cylinder, with the intake and exhaust valves on opposite sides and the spark plug roughly in the center. The hemisphere shape means that the combustion chamber has a low surface area for its volume, which means that there's less opportunity for the energy of combustion to escape as heat. That allows more of that energy to go toward moving the piston, increasing thermal efficiency. At the same time, having the intake valve opposite the exhaust valve (rather than next to it, as in an engine with wedge-shaped combustion chambers) provides an easier route for air and fuel to enter and leave the cylinders, which improves breathing (volumetric efficiency). Finally, by having the spark plug close to the center of the combustion chamber, it reduces the distance the spark has to travel to ignite the fuel mixture (the flame travel). All of these things make the engine more efficient, producing more power from a given displacement (greater specific output).
Unfortunately, few things in life come for free. The Firepower, like most American engines of its era, had a single camshaft located in the block, which operated the valves via long pushrods and stamped-steel rocker arms. Because of its widely space valves and centrally located spark plugs, the hemi engine required two rocker shafts for each cylinder head, rather than one (or the rocker-pivot studs used by Chevrolet and Pontiac V8s). This made the cylinder heads very wide and quite heavy. The Firepower weighed nearly 800 lb (call it 358 kg), almost 100 lb (45 kg) more than a contemporary Cadillac or Oldsmobile V8, and around 250 lb (113 kg) more than a small-block Chevy. Not only was it heavy, the hemi was also very expensive to produce -- enough that Plymouth developed a simpler V8 with "polyspherical" combustion chambers in the interests of production economy.
The Firepower was pricey, but having separate engines for the different divisions was not a luxury the corporation could easily afford. Instead, Chrysler decided to create a new series of "corporate" engines that could be shared across all five car divisions. The Firepower's hemi heads were too expensive, and the new corporate engineering team concluded that Plymouth's polyspherical heads offered no great advantage. Instead, the new engine would have convention wedge-shaped combustion chambers and a single rocker shaft, sacrificing efficiency for cost and weight savings.
THE B AND RB
The first of the new wedge-head engines, prosaically dubbed the "B-engine," appeared in 1958. The Chrysler and Imperial divisions retained the Firepower hemi, but it was living on borrowed time. The B was offered initially in 350 cu. in. (5.7 L) and 361 cu. in. (5.9 L) forms, with up to 320 gross horsepower (239 kW).
The less-efficient wedge engine couldn't match the Firepower's specific output, so Chrysler engineers determined that the big Chryslers and Imperials needed more displacement to keep pace. In 1959, Chrysler introduced the "RB" (for "raised B") engine, which raised the deck height of the cylinder block by 0.75 in (19 mm) to allow a longer piston stroke. The initial RB had a bore of 4.18 in (106 mm) and a stroke of 3.75 in (95 mm), giving a total displacement of 413 cu. in. (6.8 L). That was an increase of 21 cu. in. (345 cc) over the final Firepower engine, allowing Chrysler to claim a slight increase in power, despite somewhat lower specific output. As used in the Imperial, the 413 was rated at 350 gross horsepower (261 kW), compared to 345 hp (257 kW) for the old hemi.
Imperial buyers, of course, were not likely to go drag racing, and found the 413's power to be adequate. Motor Trend clocked a '61 Imperial LeBaron, equipped much like our photo subject, from 0-60 mph (0-97 kph) in 11 seconds. They did not record a top speed, but they estimated a maximum speed of 110 mph (176 kph) for a similar '62. Car Life, testing a slightly lighter car with fewer options, ran 0-60 mph in 10 seconds flat, trimming that to 9.4 seconds by manually shifting the automatic transmission. That still wasn't exhilarating performance, but it was certainly adequate, and a match for contemporary Cadillacs. Inevitably, the Imperial was thirsty, with an average fuel economy of around 12 mpg (19.6 L / 100 km).
Imperial retained the 413 until 1966, when it was bored out to a whopping 440 cu. in. (7.2 L), still rated conservatively at 350 gross horsepower (261 kW). It kept this engine through the end of the line in 1975, although lowered compression and added smog controls brought it down to a dismal 215 net horsepower (160 kW). (Thanks to Chrysler's adoption of SAE net power ratings in 1972, the difference is not nearly as vast as it would seem. The higher gross numbers of 1971 and earlier reflected an engine on a test stand, without accessories, and bore little resemblance to as-installed output.)
The B and RB engines proved to be very durable, and the series endured in various forms through 1978. The RB was eventually developed into a formidable racing engine, although some purists insisted that even the fearsome "Max Wedge" engines weren't as stout as the old Firepower. In 1964, Chrysler adapted hemi heads to the RB block, creating the legendary 426 Hemi, but that is a story for another day.
In today's automotive market, full of complex, electronically controlled, continuously variable transmissions; dual-clutch sequential gearboxes; and seven- and eight-speed automatics, the Imperial's three-speed TorqueFlite transmission seems a little quaint. In its day, however, it was probably the world's best automatic transmission.
By the late fifties, automatic transmissions had been available on some makes for over 15 years, but there was still little consensus on transmission design. GM's Hydra-Matic, used by Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Pontiac, among others, used a simple fluid clutch and four forward speeds. Buick's Dynaflow relied on its torque converter for gear reduction, and did not shift at all in normal driving, although it had a low gear that could be engaged manually. Chevrolet's Powerglide initially didn't shift, either, but was re-engineered in 1953 as a two-speed automatic, still augmented by a torque converter. Packard's Ultramatic was similarly shiftless until 1955, but featured a novel lock-up torque converter, for more efficient cruising. Meanwhile, Ford's Fordomatic and Merc-O-Matic (developed in partnership with Borg-Warner, which sold a similar transmission to Studebaker, AMC, and many foreign manufacturers) had a torque converter and three speeds, but started in second unless you manually selected Low and shifted for yourself. Then there were Buick's Flight Pitch/Triple Turbine Dynaflow and Chevy's ill-fated Turboglide, which strove to create something like a continuously variable transmission using a very complicated torque converter, without even an emergency low gear.
Each of these variations had its pros and cons. Hydra-Matic was flexible and relatively efficient, but prone to jerky shifts. Dynaflow and the early Powerglide and Ultramatic torque converter autoboxes were very smooth, but woefully inefficient, giving slow acceleration and dreadful fuel economy. The Borg-Warner/Fordomatic, meanwhile, wasn't very flexible or very smooth, and getting maximum performance out of it required considerable manual intervention.
CHRYSLER TAKES A HAND
Chrysler was one of the last American automakers to introduce a true automatic transmission. For many years, its conservative chairman, K.T. Keller, clung stubbornly to the company's various cumbersome "Fluid Drive" semi-automatic transmissions, which still required a manual clutch pedal. Chrysler's first real automatic, the two-speed PowerFlite, didn't arrive until 1953. Production was originally so limited that it was available only on the Imperial; it wasn't available in all Chrysler divisions until 1955.
PowerFlite was a decent transmission, but with only two speeds, its flexibility was somewhat limited, particularly with smaller engines. Even as it was introduced, Chrysler was already working on a follow-on, the three-speed TorqueFlite.
Aside from its other attributes, which proved to be considerable, the TorqueFlite was significant as the first production transmission to use what is now known as the Simpson gearset.
THE DYING ENGINEER
Howard W. Simpson was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1892. After World War 1, he went to work for the Henry Ford & Son (Fordson) Tractor Plant, Henry Ford's farm tractor company, which became a division of the Ford Motor Company in 1920. Simpson remained a Ford engineer for nearly two decades, designing transmissions for tractors and farm equipment, often in collaboration with Henry Ford himself.
Like Henry Ford, Simpson had an abiding interest in planetary (epicyclic) transmissions. Henry Ford had used a simple two-speed epicyclic gearbox for the Model T, and although market pressure led him to reluctantly abandon it for the later Model A, he remained convinced of its advantages. Consequently, Simpson became one of the industry's leading experts in the intricacies of epicyclic gearset design.
In 1938, Simpson left Ford Motor Company to become a freelance engineering consultant, again working primarily in transmission and planetary gearset design. In the early thirties, the planetary transmission had seemed outmoded for automotive use, but it experienced a resurgence later in the decade with the development of the first automatic transmissions. Planetary gearsets lent themselves more readily to automatic, hydraulic operation than did sliding-gear transmissions, and nearly all early automatics used planetary gears. In addition to his consulting work, Simpson also began to patent designs for epicyclic gearsets and automotive transmissions.
Simpson's career took a fateful turn in 1948, when he was diagnosed with cancer and told that he had only six months to live. He retired and moved with his family to the warmer, drier climes of the American Southwest, to pass his final days more comfortably. At his new home in Arizona, Simpson devoted considerable time to diagramming every layout he could conceive for multi-speed planetary transmissions. Hoping to provide for his family after his death, he patented as many of those arrangements as he could; he was eventually granted 23 patents in automotive transmission design.
Simpson's patent for what is now known as the "Simpson gearset" -- actually only one of the many transmission designs he created -- was granted in 1950. It was perhaps the most efficient possible layout for a three-speed automatic transmission. It used two identical planetary gearsets in series, sharing a common sun gear. It was immediately apparent that this design was lighter, more compact, smoother in operation, and cheaper than most alternative designs. In short, it was superior in nearly every respect to the automatic transmissions then in use or development.
Simpson, whose health did not deteriorate as quickly as the early prognosis suggested, traveled to Detroit to try to interest the major automakers in licensing his design. Despite his reputation, he found it surprisingly difficult; Detroit has long had a deep, intrinsic suspicion of any "NIH" ("Not Invented Here") ideas or technology. Ford Motor Company finally licensed Simpson's design in 1953, although they did not adopt it for a production transmission until 1958. (Since the company's Fordomatic had just been introduced in 1951, the company may have wanted to get their money's worth out of it before adopting a completely new design.) GM eventually licensed it, as well, as did Chrysler and Daimler-Benz, which used it for the three-speed automatic found in many 1970s Mercedes models.
The climate of the Southwest apparently did wonders for Simpson's health, for he lived 15 years after his initial diagnosis. He died in November 1963, at the age of 71. The royalties on his various patents -- 41, over the course of his lifetime -- eventually made him and his family millions of dollars.
Chrysler was not the first automaker to license the Simpson gearset, but they were the first to put it into production. The first Simpson-geared TorqueFlite transmission, the A-488, was introduced late in the 1956 model year, initially offered only in the Imperial and certain high-end Chrysler models. It became optional across the board in 1957, although the simpler, cheaper PowerFlite remained available on some models until 1961.
The TorqueFlite was smoother and less complex than GM's contemporary dual-coupling Hydra-Matic, and while it had only three forward speeds, its torque converter made it nearly as flexible. Unlike the two-speed Powerglide or PowerFlite, TorqueFlite had a throttle-controlled kickdown to second gear at speeds up to about 70 mph (113 kph) for highway passing. Unlike Fordomatic, it also started in first gear, and could be held in either of the lower gears all the way to redline. Drag racers quickly found that TorqueFlite gave up very little efficiency to a three-speed manual transmission, and it was quite sturdy.
The TorqueFlite's great party trick -- a Chrysler invention, not Simpson's, and shared with the earlier PowerFlite -- was its pushbutton controls. Unlike the troublesome "Teletouch" steering wheel controls of the 1958 Edsel, the buttons were purely mechanical; pressing them changed the effective length of the control cable, just like moving an ordinary shift lever.
The only serious faults of the TorqueFlite were its weight -- a hefty 220 lb (100 kg) -- and its lack of a Park position. The latter was initially considered superfluous, since Chrysler's parking brake operated not on the rear wheels, but on the transmission's output shaft. This was fine when parking on a hill, but it meant that any attempt to use the parking brake as an emergency brake would have disastrous consequences. Both these deficiencies were corrected on the scaled-down A-904 TorqueFlite used in the Valiant, which had a considerably lighter aluminum case and a proper parking pawl, operated by a small dashboard lever. The big cars adopted these features in 1962, with the introduction of the aluminum-case A-727. (For some peculiar reason, however, the Imperial retained the transmission-shaft parking brake until 1963.)
It was not until the arrival of GM's Turbo Hydramatic in 1964 -- also using a Simpson gearset -- that TorqueFlite had a serious rival anywhere in the world. Chrysler never licensed it as extensively as GM did the TH400, but TorqueFlite did find its way into a number of foreign makes, including Facel, Jensen, Monteverdi, and Bristol. AMC also licensed it, starting in 1972.
The TorqueFlite and its derivatives survived until 2001, although by then, it was very dated, and its survival reflected an ill-considered desire to economize, more than any mechanical virtue. To its credit, it was at least more reliable than Chrysler's first attempt at a modern overdrive automatic, the electronically controlled four-speed Ultradrive. Beefed-up TorqueFlites remain viable drag-racing automatics today.
# # #
NOTES ON SOURCES
Notes on the 1961 Imperial came from "Chrysler Imperial" by John R. Bond, from the July 1961 issue of Car Life, and an uncredited review in the July 1961 issue of Motor Trend. Both road tests are reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Chrysler Imperial 1951-1975 Gold Portfolio (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2004), pp. 85-89 and pp. 94-95, respectively.
Information on the history of LeBaron came from Mark Theobald's article on the history of LeBaron (2004, Coachbuilt.com, http://www.coachbuilt. com/ bui/l/ lebaron/ lebaron.htm, accessed 20 June 2009) and Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997).
The story of Howard Simpson came from the article "Man with a Pencil: Engineering Genius of the Modern Automatic Transmission," Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 10 (October 1964), pp. 82-85, and Ford R. Bryan, Henry's Lieutenants (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press: 1993), pp. 251-257. Additional information on the TorqueFlite transmission itself came from "The Legendary Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge Torqueflite automatic transmission" (Mike Sealey and Dan Stern, Allpar.com, http://www.allpar. com/ mopar/ torqueflite.html, accessed 19 June 2009), and from Simpson's patent (Howard W. Simpson, "Transmission," Patent No. 2518825, filing date June 27, 1946, issue date August 15, 1950.
Our source for the basic rationale of the Firepower Hemi included John Katz, "Why a Hemi?" from Special Interest Autos #135 (May-June 1993), while Chrysler's explanation for the switch to the wedge-head B engine was presented in Al Berger, "Chrysler 300E: 'E' Is for Eager," Speed Age March 1959. The latter is reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio (Brooklands Road Test Books) (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1992), pp. 30-33.