Empire Building: Three Stories about Chrysler’s Imperial

We thought we’d take a slightly different approach with this week’s subject. We’ve touched on Chrysler’s financial problems during this period. So, rather than a lengthy recap of the origins of the Imperial marque itself, we’ve decided to present you with three short stories about this 1961 Imperial LeBaron: its name, its engine, and its transmission.

1961 Imperial LeBaron headlights


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 a lavishly optioned example 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. 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 the Imperial LeBaron. Stretching 227.3 inches (5,774 mm) on a 129-inch (3,277mm) wheelbase, it is actually 5 inches (127 mm) longer than a contemporary Cadillac and 14.6 inches (371 mm) longer than a 1961 Lincoln Continental. The Imperial’s width is similarly daunting, at 81.7 inches (2,075 mm) overall, and curb weight is in the neighborhood of 5,250 lb (2,380 kg).

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton side
Among American production cars of this period, only Cadillac’s Series 75 and the rare Crown Imperial limousine were bigger than the 1961 Imperial. The 1958-1960 Lincolns were actually even larger, but both Lincoln and Cadillac “downsized” for 1961. Note the bright roof inserts above the doors; this is not chrome, but a stainless-steel appliqué, which was a feature of the Imperial LeBaron model.


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 Imperial 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 the data panel of Motor Life magazine’s July 1961 comparison test listed their 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 Torsion-Aire suspension and “Constant Control” power steering. As Car Life observed in July 1961, the fact that the Imperial cost twice as much as a Chrysler Newport didn’t hide the substantial similarities (in character as well as performance) between the two.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton front3q
The 1961 Imperial’s garish styling was the culmination of various themes that Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner had been exploring since the early fifties, many of which had appeared — often in less-extreme forms — on other Chryslers. The Imperial is rife with what designers call “surface excitement,” but its mixture of classical styling cues and space-age contrivances is rather uneasy. Perhaps it was simply ahead of its time; in the seventies, where baroque neo-classicist designs like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo were huge sellers, the early-sixties Imperial probably would have been a hit.

Beyond its price, size, and over-the-top styling, the 1961 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 unitized construction for cars this big. In those days, the use of computers for structural analysis was in its infancy (although Chrysler did use computers in developing the compact Valiant) and building a monocoque automobile of this size was largely uncharted territory. 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 1961 Imperial was generally a match for its contemporary rivals in performance and features. In fact, it had more power than either Cadillac or Lincoln, beating them by 25 hp (19 kW) and 50 hp (37 kW) respectively, and had the best handling of the bunch. Still, buyers were not impressed. No 1961 Imperial sold more than 5,000 copies while Cadillac sold 66,177 Series 62s and 51,418 de Villes. The Cadillac Sixty Special, Cadillac’s closest equivalent to our photo subject, outsold the Imperial LeBaron by more than 15 to 1. 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.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton rear
The 1961 Imperial LeBaron’s “Flitesweep” decklid — the fake Continental spare — was shared with contemporary Chryslers and even the Valiant, although the feature was optional on the Imperial. Exner’s love of this particular feature extended back to early-fifties Chrysler show cars like the K-310. Critics called it the “toilet seat.”

Let’s look more closely at three aspects of the Imperial LeBaron: its name, its engine, and its transmission.


We mentioned above that our photo subject is a 1961 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 because while Imperial previously offered pillared sedans as well as two- and four-door hardtops, the former 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.

1961 Imperial LeBaron badge
As with Cadillac’s Fleetwood badge, LeBaron was originally an independent coachbuilder that once designed and built stylish custom bodies on a variety of chassis ranging from Lincoln to Packard. Like Fleetwood, the name endured long after its origins had been forgotten.

LeBaron was originally a freelance design firm, founded 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. Both men 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 on New York’s Columbus Circle and established themselves as LeBaron Carrossiers. Neither of the partners was French — Hibbard was from Brooklyn, Dietrich from the Bronx — but the name, picked out of the phone book, seemed to add an air of Continental prestige. After a slow start, LeBaron got a small contract from Grover Parvis, the influential New York distributor for Packard, and were off and running.

Despite the “Carrossiers” name, LeBaron was, not technically, speaking a coachbuilder. Dietrich and Hibbard described themselves as “automotive architects,” designing bodies that would be assembled elsewhere. In January 1924, the company merged with the Connecticut-based 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 on business in 1923, ended up resigning while overseas and joining Howard (Dutch) Darrin in a new Paris-based design firm. Dietrich, meanwhile, departed to start his own Detroit-based business in 1925. (He later joined Chrysler, where he worked on facelifts for the 1936 Chrysler Airflow; he was dismissed in 1940 after the death of Walter Chrysler and subsequently became a consultant for Checker.) However, LeBaron, Inc. went on, 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.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton seats
The 1961 Imperial LeBaron came standard with leather and broadcloth upholstery, as shown here, generally in contrasting shades. Full cloth or full leather were optional. Note the fold-down armrest in the center of the rear seat and the absence of B-pillars. LeBarons were available only as four-door hardtops.

In 1927, LeBaron was bought out by the Briggs Manufacturing Company. Founded in 1910, Briggs was the largest independent coachbuilder in the U.S., with 11 factories turning out more than half a million bodies a year for various manufacturers, including Ford and Hudson. By acquiring LeBaron, Briggs was able to offer design and styling services as well as bodies for both production cars and limited-production “factory customs.” (Among LeBaron’s post-buyout achievements, notably, were several genuinely magnificent Chrysler Imperials.)

Briggs’ backing allowed LeBaron to survive the Depression, which brought the demise of most of the prestige cars (and many of the well-heeled buyers) that had been the design firm’s bread and butter. By 1931, Briggs had consolidated LeBaron’s operations in Detroit, where the firm’s designers continued to provide consulting work for other manufacturers. However, by outbreak of World War II, most of Briggs’ clients had their own in-house design studios, so work became increasingly scarce. Nonetheless, many Briggs/LeBaron alumni went on to successful careers elsewhere, including Alex Tremulis, Holden (Bob) Koto, and Bill Flajole (who would later design the Nash Metropolitan).

Briggs survived as an independent company until December 1953. Although the company still had major clients, including Chrysler, Hudson, and Packard, the Briggs family faced a massive inheritance tax bill following the death of founder Walter Briggs in January 1952 and opted to sell their interest to Chrysler. LeBaron still existed as a division of Briggs at the time of the buyout, but was now redundant and quickly ceased to exist in any meaningful sense.

Nonetheless, the LeBaron name still had some prestige, so Chrysler decided to use it as a model designation in the Imperial line beginning in 1957. By 1961, LeBaron had become the top trim series (excepting the rare Crown Imperial limousine, of which only nine were sold). In 1971, the LeBaron became the sole Imperial series, a distinction it retained until the Imperial marque was canceled in 1975.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton rear seat
The 1961 Imperial LeBaron had a different roof treatment than lesser Custom or Crown sedans, with stainless-steel inserts above the doors and a smaller rear window. The object was limousine-like privacy for rear passengers, which it achieved, albeit at the cost of poor rear visibility.

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 less illustrious. The LeBaron nameplate made its final bow (to date) 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.


As we mentioned in our article on the Chrysler Forward Look, 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 an identical displacement of 331 cu. in. (5,425 cc). By 1957, Chrysler had boosted the FirePower 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 that still powers dragsters today.

We’ve discussed the advantages of the FirePower engine in greater detail elsewhere, but they included superior volumetric efficiency (breathing) and thermal efficiency, providing greater specific output (power for a given displacement). Unfortunately, few things in life come for free and the FirePower also had several significant drawbacks that contributed to its early demise.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton front
The 1961 Imperial LeBaron’s standard (and sole) engine was the corporate 413 cu. in. (6,771 cc) V8, which was capable of a good deal more than the 350 gross horsepower at which it was rated. The 1960 Chrysler 300F used the same basic engine with a hotter cam, dual four-barrel carburetors, and a ram-induction manifold to make 400 gross horsepower (298 kW) and the later “Max Wedge” drag racing and NASCAR version were capable of well over 425 real horses (317 kW).

The FirePower, like most American engines of its era, had a single camshaft located in the block, actuating the valves via pushrods and stamped-steel rocker arms. Because of its widely spaced valves and centrally located spark plugs, the engine required two rocker shafts for each cylinder head. This made the cylinder heads very wide and quite heavy. The FirePower weighed a hefty 729 lb (331 kg), almost 200 lb (89 kg) more than Chevrolet’s new “Turbo-Fire” V8. Not only was it heavy, the FirePower was also very expensive to produce, enough so that Plymouth developed a simpler V8 with “polyspherical” combustion chambers and a single rocker shaft, 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 expensive Hemi and the complex polyspherical heads were both discarded in favor of conventional wedge combustion chambers and inline valves. That sacrificed a certain amount of volumetric efficiency, but allowed the heads to be lighter, more compact, and cheaper to build, with only a single rocker shaft per bank.


The first of the new wedge-head engines, prosaically dubbed the “B engine,” appeared in 1958 Dodge and DeSoto cars in 350 cu. in. (5,735 cc) and 361 cu. in. (5,913 cc) forms with up to 320 gross horsepower (239 kW). The Chrysler and Imperial divisions retained the FirePower in 1958, but it was living on borrowed time.

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. For 1959, Chrysler raised the deck height of the B engine block by 0.75 inches (19 mm), allowing a stroke increase from 3 3/8ths inches (85.7 mm) to 3 3/4ths inches (95.3 mm). With a bore of 4 3/16ths inches (106.4 mm), the “RB” (“raised B”) engine in the new Chrysler and Imperial displaced 413 cu. in. (6,771 cc), an increase of 21 cu. in. (346 cc) over the final FirePower engine. Despite its greater displacement, the RB was 101 lb (46 kg) lighter than the FirePower.

Although Chrysler claimed that power was undiminished and torque slightly improved, the B and RB engines didn’t have quite the same mystique as the FirePower, so Chrysler Corporation performance cars adopted ram induction (described in greater detail in our article on the 1960 Dodge Polara D-500). Imperial buyers, who weren’t likely to go drag-racing, did not get the cross-ram system, just the ‘plain’ 413 RB engine, which in this application was rated at 350 gross horsepower (261 kW) (340 hp (254 kW) from 1963 on) and 470 lb-ft (635 N-m) of torque, up from 345 hp (257 kW) and 450 lb-ft (608 N-m) for the 392 cu. in. (6,425 cc) FirePower.

In the heavy Imperial, even that prodigious output (which we must hasten to point out was in the old SAE gross system, not the DIN or modern SAE net methodology) provided only adequate performance: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in perhaps 11 seconds, a top speed of maybe 110 mph (176 km/h) — comparable to a contemporary Cadillac and a bit quicker than a contemporary Lincoln. You could shave a half-second or more by manually shifting the transmission, but we can’t imagine many Imperial owners bothered. The price for this adequate but not exhilarating performance was thirst ranging from about 11 mpg (21.4 L/100 km) in town or driving aggressively or perhaps as much as 15 mpg (15.6 L/100 km) in relaxed highway cruising. Naturally, premium leaded fuel was required.

Imperial retained the 413 cu. in. (6,771 cc) engine until 1966, when the adoption of new foundry techniques (the use of furan resin heat-treated sand cores for casting) allowed Chrysler to expand the bore to 4.32 inches (109.7 mm), bringing total displacement to a whopping 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc). The Imperial’s engine still had conservative ratings of 350 gross horsepower (261 kW) and 480 lb-ft (648 N-m) of torque, but the 440 put new spring in the big car’s step. The Imperial retained the bigger engine through the end of the line in 1975, although lower compression and added emissions controls eventually trimmed output to only 215 net horsepower (160 kW). (Again, the earlier ratings were SAE gross, so the adoption of net ratings in 1972 made the loss of power look more dramatic than it really was.)

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 still insisted that even the fearsome ram-induction and “Max Wedge” engines weren’t as stout as the old FirePower. In 1964, Chrysler adapted updated FirePower heads to the RB block, creating the legendary 426 Hemi (6,974 cc, for our metric readers), but that is a story for another day.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton tailfin
1962 Imperial LeBaron taillight
The 1961 Imperial LeBaron (top) was the pinnacle of Chrysler’s tailfin era; the fins were greatly reduced the following year. (Compare it with the fin of a 1962 Imperial LeBaron, bottom.) The free-standing taillamps were a gimmick that Virgil Exner had applied to the Imperial in various forms since 1955 — they look neat in twilight, but are terribly vulnerable to minor collisions and vandalism.


In today’s automotive market, full of complex, electronically controlled or continuously variable transmissions; dual-clutch sequential gearboxes; and seven-, eight-speed, and nine-speed automatics, the Imperial’s three-speed TorqueFlite transmission seems a little quaint. In its day, however, it was arguably 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 coupling and four forward speeds. Buick’s Dynaflow had a low gear that could only be engaged manually, but primarily relied on its torque converter for torque multiplication. Chevrolet’s original Powerglide was originally much the same, 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 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 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 Chevrolet’s ill-fated Turboglide, which used very complicated multi-turbine torque converters without even an emergency low gear.

Each of these variations had its pros and cons. Hydra-Matic was flexible and quite efficient, but hugely complex and prone to jerky shifts. Dynaflow and the early Powerglide and Ultramatic torque converter autoboxes were very smooth but woefully inefficient, giving slow acceleration and heavy fuel consumption. The Borg-Warner/Fordomatic layout, meanwhile, wasn’t very flexible or very smooth and getting maximum performance out of it required manual intervention.

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.


Born in 1892 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Howard W. Simpson studied engineering at the University of Michigan and after World War I went to work for Henry Ford’s farm tractor company, the Henry Ford & Son (Fordson) Tractor Plant. Fordson became a division of the Ford Motor Company in 1920, but Simpson remained with Ford for almost two decades, working principally on transmissions for tractors and farm equipment.

Much of Simpson’s thinking on transmission design involved planetary (or epicyclic) gearsets rather than spur gears. Henry Ford, of course, had long been a committed supporter of planetary transmissions, which he considered simpler to use than gearboxes with sliding spur gears. The rest of the U.S. industry had largely abandoned planetary gears by World War I, but after the war, epicyclic gearing had seen a gradual renaissance, first for preselector gearboxes and later for the emerging breed of semiautomatic and automatic transmissions.

One of the advantages of planetary gearsets, and one of the things that appears to have most interested Simpson, is their versatility. Depending on which elements are driving, held stationary, or locked together, a single epicyclic gear train can potentially yield several different ratios in forward or reverse. (Planetary gears can also be used as differentials or to combine several torque inputs into one.) The brakes and clutches that determine those ratios can be operated by different mechanical, hydraulic, electromagnetic, or pneumatic means and thus lend themselves to various forms of automation. GM’s original Hydra-Matic, for example, used three hydraulically controlled planetary gearsets to provide four forward speeds plus reverse. Simpson would later patent an epicyclic transmission providing 12 speeds from only two planetary gearsets.

In 1939, Simpson left Ford Motor Company for Detroit Harvester, where he served as chief engineer until 1943. He subsequently became a freelance engineering consultant, again working primarily in transmission and drivetrain design. In 1944, he developed (and filed a patent on) a new hydraulically operated six-speed planetary transmission for tractors, followed in 1946 by a three-speed passenger car unit. The latter was ingeniously simple, using two planetary gearsets, but only one brake band and a clever cone clutch that was capable of locking together any two or all three of the elements of the front gearset.

At first, it didn’t appear that Simpson would live long enough to exploit these patents (which were not granted until 1950). In 1947, he was diagnosed with what appeared to be terminal cancer and had to set aside his work to focus on treatment. The initial prognosis turned out to be overly pessimistic — Simpson survived 17 years after his original diagnosis — but his convalescence was protracted and he retreated from Detroit for a time in favor of gentler climates in California and the American Southwest. Nonetheless, he did continue to work at least sporadically, filing a new (though ultimately unsuccessful) patent application in 1948.

By 1951, Simpson had recovered enough to rededicate himself to his work on planetary transmissions, filing a series of new patent applications late that year. Intended to address the limitations of his earlier designs, his latest applications covered several additional improvements on the three-speed/dual-planetary layout, now using two multi-disc (rather than cone) clutches and multiple brake bands, sometimes supplemented with overrunning clutches. (The point of providing both a band and a one-way clutch was to simplify shift action in Drive while still allowing on-demand downshifts.)

The key identifying feature of the so-called “Simpson gearset” — which actually encompassed several distinct variations on the same theme — was that both planetary gearsets shared a single common sun gear and used sets of identical (though not shared) ring and planet gears. (By contrast, the popular “Ravigneaux gearset,” invented by French engineer Pol Ravigneaux, used sun gears with a common planet carrier and interconnected planet gears.) While Simpson’s arrangement limited both the range and relationship of possible gear ratios, the arrangement had definite advantages in tooling and manufacturing costs. The actual selection of those gears was also considerably simpler and more elegant than that of GM’s complicated Hydra-Matic, allowing smoother shifts (particularly with the use of overrunning clutches) without sacrificing efficiency, positive engagement, or the possibility of manual control.

Simpson quickly discovered that even those obvious advantages did not make his designs an easy sell in Detroit. While he was a well-respected auto industry veteran, that wasn’t enough to overcome major manufacturers’ pronounced disdain for “NIH” (“Not Invented Here”) ideas or technology. Moreover, most of the inventors who had previously broken through that barrier — like Earl Thompson, designer of GM’s “Silent Synchro-Mesh” gear synchronization system and later one of the principal architects of the first Hydra-Matic — had been able to present working models of their designs, something Simpson wasn’t in a financial position to do. Ultimately, however, he managed to patent so many different iterations of his invention that automakers who wanted to take advantage of the basic idea had no alternative but to seek a licensing agreement.

In mid-1953, Ford Motor Company became Simpson’s first licensee, although Ford didn’t actually adopt the Simpson gearset for any production transmission until the early sixties. (Since the company’s own Fordomatic had just been introduced for 1951, Ford may have wanted to get their money’s worth out of the existing tooling before adopting a completely new design.) Ford was followed in 1955 by Chrysler and in the early sixties by General Motors and eventually Daimler-Benz. All of GM’s three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic transmissions would use the Simpson gearset, as would the three-speed torque converter automatic introduced by Mercedes-Benz in the early seventies. This is not to say these transmissions were identical — each had unique features of its own — but all were based on Simpson patents.

Simpson remained busy with his engineering work and in the Dearborn community into the early sixties. He continued to invent and patent new planetary transmissions, including the aforementioned 12-speed unit (described in U.S. Patent No. 3,031,901, issued 1 May 1962). By the time he died in November 1963 at the age of 71, he had a total of 40 patents in his name (including ones assigned to Ford or Detroit Harvester), 23 of those in transmission design. A 41st and final patent was filed a month and a half after his death and issued in 1967.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton dashboard
Chrysler adopted this peculiar squared-off steering wheel in 1960. It was supposedly intended to provide better knee room, but a smaller, round wheel would have worked just as well, particularly with Imperial’s standard power steering. This 1961 Imperial LeBaron is lavishly equipped, with both Auto Pilot (Chrysler’s name for cruise control) and front and rear air conditioning. The latter was a very expensive option — more than $700, the price of a good used car in those days. The left pod contains the transmission controls while the right has the heater controls. Imperials of this vintage have full instrumentation with a 120-mph (193-km/h) speedometer.


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. TorqueFlite became optional across the board in 1957, although the simpler, cheaper PowerFlite remained available on some models until 1961.

TorqueFlite was smoother and vastly less complex than GM’s contemporary dual-coupling Hydra-Matic. While TorqueFlite had only three forward speeds to the Hydra-Matic’s four, the Chrysler transmission’s torque converter made it nearly as flexible as the four-speed GM transmission. Unlike the two-speed Powerglide or PowerFlite, TorqueFlite had a throttle-controlled kickdown to second gear at speeds up to about 70 mph (113 km/h) for highway passing. Unlike the Ford and Borg-Warner transmissions, TorqueFlite 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 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.

1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton TorqueFlite pushbuttons
A closer view of the pushbutton controls for the TorqueFlite transmission. Some drivers liked the positive operation of the buttons, which were — if everything was in working order — a lot less vague than were many contemporary column shifters, but drag racers had to be very careful not to punch Reverse or Neutral by accident, either of which could have dire consequences. Buyer resistance and government regulations on standardized controls for fleet cars led Chrysler to abandon the pushbuttons after 1964.

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 could have expensive consequences. Both these deficiencies were corrected on the scaled-down A-904 TorqueFlite used in the Valiant, which had a simplified internal layout, 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, which was about 60 lb (27 kg) lighter and significantly more compact than the iron-case A-488. However, for some peculiar reason, the Imperial retained the transmission-shaft parking brake until 1963, when Imperials also received a new automatic parking brake release system.

It was not until the arrival of GM’s Turbo Hydra-Matic 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 Vega, Jensen, Monteverdi, and Bristol. AMC also licensed the transmission 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.

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Notes on the 1961 Imperial came from John R. Bond, “Chrysler Imperial, Car Life July 1961, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004), pp. 85–89; Tim Howley, “SIA comparisonReport: 1957 Imperial, Cadillac, Lincoln,” Special Interest Autos #118 (August 1990), pp. 30–37, 66; “Imperial,” Car Facts 1962, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 96–97; the Imperial Club website’s “(Chrysler) Imperials by Year” pages (www.imperialclub. com, accessed 20 June 2009); “Imperial Crown: Comfort Competitor in the Luxury League,” Car Life January 1967, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 118–123; Richard Langworth, Chrysler & Imperial 1946-1975: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); Bob McVay, “Imperial,” Motor Trend August 1963, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 99–103; “New 1963 Imperial Retains Styling Continuity; Adds Many Improvements,” Automobile Topics October 1962, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, p. 98; Bob Russo, “Three for the Money,” Motor Life July 1961, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 90–95; John G. Tennyson, “SIA comparisonReport: 1961 Cadillac, Imperial and Lincoln,” Special Interest Autos #105 (May-June 1988), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Cadillacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 102–109; and “Testing the Luxury Cars,” Motor Life August 1960, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 74–79.

Information on the history of LeBaron came from Howard “Dutch” Darrin, “My American Safari: Further Adventures in the Automotive Jungle,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1 (First Quarter 1972), pp. 36-45; “Dodge Diplomat, Plymouth Gran Fury, Chrysler New Yorker, Fifth Avenue, Town & Country, and Caravelle,” Allpar.com, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 20 June 2009; James M. Flammang and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Chrysler Chronicle: An Illustrated History of Chrysler – DeSoto – Dodge – Eagle – Imperial – Jeep – Plymouth (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1998); George Hamlin and Dwight Heinmuller, “All-New Contour Styling: The Twenty-Fourth and the Twenty-Fifth Series, 1951-1952,” and “America’s New Choice in Fine Cars: The Twenty-Sixth and the Fifty-Fourth Series, 1953-1954,” Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company (Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marque Books), 3rd ed., Beverly Rae Kimes (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly Publications (CBS Inc.), 1978; Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Mark Theobald’s articles on the history of Brewster, Briggs, LeBaron Carrossiers, and LeBaron Inc. and his bio of Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin (2004, Coachbuilt, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 20 June 2009); and James Arthur Ward, The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

The story of Howard Simpson came from Ford R. Bryan, Henry’s Lieutenants (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press: 1993), pp. 251-257; Joseph M. Callahan, “Design of Dying Engineer Sweeping Auto Industry,” Automotive News 6 July 1964; “Man with a Pencil: Engineering Genius of the Modern Automatic Transmission,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 10 (October 1964), pp. 82-85; and from the following patents: Howard W. Simpson, “Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 2,518,824 A, filed 16 September 1944, issued 15 August 1950; “Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 2,518,825 A, filed 27 June 1946, issued 15 August 1950; “Hydrodynamically Driven Planetary Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 2,749,773 A, filed 15 December 1951, issued 12 June 1956; “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,749,775 A, filed 27 December 1951, issued 12 June 1956; “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,749,777 A, filed 15 December 1951, issued 12 June 1956; “Planetary Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 2,786,369 A, filed 6 February 1953, issued 26 March 1957; “Variable Speed Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 2,826,936 A, filed 3 August 1953, issued 18 March 1958; “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,856,794 A, filed 13 December 1955, published 21 October 1958; “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,856,795 A, filed 11 Juune 1956, published 21 October 1958; “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,873,625 A, filed 4 April 1957, issued 17 February 1959; “Twelve Speed Power Shift Planetary Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 3,031,901 A, filed 23 September 1959, published 1 May 1962; and “Heavy Duty Planetary Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 3,319,491 A, filed 24 December 1963, issued 16 May 1967.

Additional information on the PowerFlite and TorqueFlite transmissions came from Robert Ackerson, Chrysler 300 ‘America’s Most Powerful Car’ (Godmanstone, England: Veloce Publishing Plc., 1996); “Chrysler 300: Package of TNT for the Big-Car Fan,” Car Life April 1966, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, pp. 161–165; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, 2nd ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Ken Fermoyle, “Driver’s Report—Chrysler 300B,” Motor Life May 1956, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1992), p. 111; Philip G. Gott, Changing Gears: The Development of the Automotive Transmission (SAE Historical Series) (Warrendale, PA: Society of American Engineers, 1991); Tom McCahill, “McCahill Tests The Imperial,” Mechanix Illustrated August 1956, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 38–39; “Road Testing Chrysler’s Power Flite ….” Speed Age November 1953, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 20–24; Mike Sealey and Dan Stern, “The Legendary Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge Torqueflite automatic transmission,” Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 19 June 2009; Wilbur Shaw, “Shaw Drives the New Ford-Mercury Transmission,” Popular Science December 1950, pp. 94–98; and William K. Toboldt and Larry Johnson, Goodheart-Willcox Automotive Encyclopedia (South Holland, IL: The Goodheart-Willcox Company, Inc., 1975).

Additional information on the switch from the FirePower Hemi to the wedge-head B engine came from Al Berger, “Chrysler 300E: ‘E’ Is for Eager,” Speed Age March 1959, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, pp. 30-33; Ray Brock, “Chrysler At Its Best … 300,” Hot Rod Februry 1962, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, pp. 146–151; Arch Brown, “The Wedge With the Edge,” Special Interest Autos #72 (November-December 1982), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 46–53; “Chrysler 300,” Car and Driver November 1965, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, pp. 74–75; “New Chrysler 300E Most Powerful Ever Built,” Automobile Topics January 1959, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, p. 127; “SCI Road Test: Chrysler 300-E,” Sports Cars Illustrated August 1959, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, pp. 34–35; “The B Engines: 350, 361, 383, and 400,” and “The RB Engines: 383-413-426-440,” Allpar.com, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 20 June 2009; “The 1959 Imperial,” Motor Life November 1958, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 58–59; and Jim Whipple, “Imperial (Car Life 1958 Consumer Analysis),” Car Life May 1959, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951–1975, pp. 68–71.

Our inflation estimates were based on the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls. gov/ cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. Please note that the inflation figures cited in the text are approximate and are provided solely for general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on the historical value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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  1. I stumbled onto “AUWM” a couple months ago. I have to say, another excellent article! Throughout the sixties, the rap against Exner, and by extension Chrysler, was sticking with fins for too long. The 1961 Imperial is guilty as charged. But, when viewed out of their contemporary context, Exner’s designs seem to get more interesting to me with each passing year. Suggested topic for a future article: the Fify Million Dollar Look Chysler Corp cars of ’57. CEO Tex Colbert accelerated the introduction of these cars (they were originally planned as ’58 models), creating a styling sensation (and panic at GM design studios, as you ably cover elsewhere). However, the challenge caused a personal tragedy for Exner, and ultimately, Chrysler.

  2. This was my Imperial that I sold last year to another Collector. I was the 3rd owner and loved this year Imperial. I believe this car has been sold to some one else. Glad to see your story.


  3. Cable operated TouqueFlites had a valve-body circuit that prevented inadvertent shifts into reverse by inhibiting the shift above a certain forward speed. Many drivers of push button Mopars have a story of pushing the reverse button to make the back up lights come on to ,eh, “excite” following motorists, knowing it will have no ill effects. To themselves, that is.

  4. Just a few comments from an owner of one of those original 1026 ’61 Imperial Lebarons… The pictured car’s front turn signal lenses are amber; they should be clear with amber bulbs. For model year ’63, the lenses changed to amber. However, the car does have the very hard to find LeBaron-only wheelcovers.

    Years ago, I saw an ad that claimed 44 ’61 LeBarons were still registered. Have no idea of that number is anywhere near correct, but statistically it sounds about right and underscores the rarity of these cars.

    1. Interesting — I don’t think I would have ever grasped that the lenses were the wrong color, so I didn’t think to ask.

  5. In the scheme of things, hardly noticeable and who knows WHY they changed them for ’63. In car-position, you can barely see the lenses. In fact, one of the cool things about the setup is that you really only see the amber-colored flash against the headlamp chrome when they illuminate. My nitpick was just because the otherwise excellent car/article might be a reference point.

  6. Ah the torqeflite. I have an 89 Jeep which I use on a near daily basis. It has the TF999 version, no lockup or electronics and just feels right.

    I had the seals redone a few years ago (was not expensive) and that trans is still going strong at over 300,000 miles. I’m no sure many of the current crop will last that long.

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