To The Azimuth, Flying On Our Moods

It will be hard to keep this post focused on ashtrays since the car taking centre stage today represents a new-for-me footnote in N. American automotive history: Imperial (by Chrysler)

The very top of the range: 1974 Imperial Le Baron coupe, detail.

It’s back to E-Z Biler in Them, Denmark. It’s back to 1974, the year from which this car comes, a time when drinking, smoking and consuming huge amounts of petrol all very suddenly became less and less desirable in relation to motoring.

Since this car was probably conceived just before the first oil crisis, it’s in many ways a fantastic representative of the peak of the post-war period mentality, with its innocent (or ignorant) unfettered consumption. With money flowing so freely, the incentive to chase it by offering wilder and wilder flights of consumer fancy was huge. And irresistible. That is the only way to
explain the florid, lavish, baroque intricacy of the car, inside and out. It was all coming to a big, ugly end.

By 1974 the world had changed markedly. There remained at that point in time just one more model year before the Chrysler Corporation could no longer find the strength, resources or simple will-power to bring themselves to carry on with their Imperial nameplate.

1974 Imperia Le Baron coupe.

From 1955 to 1975 the Imperial nameplate stood at the summit of Chrysler’s brand hierarchy: this car is not a Chrysler Imperial, it is an Imperial Le Baron 7,2. The Imperial brand served as Chrysler Corporation’s competitor in the upper price ranges where Lincoln and Cadillac hunted for customers.  After 1975 the Imperial name was used on upper-level Chryslers, a fall from grace of astounding severity. Only Ghia has experienced the same plummet, once a great carrosierre, ending as a trim-option on otherwise standard Fords.

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Looking especially at the interior, this car has everything designers imagined a luxury car should have in terms of visual opulence. The buttoned velour seats strike me as the feature that deserves the cherry-on-the-cherry on top award. There are 12 buttons on the seat and I think 8 would have sufficed. The dozen reaches the point of visual fullness that a modest 8 would not have managed. It is as if the definition of enough is “a little too much”. If in doubt, add something.

I have to say that I find I leave my ethical, moral and aesthetic compass at the sill of this car once I lowered myself into the green expanse of driver’s bench. It’s spectacular in there, possibly only equalled by other vast coupés and saloons from the same time. Nothing today, except maybe a Rolls-Royce, could feel as expansive or commodious.

A Silver Shadow of the same period has it licked for quality but, I dare say it, this Le Baron is huger in every dimension except height. The Le Baron makes a Rolls Royce feels modest (or appropriately sized). And sure enough, the Le Baron is a full half-metre longer than the Roller. Go back to Crewe whimpering, little man.

The more informed and astute of our N American readers will find this detail unsurprising. The Imperial saloon could be counted amongst the longest non-stretched cars ever made. The Imperial Le Baron saloon measured 5.98 metres, a few centimetres ahead of the 1975 Buick Electra 225. After this, downsizing and front-wheel drive-asizing.

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Here’s the rear of the passenger compartment (below). If you turned that styling theme into a sofa, it’d be pretty horrible. I did a picture search of 1970 sofas and none really match this look. That could be a consequence of the fact too few people want to post such images. Or it could be a consequence of the fact the look is sui-generis, something summoned up by designers disconnected from the rest of the currents in industrial design and architecture.

1974 Imperial Le Baron interior – there is an arm-rest there: source

The part of the experience of sitting in this car that will stay with me is the distinct feeling of my seating position and attitude in the car. Despite the car’s large dimensions and quite formal appearance, the seating position is low and stretched out compared to almost every other car I have driven. Key to this is the sensation that my hip was near to the floor and that my heels were a lot further away from my hip than usual. My spine did not feel so far off vertical though. Imagine if you sawed 20 centimetres off a dining room chair and you are getting at what I mean.

I have made a little sketch to try to convey the seating position in the car: the lower hip point is the key:

This might be the chance to discuss the ashtrays. The one in the centre of the dashboard was a classic drawer-type, clinging to the undercroft: wide, deep and not that near to the driver, really. You’d have to lean forward to get to it. The door ashtrays could be classed as flip-lid types. They had two axles (north-south) and you open them by catching your thumb or little finger on a small tab. There was a rubber button inside the ashtray to damp the lid’s closure (so it did not snap or click) when shutting. Notice the fake walnut veneer.

I’d say to anyone who had the cash, buy this car and drive it a few tankfuls a year. It’s pretty rare – they only made a few thousand of them. It would really mark out high days and holidays. Perhaps taking it on a two-week tour would be a good way to use it. The Detroit Americo-Victorian interior would make for a good-humoured and jolly trip from destination to destination.

Counterpoint now.  Without taking anything away from the Imperial’s charm, I can see that what is appealing about the car is not unique to it. I imagine many of the other 5.5 metre -plus cars would offer the same sense of McMansion-on-wheels grandeur. I also can’t detect any qualitative difference between this and smaller American cars of the same era, there’s just more detailing (like the 12 buttons).

When you close the door, the door feels big but it feels hollow. Close the door of the much-smaller Mercedes C-123, for example and you sense good fit and tight tolerances and solidity. An Alfa Romeo Giulia of 1975 feels more solid too.

What kind of choice is that though. I don’t want to fetishise door-slam haptics – the Le Baron is definitely a more comfortable vehicle to sit in; it’s fast enough too. It has presence. The fine-engineered Mercedes door-slam experience won’t add one cubic centimetre to the car’s interior space or get you there faster. Interestingly, though this fine door-clunk served as a hook to snag movers and shakers, people who didn’t feel like they needed an excess of detailing and instead wanted less but better.


So very American: source

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

27 thoughts on “To The Azimuth, Flying On Our Moods”

  1. This car is living (driving) proof of how far European and American requirements (let alone tastes) are apart.

    I’d prefer a C107 any time, thanks.

  2. “I did a picture search of 1970 sofas and none really match this look. That could be a consequence of the fact too few people want to post such images.”
    There’s probably a Facebook group for that.

  3. All the North American cars of that era had roof heights of 54 inches or less. As a result, the H points on these cars were low. And, they did not push the floor heights down to ground clearance level (like Jaguar did with the XJ6) which left the American tanks with the extraordinary small H point to heel point height, and the feeling of sitting on the floor.

    As a result, even huge cars were not great on leg space. They really were extraordinarily inefficient.

    When GM redid its full sized cars in 1977, they raised the roof heights 2-3 inches, raised the H points 2-3 inches, and created more roomy, comfortable cars with wheelbases a foot shorter.

    1. Yes, sitting on the floor is exactly the feeling you get from this vehicle. What was the driver for 54 inches and not, say, 55? Over the length of a car like this you´d never notice that extra height.
      And yes, all my visits to American cars underline the notion that they are wide inside but not long.

    2. The driver of the low roof heights was just styling: “longer, lower wider…”

      They were all like that in that era, Cadillac, other GM, Lincoln/Ford, Chrysler, all their full size cars would be under 55 inches.

      It was ridiculous. Cars of 230 inches long, 80 inches wide and 54 inches high. They were at least ten percent longer and wider than an Xj6. They could have had a 59 inch roof height and looked just as sleek as an Xj6.

    3. Reminds me of the Citroën CX. It height (136 cm) is roughly equivalent to 54 inches. You have the same impression of stretched-out legs there. Getting in when the car sits low on its bumpers without hydraulic pressure even reinforces that sensation.
      The benefit of this – other than a sleek shape – is of course a very low centre of gravity which contributes to the CX’s great combination of soft suspension and great roadholding. I’m not sure how much the American cars profited of this.

  4. Good morning, Richard. Regarding 70’s sofa design, I think this is the sort of thing you had in mind:

    The aesthetic of 70’s American cars is quite extraordinary for its lack of any sense of dynamism. The resolutely square-rigged exteriors, even down to the wheel arches in many cases, seems to deny their primary (only?) function as a means of transport. If the designers could have found a practical way of concealing the wheels completely, I imagine they would have done do. Likewise, the interiors seemed designed to replicate contemporary domestic style and have hardly any automotive references.

    This is not intended as a criticism, merely an observation. If the auto industry ultimately achieves the goal of autonomous self-driving cars, then the domestic interiors aesthetic is likely to reassert itself.

    1. I can see the similarity yet the LeBaron looks even more ornate. There´s a neatness to the sofas that is not there in the car, even accounting for wear. The car has much deeper button craters, it´s way puffier and with more ruching.
      The interiors of these cars was indeed unmoored from the rest of design. Trains and airplaine interiors looked like train and airplane interiors; was the intention to use the semantics of the private home as opposed to the durable look of horrible, communistic public transport, perhaps?

    2. I think car interiors have always more or less followed domestic interior aesthetic. From the crushed velvet green armchairs above reflected in the car of the era like this Chrysler to the stain-resistant, black or grey comtemporary design found in today’s interiors. While domectic interior fashions tend to come and go, perhaps each era still had its own distinct flavour that we could find translated inside cars of the same vintage.

      If anything the green velours seats of this Lebaron reflected maybe the heavy-set, chintzy and opulent way some American houses were decorated at the time. Today it’s perhaps more standardised, just like fashion where the same stores are found all over the planet, the difference between American and European tastes is less marked but the cool minimalism found globally in some of today’s cars maybe follows the (Ikea ?) aesthetic found in many comtemporary homes.

    3. Also I think these opulent American car interiors reflected maybe the comfort and carefree mentality found during these times in America. Despite the Vietnam or 1st Iraq war, I think Americans had a comfortable lifestyle mainly unaffected by worldwide turmoil and the prevailing spirit was still perhaps showing your wealth and enviable position off to the world.
      And I can’t help but think these cars were made for cruising and showing off so armchairs that big make sense.
      The relatively small space found inside depsite the gargantuan size shows perhaps that the main goal was to have an imposing car that commands attention, a bit like the imposing nature of the McMansions and skyscrapers, and interior space was secondary or thought-of as more than enough for 4 human beings and their belongings.

    4. To summarise, I think this is what a young couple of nouveaux riche from Texas in 1975 thought was the epitome of class and style.

    5. ……Omg I can almost hear the ice cubes inside the square glass of Bourbon his wife fixed him before he parked the car in front of the house.

    6. The button seating didn’t die out in the 1970s (unfortunately). Here is the pillow top interior for a Cadillac Brougham in 1992.

    1. Maybe it has something to do with the silliness of the idea. They are interesting though maybe not in a good way. Semantically, the lamps are understood as the car´s eyes; anthropomorphism plays a big part in how we read a shape. If the lamps are eyes, covered lamps suggest closed eyes or even death. Also, the offer a potential hazard if they do not operate as needed. You can say bulbs fail and they do. A car with covered lamps now has two grounds for potential failure instead of one. What advantage do they confer on a vertical surface? They are not more wind-cheating. At least a long low-sports car can save a bit of fuel when the pop-up lamps are closed. This land yacht can not make such a claim.

    2. Here is the best example of pop-up headlamps, ever:

      Joking aside, I’m surprised that the US authorities allowed concealed headlamps that required an additional mechanical operation for them to work, while simultaneously enforcing standardised “sealed beam” headlamps* that could be bought at every gas station, in order to prevent cars being driven with a failed unit.

      *Two 7″ round or four 5 3/4″ round units. From 1974, two large or four small “equivalent” rectangular units were also permitted. From 1983, customised units with replaceable bulbs were permitted, ostensibly to improve aerodynamic performance.

    3. Regarding the plush interiors and in particular the button cushion style, these recall the horse-drawn coach era.

      Hidden headlights were a signifier of modernism, even though it seems an awkward juxtaposition alongside intentionally “classic” elements. Since US regulations made size, shape, and lens design variations impossible, they also became a means to differentiate a design from the common and mundane.

      There is also a “coolness factor” similar to dark sunglasses, which helps explain decorated headlight doors.

  5. For a second when I saw the ‘LeBaron’ badge above I thought this must be where Lebron as a firstname comes from. It made sense. They’re lots of girls called Lexus in the U.S after all. Sadly it isn’t related,apparently it comes from ‘Lebrun’ in French meaning the brown haired one.

    1. We had a rented LeBaron convertible in California in 1993, with the model name embossed in italic script on the passenger side of the dashboard. My partner spent a fortnight wondering why Chrysler had named the car after a troubled Middle-Eastern country which was still recovering from a prolonged civil war…

    2. Regarding the LeBaron script one thing springs to my mind: can anybondy imagine an old Benz or BMW with a butt joint in its trim that badly executed as the one in the picture in a place where the eye is invariably drawn by the lettering?
      Compared to this, even the cheesy ‘V12’ badges on the W140’s C pillar look like good taste…

  6. My experience of this car was when they renamed it Chrysler New Yorker Brougham and flogged quite a few from 1976 to 1978. Our company agent in one city had a ’76 which he would pilot around town with a whiff of throttle and a tuneless whistle while getting up to perhaps 50 km/h in a dire emergency such as being late for a meeting. It was a Roller to him! You can read about one such car on Curbside Classics where several dozen people swap war stories in the comments that don’t match my experience of the thing at all. It was a dreadful. Size merely for the sake of it, a big bubble of wind. No real room inside.

    If you were unfortunate enough to be a passenger as I was four times a year, in the front bench seat when the driver was short, you were smushed up against the dash and your legs had nowhere to go. Highly uncomfortable and I had to turn sideways to even stand being in it. The body creaked over small road imperfections, while mild porpoising attended traversing the larger ones. Manoeuvrability was execrable in tight parking quarters. At least it was better than the contemporary Fords which floated like barges and only had about three inches of suspension travel, leading to bottoming out from lean on mild 40 km/h curves.

    That agent was a lovely chap, but regarded my Audi 100LS with great disfavour as a funny little foreign car, and refused to be driven in it. It was of course about three times better as a car and had a more comfortable ride and far better seats. The mindset of the majority of people in those days was what sold these barges. It was completely impossible to open the slightest crack of appreciation in their minds for something not conforming to this code of vastness and fake luxury. All you’d get was, not so much condescension, as a deeply held belief that your little puddle-jumper could not possibly be better, and that you were secretly jealous and a foolish Spartan at heart. His previous car had been a ’73 Buick Wildcat 455, another vast piece of not much.

    It took many years for this attitude to die down among the older set of reasonably well-off burghers, probably the late 1990s as the owners themselves died off and cars had became smaller. Attitudes among much of the general population had changed in the twenty years from mid ’70s to mid ’90s mainly due to the Japanese. SotThe old-fashioned types were at a loss for about a decade, BUT rescue was at hand! Detroit started making pickup trucks with fancier interiors, and the spirit of much-too-much lives on in a very significant market segment today, well over two million a year. In fact, the leaf-sprung rear-axled trucks of today are better handling vehicles than these old things from the ’70s, and far better made. And yes, EVEN bigger! 20 inches longer again! Chrysler’s RAM is on a sales tear due to semi-reasonable styling, rear coil springs (even air suspension as an option) and a fancy interior, but Ford’s F150 is king. The ultimate expression of this kind of motoring melange is the Cadillac Escalade, not a pickup truck, but an SUV as an SUV is meant to be, not some Ford Echosport. Ahem , I got quite carried away there.

    Fun to ogle at but not much good for anything else, this old Chrysler. However, you’ll get vociferous disagreement on this from a certain set of people in North America. These are people who wonder why US pickup trucks don’t sell in Europe and Japan and complain about tariffs. It’s a different mindspace altogether, and one so deeply engrained it’s impossible to remove. I gave up trying decades ago. The belief is that given their druthers, all sane people worldwide want prairie schooners for vehicles, and it’s those socialists everywhere outside North America who with planned economies and high fuel taxes have prevented their populations from getting what they really want. You think I exaggerate? Sadly, no. The higher-spec versions of these cost as much as a Mercedes E Class and are more anonymous for the wealthier set, being 50 times more numerous. They can have enormously powerful engines and are quite durable to boot.

    I don’t think the European and American mindsets have ever really met on cars/vehicles, and both are hopeless at seeing the others’ point-of-view. The gulf is vast, and unbridgeable to my way of thinking.

  7. Jesus, Cadillac had some wild interior trims options back in the 70s.

    I think this gold colour was called medium Maize.

    This looks really sinister ! but I don’t hate it….

    I think a lot of the patterns could be found on sofas around the same time. Im not sure if generally speaking vinyl seats were considered inferior to cloth seats and cheaper to buy but if that were the case it would maybe consolidate the car seats/domestic interior parallel in that cheaper vinyl car seats would be ‘the kitchen’ while the more expensive cloth/leather option would be ‘the living room’.

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