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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, as Paul Niedermeyer writes here. 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.
This is how you sell a classic American car, in this case a 1983 Oldsmobile Regency 98. I have to say I am am very impressed by this. It even has brown velour upholstery.