1959 Imperial - Forward Look Speedster
Radically Redone ’59 Imperial Combines Classic Style, Modern Tech
From the April, 2012 issue of Mopar Muscle
By Scott Ross
Photography by Mike Yoksich
Way back when, some of the most exciting two-seat "dream cars" were styled by Mopar's designers, engineered at Highland Park, and then entrusted to Ghia Corporation in Italy for fabrication. You've probably seen them--the K-310, the Firearrows, the Diablo and the XN-R.
What if there was an Imperial two-seater made back then, hand-crafted with flamboyant styling atop state-of-the-art hardware? Murray Pfaff's Imperial Speedster answers that "what if" with a big "Why not!" Says Murray from his Royal Oak, Michigan, shop, "Initially, I wanted to build a rat rod, but I kind of missed the mark. Some people say that I failed miserably. Virgil Exner, Chrysler's head of styling back in the day, had worked with Ghia to create one-off show cars, but they never brought one like this to production," he says. "So, I said, 'What if we built a two-seat sports car out of a four-door sedan?'"
Then fate intervened when he found a '59 Imperial Crown sedan. It was barn-stored for over four decades, and the acres of sheetmetal were untouched by rust. The rat rod plans went out the window, and Murray devised Plan B--going the dream car route. "A 'what-if' to compete against the Corvette or the Thunderbird back in the day, what might it have looked like?" he asks. "I came up with this luxury sports car."
Even if he didn't already have a donor car, the flamboyant "Forward Look" flanks had the over-the-top styling he was looking for. "The Chryslers were among the most outrageous," he says. "I just love the fins and details like the Saturn rings around the taillights."
That "little" design concept needed large amounts of OEM Imperial sheetmetal, which the '59 had--rust-free and ready to have a two-seater carved from it.
It took a work of art to make...
It took a work of art to make one--Steve Langdon's telescoping steel-tube body jig held the Imperial's body during fabrication.
Carving is probably the best way to describe the transformation. With help from Steve Langdon (who made a "telescoping" jig to hold the body panels), Steve Germond, and Tom Gardner, he shortened the car in five places a total of 52 inches, narrowed it eight inches, sectioned it three inches, and channeled it over the frame another four inches. In all, the body was cut into 46 major pieces, all the while keeping the Imperial's design cues intact. "Once we scaled it down, it remained 100 percent Imperial," Murray recalls.
Once finalized, the body was blasted free of its original paint, primer and sealer by Alternative Media Blasting in Brighton, Michigan, before final metal work and paint prep. Mike Brimm took up residence at Murray's house to lead the fit, finish, and bodywork team, ensuring that the Speedster's lines were better than a new car. Then, it went to PPG's tech center in Wixom, where the two-stage "Envirobase" paint went on, before it was re-trimmed.
While they were speedsterizing the Imperial's body, Murray met up with Jeff Schwartz, of Schwartz Performance, who was in town for the annual Detroit Autorama. Careful measuring revealed that a "G-machine" Pro Touring frame would fit, with minimal tweaking.
Going on that frame was a powertrain and chassis far removed from the 413 Wedge, 727 transmission, and front torsion bars/rear leafs of the donor '59. Mopar's 6.1L Hemi crate engine and a 518 overdrive automatic by Phoenix Transmission Products provided the power, with a Ridetech front suspension, Unisteer rack-and-pinion steering, and a Viper IRS rear round out the handling hardware, while an SSBC master cylinder and Raybestos NASCAR Super Speedway disc brake calipers keep it under control.
To complement the modern-tech chassis and Exner-inspired body, Murray designed a cabin that combined the best of both worlds. Filling the Imperial's original dash are gauges by New Vintage Instruments, while Murray fabricated a custom console and "waterfall," and Pat Russell of PJ's Trim Shop stitched the seats and door panels.
To call the finished Speedster stunning is an understatement. Per Murray, it even impressed the House of Exner. "Virgil Exner Jr. saw photos of this car, and he said that he was really excited about it," says Murray. "He thought that his Dad would be very proud of it, especially the large orange wheels."
He'd likely be proud of the Speedster's performance, which Murray says is a blast. "The car is so nice and pleasurable to drive," he continues. "You don't have to make any concessions for it. It rides and handles very well. It doesn't have any crazy bumps, squeaks, or rattles."
Murray adds, "For all the dissimilar parts that we took and put together, creating something that never was, it's really surprising how wonderful it came out."
For their help with the Speedster, Murray has special thanks to pass along. "Building a car of this scale and caliber is a team effort. I'm fortunate to have a team of volunteers who contributed their expertise, their willingness to venture into uncharted territories, and who sacrificed their nights and weekends over three and a half years. Together, we created a car that none of us alone could have ever built.
"I'm happy and proud to call each and every team member a friend, and they took the Imperial Speedster from a mere thought rolling around in my mind to the reality you see before you. I thank them for their knowledge, passion, conviction, and hard work: Steve Langdon, welding and fabrication; Steve Germond, welding, fabrication, and body work; Tom Gardner, engineering, fabrication, wiring, and assembly; Mike Brimm, fitment, surfacing and final paint; Chuck Yee and Ed Pashukewich, body work and surfacing; Kevin Howell, 3D CAD design; Phil Krantz, build assistance; Brian Liening, machining; and Jeff Matauch of PPG, painting, paint training, and consultation.
"Also, these very instrumental companies contributed: Summit Racing Equipment, Librandi's Plating, PJ's Trim Shop, New Vintage Instruments, and Pilot Transport. Thanks for everything!" mm
Style and luxury--but just...
Style and luxury--but just for two. Speedster's cabin combines classic Imperial style with modern-tech features.
Not just any Hemi, but a 6.1L...
Not just any Hemi, but a 6.1L modern-tech Hemi, under the bullet-topped intake and custom-fabbed valve covers.
A myriad of cuts shortened...
A myriad of cuts shortened the donor '59 Imperial Custom sedan body by over five feet!
1959 Imperial Speedster
Owned and Customized by: Murray Pfaff, Royal Oak, Michigan
- Engine: A 6.1L Hemi crate engine, with an Aeromotive-equipped EFI system, high-amp alternator from Ohio Generator, a Milodon oil pan, owner-modified intake with engraved ribs and fabbed "intake blades," K&N air filter, and ceramic-coated Mopar headers and Flowmaster "Hushpower" mufflers in a custom polished exhaust system built by Steve Langdon (who also fabricated the custom valve covers from original 392 Hemi covers and the '59s front fender letters).
- Transmission: A-518 overdrive automatic (modified by Phoenix Transmission Products), with a 25,00 stall converter and '60 Imperial pushbutton shifter, with cable from Imperial Services, Frankenmuth, Michigan.
- Rearend: '09 Viper ACR-S rear end with a 3.07-geared, GKN Visco-Lok limited-slip-equipped Dana 44.
- Suspension: (Front) Ridetech adjustable coilovers with Schwartz Performance sway bar (Rear) '09 Viper independent.
- Brakes: Raybestos NASCAR Super Speedway discs, with 4-piston monoblock calipers and an SSBC master cylinder/proportioning valve.
- Wheels and Tires: Orange-painted Dayton "Triple Cross" knock-off wire wheels (17 x 8 inches front, 18 x 10 inches rear) wear Goodyear F1 GS-D3 tires (225/45R17 front, 275/40R18 rear)
- Body: Original'59 Imperial Crown four-door sedan converted into a roadster by Murray, with much help from Steve Langdon (who made a telescoping body jig for it), Steve Germond (metal shaping and fabricating), Tom Gardner (mechanical and electrical engineering), Mike Brimm (panel fit and paint prep), Chuck Yee (bodywork), and Kevin Howell (Computer-aided design of emblems, engine bullet, and other items). Chrome plating by Librandi's Plating, Middletown, PA, and custom "Crown" emblems by Con2r, Beaverton, OR. Taillight lenses were hand-made by George Laurie, and the custom polycarbonate windscreen was made by Pro Glass, Bristol, IL.
- Frame: A Schwartz Performance "G-Machine" steel tube frame replaced the way-long OEM one.
- Paint: Mike Brimm and PPG's Jeff Matauch sprayed on the Envirobase paint (in Jaguar Topaz, Lamborghini Atlas Orange and Volvo Java shades) at PPG's Technical Training Center, Wixom, MI.
- Interior: Pat Russell at PJ's Trim Shop in Hemlock, Michigan stitched the Rolls-Royce hides while Murray made the door panels, custom console/"waterfall and steering wheel center section. Seats are Celica GTS buckets, New Vintage Instruments in Ferndale, MI made the Murray-designed gauges, Alpine supplied the sound system, Vintage Air supplied the HVAC, and the steering wheel rim is from a'60 Imperial.