The car of the future may be over the hill nowadays, but even though it's more than 40 years old, the '59 Imperial still evokes images of one of the most distinctive concepts in the history of automotive design-the forward look.
Celebrated for their long lines, big fins, and acres of chrome and stainless steel, the forward-look automobiles were all about style and class.
With any pop-culture medium, the idea is to determine what is on the minds of the public and apply it to create a product the consumer can relate to. In the late-'50s, few things weighed as heavily on the public conscience as the space race and the fear and excitement which accompanied it.
On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. launched the Sputnik I satellite, and Sputnik II a month later. The United States answered the following January with the launch of its first satellite, Explorer I. In March 1959, NASA, which was not even a year old, sent up the Pioneer IV, the first U.S. probe to escape the Earth's gravity and achieve a heliocentric orbit.
Helping many of the early U.S. vessels escape the bonds of Earth was the Jupiter rocket, which was powered in part by Jupiter missile technology. Where did the Jupiter missile come from? You guessed it-the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler wasn't about to let this tie to the space program go unnoticed when so much of society had rocket ships on the brain. In fact, one ad for a '59 Imperial Crown Southampton coupe, like the one featured here, shows a picture of a rocket on the launching pad in the background.
The forward-look models capitalized on the public's captivation with the space program. If you couldn't get into a real rocket ship, one of these was the next best thing. It was big, shiny, and had lots of buttons. What man could resist?
Martin Roca couldn't. Martin, who lives in Miami, purchased this Imperial in 1996 after a friend found it for sale in a car magazine. It came from Pennsylvania and was in drivable condition. Martin knew exactly where to have the restoration done. Lloyd's Auto Restorations in Bartow, Florida, had already completed a '56 Chrysler Windsor for Martin, and he let them handle the Imperial's top-to-bottom, frame-off resto.
"We try to educate our customers [about the process] the first time around," says Jeff Brekke, of Lloyd's. "The learning curve is big, but we get a lot of repeats who want to do it again. The Imperial was a decent, complete car. But it had been through the usual hazards of life."
Jeff says there was more to the bodywork than what was apparent at first glance. The passenger side had been T-boned, but Jeff was still able to use the original sheetmetal. "The quarters were cut off, rehammered, and welded back on," he says. But there was more. "That year was not known for great body fit," he added. "So the gaps had to be closed up properly. The rocker-panel-to-door gap was so big you could stick your hand in."After the Imperial was pounded back into shape, everything was dipped. "This car has a lot more undercoating now," Jeff says. "Apparently, the original priming was done after assembly, so when we got the bumpers off, for example, there was a lot of unprotected metal." With the bodywork done, a new coat of Sikkens Sherwood Green basecoat/clearcoat-the car's original color-was applied.
The interior was originally a white fabric/leather combination. When Martin first brought in the Imperial, the original material was covered up with slip covers, but couldn't be salvaged. Since the original-style material wasn't available, Lloyd's used all white leather to cover the swivel-mount front-bucket seats, and a custom green carpet lay underneath. The dash was restored by Just Dashes and features a deep-dish padded steering wheel, AM radio, and plenty of buttons to give it a cockpit-style feel. Just Dashes also did the horn center.
Control over nearly all aspects of the car is available at the fingertips. The radio, air conditioning, headlights, dash lights, transmission, cruise control, trip odometer, clock, antenna, seats, windows, door locks, mirror, and emergency brake-all are controlled by the push or pull of a button. Even the gauges, which are fixed-needle instead of fixed-dial, look more like they came from NASA than NAPA. To top it off, the cruise control-new for the '59-was called Auto-Pilot. According to Jeff, "When we went into the cruise control [to restore it], it was scary."
The original 413ci block was sent to Regional Performance Machine in Haines City, Florida. There, it was completely overhauled, balanced, and rebuilt to reflect its original specifications. "The 413 was extremely worn out," Jeff says. "All of the serviceable [engine] parts-the rings, bearings, pistons (10:1)-were replaced. We installed a new wiring harness from Y&Z, too. But, the cam was reground and the crank and rods (4.18-inch) are original. Now it gets 350 hp at 4,600 rpm."
A Mopar coil/points ignition system gets the show started, and an AFB carburetor feeds the fuel. A 2-inch exhaust system that features stainless steel resonators was built to resemble the original dual setup. The exhaust system and other aftermarket parts for older models (especially those as detailed as an Imperial) are not quite as prevalent as, say, an E-Body 'Cuda. So, for Jeff and Lloyd (his father), locating the finishing touches required a combination of contacts and ingenuity.
"Gary Goers is a Chrysler 300 nut out of Montana, and he made the Imperial decal for the trunk handle," Jeff says. "Ray Geschke from Emblemagic in Grand River, Ohio, made the plastic dash medallions.
The exterior door handle was extremely broken, and they're impossible to find. But Sherm's Plating in Sacramento, which handles our chrome work, was able to repair and rebuild it. We also had to manufacture new aluminum inserts for the door panels ourselves."
After 111/42 years of work, the Imperial was finished and ready for the show field in 2000. Jeff and Lloyd went with Martin to the car's maiden voyage at-where else?-Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was an AACA regional show, and the Imperial picked up its first Junior recognition there. Since then, it has earned the title of Grand National award winner.
Even though this 129-inch, 211/42-ton rocket ship will never get off the ground, it is truly out of this world.