As Chrysler rolled into the 1950s, they were buoyed by a booming economy and strong sales, due in part to the arrival of Virgil Exner, who joined the advanced styling department, signaling Chrysler's intention to ditch its stodgy image once and for all. To get Chrysler back at the leading edge of American style, Exner first had to wrest control of the design process from the engineering department. But once he did, he had free reign over the new design language. Exner's appetite for European design led to a fruitful relationship with Luigi "Gigi" Segre of Carrozzeria Ghia in Italy. The two men worked closely together on a series of spectacular show cars and the Chrysler Ghia Specials, finally putting Chrysler's "styled by engineers" reputation to bed once and for all. The international influence spilled over into Chrysler's regular production cars, which were soon looking leaner, more graceful, and more cohesive. Exner's first entirely new, clean-sheet design was the flagship 1955 Imperial; the beginning of the revolutionary "Forward Look" Chryslers, that would define American automobile design for the remainder of the decade.
The new Imperial was a part of an ambitious plan to better align the flagship model with its chief rival and industry leader, Cadillac. To shake the image of being fluffed-up Chryslers, Imperial transitioned into a standalone division at the pinnacle of the company's line, with unique styling and equipment. Vital to Imperial's image-boost was the inclusion of a factory-built limousine. Here, Chrysler's connection with Ghia was put to good use. As a low-volume model, Chrysler could not justify the cost of retooling every year, but Ghia offered a skilled labor force and small-volume production capabilities.
To produce the Imperial Crown Limousines, Chrysler shipped partially assembled Imperial hardtop coupes on a reinforced 129-inch chassis, complete Hemi drivetrains, and pre-wired dashboards. Additional parts shipped alongside included a lengthened driveshaft, four sedan doors, heavy-duty springs and torsion bars, upholstery materials, and air conditioning units. Ghia modified the chassis and crafted the beautiful sweeping body by hand. Ghia's craftspeople took as many as 17 hours per car just to ensure the doors fit perfectly, and each Imperial was beautifully hand finished. Such attention to detail came at a price, more than $15,000 in 1958 – with total production over the nine-year run topping out at just 132 units.
This marvelous and stylish 1958 Imperial Crown Limousine is one of just 31 such examples built by Ghia in 1958 and is one of only a few known survivors. This car was delivered on April 21, 1958, via Ontario Automobile Co. Limited in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. According to the original warranty card, the first owner was the T. Eaton Co. Limited, one of Canada's oldest and largest department store chains. The Eaton family were prominent socialites, sometimes referred to as "Canada's Royal Family," and considering their stature, the Imperial Crown was a natural choice of transport. Queen Elizabeth II even stayed with the Eaton family during one of her official visits to the Royal Fair, and it is believed that she used this car during her stay.
The Eatons owned the Imperial for many years, and when their business faltered in the late 1970s, the car went into storage at their summer home. The most recent owner, a collector from Michigan, purchased the Imperial from the Eatons in the late 1990s. After a light refurbishment, he occasionally used the car for local shows, but it maintained a low profile in his collection. It presents in remarkably well-preserved condition, mainly unrestored excepting a respray in the original black and some selective restoration work as needed. The body and paintwork are excellent, and the large, heavy doors – painstakingly fettled by Italian craftsmen – shut with a reassuringly solid feel. The rear landau-style upholstered roof section is in excellent condition, as are the bumpers and the extensive exterior brightwork.
Typical of limousines of the period, the driver's compartment is upholstered in leather for durability, while the rear compartment features luxurious wool broadcloth fabric. In front, the leather-upholstered driver's seat is well-preserved in original condition, with an appropriate level of creasing in the upholstery and an attractive sheen to the leather. The elaborate Jet Age style instruments and controls are excellent originals, with some light patina on the chrome fittings that are consistent with the car's highly original presentation. In the rear, blue-gray fabric covers the rear bench seat, door panels, and two folding opera seats. Like the driver's compartment, it is quite well-preserved and reflective of the car's pampered existence. Along with the jump seats, other equipment includes electric windows, rear clock, powered glass partition, and rear-compartment air conditioning.
Powering the mighty Ghia-Imperial is Chrysler's largest engine offering of the time - the 392 cubic-inch Hemi V8. This car has a correct, Imperial-specification engine topped with a single four-barrel carburetor, good for 345 horsepower in standard form. It pairs with a robust torque-flite automatic transmission with pushbutton controls for the driver and features power brakes, power steering, and the factory air conditioning compressor. The engine bay is tidy and well-presented, with good quality painted accessories and primarily correct hardware and fittings.
Thanks to Virgil Exner's Forward Look and the partnership with Ghia, Chrysler produced some of the most uniquely stylish and memorable automobiles of the 1950s and 1960s. With its dashing fins, gun-sight taillights, and sophisticated detailing, the 1958 Imperial Crown limousine is the ultimate expression of Exner's visionary, transatlantic style. This Imperial is a superb example of Chrysler's flamboyant and stylish flagship, ready for enjoyment and sure to please its next caretaker.
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