Viveck Goenka’s Imperial Is A Flamboyant Beauty

Images: Makarand Baokar

Viveck Goenka’s beautifully restored ’61 Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan featured here, was ordered new by Chowgule Steamships Limited who were the original owners of the car. The Chowgules were also the distributor for Chryslers in Goa. The Imperial Crown here was in regular use with the head of the Chowgule family, Vishwasrao Dattajirao Chowgule, for the best part of four decades. After he passed away, in 2008, his nephew Suresh Chowgule, looked after the car before Goenka acquired it in 2012.

Given that just 4,769 of the Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan were made in 1961, you would be hard-pressed to find many, in such good condition too, anywhere in the world. In fact, the car here is such a rarity, it is the only ’61 Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan extant in India. To understand why the Imperials are so rare, we have to take a look at the history of the car.

Viveck Goenka Chrysler Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan rare vintage cars India Virgil Exner Elwood Engel
Drama, flamboyance, lotsa chrome, and over the top styling for the Imperial

Launched for the first time in 1926, the Chrysler Imperial was the flagship model from the third biggest amongst America’s Big Three. In 1953, Chrysler decided to hive off the Imperial model into a stand-alone marque to take on the increasingly successful flagship brands from General Motors and Ford: Cadillac and Lincoln. Just two years after Chrysler’s flagship marque had been ‘established’ in 1955, the second-generation Imperial was launched, remaining in production until 1963.

During this period, the detail design changed every model year, and with each new model year, some new features were added to the Imperials. But the separate chassis and the basic structure of the body remained mostly unchanged. With the ’57 generation, the Imperial range was divided into three broad models, corresponding to trim level mainly. The cheapest variant was called Imperial Custom, the mid-level was the Imperial Crown, which had previously been used for the extended wheelbase limousines, and the Imperial LeBaron was the most luxurious.

Viveck Goenka Chrysler Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan rare vintage cars classic cars India Virgil Exner Elwood Engel
The car looks the best when seen from the side, as the profile is indeed imperious

The ’57 generation featured a new box frame chassis, which till 1959 was also used for the other Chrysler full-sizers. The suspension system was also similar to the bigger Chrysler siblings. The Imperial retained the separate chassis arrangement for its models from 1960 onwards, though the other brands from the Chrysler Group switched to unitary construction that year. The Imperials had the largest V8s in the Chrysler Group. Starting with a 392 cubic inch (6423cc) and developing 325 net horsepower (SAE), the engine size grew to 6767cc (413 cubic inch) in 1959, with power up to 350 net horsepower (SAE).

The body styles included a four-door saloon with three side windows and a central pillar (Four Door Sedan), as well as a four-door saloon with two side windows and no central pillar (Southampton Hardtop Sedan), a Southampton two-door coupé with a roof shape similar to that of the Southampton Hardtop Sedan. Plus, for the first time, a four-seater convertible version was on offer. Stylistically, the second-generation Imperial, like all other Chrysler models from 1957, implemented Virgil Exner’s famous Forward Look. But as the design of the Imperials changed every year, the tail fins grew to a record height as Exner competed with General Motors’ Harley Earl.

Viveck Goenka Chrysler Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan rare vintage cars classic cars India Virgil Exner Elwood Engel
A pair of gigantic tail fins dominate the rear

If 1959, was the peak of the tailfin era, from 1960 onwards, tailfins shrank rapidly, and by 1961 most of the rest of the American automobiles had, at best, vestigial ones left. But Chrysler and Imperial were caught on the wrong foot.

For the ’61 model year the Imperials received even bigger tailfins, with the trademark gunsight tail lamps suspended from them, as well as free-standing headlamps in chrome casing, within concave spaces – Exner’s rather eccentric reference to the “classic era”. The design turned out to be very controversial, with the American press describing it as “wild” and “nuts”. Sales fell by more than 30 per cent – to just 12,258 units – as compared to the previous year, and Virgil Exner had to leave the Chrysler Group.

Viveck Goenka Chrysler Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan rare vintage cars classic cars India Virgil Exner Elwood Engel
It is interesting to see the emphasis on the Le Baron coachwork, even if Le Baron was just a brand owned by Chrysler

His successor, Elwood Engel, who had designed the award-winning Lincoln Continental from the same year (and which helped Lincoln sell twice as many cars as Imperial had managed to), was hired by Chrysler to revamp the Imperials for ’62. But even if it was a case of American excesses served a couple of years later than when it would have been most appreciated, the Imperials of 1961 did serve their intended purpose. They were distinctive and flamboyant and were also recognised as more of a driver’s car with impressive agility and good braking, as compared with the Cadillacs and Lincolns from that time. Additionally, they offered comfort and pampering like no other. Plus, with poor sales came exclusivity, and more than five decades later, rarity. And thus Viveck Goenka’s beautifully restored ’61 Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan is one of the few rare, surviving ones.

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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