Before you today is, in my opinion, the greatest luxury car available in 1966: an Imperial Crown convertible by Chrysler. I think it’s one of the most underappreciated classics from the golden age of American luxury cars — but it seems like everybody has forgotten about them. There’s plenty of people who covet the Cadillacs and Lincolns of this period, and drive up the prices to crazy levels, but these Imperials have remained affordable — at least for now. That’s why I bought one, it’s a rare instance where one of the best cars is also the most affordable.
The few people that remember these Imperials will often lump them in with Chrysler, calling them Chrysler Imperials — but back in the ’60s, Chrysler wanted the Imperial to be its own stand-alone brand to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln, as Chrysler wasn’t a fancy enough name to put behind this expensive ultra-luxury barge. I call it a barge, or a land yacht, but the "Mad Men" writers in this Imperial brochure called the car its own island. And it’s not just because it’s giant, 19 feet long, which is only slightly shorter than a Ford Excursion. In the Imperial’s promotional brochure, they called the Imperial an island because, "it is so quiet, its silence is eerie at turnpike speeds. Each minute behind the wheel erases tension of the mind and muscle. It’s an experience you’ll look forward to after a hard day’s work, as long as you own it."
The brochure is beautiful, another thing we don’t get with cars anymore because of fancy websites, and looks like its right out of a "Mad Men" episode. Coincidentally, Don Draper actually drove a ’64 Imperial convertible on the show — but clearly, as a far more attractive specimen of the male species, I feel like I wear this Imperial much better than him.
Anyway, back to the car, I actually bought this ’66 Imperial convertible less than 24 hours after Jay Leno gave me permission to buy cars again, after filming an episode of his Jay Leno’s Garage TV series, which will air sometime in the fall. In what was perhaps the best day of my life (well maybe not the best, but probably tied with my wedding and the birth of my child) he gave a private full nickel and dime tour of his garage. When I saw the Imperials he had, I was in love all over again. I actually owned a ’66 coupe in the past when I had my car dealership, but since I was going broke, I had to sell it for around $8,000. It wasn’t some rusty beat up project like most classics that sell that cheaply. It was an all-original, great-looking driving car with low mileage — but they just aren’t worth all that much.
The convertibles, like the one I just purchased, are very rare, not just because of production numbers, but also the survival rates of them. Since the tops on any convertible car will start to leak over time, water gets in, rots the floors and often forces these beasts into the junkyard. So of the 500 Imperial convertibles built in 1966, a good portion of those are gone — so finding one for sale is really rare. It was almost fate that one was for sale not far away from Jay Leno’s garage, and I couldn’t pass it up for only $22,000.
Considering the car’s pedigree, that seems dirt cheap — but just because something is rare, doesn’t mean it’s valuable. The car has all of the right factors, like rarity, beauty and performance, but it just doesn’t have the desirability factor like the much more common suicide door Lincoln convertibles, which would bring double what I paid for this car in similar condition.
If you’re thinking this Imperial kind of looks like one of those old Lincolns, well there’s a reason for that. Chrysler had actually stolen away Elwood Engel, who was in charge of the design on those Lincolns, to modernize the Imperial brand — getting away from the flashy fins and adornments of the ’50s, and bring Imperial into the new era. So it’s certainly more understated than the previous generations, but the knife edge shape going the length of the body looks great, and the grille, with the gold accented glass covers for the headlights, gives it a great presence. I’m a sucker for hood ornaments, as well, and the Imperial eagle crest is one of the best, and in addition to having more on the turbine style hubcaps, the rear eagle folds down to present the fuel filler.
Good looks aren’t the only reason the Imperial was the best luxury car in 1966, it’s also the way they were built. 1966 was the final year the Imperial was built in its own white glove facility, on its own dedicated chassis, where they were doing things like controlling the humidity and air pressure to keep the production facility free of any contaminants, a common practice today, but not back in 1966. It’s built like a tank, or a truck, in that it’s a full frame dropped on a body, not a unibody like most that followed. The Imperial was so invincible at demolition derbies, that most banned them from competition. It’s like the Thor’s hammer of land yachts.
While the ’66 Imperial was the end of an era for this design, construction and quality, it was also the first year for one very special engine. This Imperial has the big block, 440 cu in. engine, with 350 horsepower, that was later made famous by the Dodge Charger and other Mopar muscle cars of the era. Once again, you can’t touch a ’60s muscle car with a 440 in this condition for half of what I paid for my imperial.
Still, I haven’t even gotten to the best part of this car, what made it the greatest luxury car in 1966, and that’s actually experiencing it for yourself. The brochure brags about luxury touches that would be considered environmentally insensitive today, such has harvesting 100-year-old walnut trees for the trim, and coating the seats with sperm whale oil for extra softness and durability. The interior does feel really nice, but it’s the driving experience where this car really shines. It’s not like a lot of other heavy land yachts that get saggy doors as the aging unibody flexes and creaks over bumps. The ride is soft, but the car itself feels tight. The 440 engine is no slouch either, but at highway speeds, the movement of the fuel gauge is clearly visible.
So maybe this isn’t the best classic car purchase for an environmentalist. Still, if you’re a huge land yacht fan like me, or should I say a fan of having a car that’s your own island, this is the one of the best of the breed — and one of the best values. While I didn’t buy the cheapest example by far, I still managed to buy a broken one. Environmentalists are going to hate this car even more, because my land yacht is doing a great impersonation of the Exxon Valdez, and leaking lots of oil everywhere it goes. It’s good rust proofing, but obviously, I need to get it up to the wizard soon for a proper look over. Find an Imperial Crown for sale
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