#0039 - Chrysler CG Custom Imperial Convertible Coupe by LeBaron, 1931
Photographed: York Heritage Trust Concours d'Elegance, 2007. Owner: Dave Humbert
Special thanks to reader, Brent, who has drawn an accurate distinction between this car, a Convertible Coupe, and the similar Roadster model that also appears in this collection, explaining that the single-pane windscreen and convertible top constitute the former, whereas the vee windscreen and cabriolet top define the latter. The grille screen was an option on either model. I also believe that the extension of the interior leather trim around the door sill is a roadster-only option, and therefore a further distinguishing feature. In any case, Brent notes that, according to the Online Imperial Club, production figures for the Convertible Coupe number a whopping 10 examples, making it the rarest production Imperial. Likely fewer than this number exist today. So, we have a truly special car on our hands, here. Thank you, Brent.
For One Brief Moment: Between 1931 and 1933, Chrysler produced the most simply elegant automobile in America. This hauty statement is qualified by some hemming and hawing—that the Chrysler Imperial eschews embellishment for purity of line—and contends the effect is best presented on these LeBaron Roadsters. There is no precedent involved, however, as the Cord L-29 is the unabashed influence for the Imperial, a fact discussed by Walter P. Chrysler himself.
Still, the Imperial gets along at least as nicely as the L-29. If it isn't quite as low, (being taller by an average of about 4 inches), it is perhaps a better blend of stateliness and sport. For example, compare this CG Imperial Roadster to the 1934 Packard 1101 Sport Roadster. (Hey, they're even the same color.) What you see in the Packard are, I humbly submit, the best proportions of any classic era Packard. But the Packard is far from sleek. Chrysler, through LeBaron, captured a presence comparable to the Packard, but softened the shape in numerous ways. The proportions are just right, but the skirts are more elegant, the body panels more rounded, and the grille shroud is dynamite, raked back at a slight angle. The same goes for the windscreen. This comparison shows the difference between using Cord as an inspiration, as in Chrysler's case, rather than the stogy Pierce-Arrow, of which many of the Packard styling cues are reminiscent. A particular feature, I love the 18-inch Imperial wire wheels, a new design for 1931. For the time, the closest design I can think of would be one used on some Stutz DV and SV Series cars, (these are few and far between).
Design of the Imperial was handled by Herbert F. Weissinger, a new designer at LeBaron. His enthusiasm for the Cord L-29 was exactly what Walter Chrysler wanted, but it was also tempered by Fred Zeder, one of Chrysler's three stalwart engineering chiefs. Zeder saw what was realistic in Weissinger's ambitions, adapting the basic Cord L-29 aesthetic to fit Chrysler's requirements, and also translating it into a simpler form. Weissinger, in particular, would have been ecstatic to see a front-wheel drive Imperial, or even a rear-engined Imperial—anything to lower the car as much as possible. But either approach would certainly have been less successful. Besides, Chrysler already had a major gamble in the cards.
The Imperial was represented by the requisite 6,000-some different coachwork options of the day, (that's hyperbole), all of which were powered by a new straight 8-cylinder motor. The Imperials were differentiated from the 8-cylinder Chrysler CD, or Deluxe models, taking the title of either CG or CL. Although the same powerplant was shared among the CD, CG, and CL, Imperial cars could be fitted with a hot "red head" version of the motor, denoted by a fire-engine red cylinder head instead of the standard gray paint. I must apologize for not knowing whether the example presented here is a hotted version.
In any case, the Imperial remains a pick of the cognoscenti. We know, for example, that the great Duesenberg Lycoming Straight-8 or Cadillac Series 452 V-16 would take their behemouth chassis beyond 100 miles per hour. But that the Chrysler Imperial could do the same isn't as often discussed. A solid reason for the oversight is that Chrysler, at its core, was not a luxury manufacturer, but a volume manufacturer. The Chrysler 8 project was an attempt to enter the luxury market, seen at the start of the 1930s as lucrative—it was a calculation, a measure to make Chrysler a competitive brand against all comers. After all, in less than a decade the company had climbed to number four in auto sales, so a luxury flagship would be sensible to promote and preserve such hard earned reputation.
Ultimately, the Imperial was appreciated, but competition was so strong that Chrysler's yen to compete in the upper segment of the market dwindled. At least that's true in a conventional sense. In a stroke of irony, the grand Imperial was replaced, (in loose terms), by the Airflow project. Thus, the company responsible for the most simply elegant automobile in America became the company responsible for one of the most infamous design fiascos in motoring history. A true non sequitur, the Imperial name and CL nomenclature made the leap from salon beauty to press nightmare.
Mechanically: Output from the new straight 8-cylinder is comparable to the Packard Eight, with a stated 125 horsepower at 3,200 rpm. Due to the differences in power and performance figures published in various articles and books, I'm tempted to say Chrysler deliberately blurred the distinction between the "red head" motor and the standard motor in order to enhance the prestige of all Imperials regardless of which motor was actually planted in the bay. The most reliable figure seems to be 125 brake horsepower at 3,200 rpm. It could be the case that this is the proper output for the "red head," which is purported to take the 2 ½ ton car beyond that mythical 100 mile per hour mark, (an optimistic 115 mile per hour top end has been published). As a result, some sources estimate output for the "red head" at more than 125 bhp.
The transmission in the Imperial is noteworthy. The gearbox is described in proper terms as a multi-range over-running transmission, or 3-speed with overdrive. The box is arranged in a sun gear configuration, where the overdrive gear is engaged by lifting off the throttle at about 40-45 miles per hour, allowing the transmission to free wheel, and then reapplying the throttle. Overdrive will click into place, allowing the heavy car to take full advantage of the straight 8 torque. On the open road in overdrive, the car can achieve 14 miles per gallon, which isn't bad economy when you consider the mileage of today's comparably hefty SUVs, or the fact that a contemporary Duesenberg would manage about half that.
Motor capacity is 6,308 cc, or 384.84 cubic inches. Brakes are hydraulic drums all the way around, with semi-elliptic leaf springs for cushioning. All in all, the chassis is conventional; that much is a big departure from the Cord L-29. Chrysler knew what they wanted to see in their luxury car, but weren't sold on Cord's front-wheel drive departure. The level of design patronage, however, saw bodywork in concept sketches that accomodated front-wheel differentials, as if Chrysler were merely building their own L-29. In the end, simplicity won out. Chrysler still managed to lower the car quite a bit in keeping with the industry trend, and LeBaron took care of the rest. Cost for the effort—between $3,300 and $5,200. About 220 CL Imperial cars were produced, of which about one-quarter were roadsters, with CG Roadster being of comparable rarity.
Features: Imperial cars were exceptionally sturdy; of course they would need to be to compete with the likes of Packard. A solid motor and quality, hand made LeBaron coachwork were a good combination. Testing, however, was a strong point of the project, and the Chrysler 8 saw more than 200,000 miles of testing between 1929 and 1930. On public roads, the curious were told that these new cars were "Eagle Specials," an anecdote that demonstrates they were such an improvement over the standard fare that the public couldn't identify the new cars as Chrysler products.
In addition to the basics, Chrysler specified a few special tweaks. Maybe the neatest trick are the Bi-flex bumpers. Composed of spring loaded steel, the bumpers are designed to absorb impact and instantly "reflex" back to their initial shape. Some roadsters featured leather that wrapped up and over the dash and door sills, giving the cockpit a sporting European feel. Also, some roadsters—unfortunately not this example—feature a split veed windscreen as early as the 1931 model year. Note that, among other important show cars, the 1933 Packard Twelve "Car of the Dome" and seminal 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow were revered for using a split veed windscreen. Here is a production car using the same treatment, albeit sparingly, two years earlier.
The most expensive option available on the Imperial cars is the set of spotlights mounted at either side of the windscreen. Another new design for the 1931 Imperial (like the wheels), these twin spotlights were a $55.00 option, which on a fully loaded car equals 10% of the total cost. Interestingly, (and unlike Packard), there are no marker lights on the roadsters, which is a truly modern omission. The most frivilous feature on the car is probably the Auto-Altimeter, an aeronautically inspired gauge mounted in front of the passenger seat.
Morphology: I should note 'Chrysler Imperial' is the name of a hybrid tea rose, although I'd think the connection odd due to the inherent fragility of tea roses. Anyhow, our example here is quite similar in presentation to the Lloyd Harriman CG Imperial Roadster, a royal blue example with bright red trim that Christie's proclaimed to be among the best, if not the best example of the breed. This green car, although similar, lacks the veed windscreen, and also the typically LeBaron suicide doors, opting for a single plate windscreen and conventional, front-hinge doors. Also, the cabriolet top carries a bit more depth in the shroud, and is fastened with landau irons. There are two side-mounted spares, which were standard on all Imperials, although this car keeps them in elegant leather cases in addition to the typical four saddle brown leather straps. The cases may be a later addition.
Way up at the top of the page I mentioned I love the new-for-1931 Imperial wire wheels. I also love the new Imperial wire mesh grille. This particular feature is one of two prominent grille treatments seen on Imperials, and is without question the more extravagant. Overall, the nose presentation is rakish without being avant-garde, something many classic era touring cars that aim at a sporting look fail to accomplish. The top of the shroud features rounded shoulders, and the whole unit is drawn to a slight peak in the center. This gives the long bonnet a very subtle bullet nose appearance, as if to be covertly streamlined.
In contrast to the complexity of the grille, the flank is clean, with simple vertical louvres on the bonnet sides, and minimal body molding. This is LeBaron at their best. Three small strakes on the front edge of the rear skirt form the only brightwork detail. Otherwise, the shape of the car is designed to ennunciate the grille and the wheels. Really no other classic era great has this same balance between shape and feature. And to fully demonstrate all the wild praise in this description, I'll be hoping the Harriman car turns up in front of sometime soon, (I'm looking at a photo of it in my Christie's auction catalogue right now). Then we'll really get to see some clean, fully realized Chrysler expressionism.
Christie's International Motor Cars - Pebble Beach Auction Catalogue, 1999, Offering the Lloyd Harriman 1931 Chrysler CL Custom Imperial Roadster p.78-79
"Chrysler, The Early Eights" by Don Butler, Cars and Parts, October 1978
"1931 Chrysler Imperial Roadster" by Jerry Bengel, Car Classics, June 1975 p. 16-19
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