Custom Imperial Represented Chrysler Luxury in 1939

from Old Cars Weekly, September 2001

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This article originally appeared in Old Cars Weekly under John Lee's column "Collecting Chryslers."

In the early years of the automobile it was assured that if a person could afford a luxury car, they could also afford to hire someone to drive it.  Thus many early luxury cars were designed to separate the passenger compartment from the chauffeur's compartment.

Chrysler's luxurious offering were no different, though their already minor role in the luxury field was not improving, since its peak in the early 1930's.  With the introduction of the Imperial line in 1926, Chrysler had hoped to gain an increasing share of the market.

The Custom Imperial, Series C-24, was Chrysler's luxury offering for 1939.  It was built on a 144-inch wheel base and powered by a straight-eight developing 141 hp.  By comparison 6-cylinder Chrysler Royals had a 119-inch wheel base with a 136-inch chassis for the seven passenger sedan and limousine.  The Imperial, New Yorker, and Saratoga models were built on a 125-inch wheelbase with  straight-eight engines.

The Custom Imperial was offered in three configurations.  A five-passenger sedan, a seven-passenger sedan, and a seven-passenger limousine with the chauffeur's compartment isolated by a crank-down divider window.  Jim Martin of Sunnyvale, California owns the exampled pictured.  The only seven-passenger limousine that he knows of.  There are five other C-24 Custom Imperial Martin has accounted for, and three are five-passenger sedans and two are convertible town-cars.  Production of 117 limousines, 88 five-passenger sedans, and 95 seven-passenger sedans, as well as three Durham-bodied open cars and seven other chassis units, are noted in the Standard Catalogue of Chrysler, 1924-1990.  Two open-bodied Custom Imperials parade cars were reportedly built to carry the King and Queen of England during their 1939 visits to the U.S..  

Martin said he had learned that 81 limousines including his, were upholstered with leather in the front compartment while the remaining 36 used the same rear seat fabric for the front seat and panels.  Martin reupholstered the passenger's compartment in original-style gray fabric and replaced the original front floor mat with carpet.

In restoring the mechanical components, Martin discovered deterioration of the original silver dome cylinder head and replaced it with a cast-iron head.  The original aluminum head boosted the compression ratio from 6.8:1 to 7.45:1.

Chrysler introduced its unique Fluid Drive on the 1939 Custom Imperial, which also had a 3-speed synchronized transmission and standard overdrive.

"The overdrive is a necessity on the open road, as it tops out around 60 miles per hour in third gear," the owner noted.  "I have unintentionally reached a speed of 90 in overdrive!"

Martin has had little success in trying to trace his Custom Imperial's history prior to his 1980 purchase of the car from another California owner.

"It was purchased in Ellensburg, Washington, by the previous owner," he said.  "It may have been first been sold in the Seattle area, as the original radio station pushbutton designations seem to indicate previously, the car had been owned by a GI in Fort Ord, California and I believe it was in the Virginia Beach area at one time."

Needless to say, Martin does not employ a chauffeur - nor does he want to.

"The limo rides like the Queen Mary!" he enthused.  In taking coastal and mountain roads with ease, he has, "Its great for upper body strength.  There's no need to work out in the gym!"  He has logged 20,000 miles behind the wheel since starting to restore the Custom Imperial in 1989.  A 1,300-mile round trip from the California State Imperial Meet in 1992 is the longest jaunt so far. 

And this sedan has many more miles left to glide through.


Read more about Jim's car here!


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