1956 Imperial - Driver Rave-views

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Mike Trettin, 1956 Imperial Sedan, Turquoise    
I've owned 17 old Mopars (and 5 Brand X cars) in my life, and have had the opportunity to drive many more. I used to be a die-hard muscle car guy (my very first car was a '69 Dodge Super Bee, 4-spd), and I still love the big-block 4-spd cars, having owned 68 & 69 Charger R/T's, 70 Challenger R/T SE and six-pack cars. My most recent fleet of autos before I moved to Iowa included: 1948 Willys Jeepster, 1953 Cadillac Sedan de Ville (on loan from a friend w/no storage), 1956 Imperial sedan, 1967 Plymouth Barracuda convertible, 1968 Dodge Charger R/T (auto), 1969 Dodge Charger R/T (4-spd), and a 1991 Ch*** Caprice wagon.

Being at least as juvenile as my young sons, I used to take the tots out for some hole shots in the '69 Charger. After the youngest would get over the initiation by screaming and covering of ears, they, too, would join in the fun of standing up in the back seat and having dad pin them in suspended animation, like that carnival ride where you spin around and the floor drops out, and then you barf. (Please, no grief about this--this was done on deserted roads and only 0-40 mph blasts.)

Then there was the '48 Jeepster, which the kids loved to ride in because it usually meant we were going out for ice cream (with a true "hose-out" interior, who cares about spills?) or a local car show. With a top speed of 55, this car was fun just to toodle around town in, cruising up the Uwharrie Mountains of N.C., only to coast silently back down as the 3-spd transmission disengaged in "freewheeling" mode. A Jeepster is as close to a moped as you can get and still carry 6 passengers comfortably, with plenty of leg room in back.

With all of those to choose from, our sons' usual choice, when asked what car they wanted to take, was "Daddy's Green Car!", the '56 Imperial (turquoise). There's something about driving that car at night that makes me want to wear a hat and take up cigar-smoking. You enter with a simple pull of the door handle, which even our 3-year-old could accomplish by himself. After shutting the smooth-closing doors, we are all transformed into another era by the interior dimensions, fancy, bright upholstery, and the chromey glitz of the '56. The chrome trim on this car has a heavy look and a deep shine, and feels so smooth and solid to the touch. You turn on the lights with one of the rotary switches in the center of the dash, all of which give the smoothest, most solidly muffled "ka-dunk" of any switch I've seen. (The next time you see a 55-56 at a car show, play with the switches and you'll see what I mean.) The kids respond to all of this opulence by settling down and being good in the back seat, which easily holds 5 kids abreast. Sure, they trade off sitting on the sturdy rear center arm-rest and playing with the power window switches (Caution: those windows move FAST), but at least they don't use the door-mounted cigar-lighters to light up their own. With the power seat forward, the 133-inch wheelbase allows even tall passengers to stretch out (or our kids to play games on the floor).

I turn the key, and...nothing! My wife still falls for the "dead battery" ploy: these cars only crank when the key is turned with the accelerator depressed. The 354 hemi fires up without any of the "starter whine" typical of gear-reduction Chryslers. After a misguided grab for a 4-speed shifter that's not there, I reach to the left to engage the "R" button with another solid "ka-dunk", and back out of the drive, using the tailfin-mounted lights to guide me. Once on the road, the hemi performs smoothly with a nice, deep, mellow hum. (BTW, these early hemis are massive engines in their exterior dimensions, with a wide expanse between the cylinder heads. The concealed spark plug wires are another elegant touch and topic of interest.) I love the feel of the large steering wheel, which was no longer necessary thanks to power steering, but takes you back to an earlier era. The '56 has ribbed hand grips at the 4 and 8 o'clock positions, which look and feel like ivory but are probably lucite, with dished chrome rests for your thumbs. I think the original owner of my car must have used these handgrips religiously, since the rest of the steering wheel looks like it's never been touched. The whole wheel is the antithesis of a modern "functional" plastic one.

Finally, actual "driving impressions". It may not be fair to compare the '56 Imp to the '53 Caddy, but I'll do it anyway. The Imperial feels like a modern car, the Caddy more like a forties car. The Cadillac is fun to drive in its own way, but feels to me like an antique; the 56 Imperial was my daily driver for 5 years (and will be again, no doubt, if I ever find it....) and has no problem holding its own in any modern traffic situation. The hydramatic-equipped Caddy is slow and slushy-feeling off the line. I drove the car from Lynchburg, Virginia to Asheboro, North Carolina (150 miles), and the '53 Cadillac suspension felt very "tippy", like the car didn't have a wide enough track; I never went over 60 in this car. My '56 Imperial, OTOH, handles solidly and tracks straight down the highway; it feels pretty relaxed at 80, which is about as fast as I ever go, anyway. The kingpin suspension will last forever if properly maintained (about 22 grease fittings on these cars, if I remember correctly). Here's the part that people are surprised at: the '56 is a QUICK car. With "1" pushed on the TorqueFlite, I can launch to 50 in under 7 seconds, then push "2" and get a kick in the pants that my boys seem to approve of as much as the Charger R/T. And, yes, my speedo is pretty close! All I've done to the motor is rebuild the Carter WCFB four-barrel and add MP electronic ignition (for those interested, you use a modified small block Chrysler distributor). And I'd be surprised if the original owner, 83, ever did anything to the motor....

What this translates into is an elegant car to drive that's no pansy (comparison intended--I take a lot of grief for the turquoise color from the Chat crowd). If you're stuck in a right-turn only lane and want to go straight, no problem: just blow by the unsuspecting Camry driver when the light changes. Most of the time the car's stateliness will keep others distracted long enough to make your move....

I encourage anyone who's considering one of these cars to buy it; you won't be disappointed.

This page was last updated on Monday, March 19, 2001.  Send us your feedback, and come join the Imperial Mailing List - Online Car Club