Why I Love My 1961 Imperial, Part Five

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By Tony Lindsey

At this point, I owned two 1961 Imperial convertibles. The rusty one was destined to go to a deserving collector, who will probably be buried in the car. He's not the type to sell any cars once he owns them. I had started stripping parts off of the "Chicken City" convertible. It was in better condition rust-wise, but was as stripped of accessories as a '61 Crown convertible could be. I also thought it was a really boring color combination - white with a blue interior. I had some decisions to make.

I had bought a dealer-only "prestige album" for the 1961 Imperial. This fake-leather-bound book was used by dealerships to show customers what options, paint colors and interior fabrics were available. It also listed every factory accessory and option. I spent many an hour flipping from one page to another, trying to decide what colors to use for the car. I have personally seen at least twenty 1961 Imperial convertibles, and all but one were white. The one exception was light yellow. I found this to be odd, since an Imperial could be any of 17 different colors that year. I really didn't find the original white-with-blue-interior colors attractive, but I wanted my car to be proper '61 Imperial colors inside and out.

I definitely didn't want to leave it white, because I didn't want everyone to think they had seen my car before. I had seen a factory-red '61 Imperial 4-door one time, and it looked like a circus wagon. Too much flaming red, combined with those outlandish fins. It was too much garishness, even for me, and I have a very high threshold for that sort of thing. My friend with the restored white convertible told me to choose either white, black or red, since 90% of the cars that win trophies are one of those colors. In retrospect, I saw that he was right. When a car show is judged "People's Choice", where every participant gets a ballot, then the person with a blue, green or brown Imperial may as well give up on winning any awards unless nobody else shows up. The car owners tend to vote for the cars they wish THEY owned, so the flashy convertibles get first place, unless there is a limousine in that class, followed by 2-door hardtops, then 4-door hardtops, then any sedans. In a way, this is awfully shallow, since every car has historical value.

Personally, that's the reason why I originally got my convertible. It was the most eye-grabbing car I'd ever seen, and I wanted to be the focus of everyone's attention. I've grown up a lot since then. I now admire ALL old vehicles equally, and I don't sneer at anyone's treasured old tub. I also don't hang around with the shallow crowd that feels that any non-convertible is worthless except as a parts car. I've grown secure enough in myself to give up needing to feel superior.

I finally decided on painting my car black, with a red leather interior and a black convertible top. I liked the idea of making this huge car seem like a limousine, with the glossy black setting off all of that chrome and stainless steel trim. I came to this conclusion after going to a lot of car shows and comparing each car's "look." My prestige album told me that this was a proper color combination. To me, the car looks like it's wearing a "tuxedo," now that it's painted and put together.

As soon as I announced my decision to paint the car black, my friends in the car hobby did their best to talk me out of it. They told me that black was impossible to maintain, and that it showed every possible flaw. Being a stubborn cuss, this only made me more determined. I'm glad I stuck to my guns.

I have a deeply personal secret that I would like to share with everybody - I'm a "Power Prince." I dream of the day when my cars have all factory and dealer options installed and functioning. I spent a lot of time doing research on this topic. I discovered that 1961 Imperials were pretty much the ultimate in push-button complexity and convenience. George Jetson would feel perfectly at home in this car.

I knew that some day my car would end up in a museum, some time after I'm dead. I wanted to make the car as close as possible to the ultimate '61 Imperial convertible. I added up the dealer cost of all of the accessories to the actual cost of the car, and I was astonished to find out that a fully-optioned car like mine would have cost nearly $8,000 in 1961. This was enough money to buy TWO 1961 Cadillac Sedan De Villes.

I started scouring the swap meets for the goodies on my wish list. I also did a lot of advertising in car club newsletters and restorer's magazines.


The first thing I wanted to add to the car was six-way power swivel bucket seats. These were only offered from 1959 to 1961 on Chrysler products, but the early '70's Chevy Monte Carlos offered their own version. These seats were offered as a way to allow ease of entry and exit for women with tight-fitting skirts.

There were several variations of these seats. Many Mopar collectors aren't aware of these differences, so I'll list them here for the first time. Swivel seats had two major parts - the upper frame and the lower chassis. The upper frame was the same for all three years, with minor differences in padding and upholstery design, depending on the make of car the seat was installed in.

On two-door cars, the seat-backs were able to fold forward to allow entry to the back seat. On four-doors, small metal blocks were inserted into the two hinge points of each bucket seat. This is the ONLY difference between 4-door and 2-door swivel seats. I have a small pile of the metal blocks somewhere in storage, since I bought a total of six swivel seat units during my buying spree. I sold off the excess seats and kept the best pieces for myself.

The chassis under the seat was either manually or power-controlled. I have the six-way chassis installed in my car, since it was the only kind available for Imperials. I've seen the manual seats in Plymouths and DeSotos.

Many people aren't aware that early swivel seats were automatically activated. If you look at ANY swivel seat chassis, you'll see a lever underneath that seems like it needs to be attached to something. If you flip the lever, the seat releases on that side. This is the only remnant of the original design for the swivel seats.

Swivel seats were meant to swivel outward when the door opened! When you opened the door, a cable would pull the lever and pull the seat out to its fully-pivoted position. When the door closed, the seat would automatically turn back to its forward position. Sounds like a cool idea, right? However, Chrysler started getting a lot of complaints from folks who worried that their seats would fling them out of the car in any accident that made the doors fly open. I could definitely see their point.

I have seen one swivel unit that had the full setup. There is a vertical leaf spring in the door jam on each side. This spring provides enough twisting force to make the seat move easily. The door would take a little extra effort to close and latch, too. The cable runs to the seat lever under the carpeting. None of this exists on later swivel units.

My car has a six-way power setup that came out of a '61 LeBaron in the junk yard. It's currently covered in shiny white vinyl, and if you lift the central armrest, you can see the holes where the rats chewed the seat to make a nest. I'm saving up money to buy my first house, so the flawless, proper red-leather interior is going to have to wait.

This particular seat was no big deal to get out of the original car, but the first set of swivels I found were a nightmare. I had gotten a call from one of my "junk yard dog" buddies, telling me that a '60 Imperial Crown sedan was in a particular junk yard, and it had swivel seats. I took the day off from work and brought the toolbox to the car. Sure enough, it still had the seat, but the car was jammed tightly in between two other cars, and the wheels had been removed from all three cars.

Luckily(?) enough, the Imperial's windshield had been smashed a few months before. The owner of the junkyard told me that the lavender pearlescent leather had been flawless when the car had come into the yard, but the rain and heat through the windshield opening had destroyed the upholstery. The seat chassis was pretty rusty, too.

I asked the junkyard owner how much he wanted for the seat, and he told me $150. I was delighted to hear this, and I spent a good five hours stretching my arms underneath the cars to reach the bolts and wrestling the incredibly heavy seat through the windshield opening all by myself. After all of this, I had the seat sitting on the ground in front of the car, and the yard owner told me that the seat would cost $250. I swore he had quoted a lower price earlier, and he said "You never told me you wanted the bottom part of the seat, too."

He told me if I didn't like it I could leave the seat sitting where it was and he would surely find a buyer for it. After all of that effort and aggravation, I was determined not to lose it, and he knew it. So, I told him that I would pay his price, but that he had made a mistake. I said that I was the president of a local car club, and I would tell the club members how he screwed me over. I did so, and I never went to that yard again.

Go forward to Part Six...

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