Nelson Rockefeller's 1970 Imperial Limousine

Imperial Home Page -> Imperials by Year -> 1970 -> Limousines -> Nelson Rockefeller

[This limo appeared in a for sale listing in New Zealand in 2001. With the written permission of the owners of the website on which it was originally posted,, it has been presented here. Thanks to Ashley Lie-Olesen of for permission to include the text and photographs below.]

Also see this same car featured in Rockefeller's Imperial Cruiser: 1970 Chrysler Imperial Limousine from New Zealand Classic Car, May 1999.

(Click on small pictures to view large ones!)

Most of us wouldn't mind a piece of the Rockefeller fortune -- and you can own a portion of it in the form of a 1970 Imperial LeBaron Limousine that once belonged to Nelson J Rockefeller, former United States Vice President and Governor of New York.

It's big - an imposing 22 feet long - and black. It gives the impression that herein rides somebody who really is somebody!

It was Rockefeller's personal limousine during his last term as Governor of the State of New York. Imagine it rushing along Fifth Avenue, siren blaring and red lights flashing (they are still there and they still work) with an escort of burly cops on even burlier Harleys. Enough to get a New York cabbie to pull over - an achievement in itself.

The Body Works Stretch limos can look dreadfully out of proportion, but this body seems to work. It's the handiwork of Stageway Coaches, Inc., of Fort Smith, Arkansas - yes, Bill Clinton's home state. A metre-long section between the front and rear doors provides the extra length.

Other extras include bullet-proof plates in the doors and all around the C-pillar, while the tiny back window has thick 'Shat-R-Proof' glass. Up front a wide lattice grille hides twin headlights - behind flip away sections - two large flashing red lights and a siren for those hurried trips to the JFK airport to hop onto Air Force One. With a couple of tons of car toLimo Console maneuver, I guess you want everyone to know you're coming.

Down the sides, the big Imperial is remarkably unadorned in terms of badges and chrome work. This serves to make the big black car more stately, rather than flashy. Nowhere does it say 'Chrysler', in keeping with the Corporation's approach, which treated the Imperial as a luxury make in its own right. Imperial winged eagle insignias appear on the front lip of the bonnet, just ahead of the front doors, and also over the boot lock.

As mentioned, the big bumper at the rear is the only other major piece of bright work on the car. It's about a foot deep and has the word 'Imperial' in raised lettering. Beneath, there's a cluster of 10 lights across the bumper: two reversing lights in the middle, with tail lights either side. The enormous trunk above is home to one of those curious boomerang shaped antenna for the in-car TV. Great for watching the expert analysis of your just-completed press conference as you rush to your next engagement.

Typical of the era, the roof is covered in black vinyl. Looking at the car in profile, the roof tapers down quite pleasantly at the C-pillar, relieving the boxiness inherent in such a big limo. The lines are very Chrysler.

The Source of Power: The power plant is also very Chrysler. In fact, it's 440 cubic inches of Chrysler - that's about 7.2 Limo Engine -- Note Heavy Duty Alternatorliters for those of us who drive cars from the 'olde worlde' rather than the colonies. Introduced in 1966, the 440 was rated at 350 horsepower at 4,400rpm, with a Presidential nomination-pulling 480 ft/lbs of torque at 2,800rpm, making it the gruntiest power plant in any American luxury car of the time.

It's no slug off the mark, the power being feed back via Chrysler's excellent Torqueflite automatic, then through a two-piece drive shaft, way down to the differential and back wheels. "The transmission is magnificent" says Colin, giving the accelerator a jab. The auto kicks down as the power of the 440 lifts the nose way up ahead. Upshifts and downshifts slip by with almost seamless ease as we head towards a spot to take a few photos.

Sitting up front with Colin, it is easy to forget just how much car there is behind you. Despite its size, he says, the car is delightful to drive, with the power steering giving finger tip control. It is at the its happiest cruising on the open road. A golf trip to Christchurch with a few mates saw it return a surprising 18-19mpg, but that figure soon plummets around town. The ride is just what you'd expect from a limousine, but without seeming "wallowy." There's torsion bar suspension up front while 'isolated' rear leaf springs plus a track bar help keep that end under control. If pushed on, it would probably start to wallow, but then this is not what these cars are all about.

The Seat of Power: Back to the motorcade with the sirens blaring, the red lights flashing and the Harleys riding shotgun through the traffic . . . I can imagine Nelson J knew little of the mayhem being created outside as he traveled comfortablyLimo Dash locked away in his bullet-proof interior. He didn't even have to look - blinds on the windows gave him a way of shutting out the visual world as well.

For our return from the photo shoot, I climbed into the 'seat of power' where Nelson J himself sat, and immediately felt cosseted and safe. The only noise was the tinkle of a couple of champagne glasses somewhere in the cocktail cabinet as the big car negotiated a high curb. As Colin pulled away there was a purposeful thrum of the big 440 under the bonnet, no doubt a reassuring sound to the original owner who was a man whose life could hinge on being able to make a quick getaway. Besides, its 4,833lb weight (2.2 tons) would shift most things that got in the way.

The huge back seat, finished in a soft blue-gray velour, was plenty comfortable with a large pull-down armrest in the centre for that extra bit of luxury. It's an interior that doesn't scream opulence but certainly exudes quiet comfort and the sense of being in a mobile sanctuary. Leg room was no problem, even if a pair of Secret Service agents occupied the two occasional seats flanking the wooden cocktail cabinet opposite. Aside from housing glasses and tipples, the cabinet is also home to an AM/FM radio and controls for the air conditioning and ventilation systems.

It used to house a TV, and that is the only original item that is missing from the car. The sense of being cosseted away is heightened by the big thick bullet-proofed C-pillars. Even if that cuts down on the amount of light, there are little spotlights which, no doubt, illuminated many a briefing paper or other important document in their time. The spotlight switches are in a neat little row on each C-pillar, while there is a myriad of switches on each door to control windows, door locks, cigarette lighter and, of course, the double thickness glass partition between chauffeur and passengers. In the front, the driver is seated on black velour - Colin had to replace the original leather bench seat in the front because it had become too cracked - the only departure from original. The steering wheel is black and thin-rimmed, typical of the period. It has a metal strip around it which when pushed operates the horn, or alternatively the siren.

A quick glance is all that is needed to read the huge 120mph speedo, and for the record, the odometer reads 58,000 original miles. The dash also includes the usual fuel, oil, amps and temperature gauges as well as the auto quadrant and air conditioning controls. Just below the steering column is a chrome knob with a red light - the main controls for the siren andLimo Passenger Side Rear red flashing lights. Foot pedals include the accelerator and a huge 'no-miss' brake pedal which proclaims 'Power Disc Brakes,' while down to the left of the driver's left leg is the foot-operated parking brake.

The only 'LeBaron' sign in the whole car is small chrome script on the lid of the glove compartment ahead of the front seat passenger. There are one or two signs of minor wear inside the car, but these are nothing when you consider this vehicle is nearly 30 years old.

A Piece of History: So just how did a Dunedin truck wholesaler come to own this piece of American history? "I asked a friend of mine to nail a limo for me", explains Colin. "He told me that most of them are rough and a mess. Then he rang back and said: "About your limo - I've found one that belonged to Rockefeller." Needless to say Colin said "Yes please." While his friend held it in his workshop in the States, several people spotted it and reckoned it shouldn't be leaving the Scan of 1976 Limo Registration country, explained Colin. "He eventually had to throw a cover over it." The Imperial had never been restored and fortunately everything was there. Colin is only the third owner. Shirley Metzger of Harlington, Texas, who bought the car in 1975, had it on blocks for quite a long time, and having been garaged all its life, it's rust free.

One the most painful aspects of getting the car was having to fork out for a 40 foot container because the twenty footers aren't being enough. All Colin has had to do in his six years of ownership is replace the exhaust system and get a new tail light lens and replace one of the door control units. That was a story in itself. It involved going to Imperial Motors out in the back-blocks of 'My-Wife-Is-My-Cousin' Country in North Carolina.

There were old Imperials parked all through the woods on the property but Colin says there was no way the 'good ole boy' would let him have a look. "He was very suspicious of us and he made us wait while he disappeared into the bush and pulled out the parts". The Imperial provides Colin with an enjoyable contrast to his other classic vehicles, which include a restored 1942 Willys Jeep, a 1950 Bedford truck his father bought in 1950 for the family carrying business, a 1957 Mk2 Zephyrute, and a 1961 Mk2 saloon with only 47,000 miles on the clock. Colin admits that buying the limo was "a bit of a whim" but it has netted him a great memento of the Rockefeller era.


Price: Offers over $100,000

This page was last updated 16 January 2007.  Send us your feedback, and come join the Imperial Mailing List - Online Car Club