1931 Chrysler Imperial
1931 Chrysler Imperial. Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

Chrysler has had its ups and downs over the years, with none of the ‘downs’ worse than the recent one that found it in bankruptcy protection, and then rescued by Italy’s Fiat. It was a sad comedown for the grand old company that evolved out of the Maxwell Motor Company in 1925 to become the Chrysler Corporation. It came of age in the early 1930s, and if one Chrysler car epitomized that maturing, it was the 1931 Chrysler Imperial.

Chrysler Corp. grew out of the ambitious vision of Walter P. Chrysler, a former railroad master mechanic who joined Buick and rose to become its president. When he became disgruntled with General Motors founder Billy Durant’s management style, Chrysler left Buick in 1919 and was soon hired take over the shaky Willys-Overland Company of Toledo, Ohio.

After rescuing Willys, Chrysler was again contracted to perform the same feat at the Detroit-based Maxwell Motor Corporation and its associate company Chalmers. But by this time Chrysler wasn’t interested in just another recovery, he wanted his own car company.

As president of Maxwell, Chrysler introduced a car bearing his name, the 1924 Chrysler 70 (70 mph top speed). It began Chrysler’s reputation for quality engineering with such features as four wheel hydraulic brakes, full pressure lubrication, aluminum pistons, and air and oil filters.

But the really big advance was its high compression engine. Based on theories of pioneering English combustion engineer Harry Ricardo and others, Chrysler engineers developed an engine with a 4.7:1 compression ratio when the norm was 4.0:1. The Chrysler side-valve, 3.3-litre (201 cu in.) six developed an excellent 68 horsepower. Compression would rise to 6.0:1 by 1928.

High compression gave the 1924 Chrysler a comfortable 113 to 121 km/h (70 to 75 mph) top speed and fuel economy of 20 mpg. The new Chrysler was introduced to much acclaim in New York City’s Commodore Hotel in January, 1924, and by year’s end 32,000 had been sold. This set the stage for Maxwell to become the Chrysler Corporation in 1925.

Under Walter Chrysler, the Chrysler Corporation expanded. It moved the Chrysler nameplate upscale, and in a blockbuster 1928 year, it introduced two new cars, the popular priced Plymouth, the mid-priced DeSoto, and bought Dodge Brothers, builders of a sound mid-market car. Chrysler was soon in third place in the industry.

By the 1930s Chrysler was ready to show the world it had arrived, that it could build a car that would take its full place beside other manufacturers’ luxury models. This was the 1931 Chrysler Imperial.

For 1931 Chrysler produced its first eight cylinder engines, the Imperial’s being the mightiest. The big 6.3-litre, side-valve, inline eight developed 125 horsepower, and a sturdy nine main bearing crankshaft made it robust enough for marine use. It was the mainstay of the Chrysler Marine Division for 20 years.

It drove through a newly introduced four-speed transmission and vacuum-operated clutch which disengaged when the accelerator was released. This could be cancelled with a dash-mounted switch, which most drivers did. The hydraulic brakes were power assisted.

But while the mechanicals were impressive, the 1931 Imperial’s appearance was even more so. Recognizing the growing importance of styling, as formalized by Cadillac’s new 1927 LaSalle, the stylists were involved from the beginning in the development of the ’31 Chrysler.

The result was stunning. Unabashedly taking a cue from the 1929 front-wheel drive L-29 Cord, they took advantage of the Imperial’s 3,683 mm (145 in.) wheelbase and stretched the louvered hood until it looked longer than a Duesenberg’s. The vertical-bar, vee-shaped grille was canted back at a stylish angle.

Gracefully flowing front fenders carried side-mounted spare tires, and the slant of the two-piece windshield echoed the angle of the grille. The rear was dominated by a huge, stand-alone trunk.

The ’31 Chrysler Imperial had good performance as well as graceful lines, and Indianapolis race driver Harry Hartz drove one to many stock car records on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida.

Car Life (5/’61) conducted a simulated road test and estimated that the 2,155 kg (4,750 lb) Imperial could accelerate to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 20 seconds, and reach a top speed approaching 161 (100).

Their estimated speeds in the intermediate gears were 50 km/h (31 mph) in 1st, 71 (44) in 2nd, and 117 (73) in 3rd, making it an excellent passing gear. First gear, almost redundant with an engine producing an estimated 290 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,400 rpm, was recommended for emergency use only.

It is unfortunate that the mighty Imperial was introduced in the midst of the Depression. All manufacturers were suffering including Chrysler, and while Imperial sales reached just over 3,200, it didn’t diminish the importance of Chrysler’s coming-of-age car.

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