With night falling gracefully on the skyline like oxblood red curtains in a theatre, the 1969 Imperial LeBaron sits alongside the road looking as if it were sculpted by Michelangelo. Its dramatic fuselage highlights curves that practically melt down the side of the body, largely concealing the rear wheels. The Imperial is adorned tastefully, with little chrome, yet the prominent styling and quality presentation suggests this isn’t just for the upper class. It’s for the distinguished.
New for 1969 was an Imperial less bespoke in terms of parts sharing, but with a focus on delivering the highest quality car one could make within profit margins. Sharing a platform with the new “C-body” Mopars – think Plymouth Fury or Chrysler Newport – allowed the remodeled Imperial to reach new heights in terms of sales. While limited-production rarity certainly makes the car “special,” creating a more obtainable luxury experience makes for a happy bean counter.
To look at the Imperial LeBaron from a distance is like looking at a skyscraper – it’s intimidating, if I’m honest. Despite my “larger than life” personality, my body is quite dwarf-like at 5’4″, which makes driving this beast a challenge. It’s 2020, you try to find a phonebook to sit on. From 1969 to 1973, the Chrysler Imperial held the record for the longest non-limousine production car at a frightening 229.7 inches stem to stern. This length gifted the owner unparalleled trunk space, making it very popular among the Mafia crowd back in the day for, uh… ease of transport. Passengers enjoy enough legroom to play hacky-sack with one another and face no obstacles. Front or back seat, take your pick.
Power was the first and last word during the late 1960s, and Mopar wasn’t about to be outgunned by Lincoln or Cadillac. Coming with a 440 cubic inch, 7.2 liter V8 as standard, the 5,200 pound behemoth enjoyed 350 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque, enough to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 9 seconds. Considering this was all funneled through Chrysler’s toughest 727 Torqueflite three-speed automatic, that performance is truly unfathomable. Stop what you’re doing and think about that. Imagine a mobile home going zero to sixty faster than most cars made a few decades later.
The muffled fire-breathing dragon of a V8 beneath the hood tugs gently at your foot to go faster, its purring silently like a fat cat full of warm milk. The speedometer rather pessimistically reads a top speed of 120 miles per hour, but I suspect it’s sandbagging a bit. At no point did the Imperial feel like it couldn’t achieve (relative) warp speed given enough room to run. The torque and horsepower are seemingly endless and never failed to bring a smile to my face. Chrysler’s “Big-Block” 440 pulls away, nearly as quiet as an electric car and about as forceful.
Handling is more or less what you would expect from the Imperial’s gargantuan size and 1960s technology – and it’s something I deeply enjoyed. Imperials were never made to be canyon carvers, and to go into any details as such would be an insult to the car and you as the reader. What this car strides to do is whisk away the operator in a manner not to sully their pants. Riding on a torsion bar suspension coupled with the near-limo like length chassis, there is no rut wide enough nor pothole deep enough to disturb the Imperial’s glide. Seeing this car in motion from outside and observing it trot over a bump reminds me of a thoroughbred’s gallop, with its legs lifting high and proud, yet its rider remains un-jostled.
Of no fault of the Imperial, the baroque-influenced interior appears out of place compared to modern offerings. Today’s automobiles stride to be as unobtrusive, uninteresting, and soulless as a square of beige carpet. The Imperial, however, with its plum-colored cloth split bench seats beckons as if you’re going to a dinner party at Dracula’s mansion. Casket handles adorned in heavy chrome are your door pulls. Using them as such will result in a vault-like thud one would expect from such a car. Outside, unique one-year-only sequential tail lights shine to inform whole city blocks where you’re headed next.
I confess the example presented today has just turned 37,000 miles on the odometer. Driving this very well-maintained and preserved Chrysler will arguably be as close to driving one that had just pulled out of the gilded showroom over 50 years ago. Nothing is tired or worn, even the window seals are as fresh as they were coming off the production line. No wind noise was detected. No squeaks were had from the cushy suspension. Cruising in the pillar-less hardtop was an automotive experience I will not soon forget. To say that they don’t make cars like this anymore is a gross understatement and a shame at that.
The steering is massively over-boosted and numb, the brakes equally so. It’s impossible to parallel park. I don’t mind in the least. See, driving Chrysler C-bodies is like waltzing. You find the groove and follow the Imperial’s pace. The body dips and hunkers down in ways words fail to relay. Elegance, with a pure mind for the driver and its occupants. Nothing will ruin its composure so as long as you respect its dance and tempo. I can’t help but to think about Disney’s Fantasia, the scene “Dance of the Hours” with the hippopotamus ballet dancing.
As we near the end of the year 2020 I’d like to end on a positive note and take a moment to recognize the owner of the fine automobile you’ve just read about. Tony Chenevey, caretaker of this 1969 Imperial LeBaron, made this a remarkably easy article to write because all I had to do was listen. He shared how the Imperial is like a surprise birthday party thrown in your honor every time the garage door opens, or simply a one-man parade floating down the road. Piloting the car makes any day feel like a special occasion. And what’s truly remarkable is that Mr. Chenevey makes everyone else feel that special too. Thank you Tony, for loan and use of such a distinguished vehicle from an era long-gone.