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Car of the Week: 1956 Imperial

Orville Smith tried to get his father to buy the lovely 1956 Imperial car when he first stumbled across it way back in 1976, but the plan didn’t really work out. He ended up buying for himself.
Car of the Week 2020
1956 Imperial

“Never get attached to iron.”

That’s what Orville Smith has always told himself. Translation: don’t get too worked up over a car or let it cloud your better judgment. No matter how nice a car is, it’s still just transportation, right?

Well, after being “attached” to his beautiful 1956 Imperial cruiser for the past 35 years, Smith has found it difficult to follow his own advice. He tried to get his father to buy the car when he first stumbled across it way back in 1976, but the plan didn’t really work out. “Oh, I thought he would buy it!” said Smith, a resident of Portage, Mich. “Dad loved those old Chryslers. He loved the Imperial, but he didn’t know what to do with it. So I said, 'I guess I’ll just buy it, what the heck.' So I paid 1,350 bucks for it, and I’ve had it ever since.

“I always said I would not get attached to iron, but I’m attached to the Imperial, and I’m attached to an old [1950] Ford pickup that my dad had, and I still have both of them.”

The saga began one day when Smith was driving his mother to work at her meat-packing plant job in Sioux Falls, S.D. “I was taking her in one day, and there on the corner where I turned was a little used-car lot with about 10 cars, and there it was,” he said. “It had come from a farmer’s estate right to this little car dealer.

“Why, it didn’t need any work, and it just ran like a top. I just drove it right home. I wound up putting mufflers on it, and some tires on it and I got the body fixed up a little bit, and I just kept it.”

Before he did any serious time on the road, however, Smith had to handle one minor unpleasantry with the Imperial’s interior. “When I brought the Imperial home in February a friend of mine sat in the backseat,” he recalled. “He was trying to put his feet under the front seat and could not. So he looked under the seat and found a frozen dead cat under the seat.”

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Smith wound up storing the car in Sioux Falls until 1985, when his father died. At that point, he had to transport the car to Michigan, but the job turned out to be more difficult than he imagined. “I borrowed a trailer from a friend and decided to load the Imperial on the trailer and tow it back to Portage," he said. "Well, I drove the big car on the trailer and I quickly noticed that the Imperial created a big bow in the trailer. Not only that, my 1983 Ford custom van had a hard time towing the Imperial. That thing is just so heavy, it was too heavy to tow – at least for that trailer! So I had to drive it back to Michigan, 800 miles.

“It needed a fuel pump first, so I rounded up a fuel pump, and I drove it all the way across Wisconsin, around the loop of Chicago and all the way home. It ran like a top.”

The luxurious Imperials were spun off as their own make separate from the rest of the Chrysler lineup beginning in 1955. That year, the Imperials joined the rest of the Chrysler lineup in receiving a major restyling, courtesy of design guru Virgil Exner. The Imperials got some more tweaking in 1956 with new designs for the back fenders, new wraparound moldings in back and new rear bumpers below the calling card “gun sight” tail lamps that were perched on top of the fenders.

Prominent single headlights protruded on each side of a distinctive split grille. A single chrome strip ran from stem to stern, widening slightly as it stretched rearward.

Inside, there were few American cars more refined or comfortable than the Imperials. Power steering, power brakes and a power seat were all standard. Power windows and air-conditioning were among the most popular options. The push-button PowerFlite automatic was standard at the beginning of the model year run, but the new three-speed Torqueflite became available in the spring.

Smith’s car was also equipped with the unique “Instant Heat” gas heater. He has had to repair the unit once, but it is still on the car. “That heater is so hot it seems that it could melt your socks, but you will get about 5 miles per gallon when [it ’s] on,” he said.

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The wheelbase on the Imperials grew three inches for the 1956 model year to 133 inches. The horsepower rating of the Imperial’s 353.1-cid V-8 also grew, jumping from 250 in 1955 to an ample 280 the following year.

Production of the Imperials came from Chrysler’s Karcheval and Jefferson plants in Detroit. A total of 6,821 of the four-door sedans like Smith’s rolled out the doors, making the big four-doors the most popular of the three body styles. Only 2,094 of the two-door hardtops and just 1,543 four-door hardtops were built.

Few Imperials from ’56 were harder to ignore than Smith’s car, which wore vintage 1950s Desert Rose paint with a matching coral-colored interior. The car was repainted not long after Smith got it, but the paint and body haven't been touched since. “When I had it painted, it needed new rear quarter panels and the rocker panels were rusted,” he recalled. “ I bought new panels and had them put on. I kept a copy of the bill, and with the paint job the whole bill was $800.

“The color — I don’t know how many were made that way. I’ve seen them with the white top, but not the solid color. It is an attention getter, I’ll tell you that. You look at those ’55, ’56 Imperials, it makes you wonder when they were coming down the line, who decided to use green and black inside, and all the funny colors and paint jobs. It just seems like they used whatever was handy for colors. You just see some of the goofiest color combinations in those ’50s cars."

Like nearly everything on the car, the paint job is still too nice to bother restoring. The engine and transmission are original and have never been apart. All of the other running gear and interior is completely original.

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“I’m just going to keep it exactly the way it is. I’m never gonna do a body-off. I don’t need to. If I felt I ever needed to do something like that I probably would, but everything is there on this car and it’s original.” Smith said. “It’s got a couple of small little dings and scratches from being in the garage, but it doesn’t need anything. I keep it waxed up and looking nice … and it’s an original color, so everything fits and works good.”

The car had 65,000 miles on it in 1976 when Smith got the keys. He’s only put 10,000 on it since then. “All I’ve done is change the oil,” he said. “I think I put one set of plugs in it. I put a manual choke on it and even in the cold it would turn right over. I’d never drive it in the winter — I try not to even drive it in the rain — but it’s so reliable it would turn right over. And these things are so easy to work on.”

These days, the big Imperial seems to be suited perfectly for its primary duties as a show and parade car and occasional wedding participant. Smith dressed the car up in American flags last Memorial Day to do some motoring and campaigning for a friend who was running for public office. He says the ride today is as elegant and enjoyable as it’s ever been.

“Oh, they’re just as smooth as silk,” he said. “You don’t feel the bumps . I had someone say ‘I hear the bumps, but you don’t feel them.’ Chrysler had the fulltime power steering and it’s like you are skating with that big steering wheel. You drive it and it’s like, ‘Holy cow!’ You don’t really have a lot of feel. You just kind of let ’er go. It’s just a big cruiser.

“I suppose if I was going to do some real cruising in it, I’d go ahead and [put radials on it]. The tires on it are 25 years old, too. They’re old bias-plys I bought from Sears.”

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These days, the car that once had the cat frozen under the seat now sits inside every night of the year with a cover over it. The family’s two daily drivers are relegated to the driveway. “I drive a Cadillac, and the Imperial sits inside covered up, along with the old pickup of my dad’s,” he said. “The Cadillac sits outside. My wife’s Buick sits outside, too.”

Smith bristled at the thought of ever selling the brilliant Imperial, but he admits he almost got talked out of the car a few years ago. “I was working as a volunteer at the Gilmore [museum] for their meets, and one day a couple came up to me and wanted to know if I would sell it,” he said. “They made an offer I could hardly refuse, but I did. They were ticked off at me for not selling it to them.

“But I’m not temped to sell it. I’m 65 and I’m getting a lot of heat to move down to Florida, and if I ever do I’ll probably take it with me. I’ve got two boys — one of them wants the truck, and one of them wants the Imperial. That should work out just right.”


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