By Vern Parker
Economics professor Jim Bennett never forgot the value of stopping to smell the roses — or in his case, stopping to admire a tailfin.
Since his youth in Tennessee he was infatuated with the mid-1950s Chrysler Imperials, with what he describes as their “magnificent warp-speed tailfins.”
Though the Imperials of that era were never thought of as particularly practical, they were, in Bennett’s words, “the coolest cars ever built.”
In 1956, the Chrysler Imperial sprouted tailfins and its assembly line produced a raven-black, six-passenger, four-door sedan with a three-speed, push-button TorqueFlite automatic transmission that handled the 280 horsepower generated by the 354-cubic-inch Hemihead V-8 engine. The new arrival, one of 6,821 built, weighed in at 4,575 pounds and cost about $1.05 per pound. The base price was $4,832.
In October 1996, Bennett saw an ad for an Imperial for sale. Even with 86,000 miles, it qualified as a low-mileage car since the annual average was 2,150 miles. So a trip to investigate was arranged.
A sign of the times, when even Ronald Reagan was touting the benefits of Chesterfield cigarettes, are the four cigarette lighters scattered about the spacious interior. Bennett was taken by the four working vent windows — remember when all cars had such amenities?
Bennett purchased the Imperial and later returned to drive it home to his Virginia home. “It’s a pleasurable driver,” he says without surprise.
The Imperial traveled fine, he recalls; it was the other drivers — unaccustomed to truly gargantuan cars with tailfins — that seemed to be the biggest problem. Power accessories on the car include power steering, power antenna, power windows, and power brakes. Additionally, the luxury car is equipped with air conditioning, while Solex-tinted glass aids in the cooling effort. A most unusual feature is the rare Chryslermatic clock located in the hub of the steering wheel.
He notes that when he bought the car, it was equipped with the impossible-to-find and somewhat dangerous “Southwind” gasoline-powered heater. Even in the chill of November, he was fearful of using it. Once home, he hastily removed the fire-prone heater and, abiding by the first law of antique auto ownership, did not throw it away. Sure enough, within months, he learned of a fellow 1956 Imperial owner who was searching for a Southwind heater. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Bennett philosophizes.
The five-button transmission pattern has the neutral button in the 12 o’clock position, with reverse at 9 o’clock and drive at 3 o’clock. The first- and second-gear buttons are side by side at the 6 o’clock position.
The huge car is remarkably economical to operate, Bennett says. He has forsaken any plans to turn the car into a showpiece. Actually, he’s going to turn it into a daily driver.
He loves the appearance in his rearview mirror of the two gun-sight taillights raised on their chrome pedestals above the soaring tailfins.
He takes solace in the knowledge that more than a foot behind the taillights at the end of the chrome trim outlining the tailfins are the backup lights. Another 6 inches behind them is the rear bumper. Bennett reports witnessing on an almost daily basis rear-end collisions of small cars with disastrous results.
“Driving my Imperial,” he said, “I’ll see whiplash cases as I sail majestically on.” Bennett added, “I plan to drive with style.”
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