Every worthwhile journey starts with a charter, an idea that defines its purpose. It's the philosophy that threads its way through the entire project and ultimately holds the thing together. Ben Exworthy had a charter that guided the construction of his '57 Chrysler Imperial Le Baron: Frank Sinatra. And demolition derbies.
"All my friends ran derbies in the summer, and the most coveted car to find was the Imperial. You could run one for several years before it was so dilapidated that you had to retire it, so I ended up with a healthy respect for Imperials through that experience. Then as I started going to car shows I started getting a real appreciation for cars with fins. Coupled with my fascination with Imperials, I started looking at the '57-59s as so stylish and cool."
But a stock one wouldn't quite do; a Forward Look Chrysler is a barge (Forward Look was a design theme employed by Virgil Exner in styling the '55-61 Chrysler Corporation vehicles).
The torsion-bar suspension is mushy and bias-ply tires wriggle around under cars that heavy. Given today's speeds, their three-speed transmissions are limited and drum brakes had a hard time when interstates were new curiosities.
Given the car's stature, neither would a radical one. "When I started this project I didn't want a hot rod," he continued. "I didn't want flames and the clichs. I just wanted something that had pure class.
"Part of it was that in the last ten years of his life I really started to bond with my grandfather. He had some similarities to Frank Sinatra; he wasn't overly verbose and he had this sort of classiness and masculine stylishness. So those things sort of coupled and brought me to that car."
That stock-looking hood and...
That stock-looking hood and grille is anything but. The car's higher engine placement and taller induction called for a higher hood, but a scoop or cowl induction bulge wouldn't fit a luxury car's personality. So Greg and Sig sliced the hood lengthwise into thirds, arched the center up for clearance, and created strips to fill the voids between the modified panels. They also raised the leading edge of the cowl to match. They reversed the hood for just that much more clearance, but it interfered with the grille. So they made a new one from steel stock, only just a hair smaller so they could push it back. Could you have spotted it?
Luck, in fact, brought him to this particular car. For starters, '57-59 Imperials aren't common; Chrysler made only 36,000 of 'em in '57. And of those, the highly-appointed 1,729 Le Baron sedans like the one Ben stumbled upon are the third-rarest production models that year. So buyers can't necessarily be choosy. "I bought the car sight unseen from this rockabilly guy in LA," he explained. "He'd done some things. Like it was flat black and he'd done some upholstery with a black-and-white flame motif and installed a couple skulls here and there."
Then there was getting it home. Electing to drive it to Seattle, Ben enlisted a buddy with mechanical skills. Along the 1,200-mile journey, they endured, among other things, a generator that burned out in pitch darkness on a mountain pass with no shoulders. What's more, a brake line developed such a bad leak that duct tape actually helped.
Finding a builder wasn't easy, either; Ben's plan required equal parts restoration and modification, and to this day the two worlds seem at odds with one another. It wasn't until Ben bumped into Greg Parsley, owner of Retro Rods Inc. that he found a party not only capable but willing to build something so unorthodox. But not even delivery went without a hitch; the slowly failing brakes went out altogether with Greg at the helm and the car rolling toward the paint booth.
Over the course of roughly three years, Greg and his right-hand man, Sig Schott, literally reduced the car to its elements and rebuilt it in a modern image. They clipped its frame for an aftermarket front stub and replaced great swaths of sheetmetal, including the entire rear quarters. Mike Reeves took the most powerful engine of its era, the 392 Chrysler, and multiplied its output by close to half. The additional gear in the overdrive transmission behind it means this 2 1/2-ton land yacht will launch like a jackrabbit and stride like a cheetah. A scratch-built performance-tuned suspension means it'll handle like a touring sedan and the air springs make it ride like the luxury car it was intended to be.
Purists surely cringe at some of the modifications, yet Chrysler historians may not even notice some of the others. Whatever the case, even a die-hard restorer would be obliged to recognize the craftsmanship. Working by Ben's input, Greg and Sig gave the car New Millennium function without altering a shred of its Mid-Century form.
"I made obviously more modern modifications and a little bit of craziness with the wheels, but overall I wanted something that my grandpa would drive and feel classy in," Ben emphasized. "So that really tempered a lot of the wackiness that some people do. Like I was thinking suicide doors at one point, but then I thought, 'Frank Sinatra wouldn't drive a car like that.'"
Chrysler's designers pledged their '57 Imperial Le Baron to be the finest of its class. It just took their grandkids' generation to fulfill that promise.