What was accepted as stylish and the "last word" in automobile performance in 1900 looks quaint and inadequate in 1957; just as today's vastly improved motor cars will be old-fashioned in the year 2000.
Virgil Exner, Chrysler's head of design, wrote these words in a 1956 SAE paper titled "Styling and Aerodynamics." He knew the importance of styling but also understood it was a transient sign of the times. What was radical at the start of the century was antiquated five decades later. Yet Exner himself had a way of creating designs that reflected the time period of the car--without looking ancient even half a century afterwards.
Decades before Chrysler introduced the "Cab Forward" design, the automaker brought out the "Forward Look." The year was 1957, and the design philosophy was Exner's. It was such a dramatic move at the time that Chrysler's Plymouth brand advertised that it was the styling model the industry would follow in three years.
It was two other brands from Chrysler that left the biggest legacy with Exner's Forward Look, however. Sadly, that year may have marked the high-water point for both brands. One ceased production five years later, and the other slid into oblivion by the mid-1970s. In 1957, though, both brands were going strong.
In its second model year, the Adventurer led the De Soto lineup. Basically a Fireflite with gold paint and a bigger engine, the coupe introduced in 1956 was complemented with a convertible model in 1957.
Also making its debut that year was the 345cid V8, fueled by two four-barrel carburetors pumping out 345 horsepower and coupled to the new TorqueFlite three-speed automatic transmission controlled by Chrysler's famous push buttons. Optional quad-headlights were among the industry's first.
This high-spec model caught the eye of legendary automotive scribe Tom McCahill, who, in the pages of Mechanix Illustrated, earmarked the De Soto models as the best looking of all '57 Chrysler products. Topping a pile of accolades, McCahill's adoration helped boost the brand's sales. The Adventurer became the holy grail of De Soto models and remained almost as rare, with only 1,950 sold that year.
At the very top of Chrysler's offerings was the Imperial. Like the De Soto, Exner's pen marks are all over the 1957 Imperial. From the hooded headlights (available, as on the De Soto, with two or four lights) through the "double wrap around" windshield to the peaks of its dramatic tailfins, the Imperial showcased a homogenous and industry-changing style--called "Flight-Sweep" in advertising --like no other car of its era.
Period literature, rarely a place for hyperbole, claimed the styling was "of brilliant originality" and "actually merits the use of the much over-used superlative 'incomparable.'"
Sharing the new TorqueFlite transmission with the De Soto, the Imperial one-upped the lesser brand with its own engine. Imperials in 1957 shook the earth with a four-barrel 392cid V8 ripping up the pavement with 325 horses. Shook the earth, maybe--but it was still taxed with motivating a 224-inch-long, 81-inch-wide luxury car.
Chrysler's Torsion-Aire suspension softened the rides of the Adventurer and the Imperial. Introduced in 1957, the front-suspension design used ball joints controlled by torsion bar springs. The metallurgy of the torsion bars was changed for 1959. As a result, the 1957 models became even greater rarities.
An unsuccessful restyling and a recession caused sales to fall dramatically for 1958, making the 1957s look like even greater achievements.
Purchased new by the legendary Howard Hughes, an Imperial Crown convertible will cross the block. Hughes' Saturn Blue Imperial has been in storage since 1976 when it was purchased by the car's second owner.
A cancelled check from Hughes Productions and other documents are included for authentication. Only 1,167 were built, but a provenance that boasts such a figure as Hughes does more to boost the price into the $120,000 to $140,000 range.
An even rarer offering is the Hemi V8-powered De Soto Adventurer, one of just 300 convertibles produced for 1957. This example, offered in Adventurer Gold Metallic and Surf White, has had one owner since 1959. Auctions America expects the car to bring between $125,000 and $150,000.
With more than 50 years of history, Sam Fiorani represents the third generation of Chrysler owners in his family.