Don Draper's dream car

| 14 Jun 2018
Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe

Whatever you might think of 1960s American cars, they never cease to amaze.

Just when you think that you’ve seen it all, there is always something to make you catch your breath and say: “Did they really make those?”

This Imperial Crown Coupe is just such a vehicle.

It comes from a period when anything still seemed possible. I mean, what other culture would have given us an 18½ft-long, two-door hardtop powered by a 7.2-litre V8?

Then, having decreed that it was completely rational everyday transport, who else but the Americans would (having equipped said barge with power-assisted everything) then decide that what you really needed was a rotating passenger seat and a foldout table that converted it into a mobile office?

Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
The Mobile Director began as a concept at the 1966 New York International Automobile Show

It sounds like something out of a second division Bond spoof – very Matt Helm or Our Man Flint – but it was a genuine option.

Any potential buyer could take the Mobile Director package in 1967 or ’68 and live out the fantasy of dictating letters to his secretary as they bowled along the interstate to their next meeting.

They could hold it right there, in fact; with the other chair turned through 180 degrees, your Imperial became a four-wheeled conference room. Or, as the brochure suggested, you could play chess (presumably with a magnetic board) under the radiant glow of a special plug-in high-intensity reading lamp.

The idea began as a concept at the 1966 New York Show based on the previous generation of Crown Coupe. As well as the table, lamp and the swivelling seat, the Mobile Executive featured a television (only visible to rear passengers), a voice recorder, a radio phone and a telex machine; truly the corporate suite on wheels for the executive on the go.

So thrilled was the public by the notion of a mobile office with all the latest gizmos that Chrysler offered the lot as an option for ’67 on the Crown Coupe. The firm even produced a TV advert, playing on the possibilities of a romantic roadside dinner for two at the walnut table.

Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
Adverts for the car played heavily on the luxury elements

Perhaps understandably, the features were scaled back for production to the twisting seat, the table and the tensor lamp that plugged into a cigarette lighter.

Even then, it cost more than $597 – or roughly 10% of the price of the car. So, they were very much special-order models. Out of 17,614 Imperials sold in 1967, just 182 are thought to have been Mobile Directors.

Discouraged by the lack of interest, Chrysler had in effect given up on the Mobile Director for ’68 and was probably trying to get rid of all the parts and forget about it. The only mention was in the fine print on the back of the brochure.

The option was reduced to $317, but it seems that even fewer were sold. Exactly how many is not known because the production records for that year have been destroyed. Some estimates are as high as 55, while others say it could be as few as 10.

Either way, the ’68 model-year Imperial Mobile Director is among the rarest of post-war American luxury cars as well as being one of the wackiest.

Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
Typewriter not included as standard

Not that Imperial usually did wacky. The make had only existed as a separate division since 1955 and had begun life in the ’20s merely as an upmarket Chrysler model. The brand was in a steady decline in the 1960s and would disappear as a standalone marque in the ’70s.

Imperial was a make that had enjoyed the apogee of its reputation in the late ’50s, when stylist Virgil Exner’s vast sweeping tailfins and chrome-laden aggression had suited the bullish mood of the times.

But that sureness of touch faltered in his somewhat grotesque 1961-’63 models (complete with neo-classic free-standing headlights) and few cared that the ’61 Imperials were (and remain) the widest American production cars ever built.

Compared to the unashamed glitz of the genre-defining Cadillac or the clean-lined modernity of the ‘clap-door’ Lincoln, the Imperial seemed slightly stodgy and irrelevant.

The poaching of stylist Elwood Engel from Ford reversed this trend. His beautiful 1961 Lincoln had changed the language of American car design and, from ’64 onwards, he had a positive influence on Imperial with a succession of handsome, sheer-sided models that rejected fuss in favour of a sober but contemporary dignity.

Beneath the new sheet metal, the 1964-’66 cars still used the unique Imperial chassis frame first seen in ’57. The ’67 and ’68 models had fresh pressings on a new ‘C’-body platform, a monocoque shared with other ‘full-sized’ Chryslers, although the Imperial was 6in longer than its biggest sibling.

They looked similar to the body-on-frame Imperials, but all the panels were new and the wraparound front ’screen had gone. As before, they came as two- and four-door hardtops, a two-door soft-top (dropped in ’68) and an entry-level, four-door sedan with a centre pillar.

All were powered by Chrysler’s biggest-ever ‘440’ Wedge-head V8 with lighter thin-wall casting cylinder block and coupled to the latest alloy-cased Torqueflite automatic as standard.

Top of the line was the Le Baron four-door hardtop, but there were no four-door Mobile Directors. The long coupe aperture was required for the rotating seat, which turned outboard slightly as it swung through 180 degrees.

Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
The top brass in the US military took a shine to the Mobile Director

One niche group that did take a shine to the Mobile Director was the higher echelons of the US military, typically a wing commander in the Air Force.

Blue with a white vinyl top (as featured here) was a favoured combination. As a wing commander’s car, it would have been the only one on base to have a full white roof so that, if the facility came under attack, everyone would know where the orders were being issued from.

In theory, the Mobile Director was ideal because the top brass could be driven from base to base while working at the table and controlling planes in the air via radio at the same time.

There is no evidence of this example having belonged to the USAF (the original civilian owner lived outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota), but it did sport flag holders on the front and rear bumpers at one stage.

Current owner Justin Lazic, who imported the car from Texas last year from its long-term home with collector Chandler Smith, has wisely had them removed.

The Imperial would be desirable with or without the Mobile Director kit. It is, of course, obscenely huge for a two-door coupe but also handsome and well balanced, its pillar-less splendour speaking of the self-assured comfort of mid-’60s America.

Here is a car for the real-life Don Drapers of the Mad Men era; a vehicle of Martini-quaffing sophistication from Detroit’s last great golden age, when it still had the confidence to create unashamedly massive saloons with refined powertrains and imaginative, world-class luxury features. It is a grown-up car not yet emasculated by smog laws and made ugly by doom-mongering safety concerns.

Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
The interior is a place of refinement and luxury

Inside, its blue leather seats look like something out of a Learjet. The doors have power locks and are so long that there are internal handles for front and rear passengers. The looming, hooded dash with its ‘Danish Modern’ wood finish is unmistakably American but much less fussy than its contemporaries, with classy stainless switchgear, 120mph ribbon speedo and AM/ FM radio controls hidden behind a panel.

Folded, the bulky walnut table is too high to rest your elbow on. It sits above the transmission hump on a fat chrome post and, as well as expanding to twice its size in conference mode, it can be positioned between the back seats – or be taken out and stored in the boot.

A master control board on the driver’s door operates the electric windows and the (optional) powered quarter-lights. There is a total of four cigarette lighters for the age of stylish chain-smoking and six-way power adjustment of the driver’s seat.

Without a doubt, you’re well looked after, plus the original owner forked out for further refinements such as air-conditioning, Tilt-A-Scope adjustable steering wheel and automatic headlamp dimmer.

Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
With its 350bhp, the Imperial can easily sit at 100mph

The Imperial doesn’t seem quite as alert as the 350 advertised horsepower might suggest, but it is by no means slow, its commanding acceleration from rest and in the mid-range calculated to appear even more effortless by the seamless changes of the automatic ’box.

The gimmicky pushbuttons were long gone by ’68, replaced by a conventional column shift that helpfully pops the parking brake off when ‘D’ is selected. Floor the throttle and, like any good American car, the football-pitch view over the bonnet rears up with the 480lb ft of torque and the Crown Coupe just rushes away with a gentle waffle.

Performance is an extension of luxury in this car, not an end in itself. Its avowed aim is to keep its occupants relaxed, isolate them from the road with a superbly soft ride and not tempt the driver into taking any liberties.

The Imperial can easily sit at 100mph, although it’s happier at 85mph. With front disc brakes (first fitted in 1967), this 5000lb monster even stops from that speed. But there is no point looking for ‘feel’ in the steering or any other dynamic subtleties.

Don Draper's dream car: The Imperial Crown Coupe
Assume the conference position when driving and you'll get some odd looks from passersby

Swishing homewards into the numbing embrace of his first scotch and soda of the evening, the typical buyer expected equally inert steering, but, at 3½ turns lock-to-lock, it is not spectacularly low geared.

Even so, there is nothing to push against as you turn the wheel and the lightness means that you take your visual cues from the angle of the bonnet against the horizon and simply trust that you will go round the curve.

Actually, the Imperial is quite stable on its much-touted torsion-bar front suspension, so in long, sweeping corners on, say, motorway junctions, you can drive it fairly ambitiously without feeling too conspicuous.

To be honest, however you drive this car, you are always going to be conspicuous, particularly when you insist that your passenger assumes the ‘conference’ position at every opportunity. Only this way can you experience the Mobile Director’s full potential as a traffic-stopper; people do a double-take first at the sheer spectacle of the car’s worthy-of-its-own-postcode size, then they stare harder still at the grinning face beaming out of the side window but facing the wrong way.

It’s an oddly relaxing experience in a sense, because you are unable to anticipate or fret about the traffic coming towards you, but only watch it disappear. That said, it’s surprising how many people don’t look. One suspects it is so outside their frame of everyday reference they just can’t acknowledge it, which is a bit sad really.

Images: James Mann; thanks to Chandler Smith and Justin Lazic; Aston Down Airfield for the location


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