The 1955 Chrysler Imperial: A Landmark in Automotive Design

In 1955, Chrysler made a bold move that would forever alter its place in the automotive world—this year marked the establishment of Imperial as a distinct brand, setting the stage for a dramatic transformation in Chrysler’s approach to design and branding. With the introduction of the “100 Million Dollar Look,” Chrysler underwent a complete overhaul of all five of its lines, thanks to the visionary designs of Virgil Exner, Chrysler’s chief designer. This pivotal year not only shed the company’s conservative image but also propelled it to the forefront of automotive styling.

The Visionary Impact of Virgil Exner

A New Design Philosophy

Virgil Exner’s influence on Chrysler cannot be overstated. His designs brought a new level of sophistication and flair to the company’s lineup. The “100 Million Dollar Look” was more than just a marketing slogan; it was a testament to Chrysler’s substantial investment in revitalizing its image. Exner’s bold designs featured sweeping lines, elegant curves, and a modern aesthetic that resonated with consumers and critics alike.

Transforming the Chrysler Lineup

Under Exner’s guidance, Chrysler’s entire lineup received a makeover. This transformation was not just superficial; it also involved significant changes in engineering and performance. The 1955 model year represented a fresh start, with each vehicle reflecting a commitment to style, power, and innovation.


The Launch of Imperial as a Standalone Brand

Imperial’s Distinct Identity

Chrysler’s decision to establish Imperial as a separate brand was a strategic move aimed at competing with other luxury car manufacturers. By doing so, Chrysler positioned Imperial as a competitor to Cadillac and Lincoln, brands that had long dominated the luxury market. The 1955 Imperial models’ exclusive design elements and superior craftsmanship stood out.

Innovative Design and Engineering

The top-tier Imperials were built on an exclusive 133-inch-wheelbase chassis, providing a spacious and comfortable ride. These models were powered by a potent 280-horsepower 354-cubic-inch Hemi V-8 engine, delivering exceptional performance and power. The combination of advanced engineering and luxurious design made the Imperial a standout in the luxury car segment.

The 1956 Imperial Southampton: A Design Icon

Introduction of the Southampton Hardtop

As Imperial entered its second year as a standalone brand, the 1956 model year saw the introduction of the Southampton name, which denoted the unique hardtop roofline for the two-door Imperial model. This design innovation provided a sleek, stylish silhouette that appealed to luxury car buyers.

Return of the Freestanding Taillights

One of the most distinctive design elements of the Imperial was the freestanding taillights. These iconic features returned in 1956, further solidifying their place in Imperial’s design legacy. The freestanding taillights enhanced the car’s aesthetics and became a symbol of the brand’s innovative approach to automotive styling.

Limited Production and Exclusive Appeal

With a price tag of $5,094 before options, the 1956 Imperial Southampton was a luxury vehicle in every sense. Only 2,094 Southampton coupes were manufactured for the 1956 model year, adding to its exclusivity and desirability among collectors. This limited production run ensured that each vehicle was meticulously crafted, offering unparalleled quality and attention to detail.

The Lasting Legacy of the 1955-1956 Chrysler Imperial

A Turning Point in Automotive History

Launching the Imperial as a distinct brand and introducing the “$100 Million Dollar Look” marked a significant turning point in automotive history. Chrysler’s commitment to design excellence and innovation set new standards in the industry and positioned the company as a leader in luxury automotive design.

Virgil Exner’s Enduring Influence

Virgil Exner’s visionary designs continued to influence Chrysler’s direction for years. His ability to blend elegance with modernity created a timeless aesthetic that remains admired today. The 1955 and 1956 Imperial models are a testament to Exner’s genius and lasting impact on automotive design.


The establishment of Imperial as a standalone brand in 1955 and the subsequent design innovations spearheaded by Virgil Exner transformed Chrysler’s image and solidified its place in automotive history. The introduction of the Imperial Southampton in 1956, with its unique hardtop roofline and freestanding taillights, exemplified the brand’s commitment to luxury and innovation. Today, these models are celebrated for their distinctive design, engineering excellence, and enduring legacy, making them prized possessions for classic car enthusiasts and collectors.

Source: RM Sotheby’s

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