Imperial Hearses - Historical Discussion (courtesy IML)

1957 Imperial funeral fleet (click small image for close-up view)      57hearse.jpg (75760 octets)

1957 Imperial Landau Funeral Car by National (rear view)

National-Landau-Rear.JPG (21338 octets)

To: Tony Lindsey

From: "Donald O. Caselli"

Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998

National Coach built at least one Imperial long wheelbase landau end-loader in 1957 or 58. It was owned by the House of Diggs Funeral Home in Detroit years ago. Also, there was a '59 National-Imperial lwb (long-wheelbase) limousine ambulance advertised for sale in an old car magazine in late 1960's with a photo showing it to have the stepped roof rail design offered by National. There was an ambulance service in Chicago in the 1960's which had a Yellow Pages ad showing a 1957 or 58 Memphian-Imperial lwb limousine ambulance with a 45" roofline.

The odd thing about this car was the side glass. Instead of being curved, it was flat and the roofline was identical to the `58 Memphian-DeSoto I once owned. Comet may have also built an Imperial at one time or another, but I've never seen evidence of such a car.

These are the only examples of Imperials I've ever heard of from this era after many years of hunting specifically for Mopar professional cars. National did show and illustraton of a '64 Imperial landau hearse in some press releases of that era, but it was obviously an airbrushed photo, and not something that could have been built as shown.

(The era he is referring to is 1957 to 1975 because that's what I had originally asked about.)

From: "B. DeWinter"

Subject: Re: imperial hearse?

Date: Fri, 1 Aug 97

This is one of those things that's intrigued me for over 35 years. One of the first professional cars that really caught my eye was a '58 Memphian-DeSoto ambulance. I stumbled on the Chicago ad in the public library a few years later, and recognized the distinctive roofline of a Memphian on that Imperial. Years later, I thought about it and wondered about the door glass.

Was it really an Imperial chassis, or a Chrysler or DeSoto that was reskinned as an Imperial? That would seem like a lot of expensive sheet metal at the time. Maybe they substituted the cowl and doors from a Chrysler or DeSoto. And at that, with the Imperial rear bumper being as high as it was, what did they do at the rear of the body? A couple of years ago, I noticed something else that was odd... my '58 Memphian was on a Firedome chassis, but the upper door frames were stamped steel like a Firesweep, while other photos I've seen of similar Memphian-DeSoto Firedomes and Fireflites used extruded upper door frames. If nothing else, this makes it easy to tell a Memphian from a National. Every photo I've ever seen of a National-Imperial used front doors from a 2 door hardtop or convertible; with a stepped roof rail and flat rear side door glass. It made for a rather clumsy look aesthetically.

It's the funky things like this that I've noticed from time to time that makes late 50's Mopar professional cars so fascinating. I've never run across anyone who seems to really know much about them, and I hate to say it, but I probably know as much as anyone on the subject; even though I don't know very much at all about these cars. Then again, there were so many neat coaches built by small, "off-Broadway" coachbuilders like National and the various coachbuilders around Memphis that this hobby never ceases to fascinate me. One way or another, I'll never know as much about the subject as I'd like to.

If you manage to learn any more on the subject, I'd sure appreciate hearing what you learn.

Subject: 62 Funeral Home Cars/64 Ghia Landau?

Sent: 7/13/97


Tony's 1961 prompted some recollections of early sixties Imperials: Back in 1962/1963 my grandmother lived around the corner from a funeral home that had all Imperials (black of course) and I was struck by those outlandish free standing headlights. I think they were '62 because they did not have tailfins but they had freestanding tail lamps where the taillights used to be.

I also remember seeing a '64-'66 Imperial with an oval rear window, does anyone know what model this was? All I remember about this car was the approximate year and that it was painted maroon with a black vinyl top - a very attractive car in a formal way.

[Hmmm - Sounds like a 1964 Ghia Landau Limousine - Tony]

Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998

From: Bernie DeWinter

Received a copy of your letter on Imperial professional cars, and in response, I have to say that it's a subject where there isn't generally a whole lot of information...

There were at least two coachbuilders known to have built Imperial professional cars in the late 1950's. National in Knightstown, Indiana, probably built more of these than anyone else, but Memphis Coach Company also did at least one Imperial ambulance in '57 or '58.

Since Memphian is best known of the firms that built coaches on Mopar chassis in that era, it's commonly accepted that any time someone sees a picture of an Imperial coach, it has to be a Memphian. Walt McCall had a photo he took years ago in Detroit at the House of Diggs Funeral Home of a '57 or 8 Imperial long wheelbase landau end-load hearse, and he naturally presumed it to be a Memphian. When I saw it, immediately I recognized it as a National, due to the shape of the rear loading door and the method of conversion.

It seems that National always started out with an Imperial two door, but I don't know whether they used hardtops or convertibles as the base car. There are positive arguments in favor of using either one as a base car. At any rate, the downfall of using an Imperial after '56 was the curved side glass, which National retained in stock form in the front doors. The transition was made at the B pillar to flat side glass for the rear side doors and quarter windows, and this certainly saved some money in building the cars.

An early issue of CARS & PARTS from the late 1960's had an ad with a photo of a '59 Imperial long-wheelbase limousine-style ambulance, and it was obviously a National. It also had the stepped roof rail that seemed to be a National exclusive, but which didn't add anything to the aesthetics of the bodywork. National advertised an Imperial landau hearse in '64, but it used an illustration that was obviously a side view of a stock Imperial with artwork superimposed on it, and such a car would never have actually looked like the artwork, if indeed such a coach was ever built.

Back in the 1960's, there was an ambulance service that had an ad in the Chigaco Yellow Pages which showed a '57 or 8 Imperial long wheelbase limousine style ambulance. At the time, it was common for ambulance services in larger cities to advertise that they used only straight ambulances and no hearses. This firm did likewise, but added that they only used custom-built DeSoto and Chrysler Imperial ambulances!

The kicker was that the roofline of the ambulance shown was the same as a '58 Memphian-DeSoto Firedome ambulance that I later owned; which didn't make sense in its own right. It was the only '58 Firedome I ever saw that had stamped upper door frames instead of extruded frames. The Imperial in the photo used the same stamped frames, while stock Imperials used extruded frames with curved glass.

This leaves a few questions about the car, such as was it rally an Imperial chassis with a new cowl from a Chrysler or DeSoto, or was it a Chrysler or DeSoto that was re-skinned into looking like an Imperial? Either way would have been an expensive conversion to do, and I'd make an educated guess that it was actually an Imperial chassis with a new cowl assembly. I've asked about this car when I've talked to PCS members from the Chicago area over the years, but nobody remembers the car or the ambulance service that operated it.

As to Imperial limousines, Armbruster-Stageway did some after the last of the Ghias were built, but a few others were built by different firms in the 1970's. Salem Chrysler-Plymouth in Dayton, Ohio built an Imperial stretch limo in its own body shop in the early 1970's, and while I never saw the car, I did see the replacement for it, which was an Eagle (later known as Phaeton) conversion of a 1974 Imperial, or a '75 New Yorker Brougham.

I've never even heard of an actual flower car based on an Imperial, but that's not to say that such a car was never built.

I can appreciate your interest in Imperials. I never really appreciated them myself until one rainy, dreary afternoon when I had to drive a '65 coupe from Morrow, Ohio to Cincinnati on the back roads. That car acted like it loved being wrung out on twisty roads, and held on like no other luxury car of the time could have. Those torsion-bar Imps were obviously driver's cars. Looking at Imps of the time, it's obvious that they were an expenssive proposition to build when one notices the lead work on the front sheetmetal alone.

Then there's the record of these cars on the demolition derby circuits. Some day, people are going to think those cars were lousy because of their rarity, when it was the way they were built that led to the demise of so many of them in demo derbies. It's quite an accomplishment to build such a big, beefy car and make it handle the way Imperials did; and that always seems to be the thing most folks never notice about them. They're certainly one of the most underrated cars ever built.

Hope this information has been of some use to you. BTW, you mentioned other cars such as the parade phaetons, and I'd certainly like to see more on them and other unusual Imperials myself.

There was a photo of that '57 National-Imperial landau owned by the House of Diggs Funeral Home in an issue of THE PROFESSIONAL CAR several years ago. I know I've got a copy of that issue around here somewhere, but finding it is another matter; as I'm still unpacking and trying to get organized from moving into my house 18 months ago. A little thing best described as the rat race has gotten in my way, and I'm sure you know how that can be...

BTW, I took a look at that '59 Imperial station wagon, and it bears more than a passing resemblance in method of construction to so many Cadillac station wagons built in the '70's. It makes me wonder just who really built it. Anyway, I'll get back to you on the photo of the National as soon as I can find it and do something about it. As to the Memphian in Chicago, I only wish I'd had the sense to photocopy that ad and keep it; because that's the only photo I ever saw of that particular ambulance. Having owned a '58 Memphian-DeSoto long wheelbase ambulance, I recognized the roofline as being identical to my car. Having served for about 15 years as archivist for the Professional Car Society, I've seen enough to recognize telltale signs of who built some bodies without ever seeing a nameplate, and this car was obviously a Memphian.

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