19-20 January 2017
1933 Chrysler CL Imperial Dual-Windshield Phaeton 'Ralph Roberts' by LeBaron
- Chassis no. CL 1357
- Serial no. 7803657
- Engine no. CL 1357
- Body no. 172-50
Sold for $1,300,000
- The one-off personal car of LeBaron designer Ralph Roberts
- Believed to have been the final Imperial dual-windshield phaeton built
- Best in Class at the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance
- Known history from new; formerly of the Otis Chandler and Milhous collections
- Spectacularly restored in its original color scheme
- A Full Classic Chrysler of immense significance
Shortly after the formation of coachbuilder LeBaron by Raymond Dietrich and Thomas Hibbard in 1920, the pair took in recent Dartmouth graduate Ralph Roberts as a partner. LeBaron was soon supplying bodies for all of the great Classic Era chassis, supplied by New York dealers. Roberts and LeBaron prospered, and in 1927, Walter Briggs, of Detroit’s vast Briggs Body Company, approached Roberts with a generous buyout offer. Roberts wisely accepted, and LeBaron and its chief moved, lock, stock, and barrel, to Detroit.
LeBaron became Briggs’ in-house design studio and its most prestigious nameplate, as Briggs was a major body supplier to the fledgling Chrysler Corporation, also Chrysler’s de facto “Art and Color Studio.” In an era when Ford had Bob Gregorie, drawing Edsel Ford special speedsters and the original Continental, and General Motors had Harley Earl, breaking the styling mold with the advanced Cadillac V-16 Aero-Dynamic Coupe and Buick Y-Job, Chrysler had Ralph Roberts.
Roberts’ definitive design statement—his Continental, his Y-Job—was the car offered here. Based upon the last of 36 CL Imperial Dual-Windshield Phaetons built by LeBaron for Chrysler in 1933, it was drawn to Roberts’ own special design, with the intention of being a gift to his wife. As Chrysler’s design considerations were, frankly, not considered on this “one off,” Roberts was able to make his personal Imperial look as he wanted it to, as he told author Dennis Adler in a 1985 interview.
There were a number of unusual or experimental ideas tried on this car. One was the extended fender skirt and fender skirts on the rear. The radiator was painted, instead of chromed, the headlights were also different from those on the standard CL series bodies, and instead of having the spare wheels in the fender well, I had them moved to the back of the car.
It is worth expounding upon Roberts’ comments. The headlights were relocated much lower, between the crowns of the fenders and the radiator shell—a very modern position. The reworked fenders with the full “skirts” over the rear wheels clearly look toward the future Chrysler Airflow and Chrysler Airstream. A mounted bracket from an old Locomobile was used to mount the dual spares on the rear, clearing the fenders and increasing the clean visual length of the car.
The result was a long, sleek greyhound of a car, accentuated by its unique Moon Glow Blue polychromatic finish. More than beautiful, it looked a decade ahead of its time and foretold future Chryslers, created both with and without Roberts’ influence.
THE MODERN LIFE OF A GREAT IMPERIAL
Mr. and Mrs. Roberts retained the unique phaeton until 1942, when they relocated from Detroit to California. Not willing to drive the car cross-country in the depths of gas rationing, they sold it in the Motor City. Ironically, however, the car then wound up in the Golden State, as it was purchased shortly thereafter by Bob Harrison of San Francisco, who would own it for the next 18 years. He thus ensured its survival and integrity, well into the era of the collector car.
In 1960, the car was purchased from Harrison by Bob Burkholder, also of San Francisco, who performed its first, largely authentic restoration. It was next acquired by longtime California Chrysler Imperial enthusiast Douglas O’Connell, and then in 1969 by Jerry Lindler of Fresno, who maintained it until the early 1980s.
Renowned enthusiast Otis Chandler was, at the time, building his esteemed collection of Full Classic automobiles, focusing on open phaetons of the finest quality. Naturally, when it came to selecting the right CL Imperial, the Roberts car fit the bill, and Mr. Chandler had soon picked it up from Mr. Lindler. It remained a feature of the Chandler Vintage Museum until the early 1990s and was then sold to Joe Morgan, the renowned Imperial expert in New Hampshire, who over the years has owned many of the surviving cars.
The next owner, Neil Wynn of Hillsborough, Florida, commissioned a complete restoration by Curt Austin, including finish in the original and correct Moon Glow Blue, and great care taken to restore the original, Roberts-ordered features, including the skirts adorning the long fenders, and the wheel discs, which are complemented by B.F. Goodrich Silvertown whitewalls. The completed restoration was exhibited at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1997 and was judged Most Elegant Open Car.
Shortly thereafter, the Imperial was added to Paul and Robert Milhous’ spectacular Florida collection, where it was the centerpiece for over a decade. Acquired from the Milhous brothers by its current owner, a respected East Coast collector, in 2012, it was subsequently consigned to RM Auto Restoration for sorting and detailing. This included making new metal covers for the dual rear-mounted spares, installing a new top and carpeting of a more complementary color, and extensive mechanical work, including new bearings in the powerful CL Imperial straight eight.
Today, the restoration of this car appears as fresh and spectacular as ever, and the judges still adore it. It was judged Best in Class at the 2013 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance and the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and Most Elegant Open Pre-War Car at the 2016 Elegance at Hershey. Most prominently, it won Best of Show at the Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John’s in 2012, and at the Radnor Hunt Concours d’Elegance in 2014. Simply put, few, if any, Imperials have been such a showstopper in recent years, with many more chances for trophies available to a new owner.
Further, the owner notes that the car is in superb mechanical condition, as well, having completed the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance.
As that career on the show field demonstrates, the presence of this car, one of the most significant Chryslers of its era, is overwhelming. Such is only fitting for an automobile that demonstrated the future for its manufacturer as clearly as the Continental did for Ford and the Y-Job did for General Motors. With few other Classic Era designers’ personal automobiles remaining, and fewer still in private ownership, it can be safely counted as the most significant American Classic to have come to market in recent years.
That would undoubtedly please Ralph Roberts, for whom this Chrysler, built by what he called “the right men in the right place at the right time,” was always more than just his wife’s car.
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