The 1961 Imperial LeBaron Southampton - a luxury sedan designed by Virgil Max Exner Sr. – is a highly regarded vehicle not only in its affluence and style, but also its rarity. It’s touted as a distinguished presence on the roads of America in its comfort, convenience, smoothness and style.
Prior to the line of luxury sedans sporting the same name, LeBaron was the name of a coachbuilder from the 1920’s and 30’s who did coachwork for high-end luxury cars until about 1953. In the 1920’s, Edsel Ford took interest in the LeBaron Coachbuilders and gave them production rights to build bodies for the Lincoln brand of vehicles. Beginning in the 1930’s, LeBaron built Pierce-Arrow bodies as well as additional work for Rolls Royce, Hispano Suiza, Duesenberg and Packard. A fleet of Rolls Royce were manufactured for the Maharaja of Baroda, ruler of India’s largest wealthiest states. Other high-end clients include William Cooper Proctor, CEO of Procter and Gamble.
During its lifetime, LeBaron went through numerous buyouts and reorganizing plans. World War 2, for example, led to cutbacks and slowdown to the industry in general. But on December 29th 1953, Chrysler bought LeBaron and its operations for $35 million. In 1955, the Imperial was launched and registered separate from the Chrysler brand, with the Southampton sedan being introduced one year later. Between 1958 and 1973, the LeBaron name was used to refer to high-end limited edition Imperial vehicles.
Virgil Exner’s ‘Forward Look’:
Virgil Exner, designer of the Imperial line of vehicles, was the design chief of Chrysler between 1955 and 1975. His proposed ‘Forward Look’ for vehicles included many style innovations with automobile design. Exner’s vision was to bypass having to follow General Motors and Ford design-wise, and in doing so created some of the most remarkable automobile designs. His fascination with tail fins (with the ’61 Imperial sporting shark fins), “floating” head and tail lamps, as well as the distinguished “FliteSweep Decklid” trunk (often indicating a space for spare tires) led to stylish innovations in the luxury vehicle market. His line of Imperial vehicles held onto the ‘50s style longer than other American models.
The Imperial models & the Southampton:
Starting in 1957, the Imperial designs had three trim levels: entry-level Imperial Custom, the luxurious Imperial Crown, and finally the Imperial LeBaron. These trim levels would showcase Exner’s evolution of his style in automobile design. The ’61 LeBaron Southampton in particular was the peak of this style, accompanied by its rarity with only 1,026 of these sedans being built. The Southampton is by far the most exclusive automobile built by Chrysler, with the base price of the four-door starting at $6,428. The existing Southampton vehicles were built at a highly restricted pace to retain exclusivity.
The Southampton style body, in particular, is a Chrysler exclusive during this time. The structure included a sweeping pillar-less hardtop augmented by a Landau roof treatment with brushed stainless steel accents, exclusive town car windows that give limousine-style rear-seat privacy for the rider, and the aforementioned tail fins and “floating” head and tail lamps. The quad floating headlights flanked the finely-detailed chrome grille, with the sweeping rear fender fins and an angular formal roof line all contributing to its distinguished look. This vehicle would come in either two or four-door editions, with the four-door model regarded as one of the most prestigious amongst luxury sedans.
The LeBaron Southampton had a separate manufacturer from Chrysler’s other lines of vehicles. It was so exclusive that it had its own dedicated assembly facility, guaranteeing that the process was never hurried and always thorough. One in every ten employees was an inspector who monitored each assembly.
Durability of the Southampton is also worthy of recognition. The crash worthiness was due to their rugged separate full perimeter frame with a sturdy X crossmember. Imperials would be built on such frames through the 1966 model year.
The Southampton’s handling uses independent front wheel suspension with oriflow shock absorbers around its body. Power steering was a priority with the manufacturing of the Southampton.
It was also noted for being one of the widest American passenger production cars to be built. The exterior width reached 81.7 inches, wider than either the Lincoln or the Cadillac. The length of the Southampton measured at 227.1 inches, with the wheel base at 129 inches.
The Southampton is noted for its spacious interior, more so than other sedans during its time. The interior is hand-crafted and fitted with the finest broad cloths and leathers in color-keyed selections. The folding center armrest for both front and rear seats were standard. Side windows and vent windows were power operated. The Swivel-out front seats manually activated with a handle when either door is opened. The seating arrangement is built for six-passenger comfort, so much so that the Southampton could almost qualify as a limousine regarding its spaciousness.
Interestingly, to the left of the steering wheel is where the push-button control for the vehicle’s transmission would be found. The driver’s seat had a higher profile than that of the passenger, for maximum comfort.
The Southampton is powered by the Chrysler RB-series 6.8 liter 16-valve 413 CID wedge-head V-8 engine. This engine features wedge-type combustion chambers, overhead in-line valve arrangement, three rings per piston, full pressure lubrication, silicon chromium steel intake an exhaust valves, a dual exhaust system with two mufflers, and a water-proof ignition.
Acceleration of the Southampton clocks in with 0-to-60mph in 9.5 seconds, 0-to-100mph in 27.8 seconds, and 0-to-110mph in 43.9 seconds. At the time it was rather remarkable to see a luxury car weighing in at 4800lbs reach these speeds in such small time frames.
It is not just the price range for the LeBaron Southampton that emboldened its restrictiveness in acquisition, but also the rarity in which it was manufactured. Even the sales brochure on the LeBaron itself states “you won’t see the LeBaron on the streets in great numbers, simply because a car of such integrity and excellence cannot be produced by the usual production-line methods”.