Being chairman of board can have its perks and Kaufman Thumra (K.T.) Keller knew all about it. In 1955 he was at the top of the Chrysler Corporation which was riding the wave of post-war economic fortunes and driving along Eisenhower’s vast highway network. In this setting he built the ultimate Imperial, a unique convertible with all the custom touches we would expect of the pre-war coachbuilt era.
Keller had been through a lot before this bespoke convertible was made. He had been at Walter P. Chrysler’s side almost from the companies inception, launching brands like Dodge and even helping the American military to manage their rocket program.
By 1955, Chrysler was losing market share so Keller separated the divisions and created the new Imperial brand for the company’s most luxurious cars. Virgil Exner was brought in to style the cars which included a new forward look and egg-crate grill. Keller’s intention was to give the Imperial brand the “The $100 Million Look.”
Kellner’s car was based off the new Imperial, but was unique being the only Imperial convertible built between 1951 and 1957. Furthermore, almost every aspect of the car was comprehensively upgraded which took Chrysler Central Engineering almost a year to complete. Hundreds of new brass castings and unique features contributed to the build.
Keller personally directed the entire project and Ray Schaefer who worked on the project at Chrysler Engineering said “Utilizing the unlimited resources of Chrysler Design and Engineering, K.T. Keller directed the entire project himself. It took just shy of one year to complete. Never has anyone of the executive status of K.T. Keller put this amount of time info just one car.”¹ They even fitted a new experimental injection system to the Chrysler Hemi V8.
From the front, the Imperial Convertible is immediately recognizable by its custom badge which has an eagle in front of a circle. The convertible is based of the Chrysler New Yorker chassis which meant that it could use the standard folding top.
Custom body features include chrome accents that run down the side, quarter panel vents and a unique wrap-around windscreen. At the rear, the fenders appear built up by using a large one-piece casting that’s painted in the middle to appear like a multi-piece design. These are topped with gunshot rear taillights that were included on 1956 Imperials. Special attention was payed to Continental kit which added considerable weight over the rear wheels. To look integrated, a new rear bumper was cast.
Inside, the interior was the biggest departure from any other Chrysler or Imperial. Kellner had his team fit four bucket seats and custom appointments which included two-tone upholstery, many concealed compartments and power windows in the rear. A special pedestal rear view mirror was fitted onto the dashboard which was copied for 1957 models. The upholstery was done in top-of-the-line calfskin throughout the interior-even inside the glove box and for the tool’s holding pouch. The steering wheel was totally unique having a Ghia-fitted Benrus watch in the center and leather grips inset on both sides.
Kellner used the car as his personal transportation and immediately had the experimental injection system replaced with a carburetor after the car stranded him twice. Not long afterward, the car was used by Chrysler Marketing as a show car. As such, many of the unique features were adopted to later models. Despite all the trouble to make the car, an offer was accepted and Chrysler sold the convertible while on display in Vegas.
The next owner retained and used the car for some 80,000 miles before it was left on a used car lot for the measly sum of $300. Eventually, it was purchased by Imperial enthusiast Chip Loree. He was the first owner to give the car the attention it deserved and began a daring ground-up restoration. The car was complete and without body corrosion, but much of the upholstery and chrome needed to be redone. One of the hardest parts of the job was finding a replacement for the cracked windshield which was unique among any other car. After 6000 hours, the spectacular work was subsequently displayed at Meadow Brook Concours, Cranbrook Concours and 2009 Greenwich Concours.
1955 Imperial Convertible Gallery
Sources & Further Reading
1.Briant, Dr. David George. “Yes, a One-Off 1955 Imperial Convertible expressly for Kaufman Thumra Keller!”, WPC News. August 2002.
2.Cliff Gromer. “Special K”, Mopar Action.