In 1933, Chrysler Corporation was still a relative newcomer in the American car market, but thanks to Walter Percy Chrysler’s incredible business acumen, he had grown his fledgling operation into one of the most successful automobile manufacturers in the country, despite being founded less than a decade prior. By 1929, Chrysler Corp consisted of Plymouth, DeSoto, and Dodge to satisfy the low and mid-range market, while Walter’s namesake Chrysler brand was used for the high end models, surpassed only by the Imperial which was reserved for only the finest cars Chrysler had to offer.
Imperial’s main rivals, chiefly Lincoln, Packard and Cadillac, had all developed V-12 or even V-16 engines for their flagship models, but Chrysler instead chose to remain loyal to his big displacement L-head inline eight, which was a proven, reliable and powerful engine, even if it lacked some of the exoticism of the twelves and sixteens. First introduced in the CG Imperial of 1931, the big straight eight was a gutsy and spirited engine, giving the Imperial superlative straight line performance, even in the face of its multi-cylinder competition. With its low and wide stance, handling was also impressive, and today the CG, CL and CH Imperials are known as some of the best driver’s cars of the era.
Following the CG Imperial, the line was split into two models, the CH and CL. Both came equipped with the same straight eight engine as before, but the CH rode on a 135-inch wheelbase chassis while the CL was a full 10 inches longer at 145”. The styling was freshened and refined, yet it still retained the model’s signature long, low-slung appearance, which borrowed heavily from Cord’s L-29; a car that Walter Chrysler very much admired. The beautiful, heavily canted waterfall grille and sweeping fenders make it one of the most stunning American motorcars of the Classic Era, particularly in long-wheelbase CL specification. While most CL Imperials wore semi-custom coachwork by Le Baron, a handful of cars were delivered without bodies and graced with the work of the world’s finest coachbuilders.
Our featured example is a long-wheelbase 1933 CL Imperial, serial number 7803694, and is of those scant few chassis that was delivered sans-coachwork. Copies of original build records show that this car was exported directly from Chrysler destined for Paris, France. The build sheet further specifies it left Chrysler without a body. Upon its arrival in Paris, it was fitted with this stunning, one-off custom coachwork by de Villars.
Carrosserie de Villars was founded in 1925 in Courbevoie, a town just a few miles outside the center of Paris. Interestingly, the founder was an American named Frank Jay Gould. Mr. Gould was the son of a wealthy railroad tycoon, and he opened the Carrosserie as a workshop to service the motorcars of his family and wealthy friends. The de Villars name comes from the company’s first manager and Gould’s son-in-law, Roland de Graffenried de Villars. We can only assume that “de Villars” sounded a bit more exotic than “Gould” and the name stuck. Most of de Villars creations were one-offs, built with typical French quality and panache, with a hint of American influence. Given Frank Gould’s social standing, the cars that were brought to his workshop were the best of the best. De Villars bodies have graced chassis by Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz, Minerva, Delage and Delahaye, among others, and remain among the most sought-after and important coachbuilt bodies of the pre-war era.
This beautiful Chrysler is believed to be the only Imperial bodied by de Villars. While the car’s earliest history in France is still being researched, we do know from records supplied by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that this car, number 7803694, was dispatched on July 10th 1933. The build record is stamped “CHASSIS EXPORT”, with the destination noted as Paris, France. While the historical trail goes cold at that point, it picks up again in 1968 when the car was purchased by a Polish national who lived in France, named Pierre (Piotr) Sanguszko, who kept the car until his passing in the late 1980s. From there, the Imperial found its way to the well-known collection of Mr. Rene Cocheteux, also of France, who used the car regularly, participating in various events and tours in Europe.
Today, this magnificent automobile remains in sound and complete condition, suitable for freshening or a full restoration. At some point in its life, the rear fenders were modified and the original Hermès trunk was replaced, though the majority of the body remains intact and in quite good condition. Judged on its own, the one-off de Villars coachwork is simply beautiful; a fine pairing with the long wheelbase, low-slung CL Imperial chassis. It is uniquely sporty yet elegant, with its low ride height and the CL’s signature ultra-long hood stretching nearly to the base of the windscreen. Riding on wire wheels (with dual sidemount spares) and black wall tires, the Chrysler takes on an almost sinister look. The Victoria-style roof treatment allows for three positions; fully closed, half open or fully open. With the roof erect or folded, it is a supremely handsome automobile; an exquisite example of 30’s French high-style.
The original, factory fitted engine (number CL 1399) matches that indicated on the build records. It runs quite well, the straight-eight sounding smooth and healthy. It appears that this car has never had a full restoration, rather having work done through the years only as needed. As such, many of the components appear original and the Imperial has since taken on a warm patina with the honest appeal of a well-loved motorcar. While it could be used and enjoyed as-is with minimal effort, this unique CL Imperial is an important, highly desirable collector car that deserves a comprehensive, concours-level restoration to return it to its original glory, and we are confident it would be a contender at virtually any major concours event in the world. The one-off pairing of de Villars and Imperial created one of the most breathtaking designs to ever grace a Chrysler chassis; a pairing of excellence in French design and American engineering.
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