More Than a Show Car, This 1959 Imperial Crown Custom Gets Driven Hard – Hot Rod
Murray Pfaff’s 1959 Imperial Speedster is still Fresh Looking Ten Years and 10,000 Miles Later
It has been about a decade since we first glimpsed Murray Pfaff’s radical vision named Imperial Speedster. Built from a 1959 Imperial Crown Custom, the car has a long history with HOT ROD, first written about more than 10 years ago when it was still just a concept. The subsequent 10 years have done nothing to diminish the dazzling impression of its bold design statement.
In fact, the car’s category-bending execution—it is part street rod, part custom, part restomod, and part Fifties-show car—contributes to a timelessness that’s undefined by the era or prevailing build trends in which it was constructed. It has helped that Pfaff has continued to refine the car over the years, including a complete color change and new wheels in the past year or so, which has contemporized a car not otherwise bound by the expectations of a specific genre of the hot rodding world.
“You see many custom-built cars that arrive on the scene, make a splash, and then disappear entirely,” says Pfaff. “I never wanted that for the Imperial Speedster. I had always intended this car to make a bold statement but also to live on beyond the initial round of car-show debuts. It was always a car intended to be driven and enjoyed.”
Road Trip Veteran
Indeed, it has. After the initial wave of attention subsided during the first couple of years of making rounds at all the big events in North America, Pfaff and the Speedster settled into a cozy cruising relationship. He drove it two times on the HOT ROD Power Tour, where it was dubbed the “trailer queen without a trailer,” and the car remains a fixture on Woodward Avenue in suburban Detroit, where the healthy summer cruising season brings hundreds of hot rods, muscle cars, and vehicles of all types to the historic boulevard every weekend.
“The reaction to the car today is just as strong as it was nearly a decade ago, and that’s been one of the most satisfying results of building it,” says Pfaff. “I never get tired of answering questions about it, because when people see the Speedster in person and comprehend just how much work went into building it, they’re amazed and excited. It’s a thrill to see the car still elicit those responses.”
Scale is what astounds about the Imperial Speedster, literally and figuratively. Pfaff started with a gargantuan 1959 Imperial Crown Custom sedan and, over the course of 4 1/2 years, converted it into a two-seat roadster, slicing nearly 5 feet out of the car’s length, while also narrowing the body 8 inches and sectioning it 3 inches.
It all involved cutting the body into 46 major sections, trimming and cutting them, and finally splicing them all back together on a custom, telescoping body jig designed and built by contributing builder Steve Langdon. It was a tremendous undertaking, with even the trunklid, for example, having to be cut into four pieces before it was resized and rescaled; all while still incorporating the spare tire motif of the original Imperial. Then there were the doors, constructed of elements of both the Imperial’s original front and rear doors.
Friends Steve Germond, Steve Langdon, Tom Gardner, and Pfaff himself handled the metalwork, while Mike Brimm and Chuck Yee contributed to the bodywork; Brim and Jeff Matauch painted the car.
“I was inspired by the dramatic cars of the Motorama era, where the bold, optimistic styling of the concept cars had real flair,” says Pfaff. “Their strong styling, even in the most radical forms, was always rooted in careful proportions that conveyed presence and performance. That’s what I wanted from the very beginning with the Speedster, and once we got the body proportions just right, we then concentrated on the chassis and powertrain for it.”
The chassis, a modified Schwartz Performance “G-machine” square-tube steel frame, which houses a contemporary 6.1 liter SRT Hemi engine up front and a modified Dodge Viper independent suspension and axle in the rear. In between is a Mopar A518 four-speed overdrive automatic transmission, prepped by Phoenix Transmission, which is connected to the Imperial’s original push-button gear selector on the dashboard.
About that dashboard: it’s lifted from a 1960 Imperial for its big, round gauge pods. It is another piece of exquisite craftsmanship, because, while it looks for all the world like the original transposed into the custom body, it’s important to remember that, because the car was narrowed a significant 8 inches, the dashboard was also narrowed. Slicing that section out of its underlying steel frame wasn’t the challenge—rebuilding it with resized and reproportioned trim was, and the results are stunning.
It’s worth noting that all of the metalwork, and virtually the rest of the build, were accomplished in Pfaff’s two-car home garage.
Imperial Speedster Updates and Accolades
The Imperial Speedster was originally painted a champagne color and fitted with distinctive orange wire wheels, but to keep the car fresh, Murray recently disassembled the car and had it repainted a custom Evolution Green color that turned out so well that PPG plans to offer it soon. The wheels were also changed to 18-inch front/19-inch rear Throttle-design billet aluminum wheels from Schott Wheels, wrapped in custom Goldline tires from Diamond Back Classics. They’re part of an evolution of the car’s styling, which also includes new, leather-trimmed seats with plaid inserts, new LED-lit gauges with custom graphics, and a new, dark brown custom-folding roof that adds all-weather protection for a car that’s seen its share of inclement conditions on the road over the years. There’s even a new electric parking brake from a Tesla.
The updates contemporize one of the last decade’s most distinctive builds—one with so many unique features and examples of painstaking attention to detail that it’s virtually impossible and, frankly, fruitless to call out all of them. Like a piece of true art or a ground-breaking show car, every brush stroke or weld is important, but it’s what they create collectively that makes the creation more than sum of its parts.
We hesitate to call the Imperial Speedster a show car, too, or simply a custom, because Pfaff has demonstrated it’s much more than that.
Sure, the list of accolades includes more than a dozen big awards, a display at the Playboy Mansion, and even comments from Virgil Exner, Jr., son of the late, great Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner, who said of the Speedster: “I know my father would love it.” What’s most important to note is that this car is a driver—a hard driver. In addition to a couple of stints on the Hot Rod Power Tour, which demands a truly sorted vehicle, Pfaff has also run the car on the drag strip and carved the cones at a Goodguys autocross in pursuit of the Street Machine of the Year title.
In that form-and-function regard, it’s a pure hot rod, through and through. It’s also one that puts a smile on the faces of the automotive-oblivious and jaded old-timers alike, because, even with the quickest of glances, it’s immediately apparent it looks like and conforms to nothing else on the road. There’s no pretense, either. It’s a pure exercise for the sake of design extravagance.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t clear the concept could be realized, but we made it work,” says Pfaff. “Everyone who contributed to bringing the Imperial Speedster to life has my enduring gratitude.”
Ten years later, Pfaff’s vision remains as fresh, relevant and inspiring as the first time we shared those original construction shots. Those are the hallmarks of a true classic hot rod.
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