No disrespect intended to Steve Cook, who built Bruce and Judy Ricks’ Ridler Award winning ’56 Ford “Suncammer”, because it’s a genuinely deserving winner, but in an ideal world the car that would have won the 2011 Ridler was Murray Pfaff’s 1959 Chrysler Imperial “Speedster”*. The Suncammer is absolutely stunning, with very clean lines and a build quality that’s obvious from 50 feet away plus it has the famed “cammer” 427 SOHC engine, a nice pot of awesome on its own, but in terms of the magnitude of a project and how well that project was executed, I think the Imperial Speedster was in a class by itself. Pfaff’s goal was to “remove the ugly” from one of the cars that earned Virgil Exner the nickname Virgil Excess, the 1959 Chrysler Crown Imperial four door, and turn it into a trim and lithe two-seat sports car. Pfaff describes it as the answer to the question, “what if Chrysler built a car to compete with the early Corvettes and Thunderbirds?”
Actually, Exner tried hard to convince Chrysler brass to built exactly such a car. The Chrysler Falcon show car, one of the many 1950s concepts that Ghia built for Chrysler, was Exner’s idea of a Chrysler sports car, drawn primarily by Chrysler designer Maury Baldwin. In fact Exner liked it so much that he brought one of the three Falcons that were built to Watkins Glen to pace the Grand Prix. Much as Exner pitched the idea of a sports car, Chrysler executives never greenlighted the Falcon (and later told Ford they could use the name). Though the Falcon today looks relatively timeless (the 2005-10 Chrysler 300 ‘s front end borrows heavily from the Falcon and other Exner concepts), by the time it would have reached the market it would have looked dated. The Falcon was to be the final expression of a styling language soon to be superseded by Exner’s own “forward look”. In fact, the Flight Sweep I & II concepts that previewed the forward look premiered alongside the Falcon in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan in late 1955. Pfaff’s Imperial Speedster more accurately reflects how an Exner sports car would have looked later in that decade.
Virgil Exner’s 1955 Chrysler Falcon show car
As I said, I think that the Suncammer deserved the Ridler. All of the Great Eight finalists were clearly the work of high end shops, but the Suncammer just seemed to stand out. I wasn’t the only person who predicted that it would win. Still, as I mentioned, I think that the Imperial Speedster aimed higher. The Suncammer’s very clean body belies about a half dozen major modifications. Creating the Imperial Speedster, though, meant taking a 19 foot long four door leviathan, shortening it more than 4 feet, narrowing it 8″ and sectioning it 3″, to end up with a 91″ wheelbase roadster, while retaining all of the original Exner design cues. The final product is obviously an Exner era Imperial (for comparison’s sake Pfaff had a restored, full-size ’59 Imperial parked next to the Speedster), but smaller, lower and with better proportions. From the Speedster’s graceful lines and glass-smooth body you’d never guess that it was pieced together from almost 50 major individual pieces that had been carved out of the time-capsule barn find that Pfaff used as a donor car.
One might compare Pfaff and his team of volunteers to skilled plastic surgeons, though in order to make the analogy complete, to accomplish what Pfaff and his team did, plastic surgeons would have to be able to turn dowagers into debutantes. Also, not even Joan Rivers, Cher or Bruce Jenner has spent 10,000 hours under the knife. Actually, in this case the debutante made it to her coming out party but just barely with her dress pinned together. Because they wanted to debut the Speedster at the Detroit Autorama, though the car did have its 6.1L HEMI crate motor and Viper independent rear suspension installed, and though it has run, it was not quite in running condition when the show opened. Since the Ridler Award requires that the car be capable of being driven onto the display, the judges reluctantly downgraded a car that they otherwise thought was worthy of competing for the Ridler.
Pfaff hopes that the Imperial Speedster will be able to drive to its next public showing, the Eyes On Design automotive design show held every year in June at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford estate, benefiting the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology. He also has plans to get the Speedster together with some of the actual Exner concepts that are now in Joe Bortz’ collection. Later in the year, the Speedster will make an appearance at the SEMA show in Las Vegas. Pfaff, whose company, Pfaff Designs, has done design work for a number of high profile customizers, has had his work on display before at SEMA, but this will be the first time he’ll be displaying one of his own cars.
*Not likely to be confused with the custom bodied pre-WWII Imperial Speedsters.