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OUT OF THE PAST: After 50 years 1958 Imperial’s fins still soar

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

After Mike and Mary Smetanick had left Pittsburgh, Pa., and resettled in Fontana, Calif., they went to the Foothill Motors dealership and purchased a luxurious 1958 Imperial Southampton two-door hardtop coupe.

The Smetanicks must have been captivated by the Imperial advertising of that era which claimed: "The soaring rear fins with their exclusive gunsight taillights, the gracefully sculpted rear bumpers with integral back-up lights, dramatically announce to other motorists that the triumphant Imperial has just swept ahead."

They selected a light blue Imperial with an ermine rooftop accent panel. The $5,130 price of the car plus taxes but minus the down payment resulted in a finance plan of $149.40 a month for 35 months.

They took delivery of their new car July 11, 1958. It came with a 90-day, 4,000-mile warranty.

The dry climate around Fontana kept the rust monster at bay, that and always being garaged kept the car looking good.

Twelve years later Mr. Smetanick died but his widow stayed in Fontana with the Imperial until 1980. That is when she moved back to Pittsburgh where her daughter, Dee Chatak, and her son-in-law Elmer Chatak lived.

Mr. Chatak obtained the correct misty pale blue fabric and leather and had the car reupholstered. Afterward the car was stored for 15 years until 1997. Then it received some mild mechanical first-aid to get it running.

In 2000 the Chatak's and Mrs. Smetanick all moved to Bethesda. That is when the long-dormant Imperial was almost lost. After the enormous moving van was loaded with their household goods there remained room for an 18-foot, 9.3-inch-long car. "Otherwise," Mr. Chatak says, "It wouldn't be here."

The big car barely ran when it arrived in Bethesda. The four-barrel carburetor that drank from the 23-gallon gasoline tank was replaced with an Edelbrock unit on top of the 392-cubic-inch V-8 engine. It still delivers 345-horsepower.

Mrs. Smetanick died in 2001 and at that time Mr. Chatak took over the care and feeding of the Imperial. "I think it's a beauty," he says.

He learned that only 1,939 Imperial Southampton coupes like his were manufactured during the 1958 model year.

The Torqueflite automatic transmission is operated via five pushbuttons positioned to the left of the insturment panel. From top to bottom the pushbottons are:

• Neutral.

• Drive.

• Reverse.

• Second.

• First.

Mr. Chatak explains that the hand brake takes the place of a parking gear. He adds that the starter is activated by pushing the neutral button.

Standard features on the car include the "Constant Control" power steering and the "Total Contact" power brakes. On the top of the cushioned dashboard is a day/night mirror that Mr. Chatak says is, "a real pain. It blocks your vision and is a safety hazard."

Beneath the mirror on the face of the dashboard is a user-friendly AM radio. All the windows in the air conditioned cabin are of solex tinted glass. When the air conditioner isn't needed, the power windows can be lowered for a convertible-type openness because there is no "B" pillar.

About five years ago Mr. Chatak had his Imperial running and took it to an antique car show in Rockville. "It wasn't working well," he admits. There he met Charles Tynes, a fellow Imperial owner who is mechanically skillful.

Since then Mr. Tynes has performed major surgery on Mr. Chatak's Imperial and now has it running like new. "He made the difference," Mr. Chatak says regarding Mr. Tynes.

Mr. Chatak concurs with one advertising claim made by Imperial and that is, "No dip, no dive, no sway." Riding on a 129-inch wheelbase supported by 9.50x14-inch tires, the suspension handles the massive car extremely well.

Occupants of the Imperial can ride in virtual silence thanks to a pair of mufflers as well as two resonators.

At the rear of the car the trunk lid angles down to meet the rear bumper, making the fins appear even taller. A pair of backup lights are incorporated into the bumper.

"The trunk is big enough to live in," Mr. Chatak observes. The round door covering the gas cap is by the lower left corner of the trunk lid. Its position there necessitates a sharp-turn in the filler pipe which can make refueling somewhat tricky.

In the last half century, the Imperial has been driven about 150,000 miles. "I'm proud of the fact that it's mostly original," Mr. Chatak says.

Thanks to Mr. Tynes' mechanical abilities, Mr. Chatak says, his Imperial runs very well. "I like to take it out on Sunday drives," he says.