Thursday, May 26, 2016

1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt Show Car

What we call "concept cars" were rare birds before around 1940.  This Wikipedia article contends that the 1938 Buick Y-Job was the first of that breed.  I'll have to think about that more deeply, but a case might be made that it was the first show car that publicized styling features planned or under consideration for future production.

Not long later, in 1941, Chrysler Corporation in cooperation with Briggs, the body manufacturing firm, announced its Newport and Thunderbolt show cars.  Aside from its integrated fender line, the Newport did little to predict future styling features.  The Thunderbolt, styled by Alex Tremulis, was a different story.  It incorporated "futuristic" details that were in the styling air at the time it was conceived.  Nevertheless, it was not an explicit effort to preview anticipated Chrysler design features.  So a show car it was.

Five Thunderbolts were built, and four are said to exist.  One was auctioned a few years ago by Southeby's RM Auctions.  Their web site has this detailed background information on Thunderbolts in general and the car being auctioned in particular.  An additional source that is well illustrated can be found here.


Here is a photo that could have been used for publicity after the background drapery was airbrushed out.  The Thunderbolt featured through-fenders, vestigal rear fenders being a slight bulge.  No grille, air introduced to the radiator via openings below the front bumper -- this was virtually non-existent in 1941, but common today.  A detail slightly out of keeping with Tremulis' theme is the high, V'd hood.  I read someplace that this was necessary because the car used a tall, standard Chrysler radiator that a hoodline was required to clear.

Perhaps the Thunderbolt's most novel feature is its retractable, one-piece metal top.

A Thunderbolt publicity card, probably handed out at car shows where one was displayed.  Car-of-the-future features common around 1940 included enclosed wheels and those ribbed metal strips (a form of faux-streamlining "speed lines") along the sides.  Headlights are hidden, another futuristic cliché.

RM Auctions photo showing the aft end.  Until the 1950s, American stylists seldom did anything fancy with that part of a car; tail lights, a hood handle and a plaque with the car's name often sufficed.  Tremulis left the Thunderbolt's rear plain aside from the bumper that's actually an upside-down front bumper.

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