Walter P. Chrysler built his company on the principles of engineering excellence and innovation which had distinguished his career in the 19th century railroads, at Buick and Willys Overland. The first Chrysler featured an efficient and powerful high compression six-cylinder engine; force-feed lubrication, tubular front axle and four-wheel hydraulic brakes, refinements then unprecedented in series production automobiles at the time. The success of these and other innovations in 1934 culminated in Chrysler's introduction of the Airflow, a streamlined, unit body breakthrough in automobile design.
Its timing could hardly have been worse. Mired in the dashed expectations of the depression, customers were loathing to experiment with something so new and intuitively untried and risky. Sales plummeted and Chrysler quickly reverted to making more conventional looking automobiles.
Their mistake may largely be traced to springing the dramatically different Airflow with its distinctive appearance upon an unprepared audience. Over at GM Harley Earl took a different approach, developing his radical ideas in a series of concept cars beginning with the Buick Y-Job in 1938. Exposed to the public in print, newsreels and appearances around the country, the Y-Job conditioned public perceptions to radical changes in appearance, laying the groundwork for the appearance of envelope bodied automobiles and building anticipation among consumers for incorporation of concept car design features in production vehicles.
At Chrysler K.T. Keller had newly succeeded founder Walter Chrysler and realized the company needed something new. Ralph Roberts at Briggs Manufacturing's LeBaron studio had the answer, a pair of dramatic concepts developed by a young Alex Tremulis. The Newport phaeton broke new ground with its open four-passenger coachwork but it was the Thunderbolt that blazed a futuristic trail that is still exciting, futuristic and dramatic.
Built on a 127"+ Chrysler New Yorker chassis, Thunderbolt's first impression is of sleekness, with its straight line fenders, high door tops, skirted front and rear wheels, grille-less nose and curved glass windshield. A bench seat convertible that seated three abreast, it was powered by Chrysler's "Spitfire" inline eight cylinder engine and had semi-automatic Fluid Drive, a new Chrysler development that would become a production option in the early post-war years.
Its most innovative feature, however, was the power-operated retracting hardtop that neatly folded into the space behind the passenger compartment. A convincing demonstration of Chrysler's engineering heritage and leadership; it also was a tribute to the ingenuity and inventiveness of Roberts, Tremulis and the coachbuilders at LeBaron and Briggs.
A series of five were built and traveled extensively to showrooms, auto shows and events across the country, drawing attention to Chrysler and potential customers to Chrysler Corporation dealerships where their aura spread over the cars available for purchase. Chrysler freely and frequently changed colors to keep the cars fresh and exciting, but one remained immediately recognizable: The Copper Car. It was built by LeBaron with a copper hardtop, sill trim and bumpers. It survives in this unique, distinctive configuration today.
After its round of appearances it was sold to actor Bruce Cabot (First Mate Jack Driscoll in "King Kong" among many other roles). In 1954 its engine was replaced by a Chrysler Hemi V-8. It was acquired by the Harrah's Collection in 1960 and was bought during its 1985 dispersal auction by the most recent owner who two decades later commissioned a complete restoration by Chris Kidd's Tired Iron Works. During restoration the original Spitfire Eight engine was returned to its home under the Thunderbolt's hood along with a dual carburetor induction system. The drive system powering the retractable hardtop was re-engineered for smooth, reliable operation.
Competed in 2009 it debuted at the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance where it won the Camille Jenatzy Award for the Most Audacious Exterior, then took third in class at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in August and a class win (scoring 100 points) at the Newport Beach Concours at the St. Regis Resort. Everything about this car, as its recent 100 point score confirms, is to the highest standards of materials, craftsmanship, historical accuracy, fit, finish and function. A dramatic statement of vision and innovation, with its brilliant copper hardtop and trim it is one of a kind, a dramatic statement of leadership in engineering, design and creativity in the 1940's, and no less a statement today.
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