By the late 1930s, the market for custom coachwork had largely evaporated, hit hard by the Depression and the efforts of corporate stylists like GM's Harley Earl and Ford's E.T. Gregorie. Consequently, LeBaron was left with little work. The Thunderbolt, on the other hand, became LeBaron's most interesting and final endeavors, as the onset of full-scale American involvement in World War II would soon force the company to ultimately halt production.
The Thunderbolt concept was born of a pitch in 1939 by Alex Tremulis to Ralph Roberts at LeBaron. At the time, Tremulis was a promising young designer at Briggs Manufacturing, LeBaron's parent company, who later went on to help design the legendary Tucker Torpedo. Roberts was so impressed with the proposal that he organized a meeting with Chrysler's president K.T. Keller and Chrysler division president Dave Wallace to discuss the possibility of creating two all-new dream cars. The Thunderbolt was named after the land speed record-holding car that Captain George Eyston drove at 357.53 mph over the measured mile at the Bonneville Salt Flats in September of 1938 and the concept car was dubbed "The Car of the Future".
With the exception of the steel hood and deck lid, the body was constructed of aluminum, with a metal trim molding wrapping almost entirely around the car. Its design and construction was so impressive that, upon seeing the design, Keller asked how they were going to bend it around the front end. In response, Tremulis said they would make that section of brass and plate it. Delighted, Keller replied: "Sometimes you stylists think like engineers and make sense."
Chrysler's Thunderbolt made use of a 127.5-inch New Yorker chassis and a 323.5 cubic inch, "Spitfire" L-head inline eight-cylinder engine rated at 140 horsepower and 255 foot pounds of torque. The Thunderbolt also employed the three-speed Fluid Drive transmission that was not to see full development until after World War II on production Chrysler models. Additionally, it also featured an overdrive unit that permitted speeds in excess of 100 mph.
The Thunderbolt had push-button door switches both inside and out. The interior was lavishly appointed in leather and Bedford cord. It was also the first modern motor car to use back-lit, Lucite-edged illuminated gauges; inlaid into the dash, they perfectly complemented the Imperial steering wheel and vertically mounted and inset radio.
The Thunderbolt's most impressive design feature was the ingeniously designed, electrically operated, retractable hardtop. The flick of one switch activated three separate synchronized operations that caused the top to retract into a space behind the bench seat. Access to the trunk was provided via a fully automatic sliding rear decklid.
Each of the five original Thunderbolts received a different color combination and was marked by a discreet lightning bolt on the smoothly contoured aluminum doors. Subtle differences, such as the exterior wraparound trim and dashboard finishes, made each car unique from the others. The curved windshield design proved to be a serious challenge, as it had never been used on an automobile before, and the glass companies had nothing like it ready for immediate use. Fortunately, the firm commissioned for the project produced a suitable windshield just in time without having to revert to a split V-type piece. In fact, this single hallmark would not appear on regular production cars until the early 1950s.
In order to meet the Thunderbolt's short building deadline, aluminum side skin panels were applied over solid oak substructures, while the trunk and the hood were all made of steel. Chrysler engineers worked hand in hand with LeBaron, ensuring the integrity and quality of the cars would not be compromised under the tight time constraints of the project.
The cars travelled across the country and attracted tremendous crowds. Quite frequently, showroom lights were turned off, urging visitors to leave, as they often had a tendency to linger until well past midnight. A Sacramento, California Chrysler dealer even reported 8,500 visitors to his dealership on the day a Thunderbolt was in his showroom. A winter weekend in Denver attracted 29,000 visitors who braved the snow and hail to view Chrysler's and LeBaron's latest creation. Of the five examples ever built, only four remain today.
Sources: Our forum, RM Auctions & www.imperialclub.com.
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