The Chrysler Thunderbolt was way ahead of its time
Go to any auto show these days and it is expected that you will see many concept and dream cars.
But back in the day the business of building concept cars was still in its infancy.
One of the most influential of these early flights of fancy was Chrysler’s 1941 Thunderbolt.
The Thunderbolt arose from a desire by Chrysler’s boss, K T Keller, to draw new customers to his dealerships and create more excitement and pizzazz for the Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler brands.
Styled by Alex Tremulis, the Thunderbolt was way out there in the future.
This was a car that dreams were truly made of.
He crafted a wide, full-envelope body at a time when everything else still featured separated mudguards and high, narrow pointed bonnets
To this he added retractable headlights and the first curved one piece front windscreen, which was a technical marvel in 1941.
More out-of-this-world features included push-button door switches.
It was also the first modern car to use back-lit dashboard gauges.
Another unique design feature was the lack of a recognisable grille.
The air intakes were cleverly located below the front bumper.
And if all of that was not futuristic enough, Tremulis asked for and got the very first convertible with an all electric fully-retractable metal hard top.
One switch activated three separate synchronized operations that caused the top to retract into a space behind the bench seat.
Make no mistake, for 1941 this was a significant automotive engineering feat, and one that was not seen again in a production car until the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner.
Chrysler made five Thunderbolts and showed them to big crowds around the Uunited States during the summer of 1941 – then sold them off.
Four of the five still exist. One, painted silver, is owned by Chrysler and the others are in private hands.
The impact of the car’s styling can be seen in the design of post-World War II cars.
The slab sided styling was copied and recopied by all manufacturers.
Tremulis went on to style many classics, including the 1948 Tucker.
For a decade, up to 1963, he led Ford’s advanced styling efforts, then he left to set up a styling consultancy and did work for Subaru.
His last car was the 1967 Subaru BRAT.
David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au