Last year’s $3.2 million Oldsmobile F-88 sale has collectors scouring barns and museums for ’50s dream cars
The business of building “show” or “concept” cars was in its infancy in 1940, with the notion of showcasing future styling and innovations. The idea dated back to Harley Earl and his 1938 Buick Y-Job, which was such a success that it didn’t take long for other automobile manufacturers to follow Earl’s lead.
The Thunderbolt concept was born from a pitch by Alex Tremulis to LeBaron’s head Ralph Roberts to create a pair of “dream cars” in 1939. Roberts was so impressed with the design he organized a meeting with Chrysler president K.T. Keller and Chrysler division president Dave Wallace to discuss the cars: The pair gave the go-ahead to create two different cars based on the Roberts and Tremulis sketches.
The Thunderbolt and Newport projects ended up being two of the most interesting cars to ever come from LeBaron, as well as some of the last. The onset of World War II forced LeBaron to halt production. (The name would be revived later by Chrysler for Imperials and then for ghastly K-cars). The Chrysler Thunderbolt utilized a full-envelope body with concealed headlights and was the first American retractable hard top. Peugeot had pioneered the idea in Europe a decade earlier.
Each of the original five Thunderbolts received a different color combination and carried a discreet bolt of lightning on the contoured aluminum doors. Subtle differences such as exterior wraparound trim and dashboard finishes made each car unique.
The Chrysler Thunderbolt would not have looked out of place 15 years later. It was shorter than the Newport and seated three on a wide bench seat. Unlike the Newport’s dipped fender line, the Thunderbolt had a straight line with no dip or belt molding of any kind. Both front and rear wheels were covered with fender skirts, headlights were retractable, and there was no recognizable grille. Air intakes were situated below the bumper.
This Chrysler Thunderbolt is the pinnacle of conceptual design, likened to an undiscovered work of art or unknown manuscript. It has passed the test of time, largely hidden away until now.