82 Years Ago, Chrysler Unveiled Its First True Show Car, the Fascinating Thunderbolt

With a futuristic design and a host of electronic features such as a retractable hardtop, power windows, or pop-up headlights, the Thunderbolt was a marvel of engineering created to make jaws drop to the floor.
Chrysler Thunderbolt 12 photos
Photo: RM Sotheby's
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Today, dozens of show cars or concepts are introduced at every edition of the world’s most important auto shows. According to many automotive historians, this trend was started by GM and its legendary designer Henry J. Earl with the 1938 Buick Y-Job. Just three years later, Chrysler followed in their crosstown rivals’ footsteps with the breathtaking Thunderbolt.

The idea behind this vehicle (and a dual-cowl phaeton that would become the Newport concept) was born in 1939 and the man behind it was Alex Tremulis, a promising young designer who presented his futuristic sketches to the head of American coachbuilders LeBaron, Ralph Roberts. The latter was extremely impressed with what he saw and managed to arrange a meeting with the Chrysler division’s president Dave Wallace, as well as the corporation’s top man, K.T. Keller. Equally impressed with the proposal, the two executives approved the project and agreed to provide LeBaron with not only the funds but also all the Chrysler hardware that the coachbuilder would require.

Work on the car began in 1940 and the first task was fabricating the body. Unlike Chrysler’s previous models such as the Airflow, it employed a minimalistic streamlined design that focused on aerodynamic efficiency rather than an eye-catching combination of rounded shapes. Except for the steel hood and deck lid, the entire structure was made out of lightweight aluminum.

Chrysler Thunderbolt
Photo: RM Sotheby’s
Based on a 1940 Chrysler Crown Imperial frame, it looked more like a Porsche than the typical American cars of the era. Although its engine was mounted in the front, the show car featured no front grille, and fresh air was fed to the radiator through two wide openings tucked away under the bumper. This was done to improve airflow, a goal that also persuaded Tremulis to devise an electric pop-up system that would cover the headlights when they weren’t in use.

Another clever use of electronics was push-button door switches that allowed occupants to unlock and open the doors. However, its most impressive feature came in the form of a fully retractable hardtop that transformed the coupe into a convertible with a push of a button. Although a similar feature was used by Peugeot in the 401D Éclipse Décapotable almost a decade earlier, the idea was still mind-blowing in 1940.

Engineers managed to make the single-piece top “disappear” behind the cockpit by creating a complex electro-hydraulic mechanism. This resulted in almost no trunk space and an interior that only housed a single bench seat wide enough for three people, but these compromises were well worth it since the retractable roof became the show car’s defining feature.

Chrysler Thunderbolt
Photo: RM Sotheby’s
It was christened Thunderbolt after the land speed record-holding vehicle with which Captain George Eyston reached 357.53 mph (575.38) at the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1938. While that monster was powered by a couple of 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce plane engines, the Chrysler’s beating heart was a far more conventional 323.5-ci (5.3-liter), Spitfire inline-eight rated at 140 hp and 255 lb-ft (346 Nm) of torque.

After months of hard work, the LeBaron team managed to build not one, but five examples of this engineering masterpiece. The public debut came in 1940 at the New York Auto show, followed by appearances at several similar events across the United States.

Each Thunderbolt had a different paint scheme and arguably the most famous is the one dubbed “The Copper Car” which is featured in this article. Sold to actor Bruce Cabot, in March 1941, it exchanged several hands throughout the years and went through a painstaking restoration in 2009. Two years later, it was sold at an RM Sotheby’s auction for $935,000.

You can learn more about this amazing vehicle in the following YouTube video by HowStuffWorks.

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About the author: Vlad Radu
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Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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