1940/1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt

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Most people will remember Alex Tremulis as the legendary designer of the Tucker, but for Imperial fans, we remember him as the designer of the remarkable 1940/'41 Chrysler Thunderbolt because the design was based on a 1940 Chrysler Crown Imperial frame.  Tremulis, who had been working with Crosley and American Bantam in the late 30's, returned to Briggs Body Works to create this fantastic concept car for Chrysler. Tremulis worked with Ralph Roberts on the design.


As with the Newport Phaetons, five of these wonderful show car were built for Chrysler.  It was dubbed "The Car of the Future" and was an aluminum envelope-bodied, flush-fendered coupe with a fully retractable, electrically controlled hardtop.  Pushbuttons operated the doors (there were no door "handles") and it even sported hydraulic power windows.  The totally enclosed front and rear wheel wells was also a new design concept.

Tremulis' new concept car was also marked by a discrete silvery bolt of lightning on each smooth door. The electrically-controlled top could be concealed beneath the rear deck of the two-seater by pressing a button. Concealed headlights, anodized aluminum trim at the base of the car's body and leather interior trim marked this sleek full-fender look.  It was powered by a 143-HP straight eight engine.

Owner: Don Appel

Today, there are 4 known Thunderbolts still surviving.  One of them is on display at the Walter P. Chrysler museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Each Thunderbolt was manufactured with a unique color scheme and no two were alike.

Read an interesting magazine article written by famed LeBaron designer, Hugo Pfau. Mr. Pfau relates a few memories about Ralph Roberts and his Thunderbolt design.

Here is a fantastic overview of the Newport and Thunderbolt taken from, "Art of the American Automobile" written by Nick Georgano and published by Smithmark.


Two of the most striking Chryslers appeared just before the United States entered World War II.  Christened Thunderbolt and Newport, they were commissioned from the coachbuilders LeBaron, not production cars but as styling exercise for publicity, to remove the stigma of Airflow and show that the Chrysler name could be associated with beautiful cars.  Also, 1938 saw the appearance of Harley Earl's Buick Y-Job and K.T. Keller did not want to be left out.  Of the big three only Ford produced no "ideas cars" before the war.

By 1939 LeBaron had lost its two founders Tom Hibbard and Ray Dietrich, and was guided by Ralph Roberts.  There were close ties between LeBaron and Briggs, the mass producers, and as there was very little custom done coming LeBaron's way, Roberts was working for Briggs at the time the Chrysler cars were commissioned.  Though he was not a trained designer, he had a very good eye, like Harley Earl, and it seems the Newport was largely his work.  Designed at Briggs and built by LeBaron it was a six passenger dual-cowl phaeton with dual windshields, push-button door handles, concealed headlights and a flowing fender line from front to rear.  The body was of aluminum painted bone-white and with pleated leather interior which was used around both cockpits and in the door panels.  Roberts had originally planned a swept forward windshield, but this was vetoed (wisely) by Keller.  An interesting touch was the provision of rear-view mirrors for the rear cockpit passengers.  Five Newports were built some of which were colored dark green with tan leather interiors.  A white example was used as the pace car 1941 Indianapolis 500.

If the Newport was modern looking, the Thunderbolt was definitely futuristic and would not have looked out of place in the 1960's.  It was styled by Alex Tremulis who was also working for Briggs.  It was shorter than the Newport and seated three on a wide bench seat.  Unlike the Newports dipped fender line, the Thunderbolt had a straight-through line with no dip or belt molding of any kind, like the postwar Kaiser-Frazer.  Both front and rear wheels were covered, there were concealed headlights and no recognizable grille - air intakes were below the bumper.  Like the Newport, the body was aluminum with stainless steel molding running right around the lower part.  When he saw the design, Keller asked how they were going to bend it around the front end.  Tremulis said they would make that section of brass and plate it.  That pleased Keller, who said, "Sometimes you stylists think like engineers and make sense." 

The Newport and Thunderbolt both used a stock Chrysler L-head staight-8 engine, and road on stock chassis, 127 1/2 inches for the Thunderbolt, and 143 1/2 inches, Chrysler's longest, for the Newport.  Five were made of which four Newports and four Thunderbolts survive.  One of the surviving Newports, now in the National Automobile Museum at Reno, Nevada, was owned by playboy millionaire Henry J. Topping, who customized the car with his name on the hubcaps and valve covers;  he also replaced the Chrysler engine with a Cadillac V-8.  The cars certainly achieved their purpose of putting Chrysler at the forefront of styling ideas, and they traveled the country at shows in 1940 and 1941.

Ralph Roberts with his family with one of the five Chrysler Thunderbolts. This would later become Don Appel's red and silver Thunderbolt with the addition of white wall tires.

A Promotional Postcard for the Thunderbolt offered by Chrysler during the 1940 selling season.

This page was last updated 22 March 2006.  Send us your feedback, and come join the Imperial Mailing List - Online Car Club