|Automobiles of Amelia Island
Saturday, March 14, 2009
|1941 Chrysler Newport Dual Cowl Phaeton|
A special 143hp 323 cu. in. inline eight-cylinder engine, three-speed overdrive Vacamatic transmission, independent front suspension with coil springs, live axle rear suspension with semi-elliptical leaf springs, four-wheel drum brakes. Wheelbase 145.5"
As the decade of the thirties advanced, the industrial powerhouse that was the United States began to get itself back into high gear. In the process its efforts expanded from supporting subsistence and survival to fostering demand based on design, style, comfort and function.
It was the golden age of industrial design and the style known as machine age design. Secure in the attributes and functionality of their machines, designers had newfound freedom to expand beyond practicality to explore new expressions of style and design. Nowhere was that more true than in Detroit where marketers at GM, Ford, Chrysler and Packard explored new niches in the expanding market with ever more sharply focused marques, models and styles. In seeking to differentiate themselves, they increasingly accepted designers’ creative expression.
There was a bit of competition among the leaders of Detroit’s design teams; Edsel Ford at Ford, Ed Macauley at Packard and the inimitable Harley Earl at General Motors. The first mentioned of course had his family’s name atop the building; the second was the son of the company president. Earl stood alone among these titans of Detroit design on the strength of his talent. Only Chrysler had no entrant in the Detroit design sweepstakes, relying on the talents of famed custom body designer, Ray Dietrich at Murray and the man known for one of the foremost Duesenberg designs, Ralph Roberts at Briggs subsidiary LeBaron, to balance the domination of the coachwork design process by Chrysler’s body engineering staff.
Edsel Ford famously created a “continental”-styled cabriolet for his own use. Ed Macauley employed his own cars to explore design and decoration themes throughout the late thirties, building some legendary, fast, sporting automobiles on Packard chassis. Earl similarly was not satisfied to drive standard production automobiles and eventually created the milestone project Y-38 known to posterity as the “Y-job” on a Buick chassis in 1938. These titans of industry drove their cars around Detroit, symbols of their leadership and their corporations’ status.
When the Y-job hit the streets, it was apparent even to Chrysler’s management that something visual was needed to complement the established leadership of Chrysler Corporation automobiles in engineering and technology. K.T. Keller, who had succeeded Walter P. Chrysler after the company founder died in August 1940, was approached by Ralph Roberts from LeBaron with a proposal for two show cars that would become known as the two-seater Thunderbolt and the extravagantly streamlined four-seat Newport dual cowl phaeton. Some have said that Roberts’ goal with the Newport was to achieve what a Duesenberg dual cowl would look like if that company had remained in business.
Keller immediately recognized the potential for the two specials and placed an order with Roberts for LeBaron to build six of each for a nationwide presentation. He gave LeBaron a nearly impossible deadline: they had to be ready in just 90 days, in time to make the 1941 season auto shows in the fall of 1940.
And LeBaron, with the help of the entire Briggs organization, nearly made it. Only five similar examples of each show car were completed in time to be featured in the New York show and then distributed around the country to draw traffic to Chrysler showrooms. The tactic worked superbly. While Ed Macauley and Edsel Ford drove around Grosse Pointe and Hobe Sound in their one-off idea cars and GM had only one Y-job for its Motoramas, Chrysler had a small fleet of Newports and Thunderbolts. They were the centerpieces of parades and events and shows at dealers across the country. Seen by thousands of people and prospective car buyers, they built sales and excitement for all of the Chrysler marques.
Of the two it was the Newport that caught the most public attention. Designed by Roberts and Alex Tremulis, it had breakthrough flowing lines and many other advanced features captured within a futuristic expression of the classic dual cowl phaeton body style. Its many distinctive features were executed by LeBaron within K.T. Keller’s short deadline and demonstrate the mastery of coachwork art, creativity and technique in the LeBaron shop and within Briggs.
Built on the long wheelbase 145 1/2” Chrysler Imperial chassis, the Chrysler Newport is the first American car to feature a fender line that flows from front to rear. Its smooth, fluid fenders foreshadow the full envelope styles that would develop years later. Its beautiful, organic shape was subtly accented by LeBaron’s elimination of the visible body seams necessary for all other cars with their bolted-on fenders. The Newport’s hood, deck, doors and fenders were completely smoothed, with no design-interrupting ornamentation. LeBaron’s devotion to a smooth, uninterrupted flow of the body panels extended to integrated rear fender skirts executed in the teardrop shape of the fenders, a flush cover for the top and even recessing the license plate into the decklid and covering it with glass.
There were many tributes to the trendsetting and flowing design of the Chrysler Newport. Automobile customizers in California and elsewhere took note of it all. They made a living after World War II leading in hood noses, deck lids and fender seams on Fords and other cars. The inset license plate holder cut into the trunk lid was a luxury feature. All this was done to achieve a smooth one-piece look for owners who wanted their cars to be “something special”. Even the great Harley Earl was not untouched by the Newport’s design. He copied the front to rear fender line on his later, most expensive Buicks. However, for production, he had to defer to bolt-on fenders and their accompanying pieces across the doors.
Four of the five Newports had their headlights recessed into the front fenders behind retracting headlight doors. A single Newport with a clean forceful front fender design and exposed headlights is immediately recognizable among its counterparts. It has the most important piece of history of all prewar Chrysler concept cars, having been honored to pace the 1941 Indianapolis 500 – the last Indy pace car for five years – and becoming the personal property of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. Carefully preserved both for its trendsetting design and unique history, it is the Newport offered here. Chrysler missed no promotional opportunities for the Indy 500 festivities on Memorial Day 1941 and brought other Newports to the Speedway for VIP transportation. Most important, contemporary photos clearly identify this car, with its exposed headlights, pacing the race at the head of a field of open-wheel race cars.
The performance of its powerful Chrysler eight in stock configuration was sufficient to pace the Memorial Day Classic without major modifications, particularly when backed up by Chrysler’s innovative “Vacamatic” three-speed overdrive transmission which gives the Newport the performance of a four-speed with the convenience of clutchless shifting between standard and overdrive ratios in second and third.
The Newport promotional tours were highly successful, bringing a major spike in Chrysler’s sales and enthusiastic endorsement of their effectiveness by Chrysler’s dealers. World events, however, soon impinged upon their histories as the American auto industry shut down civilian production and shifted to war work in February 1942. All of the Newports were sold save one.
This car, the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car with its distinctive open headlights was repainted in pastel green and reupholstered in dark green leather before the war for the use of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. It became Chrysler’s representative among the signature cars of Detroit’s design and styling leaders such as Edsel Ford’s Continental, Ed Macauley’s Phantom and Harley Earl’s Y-job. Even among these stylish, handsome and historic cars the Newport’s cutdown doors and dual cowl seating were unique, forming a visible stylistic link between the classic designs of the thirties and the fluid, streamlined designs of the late forties. To make it practical for regular use, Chrysler and LeBaron fitted this car with a top which folded under an integrated metal boot cover. To facilitate entry and exit the rear cowl was modified to be raised and lowered electrically.
It was then carefully maintained in remarkably complete and original condition and was acquired by its present owner in 2000. Its preservation is a tribute to its importance and to its legacy as the 1941 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car. Other than being serviced mechanically as needed it is almost completely original, including the pastel green paint and much of the dark green leather upholstery as installed for Walter P. Chrysler in 1941, including monogrammed badges on the front doors. Its condition is exemplary, as evidenced by its acceptance for display at the prestigious Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance this year.
In August 2003 this dramatic vintage automobile was chosen by Chrysler Corporation to lead laps at Laguna Seca raceway during the Monterey Historic races introducing the new Chrysler Crossfire, setting the pace just as it had done sixty-two years earlier at Indianapolis.
Carefully preserved by one of America’s premier collections, the 1941 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car Chrysler Newport dual cowl phaeton is one of the most important concept vehicles in the history of America’s automobile industry. Its flowing fenders, seamless bodywork and freedom from embellishment or adornment signaled the beginning of a new era in American design. For Chrysler Corporation it was a breakthrough which immediately established them as a leader in design to complement the company’s well-established leadership in engineering and manufacturing. It and its four counterparts were immediately accepted by the public, helping Chrysler Corporation build sales and earn profits.
The Newport’s patina highlights its connection with the prewar Chrysler Corporation and with the small group of influential figures, Edsel Ford, Harley Earl and Ed Macauley, whose taste, eye and style were expressed in their individual automobiles and influenced the growth of a great American industry in its prime.