The Chrysler Thunderbolt was named after the land speed record car, driven by Captain George Eyston. That mission had been accomplished at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah – in ’38. The 2-seat roadster Thunderbolt sported an apt chrome lightning flash on its doors. Its straight-eight 323.5 cubic-inch engine made 143bhp. Rather less, no doubt, than its record-breaking namesake. Like the LSR car, though, the Thunderbolt prototype was a promotional tool. In ’41, six Thunderbolts duly departed Detroit. They did the rounds of Chrysler dealerships, throughout the USA. The job of these ‘dream cars’ was to generate buzz for the new range of Chryslers to come.
Alex Tremulis was tasked with designing the Thunderbolt. A freelancer, at the time, the commission from Chrysler kick-started his career. The Thunderbolt was radical. Its bodywork was a rounded slab of aluminium. Beneath it, wheels and tyres were only partially visible. The body was built by LeBaron – later acquired by Briggs Manufacturing. Technically, too, the Thunderbolt was ahead of the game. Its roof and headlights were electrically retractable. Tiny push buttons opened the doors – rather than conventional handles. The air intake was below the front bumper. Avant-garde stuff, indeed, in the 1940s.
The chassis, at least, was mainstream. It was carried over from the Chrysler New Yorker. Indeed, the Thunderbolt had its roots in the Chrysler Crown Imperial. That was in stark contrast, then, to the sci-fi gadgetry of the interior. Saying that, it was upholstered in traditional leather. In the toy shops, tin replicas of the Thunderbolt sold by the shedload. Each of the half-dozen life-size cars came in its own custom colour scheme. One of them is on display at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum – in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Chrysler Thunderbolt, then, was a stylish blend of automotive futurism and coachbuilt craftmanship.