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Posted By: David Holcombe
Posted On: Thursday February 7, 2019 at 11:52 PM
The Chrysler Thunderbolt by Matrix (PICs) Top Up version

As 1940 drew near, Chrysler was under new leadership and emotionally (if not financially) recovered from the Airflow fiasco. When approached by Ralph Roberts and young Alex Tremulus of LeBaron/ Briggs, Chrysler CEO K.T. Keller approved a major concept project for the upcoming New York show. The results were the Chrysler Thunderbolt and the Chrysler Golden Arrow, often recognized as Chrysler's first concept cars.

Gaining widespread notice in 1940, the Chrysler Thunderbolt show car was a huge two-seater with a retractable steel roof, copper accents, and streamlined cladding front to rear. The Thunderbolt rode atop Chrysler’s C-26 127.5-inch-wheelbase chassis and the phaeton atop the C-28 145.5-inch-wheelbase chassis, both powered by the company’s 143-hp 323.5-cu.in., straight-eight engines.

“All we had to do was to design and build a couple of the hottest streamlined cars since Rome burned and slap them with a Chrysler nameplate,” Tremulis wrote in his recounting of the companion projects’ origins in Special Interest Autos #28, May-June 1975. The only pause was when the phaeton Golden Arrow underwent a last-minute name change to Newport.

To get the most mileage out of the two “idea cars,” as Chrysler called them, the company commissioned LeBaron—via Briggs—to build a number of additional copies of each, which it then sent across the country on promotional tours, stopping at car shows and dealerships and other special exhibitions. One of the Newports even became the first non-production car to pace the Indianapolis 500 the following May. As for how many LeBaron built for Chrysler, it seems no two sources agree, and definitive numbers aren’t forthcoming from Chrysler’s records. Four, five, and six for one or the other, or even both, are often cited.

As futuristic as the styling and gadgets were for both the Newport and Thunderbolt, they relied on fairly conventional underpinnings. Each of the hand-built cars differed in minor details, and Chrysler had each painted and upholstered in different color combinations.

With the onset of World War II—and with the idea cars exhausting their itineraries—Chrysler sold off all but one of its Newports and Thunderbolts at an estimated average cost of $6,000 apiece (at a time when a new Ford sold in the $800 price range). The one it kept, the one that paced the Indianapolis 500, went to Walter P. Chrysler Jr., while the others went to actors, millionaires, and dealers looking to draw traffic to their showrooms. The next picture is a Chrysler picture from that time, showing the Thunderbolt's roof mechanism.

This Matrix Thunderbolt arrived recently from China, well packaged and gleaming in its copper-colored accents. I chose the version with the top up, but Matrix also offers it with the top down. As I look at this model with its fixed roof, I think most kindly of my FM '59 Ford retractable. This Thunderbolt is my newest 1:43 acquisition, and it joins my two Newport Phaetons, BRK No. 8 made in Canada and the Pace Car, No. 8a, in England. They have been with me for quite a while, and I still prefer their materials, craftsmanship, and rolling wheels. But I enjoy seeing the three together.

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Message thread:

The Chrysler Thunderbolt by Matrix (PICs) Top Up version by David Holcombe #25322
Thanks for this post and the interesting story (EOM) by Jacques Roest #25322.1
Excellent article David. But just one question. Were there really by Don Anderson #25322.2
thanks, David, sure on my wish-list, maybe I'll get both versions... (EOM) by Joop Gisbers #25322.3
Just got mine by John Kuliak #25322.3.1
Mine showed up this week David, though it didn't have to come as far. by Harvey Goranson #25322.4
It looks like a really great model. Congrats. (EOM) by John Merritt #25322.5

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