Curbside Classic: 1946 Chrysler Town and Country Sedan – A Slave To Fashion And Varnish

(first posted 8/29/2012; updated 4/20/2016. I saw Dick Romm driving his Chrysler the other day, so it must be time to get it out of the garage again)    The longer you look at this car, the less sense it makes: A sedan with doors and trunk made completely of wood? Conceived and built just shortly after sleek, streamlined all-steel bodies, with their myriad advantages, had finally become ubiquitous? Well, that pretty much explains it already: Going against the grain can be highly fashionable. Always was, and always will be, never mind the sacrifices involved. Sure, I’ll pay 50% more for a 1946 Chrysler six-cylinder sedan, as long as it comes with wooden doors and trunk—because I can, and you can’t. On second thought, it makes all the sense in the world. 

Woody wagons have a long history that dates back to the horse-drawn “station wagons” that met arriving guests at the train station. Of course, nobody bought a woody as their primary personal transportation; they were commercial vehicles under the domain of hotels and resorts. If you could afford to, you kept one at your hunting lodge or summer house. Increasingly, the fine joinery and varnish of wood-bodied vehicles became the province of the affluent–just not as their daily drivers.

Chrysler’s 1941 Town and Country changed all that. According to Richard Langworth’s “Chrysler and Imperial“, Paul Hafer, of Boyertown Body Works, first doodled a sketch of a jaunty wagon that he titled “Town and Country”. At the time, virtually every city-dweller who was well-off had a place in the country, and here was a vehicle that would look smart in both places and on the drive between them.

Chrysler President David Wallace picked up on the idea and made it happen. Although technically station wagons, they were unlike any that came before, with a sloping, solid steel roof borrowed from Chrysler’s long-wheelbase limousine. Streamline Moderne meets the Wild West. Which is pretty much where America’s consciousness was at the time: straddling two very different worlds. The Town and Country, in its name and form encompasses the era when neither one had yet dominated the other. But that wouldn’t last long.

The original T&C wagon was a proto-crossover: It was groundbreaking in the manner of the first Audi Avant wagon, which defined the modern sports wagon. Wagons don’t have to be just haulers of kids and kit; they can can be fashionable and sporty too. It’s something that had to be rediscovered more than once, although there was nothing country about it the second time.

The 1941 – 1942 Town and Country generated popular enthusiasm, yet only about a thousand were sold in each of its two years of production. Despite that, Chrysler sensed it was on to a good thing, and made plans to expand the Town & Country into an entire family of cars after the war.

The 1946 T & C brochure shows five models; somewhat curiously, none of them was a wagon. And of the five, only two were ever built in quantity: The four door sedan…

…and the convertible, which was built on the longer eight-cylinder chassis. Not surprisingly, the convertible turned out to be the bigger seller, as well as a high-fashion accessory during its first few years. Several Hollywood stars, including Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck and others, joined the ranks of T & C glitterati. The Chrysler was hardly a Duesenberg in its dynamic qualities, but that was then. In 1946, this was it.

This hardtop Custom Club Coupe is one of the models that didn’t go into production, although seven of them were built using a sectioned and lengthened Chrysler coupe roof covered in padded vinyl and mounted on the convertible body.

imagesource: carphotosbyrichard

It was a seminal vehicle that not only beat GM’s famous hardtop coupes by several years, but also launched the padded roof craze. For whatever reason, Chrysler didn’t put it into production and missed ushering in the hardtop era.

The Roadster, a convertible version of the three-passenger business coupe, foreshadowed the 1949 Dodge Wayfarer. It harked back to the popular Roadsters of the twenties and thirties, but never made it to the saw mill.

The last of the stillborn Town and Countrys was the Brougham; at the time, the term referred to a two-door body style, not any car with a vinyl roof and Brougham badges.

Before taking a closer look at our featured car, let’s close out the original T&C era. The new “second-series” 1949s arrived in convertible and wagon forms, but now with wood planking affixed to the steel body and Di-Noc replacing the mahogany veneer.

The later ones omitted the Di-Noc altogether, and just featured the planking. And the hardtop finally showed up. Was the end in sight?

And the sedan was gone and a real station wagon was back. But fashion is fickle; and the glamorous post-war woody era ended quickly. After 1950 the T & C name was history–at least until being revived for a different fashion era altogether.

Chryslers, old and new-ish

So let’s look at what we stumbled onto the other day on our annual blackberry-picking bike ride. Although I’ve stopped making assumptions about what I will or won’t find on the street, don’t think I wasn’t a wee bit surprised to see this sitting at a curb near downtown. Car shows? Who needs ’em? One of these days, there will be a Duesenberg waiting for me at the curb.

There’s simply no way to do the usual design critique of this car; from almost any traditional vantage point that considers a car as a whole or unified entity, it’s a total nightmare, a Frankenstein on wheels. Even the conventional Chryslers of this vintage are a bit challenging, design-wise; essentially, it had a 1939 body that Chrysler tried to update with a more modern front end year after year. The result is a front end that looks about a foot too wide and long for the rest of the car. And the wood planking only accentuates the effect.

But check out the rear end: Wow! Maybe this is why the sedan was a short-lived idea. This really is wild, but never mind; all design conventions must be tossed aside…

…just as they so often have been over the decades, for the sack sake of fashion.

So let’s try that again. This time we’ll move in a bit closer and focus on the details. This is not exactly a cohesive vehicle, but the parts are to die for. There’s enough sparkling orthodonture on the front to dazzle the most hard-boiled minimalist.  And that color! Delicious, like a giant caramel. It’s called Palace Brick Brown, and was a special order color on Chryslers of this vintage. How do I know that? Because at right about this point, on my second go-around, the owner appeared after  having finished his business at the Post Office.

Dick Romm bought this gem in 1971, for $775, from a man in West Eugene. Good call, especially since it had traveled only 56,000 miles, and spent most of its life in a garage; if it hadn’t, it probably wouldn’t be here today. Chrysler spelled out quite clearly to T & C owners that they would have maintenance issues with the wood body. Avoiding rain and too much sun is the key to longevity. At the time Dick bought the car it had a bit of dry rot, which he attended to right away.

The most problematic areas are the curved mahogany veneer panels in the front doors and the trunk. These have been replaced, but there remain a few minor imperfections. In Dick’s own words: I had the dry rot fixed in Portland immediately upon purchasing the car, but that’s all they did; they didn’t do any refinishing. The interior was in pretty bad shape; it was a maroon plastic saran material surrounded by leather. In 1989, after saving enough dollars and being unsuccessful in finding any Oregon firms to refinish the wood, I drove the car to San Leandro, CA, where they completely refinished the original ash (the light-colored wood) and replaced, as necessary, some of the dark mahogany veneer which had peeled and/or disintegrated over the years.

Forget all the nasty things I said earlier; I’m swooning. The interiors of cars of this vintage are inevitably splendid, and this Chrysler has some killer touches.

Like this amazing radio. Have you ever seen a finer one?

Not convinced? How about from this angle? Wouldn’t that cheer you up every time you slid into the front seat?

Tesla iPad-3

It’s the 1946 counterpart to Tesla’s giant screen. The latest in high tech, 70 years apart.

Dick told me that the interior was originally maroon, and that he found it in rough shape: With the help of the actual build sheet from Chrysler, I discovered that the Palace Brick Brown color of the car was quite rare in 1946–in fact, it was a special order color. In the course of the metal part of the body ‘restoration’ (that began in 1999), we were able to match the paint to the original. The maroon interior really didn’t complement the exterior color, so I decided to use a more appropriate color scheme for both the seats and the dashboard.

The seats are now Bedford cord and leather, which was a Chrysler option for these cars as an alternative to the saran. The metal body restoration was done by Jeff Haag in Alvadore, OR, and what a wonderful job he did. It included any necessary bodywork and an exquisite paint job, including the difficult job of two-toning the dashboard, both metal and plastic parts. This two-toning also was a regular Chrysler offering, even though the original dash was all maroon. I took almost all the chrome off the car and had it redone in Canada.

Before we leave that roomy back seat, here’s what a door made out of ash framing looks like. Unfortunately, I can’t let you feel it, but as a wannabe woodworker, I’m smitten. Presumably, that groove along the top of the door channels water down instead of allowing it in. The idea of driving this during our winters gives me the willies.

Let’s take second look at the trunk while thinking of it in terms of its namesake: a wooden trunk, or pirate’s chest instead of in the automotive idiom. A trunk with hinges that aren’t going to give up the ghost anytime soon, even if buried for centuries. The hinges, like all the other hardware on this car, are massive and of very high quality. Which brings home a point: There’s no way to correlate the price of a car like this to modern reality using an inflation adjuster. Its original price of $2,366 adjusts to about $27,000 in today’s money. Good luck to anyone trying to build one for that today–try maybe $270k. These cars were built when skilled labor was still cheap, and plenty of it went into each one of them.

As it turned out, the challenges of the mahogany veneer soon became too much. In late 1947 it was replaced by Di-Noc between the ash planks, and most folks were fine with it. Let’s take a look into the treasure chest.

Ample, indeed. Jimmy Hoffa would have been comfortable on his last ride. Looks like the last vestiges of the original maroon interior.

Turns out that snappy little badge on the bumper is there for a reason. The narrower wood trunk necessitated cutting down the standard bumper, and this plate hides the seam. Nice lettering.

And if the trunk isn’t adequate, the standard roof rack is ready to gobble up more trunks. Thule, eat your heart out. It just needs a ladder to get up there, like the old buses.

Can’t not stop and stoop in reverence to the fine hubcaps and “gum-dipped” Firestones. Due to rubber shortages, in 1946 whitewalls weren’t available, so all these cars wore white “spats” instead of chrome trim rings, as in the brochure pictures above.

 

Time to take in the more prosaic parts of this wooden wonder, like the engine. The T&C sedans were built on the 121.5″ wheelbase six cylinder chassis, and motivated by the famous Chrysler flat head six. Optimistically called “Spitfire”, its 250 cubic inches churned out 114 hp. The fact that all that wood added some 400 additional pounds helps explain why all-steel bodies were such a boon, as well as why nobody talked about these cars in terms of their sparkling performance.

Of course, the Fluid Drive didn’t exactly add to that rep. Now, we could go off on a tangent and spend quite a bit of time on Fluid Drive, and thanks to Chrysler marketing two completely different systems under the same name only adds to the confusion. The basic fluid drive was a three speed manual with its clutch, but with a fluid coupling ahead of it. In essence, one could start and stop in any gear without having to use the clutch, but third gears starts were glacial. The clutch was needed if one wanted to change gears.

But this Chrysler has the semi-automatic Fluid Drive, also known as “Vacamatic” and other marketing gobbledegook. It too had a fluid coupling, but behind it was a two-speed semi-automatic transmission with integral underdrive that worked on both gears, resulting on four speeds, and a clutch as well. One normally just used High Range, and the car would take off in underdrive; when the driver wanted to shift into High-Direct, he just lifted off the accelerator and the shift took place, (semi)automatically. Low Range was used for starting on steep hills and such. And the clutch had to be used to shift between High and Low Range, as well as Reverse. Confused? Allpar has an excellent article explaining them both.

It was Chrysler’s answer to GM’s Hydramatic, and some loved it for its simplicity and control. Others said it had all of the disadvantages of a manual shift, and none of the advantages.

Dick has this to add about his car’s mechanical issues:  Mechanical work included an  overhaul of the engine in the ’70s, which would have been unnecessary except due to the fact that during the cars long hiatus in my garage while I was saving money and doing other things (like a full time job!), water must have seeped into the cylinders through a leaky head gasket; they caused rust and basically locked up the engine. 

At the same time we  used the original fluid drive  transmission plus one from a 1951 Chrysler to build one good transmission.  A new wiring loom was also installed in 2000 for safety.  Brakes, rear axle bearings, and several other minor items were also ‘renewed.’  Other than general maintenance plus a muffler (still in good shape from its purchase from Midas in the 70s), water pump, and a used exhaust manifold to replace the warped original, that’s about it.

Dick has put some 20,000 miles on the car since acquiring it, including the trip to California, and numerous regional trips as well as tours with the Walter P. Chrysler club he belongs to. And he tries to drive it at least every two weeks, except in the rain, of course. That’s why it was sitting near the post office, on this sunny day.

Dick hits the starter, and the Spitfire six mutters to life. The shift lever heads for High Range, and he and the Chrysler majestically ooze off down Fifth Avenue, like a classic wooden power boat. The only thing missing is a wake in the road behind them.