Oh, What a Concept: The Futuristic, Outre Style of the 1940 Chrysler Thunderbolt
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Oh, What a Concept: The Futuristic, Outre Style of the 1940 Chrysler Thunderbolt

Oh, what a concept! The 1940 futuristic Thunderbolt drove customers into Chrysler showrooms by the thousands. The dealers offered no incentives other than seeing the concept car in person.

Even after 70 years, Chrysler's concept car, The Thunderbolt is still a breath-taking, futuristic design.There are only 5 of these amazing automobiles, (one recently failed to sell at auction, even at a high bid of $1.75 million). But the history is worth noting, not only for the art of design, but also for the art of marketing.

Although many car enthusiasts refer to The Thunderbolt as a 1941 design, its initial unveiling was in October, 1940 at the Automobile Show in New York City, according to the June 2000 issue of Car Collector magazine.

The story of this still-futuristic-looking car reveals just how an automobile manufacturer could drive customers into their showrooms (with no other 'incentives' except to see the car in person). What an interesting "concept" for auto dealers seeking customers today.

According to RM Auctions, Inc.," The Thunderbolt concept was born of a thoughtful pitch in 1939 by Alex Tremulis to Ralph Roberts at LeBaron, at a time when the notion of concept cars was in its infancy. A groundbreaking design, it had a full-envelope body with retractable headlights, a fully retractable hard top, push-button door switches and back-lit Lucite-edged illuminated gauges." The car recently listed for auction, according to RM, was a "striking Teal Green with stunning copper trim. Formerly owned by actor Bruce Cabot and Bill Harrah, it has been in the same collection for 25 years and recently completed a show quality restoration that was honored with awards at both Amelia Island and Pebble Beach." 

But going back even further, The Thunderbolt was inspired by Captain George Eyston's record-breaking auto speed of 357.50 mph in the late 1930s, driving a race car by that name. He gave Chrysler designers permission to use the name "Thunderbolt" and to provide him with royalties if the car ever went into full production (which was not to be).

This Thunderbolt, shown in the photo below was owned by Donald Appel, (circa 2000)who probably did not take it for a spin very often, and if he did, he had little company, as it had room for only 2 passengers. Appel would likely have pointed out one one of his car's most amazing features: the retractable hardtop. Appel owned a unique version of The Thunderbolt: the 4 other Thunderbolts all had black steering wheels; their bodies were painted different colors. But each Thunderbolt thrilled car enthusiasts.  After the 1940 New York Auto show, three of the cars were sent, in caravans, to dealerships across the Country - to the East, Midwest and West Coast. In each city along the way, The Thunderbolt drew thousands of viewers - 29,000  over a weekend in Denver, alone.  

Classic Car, which features an amazing array of antique and vintage cars, describes The Thunderbolt as having a "sense of Outre style." With its contoured aluminum body, low broad hood and curved one-piece windshield, the car appeared as streamlined and fast as any rocket ship then illustrated in a  Science Fiction pulp, so popular in the 1930s and '40s. As Chrysler promoted it, "there is an entire absence of gimcracks and gingerbread work."

Even today, it's a futuristic work of CARt.


Photos, (c) Classic Car Magazine

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Comments (4)


Very cool article, thanks.

TY, Kim & Leslie - wish I could take a ride in the Thunderbolt!!

This Chrysler Thunderbolt is a really old ride. Its a futuristic car but the chrysler parts installed on it were not.