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. 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.
The Newport dual cowl phaeton, designed by Roberts and Alex Tremulis, had breakthrough flowing lines and many other advanced features captured within a futuristic expression of the classic dual cowl phaeton body style and was built on the long wheelbase 145 1/2" Chrysler Imperial chassis. 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.
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, having been honored to pace the 1941 Indianapolis 500 and becoming the personal property of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. Chrysler missed no promotional opportunities for the Indy 500 festivities on Memorial Day 1941 and brought other Newports to the Speedway for VIP transportation.
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. Four of the five Newports were sold, one of which, the red example with white interior, to the famous American actress Lana Turner.
Sources: our forum & RM Auctions.
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