Friday, June 13, 2014

1941-1984 Chrysler Town & Country

The roof rack shifted to all chrome and became standard for the T&C sedan in July 1947.

1946 Chrysler Town & Country Product Line

The 1946 Chrysler Town & Country product line expanded due to the "woodies" popularity in the 1940's.
Although T&C's were the strongest wagons ever produced up to that time, thanks mainly to the sturdy all-steel roof without the customary fabric insert, Chrysler product planners decided that utility wasn't really what sold them.

What mattered was their unusual and handsome looks, a beautiful blend of woodwork and metal. Besides, Chrysler was planning its first all-steel station wagons even before the war ended (Plymouth broke the ice in that field in 1949). So, Wallace altered his game plan once car production resumed in 1946.

Now there would be a distinct line of wood-trimmed luxury models bearing the Town & Country name, including a formal-roof brougham sedan, a convertible, a conventional sedan, a two-seat roadster, and even a pillarless two-door coupe.

The last was arguably the most interesting and significant Town & Country. It was the first modern hardtop, three years ahead of GM's pioneering pillarless trio and grandaddy of the body style that would dominate the American auto industry for the next 20 years.

Chrysler built it by grafting the steel roof from its club coupe onto a conventional T&C convertible but had second thoughts about volume production. Only seven were completed, and only one of these survives today.

Also announced for 1946 were the brougham, a roadster with huge blind quarters (which prefigured the later Dodge Wayfarer), and a six-cylinder convertible on the shorter wheelbase.

However, except for a single brougham and short-chassis convertible, both prototypes, none of these saw actual production. "The sales department was just fishing around in the beginning," remembered stylist Buzz Grisinger. "Postwar plans were pretty much a hurry-up thing. There weren't any clay models or production prototypes. We just designed a series of different styles and brushed on wood trim where we thought it looked aesthetically best. Sales took it from there."

And where the sales department took it was to convertibles and four-door sedans. More than half of the 16,000 T&C's built through 1950 were the 1946, 1947, and 1948 convertibles.

Dave Wallace's personal T&C hardtop was retrofitted with a padded roof.

All employed the holdover 127.5-inch-wheelbase chassis, designated C-39, and were powered by the New Yorker's familiar 135-horsepower L-head straight eight. Priced $600 above the standard New Yorker soft-top, these were the cars prized by many Hollywood heavies.

For example, Leo Carillo, perhaps best remembered now for his television role as the Cisco Kid's sidekick Pancho, liked his T&C convertible so much that he fitted it with the head of a longhorn steer -- its eyes wired to blink along with the turn signals -- and monogrammed hubcaps. This car later became part of the Harrah Collection in Reno, Nevada.


This 1948 T&C convertible featured Di-Noc decal inserts instead of wood and white ash framing.

Building the 1946, 1947, and 1948 Chrysler Town & Country Convertible

Although Chrysler had plenty of experience building its prewar Town & Country wagons, it had to learn anew about building the 1946, 1947, and 1948 T&C convertibles.

The rag top's structure was entirely different from that of other Chrysler models, of course, and there was the added problem of no steel top to provide the desired torsional strength.

After considerable trial and error, engineers devised a conventional cowl and floor section for the woody convertible, with a surrounding steel beltline and the rear fenders tied together by a steel shelf.
The B-pillars were wood, supported at their bases by tunnels that stretched across the floorpan to meet upright angle iron supports. Sheetmetal carried the winding mechanisms for the rear side windows, which helped remove stress from the wood rear-quarter body areas.

The doors were mainly solid wood, too, and because of their weight, a sheet metal leading edge was attached to support their hinges. As in the rear quarters, sheet metal housed the window regulators.

This complex construction did not lend itself to conveyor-type assembly methods, and extensive use of welding machines was out of the question. Accordingly, the metal components were filed and welded by hand, and wood sub-assemblies were each put together by one or two workers using crafts more appropriate for a boatyard than a car plant.
Construction of the Town & Country convertible involved a lot of time-consuming hand labor.

Ply-metal panels were installed in the ash framing by means of a hammer, wedges, glue, and rope caulk. Teams moved from one body to the next, each handling a specific task.

To say the Town & Country involved a lot of time-consuming hand labor is an understatement. For example, it took 12 workers just to install each convertible top. Once the body was completed, it was mated to its chassis in the usual manner. Assembly then proceeded from station to station, much like that of the conventional models.

Compared to the normal production-line cars, T&C's moved at a snail's pace, which accounts for both their low volume and high price. Production from 1946 through 1948 averaged only 10 units per day, and it took fully three eight-hour shifts to achieve that.

But the slow going produced amazing results, and materials were the very best. The white ash, for example, was not only more durable than most woods but was also unequaled for the beauty of its grain, which contrasted perfectly with the mahogany insert panels.

Also, the framework was not made of a single piece of wood, so it was possible to match grain patterns exactly. The individual pieces were carefully selected and matched and were then laminated into the larger sections that made up the entire framework. It all added to the cost, but you couldn't find a more carefully or better built car for the money than the classic Town & Country.
The eight-cylinder convertible accounted for the bulk of Town & Country production through 1950.

1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1950 Chrysler Town & Country

Except for some minor changes, the 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1950 Town & Country models didn't change much in style, while other automobile manufacturers rolled out new styles.

The 1946, 1947, and 1948 Town & Country convertibles, however, were so all-fired glamorous that they tended to eclipse the 121.5-inch-wheelbase four-door sedans, which in their own way were just as stunning. Their interiors were richly finished with wood paneling set off by leather, Bedford cord, Saran plastic, or vinyl upholstery, plus color-keyed carpeting.

A lovely wood luggage rack was optional (its roof runners were changed to chrome-plated metal in mid-1947, when it was made standard). To many collectors, the sedans are the real sleepers among the early postwar T&C's because they're a lot scarcer than the rag tops.
The Chrysler Town & Country convertible was a glamorous, popular model.

Only 224 sedans were designated 1946 models, 2,651 were 1947's, and 1,175 were 1948's. A mere 100 of the 1946's were eight-cylinder models on the longer New Yorker wheelbase, the rarest production Town & Country of all.

When most Detroit manufacturers launched their first all-new designs for 1949, the Town & Country began to wane. It had, after all, been only a stop-gap item with little sales significance.
The 1949 convertible is the scarcest of the volume ragtops and an eminently collectible automobile.

Its greatest benefit in the immediate postwar period was to entice people back into Chrysler showrooms -- people who would, it was hoped, be inspired to order one of the more conventional, less costly models. Like the contemporary Ford and Mercury Sportsman convertibles and the Nash Suburban sedan, the T&C was a marketing concept designed to add needed glamour to a line of 1946-1948 cars that were little more than warmed-over 1942's.

The 1950 Town & Country Newport hardtop coupe was the last of the glamorous wood-body models.

Thus, it was no surprise that when Chrysler trotted out its all-new body design for 1949, T&C offerings were trimmed. Only an eight-cylinder convertible with considerably less woodwork was available, and sales for the model totaled exactly 1,000.

The model returned with the same basic body for 1950 but as a Newport hardtop (a convertible was considered but scratched). Like the 1949, it was mounted on the 131.5-inch New Yorker chassis and was powered by the familiar 135-horsepower 323.5-cubic inch straight eight. Unique to the 1950 T&C (and the long-wheelbase Imperial) were disc brakes, one of the first applications on a U.S. production automobile.
The name was too good to lose, of course, and Chrysler never gave it up. Along with the T&C Newport for 1950 appeared two Town & Country station wagons, either wood or steel, in the bottom-line Royal series.
The 1950 Town & Country Newport offered vast interior space front and rear.


1968 and 1984 Revivals of the Town & Country Concept

The 1968 and 1984 revivals of the Town & Country concept stirred up excitement. During model year 1968 the original Town & Country concept, in spirit at least, made a temporary return.

In time for the mid-year selling season there arrived a new option called "Sportsgrain." It was available for convertibles and two-door hardtops in the Newport series, then Chrysler's bread-and-butter line, priced in the competitive $3,300-$4,500 range and available in six body styles including two Town & Country wagons.

To avoid confusion, cars so equipped did not wear the Town & Country badge, and some enthusiasts were undoubtedly thankful for that. Indeed, the Sportsgrain Newport can be accurately summed up as the standard car with $126 worth of simulated-wood paneling plastered to the bodysides as on the wagon.

It didn't look bad, but it didn't knock your eyes out either. And as a successor to the real Town & Country it was a non-starter. Sales were 965 hardtops and 175 convertibles -- which explains why Sportsgrain disappeared for good after this one year.

Then in 1984, the Town & Country came back, this time for real. It arrived in the LeBaron series, another long-standing Chrysler nameplate that originated in the coachbuilding days of Ray Dietrich and Tom Hibbard.
LeBaron and Town & Country were a plush combination. Though there was no real tree wood in it, this newest T&C was nevertheless a first-rate reincarnation of the spirit and style of the original.

Actually, there were two LeBaron T&C's, a five-door wagon and a convertible. The rag top naturally received the most attention from both the press and buyers. And why not? It was not only one of the few domestic convertibles you could buy new in those days, but it was also one of the best.
And, as the first open-air Town & Country in almost two generations, it was the model that most strongly evokes memories of the great late-1940's classics.

The front-drive LeBaron convertible featured a spacious rear seat area.

1984 LeBaron Town & Country Convertible

The Town & Country name was revived at mid-model year with the introduction of the 1984 LeBaron Town & Country Convertible.

Though the wagon was expected, a convertible was not -- let alone one cast in the image of one of Chrysler's most memorable cars. But it was all part of the plan to put more pizazz and competitiveness into the company's offerings, and Chrysler's miracle worker, Lee A. Iacocca, was never one for doing the predictable.

Ordinarily, the simple addition of wood-like appliqués to an otherwise standard production car wouldn't be enough to garner more than a stifled yawn from enthusiasts. But there was something different about the LeBaron Town & Country convertible.

Call it character, call it nostalgia, this car was noticed, attracting as much interest as some performance machines and far more than its non-woody linemates.

Like all LeBarons, the new convertible rode a 100.3-inch wheelbase and was just shy of 15 feet in overall length, making it the shortest T&C in history as well as the lightest.

It was also obviously the first with front-wheel drive. But it was not unlike its massive forbearers when it came to smooth performance, fine ride, and quietness at cruising speeds. And it offered something no T&C has ever had before: roadability.

Standard equipment included the 2.6-liter (156-cubic inch) Mitsubishi-built four-cylinder engine that was optional for other models, teamed with Chrysler's still-excellent three-speed TorqueFlite automatic.

A more exciting prospect -- and an item definitely suited to the convertible's sporty nature -- was the newly optional turbocharged version of Chrysler's 2.2-liter (135-cubic inch) overhead-cam "Trans-4" engine with electronic port fuel injection. Scheduled for mid-year introduction, it made this the first T&C that could truthfully be described as "fun to drive."

Other features of the 1984 included more rear seat room than in the initial 1983 convertible; roll-down rear quarter windows, another improvement; a backlight made of glass instead of plastic; and more convenient roof and latch mechanisms.

Preserving its luxury link with the past, the new T&C was offered with an optional Mark Cross interior package featuring genuine leather upholstery. And despite all this talk of tradition, this was a very modern car, with such high-technology attractions as computer-aided body design and a fascinating, extra-cost electronic instrument cluster.

The LeBaron T&C convertible was available in three pearlescent shades -- Mink brown, Gunmetal blue, and Garnet red, which was in keeping with traditional T&C convertible colors.

Is the 1984 as collectible an automobile as its classic predecessors? Probably not, at least not for a good many years yet, but we wouldn't discourage you from considering one on that basis.

A replica of the original? No, nothing like that. But the 1984 Town & Country was also more than mere transportation. Like the original, it was a handsome convertible with a difference: stylish and plush, indefinably yet unmistakably classy.