1947 Chrysler Town and Country. Photo by David LaChance.
Appropriately, and unlike pretty much every other car, one of the most celebrated nameplates in Chrysler’s history, the Town and Country, originated not with a sketch or a design brief, but with a name that eventually became a car. That nameplate has also proved one of Chrysler’s most versatile and longest lasting, with its 75th anniversary approaching next year.
While credit for the original Chrysler Town and Country goes to then-Chrysler president David Wallace, the name originated with the Boyertown Body Works, as Donald Narus related in his book Chrysler’s Wonderful Woodie – The Town and Country, 1941-1950. In 1939, Chrysler had hired Boyertown to build a series of prototype station wagon bodies for Dodge, one of which bore the Town and Country name, inspired by its “town” front and “country” back half. (For posterity’s sake, the other suggested names – Country Club Sport and Country Gentleman – fell by the wayside.)
Boyertown didn’t get the contract for the Dodge station wagon, but the Town and Country name rattled around in Wallace’s head for a while until he decided to build a Chrysler station wagon that would embody that “town and country” dichotomy. So he gathered a number of his engineers together in Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant and worked with them to hammer together a wood-bodied station wagon prototype out of a 121.5-inch wheelbase Windsor chassis, Windsor front clip, a seven-passenger limousine roof, and a couple of cords’ worth of white ash and Honduras mahogany.
Archive photographs courtesy Chrysler.
After seven weekends of their own time Wallace and his group turned out a prototype that he then drove to Highland park to show to his bosses, who reportedly had no idea what Wallace was up to. “There was nothing about the lines of this newest Chrysler car to suggest a truck or something makeshift,” Narus wrote. “The finished product was a handsome wagon sedan that, indeed, did follow the line of the steel-bodied sedans.” The board of directors approved, and Wallace put the Chrysler Town and Country into production in March 1941 as a mid-model year addition. Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas, provided the wood parts, Briggs supplied the sheetmetal, and Chrysler assembled it all at the Jefferson Avenue Plant.
While the barrelback bodystyle with the half barn doors garnered plenty of attention when Chrysler first released the Town and Country – the brand’s first station wagon and the first station wagon at all to feature a steel roof – perhaps the most unique feature of the first Town and Country models was the available three-row seating, made possible by a rear seat that slid fore and aft to make room for a center seat that folded down from the back of the front seat. Total production for the 1941 and 1942 model years, which ceased with the intervention of World War II, amounted to 1,997 cars, two of them one-offs built on the 127.5-inch wheelbase chassis.
The Town and Country nameplate continued after the war, but not as a station wagon. Rather, Chrysler developed a number of other bodystyles: a four-door sedan, a two-door sedan, a two-door hardtop, a convertible, and a roadster. Aside from a limited run of seven two-door hardtops, only the four-door sedan and the convertible went into production. As Narus wrote, the postwar Town and Country became a status symbol almost overnight.
“The Hollywood set immediately took to the Town and Country convertible… everybody that was anybody had to have one,” he wrote. “The sedan, while it did not share the glamor of the convertible, was perfectly at home on any of the swank estates of Long Island. If you had a country place in Connecticut and were anybody at all, you surely had a Town and Country sedan to go along with it.”
That heyday lasted until 1948, when Chrysler returned the Town and Country nameplate to its station wagons, but retired the wooden bodies for all-steel versions decorated, at first, with ash trim and Di-Noc inserts. It continued as Chrysler’s top-level station wagon on the full-size chassis and what would become the C-body platform over the next few decades, then in 1978 switched to the mid-sized M-body’s LeBaron. Another switch came four years later, when Chrysler applied the Town and Country to its front-wheel-drive K-car, in the process bringing back the Town and Country convertible and the woodgrain trim.
(At one point, the nameplate even graced a Chrysler ute built for the Australian market. How’s that for flexibility?)
For one year only, 1989, the Town and Country nameplate didn’t appear in the Chrysler lineup. It then returned in 1990 as Chrysler’s entry into the then-burgeoning minivan market, where the nameplate has remained ever since. Woodgrain went away fairly early in that run.
Over the years, the pre-1949 wood-bodied Town and Country station wagons, sedans, and convertibles have generated a good amount of praise and gathered a significant following, enough to warrant a chapter of the National Woodie Club and secure their designation as Full Classics by the Classic Car Club of America in 2010.
Chrysler appears to have no plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Town and Country nameplate, though it has released a 2016 anniversary edition of the Town and Country minivan that marks 90 years of the Chrysler brand sans Maxwell.
UPDATE (11.January 2016): And now we see why Chrysler made no plans to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the T&C: The company plans to replace the nameplate on the minivans with the Pacifica nameplate.