From Detroit's salad days before World War II came the most elegant "woodie" ever: the 1941-1984 Chrysler Town & Country. Here's the story of these rare and desirable cars -- and of their collectible 1980s successor.
Pass your eyes over the plankwood behemoths on these pages. These cars
were the essence of the T&C idea in the early postwar era and were utterly right for their time, possessing a class and character that made most of their contemporaries seem just plain dull.
Check the woodwork; hewn of white ash, fitted and mitred with the perfection of a Hepplewhite highboy, with joints so smooth you could blindfold yourself and not be able to tell where they were.
Look at the body panels: heavy, iron-like objects that fit together solidly; doors, hood, and trunklid that clunk shut like the vaults at a bank. Inspect the brightwork: lavishly applied, every square inch finished to mirror brilliance and attached with hardly a bolt or screwhead in sight.
Climb behind the wheel and take in your surroundings: a colossal radio with more steel in it than an entire Ford Pinto, able to utter deep, fat tones no transistor can duplicate; a jumbo steering wheel you can really get hold of, sprouting from a steering column as thick as a sapling; a great club of a handbrake you grab at and yank to hold the car in position; acres of plastic, that rock-hard, postwar, marbleized stuff more closely related to Bakelite than to the plastics of today.
In 1948, all this cost $3,420, roughly $15,000 in today's money. But don't think you could build one like it now for less than $50,000 -- assuming you could even find craftspeople with the requisite skill to put it together.
"Such cars are not interesting because they have unique solutions to the automotive problem," wrote Ted West about a similar Chrysler 15 years ago, "but simply because they are in some way 'foreign' to more modern automobiles. The craftsmanship and general feeling of opulence of this car, for instance, clearly distinguished it from American cars of recent years." Certainly, we'll never see a car like the 1948 Town & Country again.
Continue to the next page to learn the Town & Country story.
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Chrysler Town & Country Story
The Town & Country story is familiar enough, having been chronicled over the years in just about every car publication and a half-dozen books. Most of the research avenues have long since been explored, so we can capsulize its history with authority.
The idea began in 1941, not with a flashy convertible or lavish sedan, but with a station wagon conceived by the then general manager of Chrysler Division, Dave Wallace. Chrysler had never had a wagon, and in the late 1930s, Wallace decided it needed one.
But not the clumsy, boxy creations then being ladled on various chassis by traditional bodybuilders like Cantrell, Baker Raulang, Hercules, Mifflinburg and the rest. Wallace wanted a tight, streamlined wagon that looked more like a sedan.
Because these suppliers of woody wagon bodywork looked on such an idea with bewilderment, Wallace turned to his own engineers, among the most formidably competent in the industry. He told them what he wanted, and he got it.
Wallace was ahead of his time with this concept, although he was not quite alone. Industrial designer Brooks Stevens had conjured up a rakish semi-wood body with a double hatchback for a 1938 Packard One Twenty, but that was strictly a custom order.
Wallace was the first to bring a sedan-like wagon to mass production -- if you'll concede that the thousand-odd T&Cs built each year in 1941-1942 constitutes "mass production." In so doing, he anticipated the sedan-based wagon, that darling of suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s, by a good 10 to 15 years.
Wallace's body engineers succeeded brilliantly. In place of the typical, rattling, awkward-looking wood structure with separate liftgate and tailgate, they conjured up a smooth, fastback-style four-door featuring double "clamshell" doors hinged at the sides.
These opened to expose an enormous cargo bay and didn't prang anybody's knees in the process. The interior held two or three large bench seats, thus offering six- or nine-passenger capacity. The body was placed on the 121.5-inch-wheelbase C-28W Windsor chassis with the 112-horsepower L-head six and standard Fluid Drive and "Vacumatic" transmission.
T&C historian Don Narus has pointed out that Chrysler had to "learn" to build the T&C, largely because Briggs, the firm's regular body supplier, had no such experience. Briggs was primarily a metal-working company and did produce the T&C's cowl and floorpan, front end, and steel roof. But the rest was Chrysler's.
Wallace had picked an outside firm, Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas, to supply the white ash body framing. (Conjecture has it that Wallace, who also happened to be Pekin's president, devised the T&C just to help keep that company in business.)
The inner panels were initially made of Honduran mahogany. In 1947, Chrysler switched to Di-Noc decals for the inserts as an economy move, though we should note these were so realistic that it was nearly impossible to distinguish them from real mahogany.
Wallace earmarked a section of Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit for T&C assembly. Required jigs and fixtures were installed and a small force of craftspeople was trained to build the body, weld the steel roof to the steel cowl, and mate wood to metal with angle irons and steel butt plates.
Production was 997 units for 1941, all but 200 being nine-passenger models, followed by 999 of the 1942s. During this period there were also two eight-cylinder T&C prototypes built on the 127.5-inch-wheelbase New Yorker chassis.
The only major changes for 1942 involved hidden running boards (via extended lower door panels) and a front-end facelift with the grillework extended around to the edges of the front fenders.
Because of its late introduction, the Town & Country was one of the few 1942 models produced in higher quantity than in 1941 despite the early shutdown of all car production in February 1942 because of the war effort.
Check out the next page to learn about the 1946 Town & Country product line.
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1946 Chrysler Town & Country Product Line
The 1946 Chrysler Town & Country product line expanded due to the "woodies" popularity in the 1940s.
Although T&Cs 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&Cs built through 1950 were the 1946, 1947, and 1948 convertibles.
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.
Continue to the next page to learn more about the building of the 1946, 1947, and 1948 Chrysler Town & Country convertibles.
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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 ragtop'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 sheetmetal leading edge was attached to support their hinges. As in the rear quarters, sheetmetal 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.
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&Cs 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.
Continue to the next page to learn more about the 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1950 Chrysler Town & Country models.
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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&Cs because they're a lot scarcer than the ragtops.
Only 224 sedans were designated 1946 models, 2,651 were 1947s, and 1,175 were 1948s. A mere 100 of the 1946s 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.
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 1942s.
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 hardtop vanished the following year, but the wagons were expanded with entries in the three lower lines: Windsor, Saratoga, and New Yorker. From here on, whenever Chrysler had a wagon to sell it would be called Town & Country. But wood, as a decorative or support structure, vanished after 1950, and what looked like wood was merely decal.
To learn more about the 1968 and 1984 Revivals of the Town & Country Concept, see the next page.
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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&Cs, a five-door wagon and a convertible. The ragtop 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-1940s classics.
To learn more about the 1984 LeBaron Town & Country convertible, check out our final section.
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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.