There truly is, I’m starting to believe, a major downside to our Chrysler. We have come to the British tourist mecca of historic Lavenham for two reasons. First, because it’s so prototypically Olde England that it provided the film location for Harry Potter’s birthplace. Second, Lavenham rather ironically has a very highly regarded little French restaurant. Our problem, though, is that the jostling multinational masses brought in by the first reason so blissfully swarms the classic all-American woody at every stop that we may miss lunch at the second reason. This could turn into a fine-dining disaster.
Such a response would be totally predictable in America. This very 1941 Town and Country is a much-decorated concours winner there, spent a year on display in the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, and graced ads for the 1990 Town & Country minivan. We also have a long-standing crush on woody wagons in general, ever since the days of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and the Beach Boys. But the big T&C has also found a remarkable following on this side of the Atlantic—and in places where you might not expect any American car short of a Duesenberg Model J to elicit the slightest eyebrow twitch.
Last September at the celebrated and exclusive Salon Privé concours d’elegance in London, the T&C took first in class against a gaggle of homegrown thoroughbreds and some equally imposing continental talent. The month before, it did the same at Germany’s equivalent of Pebble Beach, the Classic Days at Schloss Dyck. The following month, it would be displayed in the rotunda of Britain’s famous Royal Automobile Club, a distinction previously awarded to the likes of Ayrton Senna’s Formula 1 McLaren and the Stirling Moss Ferrari 250 GTO. Last May, this Chrysler earned a Mention of Honor as a class runner-up at Villa d’Este, the most prestigious concours in designer-drenched Italy. The class theme, incidentally, was “Interpretations of Elegance.” The European collector-car community clearly appreciates aspects of the T&C unrelated to simple surf-wagon nostalgia.
It is in fact largely in tune with what Chrysler boss David Wallace had in mind when he dreamed up the Town and Country. Historically speaking, the American station wagon began as essentially a boxed-in pickup, something your better class of hotel would use to collect guests and luggage at the train station. It was a no-frills commercial vehicle, usually truck-based and pig-ugly and about as comfortable as a mattress full of porcupines. Although some dressed-up versions did make it into middle-class suburbia, the wagon’s effect on premium-segment buyers was negligible. In the late 1930s, however, Wallace had a game-changer moment.
These station wagons are really practical, he thought, and if we could make one with some fundamental style and refinement, customers with country homes and horses and boats to attend would buy them in droves. What was needed was a station wagon you could drive from the lake house straight to the senior partners’ meeting, a dual-purpose, upmarket vehicle suited for both “Town and Country.” Granted, it wasn’t a new idea, but Chrysler was the first to strike a series-built balance that genuinely worked on both sides of the equation.
For a concept that has proved so flexible, the original luxury crossover was, in principle, a pretty straightforward engineering job: Chrysler took the roof from its huge Imperial limousine and draped it over the chassis and front clip of the Windsor sedan. Standard power also came from the Windsor, the 108-hp flathead Spitfire in-line six, as did the Fluid Drive and Vacamatic Transmission, a type of benign fluid coupling and vacuum-operated semiautomatic combination that was, according to period promotional literature, particularly appealing to female drivers. Of course, in the illustrations, the women leave the wheel to their manly, fedora-capped husbands.
In practice, the project had its own set of challenges. Accepted procedure of the day involved outsourcing the wooden bodywork of wagons to specialist coachbuilders, but in this case Chrysler decided to do it in-house. A dedicated workshop was assembled from scratch at the Jefferson Avenue plant to complete the hand-shaped exteriors. Framing was done in American white ash and the paneling in rich Honduran mahogany. Much corporate blood and treasure was expended, but the finished effect was as satisfying as a Shaker chair or an early Chris-Craft boat.
The main attraction, though, was the sheer civility of the beast. No fellow executive would ever mistake you for a delivery driver in a Town and Country. The lines were smooth and slick and ended not in a chopped-off moving-van treatment but in a fashionable ’30s Streamline Moderne fastback with gorgeous side-opening clamshell doors. Furthermore, the standard-equipment list was as long as a West Texas back road, from leather to a cutting-edge electric clock. Both six- and nine-passenger versions were available, and the first production year in ’41 saw 997 units sold; not bad considering that the Town and Country cost roughly the same as a flashy Lincoln-Zephyr V-12.
Sales increased by only two specimens the following model year—again, though, that was a shortened run: from February 1942, the Second World War stopped civilian-car output cold. When Chrysler debuted the new peacetime Town and Country lineup in ’46, a wagon was virtually the only configuration absent. While the T&C series continued as a unique luxury woody through the 1950 season, the company’s postwar wagons would increasingly rely on steel, soon phasing out genuine timber construction altogether. David Wallace had laid all the foundations for first-rate future concours material: a stylish, lavish, trend-setting car made in limited quantity and with substantial amounts of traditional craftsmanship. These certainly are perfectly valid reasons for showing a T&C, especially on the European circuit, and this particular early production example contributes a worthwhile backstory as well: the original purchaser was Warner Brothers Studios, and in addition to more mundane duties, it had bit parts in several Our Gang and Charlie Chan movies. That’s why it has a California registration-card holder on the steering column like the ones that Humphrey Bogart was always checking to ID the cheap gunsel sent by Sydney Greenstreet.
Peter Heydon, however, operates from slightly different motivations. He is chairman of the board for Detroit’s Saint John’s concours (the former Meadow Brook concours) and has a fine sense of history, from carrying his grandfather’s pocket watch to helping restore a house that will become a museum celebrating the abolitionist Underground Railroad. He was also on the faculty at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for some twenty-five years, teaching English and humanities, and his PhD dissertation was on the poet Robert Browning, whom he credits with inspiring much of his fascination with history. “When Browning wrote on subjects from antiquity,” Heydon explains, “he said he was ‘revivifying the past.’ I like to think that what I do in some small way follows in that theme.” Heydon’s favorite concours candidates typically have pasts both needful of revivifying and worthy of it. In some cases, that past might have been undeservedly overshadowed: he owns two award-winning Duesenbergs, but neither is a Model J. In other cases, that past is at least partly personal.
“When I was a kid during the war,” Heydon says, “my dad had a factory in New Jersey that waterproofed the fabric for Army raincoats. So many Department of Defense officials were coming and going that he hired a driver to ferry them around in the company’s Town and Country. My mother didn’t want my brother and me walking to elementary school across a busy highway, so on days when she couldn’t drive us herself, she sent us in the T&C, uniformed chauffeur with a cap and black bow tie and everything. We used to make him drop us off two blocks away so the other kids wouldn’t think we were snobs.
“But it was a beautiful automobile with that fantastic leather and spiffy plastic, and naturally it left quite an impression on a boy of that age. Years later, when I had the idea I might like a station wagon and was looking for a Bentley shooting brake, I heard about a T&C wagon for sale in California. I remembered my dad’s, and I called and bought this car sight unseen.”
That was in 1981. Between false starts and parts problems, the restoration was finally finished in 1988 in the Jackson, Michigan, shop of Larry Jordon. Finding painfully rare interior trim caused major delays. The new-old-stock steering wheel, for instance, took ages to procure because the collector who owned it wouldn’t sell until progress on the car was far enough along that he could be sure it was getting a good home.
The “barrel back” cargo doors were a further headache. A delicate design from the outset, disintegration of the heavy structure caused many a tired T&C to end up in the scrap heap. But Frank Mollo, Jr., of Silverstone in West Palm Beach, eventually stabilized the doors, well after the primary restoration, by creating a fiberglass support beneath the mahogany sheeting. According to Heydon, this car is now the benchmark to which other Town and Country restoration projects are referenced.
From the driver’s seat, there’s not the slightest doubt that sweating those frustrating interior details was worth every frazzled nerve. The outside is impressive, but the inside is breathtaking. The dashboard is a veritable high altar of Art Deco, blazing with marbled crimson Bakelite and geometric chrome. Bakelite plastic was a miracle of modern science back then, and the T&C wears its share with the confidence and optimism characteristic of all the finest ’30s industrial design. Smack in the middle of the splendor is another Chrysler commitment to high-tech luxury: an AM radio the size of a pipe organ. Dealers even stocked labels to personalize the preset buttons with local radio stations.
The driver’s seat also offers a fine high view, consequently making the car feel slightly smaller than it actually is (emphasis on slightly). Steering and braking are acceptable for a heavy 1941 sedan that was intended for very, very unsporty driving; it never lurches for the ditch, it merely floats and rolls a lot. Engine performance is noticeably underwhelming, filtered through the power-robbing and somewhat sulky-shifting transmission. Still, it drives like a 1941 sedan, not a 1941 pickup truck, and that was a revelation at the time.
Which was all part of that best-of-both-worlds idea. The Town and Country was a groundbreaking machine: handsome, elegant, and capable, an American car that pioneered ideas and influenced the industry everywhere. I suspect that’s another reason Heydon took his Chrysler to Europe and why he seems happy to accommodate the throng of excited, picture-snapping tourists mobbing us in Lavenham. Empty stomach or not, I can’t say now that I really mind if they take their time doing it. There will always be another French restaurant, but these people might never see another 1941 Town and Country wagon.