Ralph Roberts

    Most people will remember Alex Tremulis as the legendary designer of the Tucker, but for Imperial fans, we remember him as the designer of the remarkable 1940/'41 Chrysler Thunderbolt because the design was based on a 1940 Chrysler Crown Imperial frame.  Tremulis, who had been working with Crosley and American Bantam in the late 30's, returned to Briggs Body Works to create this fantastic concept car for Chrysler.

As with the Newport Phaetons, six of these wonderful show car were built for Chrysler.  It was dubbed "The Car of the Future" and was an aluminum envelope-bodied, flush-fendered coupe with a fully retractable, electrically controlled hardtop.  Pushbuttons operated the doors (there were no door "handles") and it even sported hydraulic power windows.  The totally enclosed front and rear wheel wells was also a new design concept.

Tremulis' new concept car was also marked by a discrete silvery bolt of lightning on each smooth door. The electrically-controlled top could be concealed beneath the rear deck of the two-seater by pressing a button. Concealed headlights, anodized aluminum trim at the base of the car's body and leather interior trim marked this sleek full-fender look.  It was powered by a 143-HP straight eight engine


THUNDERBOLT, The auto industries first "Dream Car" appeared under the Chrysler badge in 1940 and 1941. Created by Alex Tremulis and Ralph Roberts, the Thunderbolt was built by Lebaron and was radically different from any other car of its day or even now. Chrysler corporation documents, research and meetings with Ralph Roberts and this owner, indicate that contrary to to previous reports, only five (5) similar Thunderbolts were actually built. Each with a different body and top color combination and all were for the show circuit, delivered to various Dealerships and driven by customers. Only four (4) remain in the world today and this red body and silver retractable hard top Thunderbolt is unquestionably the finest example in existance and the only fully and authentically restored car with correct color combinations and bottom trim.

THUNDERBOLT, features a smooth and contoured aluminum body. The ingenious design of the electrically operated retractable hard top has three (3) separate synchronized operations with the flick of just one switch, an incredible engineering task in 1941. Head lights are hidden behind peek-a-boo lids that electrically retract when the lights are turned on. Electrically operated windows, innovative edge-lighted dash board instruments, push button exterior and interior door handles, leather interior and leather dash board are among the additional features. Contributing to the long and low look, are fully covered front and rear wheels made possible by the uniquely sculptured fender design combined with satin finished chome plated metal trim that almost completely encircle the lower body.

THUNDERBOLT, is equipped with a Chrysler "Fluid Drive" Transmission and "Overdrive", giving the driver an option of operating the car without shifting. The creation of this incredible car marked the beginning in automobile history from which major auto manufacturers began their futuristic design and engineering concepts of today.


The Chrysler Newport, one of the last dual cowl phaetons, was designed by Ralph Roberts and custom-built by LeBaron, Carrossiers in Detroit, Michigan. The car featured an all-aluminum body, concealed headlamps, folding windshield and hide-away top. There were a total of six Newports constructed by Chrysler as show vehicles ad four are known to exist today. One of the Newports was selected as the 1940 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car. This was the first and still the only time a non-production car has been used in this event.

The owner of the car displayed here was millionaire playboy Henry J. "Bob" Topping, former husband of Lana Turner. Topping customized the car by substituting a Cadillac engine and transmission for the Chrysler components. He also personalized the car by having his name cast into the hubcaps and engine valve covers and adding his initials to the grill.


The 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt was a driveable, aluminum-bodied early-day concept car. Marked by a discrete silvery bolt of lightning on each smooth (with no handle, only a pushbutton) door, the hide-away hardtop convertible was one of six built for Chrysler by LeBaron. The electrically-controlled top could be concealed beneath the rear deck of the two-seater by pressing a button. Concealed headlights, anodized aluminum trim at the base of the car body and leather interior trim marked this sleek full-fender look. The '41 Thunderbolt was the first non-production car to pace the Indianapolis 500 race and was based on a design by Alex Tremulis, then of Briggs Manufacturing Co., and Ralph Roberts of Chrysler. It was powered by a 143-HP straight eight engine.


Here is a fantastic overview of the Newport and Thunderbolt taken from, "Art of the American Automobile" written by Nick Georgano and published by Smithmark.

Two of the most striking Chryslers appeared just before the United States entered World War II.  Christened Thunderbolt and Newport, they were commissioned from the coachbuilders LeBaron, not production cars but as styling exercise for publicity, to remove the stigma of Airflow and show that the Chrysler name could be associated with

beautiful cars.  Also, 1938 saw the appearance of Harley Earl's Buick Y-Job and K.T. Keller did not want to be left out.  Of the big three only Ford produced no "ideas cars" before the war.

By 1939 LeBaron had lost its two founders Tom Hibbard and Ray Dietrich, and was guided by Ralph Roberts.  There were close ties between LeBaron and Briggs, the mass producers, and as there was very little custom done coming LeBaron's way, Roberts was working for Briggs at the time the Chrysler cars were commissioned.  Though he was not a trained designer, he had a very good eye, like Harley Earl, and it seems the Newport was largely his work.  Designed at Briggs and built by LeBaron it was a six passenger dual-cowl phaeton with dual windshields, push-button door handles, concealed headlights and a flowing fender line from front to rear.  The body was of aluminum painted bone-white and with pleated leather interior which was used around both cockpits and in the door panels.  Roberts had originally planned a swept forward windshield, but this was vetoed (wisely) by Keller.  An interesting touch was the provision of rear-view mirrors for the rear cockpit passengers.  Six Newports were built some of which were colored dark green with tan leather interiors.  A white example was used as the pace car 1941 Indianapolis 500.

If the Newport was modern looking, the Thunderbolt was definitely futuristic and would not have looked out of place in the 1960's.  It was styled by Alex Tremulis who was also working for Briggs.  It was shorter than the Newport and seated three on a wide bench seat.  Unlike the Newports dipped fender line, the Thunderbolt had a straight-through line with no dip or belt molding of any kind, like the postwar Kaiser-Frazer.  Both front and rear wheels were covered, there were concealed headlights and no recognizable grille - air intakes were below the bumper.  Like the Newport, the body was aluminum with stainless steel molding running right around the lower part.  When he saw the design, Keller asked how they were going to bend it around the front end.  Tremulis said they would make that section of brass and plate it.  That pleased Keller, who said, "Sometimes you stylists think like engineers and make sense." 

The Newport and Thunderbolt both used a stock Chrysler L-head staight-8 engine, and road on stock chassis, 127 1/2 inches for the Thunderbolt, and 143 1/2 inches, Chrysler's longest, for the Newport.  Six were made of which four Newports and two Thunderbolts survive.  One of the surviving Newports, now in the National Automobile Museum at Reno, Nevada, was owned by playboy millionaire Henry J. Topping, who customized the car with his name on the hubcaps and valve covers;  he also replaced the Chrysler engine with a Cadillac V-8.  The cars certainly achieved their purpose of putting Chrysler at the forefront of styling ideas, and they traveled the country at shows in 1940 and 1941.


The 1940/1941 Chrysler Newport-Phaetons were the first ever Chrysler show car.  It was designed by Ralph Roberts of Chrysler and LeBaron built the cars.  Similar to the 1940/1941 Thunderbolt show car, six of these wonderful automobiles was built, one of which Walter P.  kept as a personal car.

The Phaetons were built on the New Yorker frame and featured an integrated aluminum body and the aircraft-style cockpit, with dual fold-down windshields.  And as with the Thunderbolt, the Newport Phaetons sported hide-away headlights.

The legendary actress, Lana Turner, owned a red Newport Phaeton and here is a picture of that car, notice the custom license plate:

Another notable accomplishment of the 1940/41 Chrysler Newport Phaeton was the fact that it was the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 in 1941.  The car that ran the first leg of the race was painted a bright yellow with "Chrysler" written on the side in bold black script.  One of the amazing trivia facts about that pace car was that the running gear was NOT replaced....it ran on the conventional Chrysler gears.  The driver of the pace car was A. B. Couture.

Here is a modern model car reproduction of the '40/'41 Chrysler Newport made by Brooklin Models as a publicity product for Motor Sport magazine


Reprinted from the archives of Special Interest Autos

Chrysler's Prewar Peek at the Push-button Future
The business of building "idea/show" or "concept" cars was in its infancy when this stunning two-seater was created, with the idea of showcasing potential future styling and innovations dating back to Harley Earl and his 1938 Buick Y-Job. Given the success the Y-Job met with in presenting future design to the public, it did not take long for the other automobile manufacturers to recognize the need to follow Earl's and GM's lead. For 1940, Chrysler designed and built several Newport parade phaetons, the first non-production vehicle ever to pace the Indianapolis 500 (1941). These six phaetons featured all-aluminum bodies, fabricated by Le Baron that smoothly enveloped the 143-inch Crown Imperial chassis in a manner far different from Chrysler's production vehicles of the time.

Though the Thunderbolt show cars didn't get quite the prominent public display as the Newport did when chosen to lead the pack around Indianapolis, they were every bit as evocative as the Newport and featured their own distinct style. The Thunderbolt's striking design came from the fertile mind of Alex Tremulis, then with the Briggs Manufacturing Company. It started as a 1939 proposal by Tremulis to Briggs-Le Baron's head, Ralph Roberts, and following a meeting with K.T. Keller and Chrysler division president Dave Wallace, the pair was given the go-ahead to create two different cars based on Tremulis' sketches. Tremulis handled the Thunderbolt while Roberts took care of the Newport. So taken was Chrysler with the final designs, that it asked that the cars be built within a three-month time frame!

Among the problems encountered was the curved windshield design that both cars used, a feature that did not exist in automobiles at the time, nor did the glass companies have anything of the like ready for production. Nearly reverting to a contemporary split V-style windshield, the glass companies got the curved windshield right in time, after much trial and error. This hallmark feature of the Chrysler show cars would not be seen in regular production until the early 1950s.

Built on the smaller 128.5-inch Traveler/New Yorker/Saratoga chassis, the Thunderbolt used the optional 323.5-cu.in. Crown Imperial engine, which produced 143 hp @ 3,400 rpm. Many advanced features of both the Newport and Thunderbolt were shared -electrically activated, push-button door switches; Lucite edge-illuminated gauges; and the advanced styling of the Le Baron all-aluminum body construction. Unlike the Thunderbolt's constant curve, the Newport featured downward-sloping fender lines that carried past the rear doors until it reached a kick-up at the rear wheel. Both cars had electrically operated concealed headlights, but the Newport's front bumper and grille treatment was far more conventional than the Thunderbolt's. The one-piece hardtop was also functional, at the push of a button recessing into a space behind the bench seat. Other electrically operated components included the trunk lid and side windows. Interiors were fully trimmed in leather, while different paint and color choices gave each one a unique appearance.

Le Baron constructed six Thunderbolts for Chrysler; they were used for dealership showroom displays and were eventually sold off to private buyers. Of the six built, perhaps only two or possibly three survive.


Styled the Wilro kitcar in 1951 (Wilro Company) aka Skorpion. In the 1930s he set up Briggs Ltd in Dagenham, England - the major body plant for British Fords.

At the 1951 LA Motor Show (Motorama) there were 4 fibreglass bodied cars: Bill Tritt and his original, the Brooks "Boxer", Eric Irwin offered his "Lancer", and Ralph Roberts and Jack Wills turned up with the "Skorpion" and its prototype the "Wasp". - Motor Trend, December, 1952.


John A. "Jack" Wills and the Skorpion

1950 was an exciting year for Jack Wills and his friend of 8 years, Ralph Roberts. Together, they had been involved with fiberglass since its inception, and had experimented with a fiberglass body shell on a Crosley chassis with a motorcycle engine. This project called the Wasp, led them to finally hit upon a workable idea: manufacture a fiberglass body that could be adapted to the same chassis but with Crosley running gear.

Roberts, a designer, went to work for Le Baron in 1921. In the next twenty years he became the top man with that famous custom body firm and also chief of the styling section for the Briggs Corporation in Detroit. The Chrysler Thunderbolt was one of his designs, and classic fans are familiar with his work on both the Packard 12 and the Chrysler Custom Imperial. We have examples of those at the show today.

Jack on the other hand had been working with plastics since 1936. He built everything from ornamental dogs to full size hulls for boats. He was one of the first to recognize the possibilities of fiberglass.

With a team like t expect anything but success. Hence the Skorpion. While the bulk of the units produced were in kit form, the two men did build four complete cars, which puts them in the same league as I many other sports cars produced at that time. The fiberglass body consisted of four large parts along with a few small ones. Body components were designed to fit a modified Crosley chassis.The cars could be produced from standard Crosley running gear, but could also be made using components from the "Hot Shot" model, the fast and agile sports car Crosley produced. In fact, the little "Hot Shot" had grown so popular among the sports car set that speed equipment was abundantly available for that Crosley motor. The car was very agile and could attain speeds of upwards of 90 MPH!

Jack went on to become a noted authority on fiberglass and wrote a book on the subject, Glass Fiber, auto body construction simplified, which was used as a primer for most up and coming people in the field.




For more information please read:

Harold W. Pace - The BIG Guide to Kit & Specialty Cars

Biographies of Prominent Carriage Draftsmen - Carriage Monthly, April 1904

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Daniel D. Hutchins - Wheels Across America: Carriage Art & Craftsmanship

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - A History of Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - Cars and Coachbuilding: One Hundred Years of Road Vehicle Development

Hugo Pfau - The Custom Body Era

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Car

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Era

Richard Burns Carson - The Olympian Cars

Brooks T. Brierley - Auburn, Reo, Franklin and Pierce-Arrow Versus Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln and Packard

Brooks T. Brierley - Magic Motors 1930

James J. Schild - Fleetwood: the Company and the Coachcraft

John R. Velliky - Dodge Brothers/Budd Co. Historical Photo Album

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 1

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 2

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 3

Dennis Adler - The Art of the Sports Car: The Greatest Designs of the 20th Century

C. Edson Armi - The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities

C. Edson Armi - American Car Design Now

Penny Sparke - A Century of Car Design

John Tipler - The World's Great Automobile Stylists

Ivan Margolius - Automobiles by Architects

Jonathan Bell - Concept Car Design

Erminie Shaeffer Hafer - A century of vehicle craftsmanship

Ronald Barker & Anthony Harding - Automobile Design: Twelve Great Designers and Their Work

John McLelland - Bodies beautiful: A history of car styling and craftsmanship

Frederic A. Sharf - Future Retro: Drawings From The Great Age Of American Automobiles

Paul Carroll Wilson - Chrome Dreams: Automobile Styling Since 1893

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Nick Georgano - Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work

Matt Delorenzo - Modern Chrysler Concept Cars: The Designs That Saved the Company

Thom Taylor - How to Draw Cars Like a Pro

Tony Lewin & Ryan Borroff - How To Design Cars Like a Pro

Frederick E. Hoadley - Automobile Design Techniques and Design Modeling: the Men, the Methods, the Materials

Doug DuBosque - Draw Cars

Jonathan Wood - Concept Cars

D. Nesbitt - 50 Years Of American Auto Design

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Lennart W. Haajanen & Karl Ludvigsen - Illustrated Dictionary of Automobile Body Styles

L. J. K Setright - The designers: Great automobiles and the men who made them

Goro Tamai - The Leading Edge: Aerodynamic Design of Ultra-Streamlined Land Vehicles

Brian Peacock & Waldemar Karwowski - Automotive Ergonomics

Bob Thomas - Confessions of an Automotive Stylist

Brooke Hodge & C. Edson Armi - Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays

Gordon M. Buehrig - Rolling sculpture: A designer and his work

Henry L. Dominguez - Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team...

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl (Design Heroes Series)

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl and the Dream Machine

Serge Bellu - 500 Fantastic Cars: A Century of the World Concept Cars

Raymond Loewy - Industrial Design

Raymond Loewy - Never Leave Well Enough Alone

Philippe Tretiack - Raymond Loewy and Streamlined Design

Angela Schoenberger - Raymond Loewy: Pioneer of American Industrial Design

Laura Cordin - Raymond Loewy


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