Thunderbolt had first retractable tin lid

Chrysler’s first dream car, the Thunderbolt, was built in 1940/41.

Back then the business of building dream or concept cars was still in its infancy.

The Thunderbolt arose from a desire by Chrysler’s boss, K T Keller, to draw new customers to his dealerships and create more excitement and pizzazz for the Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler brands.

Styled by Alex Tremulis the Thunderbolt was a truly car that dreams were made of.

He crafted a full-envelope body with retractable headlights, and the first curved one piece front windscreen.

More out-of-this-world features included push-button door switches.

It was also the first modern car to use back-lit, Lucite-edged illuminated dashboard gauges.

Another unique design feature was the lack of recognisable grille.

The air intakes were cleverly located below the front bumper.

And if all of that was not futuristic enough, Tremulis asked for and got the very first convertible with an all electric, fully-retractable hard top.

One switch activated three separate synchronised operations that caused the top to retract into a space behind the bench seat.

Access to the boot was provided by a fully automatic sliding rear boot lid.

Make no mistake, for 1941 this was a significant automotive engineering feat, and one that was not seen again on a production car until the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner.

Chrysler made five Thunderbolts and showed them around the USA during the summer of 1941 to high crowds, and then sold them off.

Four of the five still exist.

One is in the Chrysler Museum and the others are in private hands.

Alex Tremulis’ slab sided styling was copied and recopied by all manufacturers.

He went on to style many classics, including the 1948 Tucker — the one with three headlights they made the movie about.

For a decade up to 1963 he led Ford’s advanced styling efforts, then he left to set up a styling consultancy and did work for Subaru.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos


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  1. Great story, David, but I thought Peugeot could lay claim to the first with a retractable roof in 1936 with their 402. Also, Chrysler’s own 1937 Imperial Airflow had a one-piece curved windscreen

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