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Eighty-two years ago, Chrysler pioneered the concept of an upmarket ‘woodie’ with its Town and Country wagons.
Decades before the current ‘sport utility’ craze, these were crossover machines that mixed motoring disciplines which had previously seemed mutually exclusive.
Half luxury car, half utility vehicle, these six- or nine-passenger conveyances appealed to owners of ranches and stud farms as a means of collecting guests from the railway station, or as swanky wagons to take the well-heeled ‘hunting, shooting and fishing’ fraternity – in red plaid shirts and beaverskin hats – to their weekend lodges.
They gave rustic credibility to country club-frequenting townies who would never strap a dead moose to the roof, but wanted you to think they might do something that manly.
These were not vehicles for off-roading, yet they offered a template for much the same sort of bucolic dreams of rustic adventure in the great American wilderness.
Chrysler was on to something here: despite high prices – and an upkeep regime that included varnishing the woodwork every six months – just under 2000 ‘Barrel back’ T&C wagons found homes (mostly on the mid-range Windsor straight-six chassis) before the events at Pearl Harbor put a stop to production.
When the Town and Country name was revived in 1946, the wagons were dropped in favour of a short-lived run of premium-priced, low-volume half-timbered luxury convertibles and, for one year only, a four-door sedan.
All pretence that these were working vehicles was now abandoned.
Advertised as ‘Long, low and lovely’, these Chryslers for the smart set were purely for recreational use: giant straight-six and straight-eight vehicles designed to service pent-up demand in a product-starved post-war market.
Only the Crown Imperial rated higher in the firm’s pecking order.
The Town and Country idea was a handy way of adding sparkle to a range of cars that, while well-engineered, looked stodgy next to the increasingly low-slung General Motors and Ford opposition.
Apart from the gruesome ‘harmonica’ front-end styling, the various New Yorker, Windsor and Saratoga models looked much as they had pre-war: products of a firm that was resistant to the annual styling changes practised by GM.
Chastened by the near-bankrupting experience of the radical Airflow, and with no real styling department prior to the arrival of Virgil Exner, Chrysler and its subordinate Dodge, Plymouth and De Soto divisions were locked into a cycle of dull-looking cars, their high rooflines testimony to the dictat from boss KT Keller that occupants had to have the headroom to wear a hat.
When production resumed at Jefferson Avenue in ’46, hardtop, roadster and Brougham variants of the Town and Country were mooted (seven hardtop prototypes were built), but only the four-door sedan and two-door convertible models made it into the showrooms, the latter with a straight-eight engine and a powered roof that could be lowered in just 15 secs.
Most of the sedans were straight-sixes.
This two-model policy was probably due to a lack of production capacity for the inherently labour-intensive build process: wood was cheaper and more freely available than steel, while also avoiding the need for expensive press tooling, but required many more man-hours of hand-finishing.
As before, Chrysler subsidiary Perkins Wood Products in Arkansas produced the timber body sections, then shipped them to the main plant in Detroit to be united with their cross-braced ladder chassis.
High-compression overhead-valve V8s and fully automatic transmissions were dreams for the future.
The 1946-’48 Town and Country models were powered by silky-smooth in-line ‘Spitfire’ L-head engines, massive and hefty power units with their origins in the mid-’20s but latterly uprated with higher compression, waterproof ignition, full-flow oil filters and ‘floating power’ mountings.
The ’50s Chryslers were famous for torsion-bar suspension, but the early post-war models retained coil springs at the front and leaf springs to the rear.
You could opt for three-speed synchromesh, three-speed Fluid Drive (an early form of torque converter, available since ’38, that allowed you to pull away without using the clutch, although you still had to change gear) and ‘Presto Matic’, a two-speed semi-auto with Fluid Drive plus electric overdrive on both speeds to give four forward ratios, though the clutch remained for changing between ‘High’ and ‘Low’.
Whichever transmission was chosen, the hefty sticker price was in many ways part of the Town and Country’s exclusive appeal: more than 8000 convertibles were built up to 1948, with celebrity owners such as Bob Hope and William ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ Boyd adding gloss to its image as a prestige car for the leisured and well-heeled of American society.
In 1949, for the 1950 model year, all Chryslers were restyled to mark the corporation’s 25th anniversary on a longer, 131in-wheelbase chassis.
Now based on the Saratoga and New Yorker line, the Town and Country Newport came only as a 135bhp 5.3-litre straight-eight and exclusively with a new pillarless hardtop two-door body.
The handsome white-ash wood frame still had its mitre joints and glossy varnish, but the Honduran mahogany side panels were swapped for body-colour sections.
The split windscreen was dictated by the (soon to be expanded) limits of glass-bending technology; the three-section ‘Clearbac’ rear window was unique to the Town and Country, and a chunky new grille gave it a Cadillac look to go with its Caddy-sized price-tag.
At $4003, the 1950 Town and Country cost $500 more than a Cadillac Coupe de Ville and $900 more than the New Yorker Newport on which it was based.
It was America’s most expensive closed car (other than specialist limousine models) and its longest two-door, at 18ft 5in.
Although 1950 marked the last year of the Chrysler straight-eights (before the overhead-valve V8s), it was the first year of turnkey starting, windscreen washers and a power-window option.
It was also the last year of the true woodie Town and Country: from 1951 the name would be relegated to Chrysler’s full-size steel-bodied station wagons, with not a splinter of wood – real or otherwise – to be seen.
Just 698 of these 1950 Town and Country hardtops were built.
This 54,000-mile example, imported from a German museum collection, is one of two believed to be in UK captivity and one of just 80 thought to remain worldwide.
The T&Cs came in some fairly jolly shades, but this one looks somewhat moody in rare black-on-black (most had a pale-coloured roof).
It is a bull-nosed car with swathes of chrome to advertise its status.
In profile there’s a touch of – dare I say it? – Hillman Minx Californian to its roofline.
The drop-glasses disappear into the body for clean lines and a pillarless effect.
The alligator bonnet lifts to reveal a long, deep but unremarkable-looking engine with the usual tiny carburettor above a restrictive cast-iron exhaust manifold and a box-like battery for the 6V system.
At the other end, the Town and Country has a behind to put a Kardashian to shame.
Lift the hefty lid and the yawning luggage space looks big enough for a family to set up home in.
The tail-lights are tiny afterthoughts on this immense posterior, while the rear bumper, with its quad overriders, is deep enough for a presidential secret-service agent to comfortably perch on in a motorcade.
In detail, everything about this car is heftier and more solid than is strictly necessary.
It is a product of a time before car makers had worked out how to pare back to save weight and cost.
It has a post-war look, but is built with a pre-war sensibility that shows in the hefty doors, the smooth action of the handles, its Art Deco window-winders (spring-loaded to sit flat when not in use) and the occasional flash of Bakelite where a later car would use plastic.
Although the body must have had paint in its 73 years, the trim is original.
The preservation of the nylon-cord fabric on the plump seats is aided by the sort of plastic covers that northern grannies in the ’70s used to protect their front-room sofas when saving for ‘best’, as if awaiting an impromptu visit from the Queen.
The leather is black (green or tan were also available) in a cabin that doesn’t quite equate to the outward size of the car in its lounging space, but is generally roomy by any other measure.
The glory of the Town and Country, beyond its woodwork, is its dashboard, a foot-deep swathe of straked and glittering chrome created in the school of design that gave us the Union Pacific Streamliners.
With its radio set styled in, and a variety of intriguing-looking switches for heating, lights and wipers, the focal point is a chrome half-circle the diameter of a football, with a cluster of minor gauges circling a boldly marked 110mph speedometer.
The cop-style spotlight on the driver’s door seems to have been a T&C standard feature.
Likewise the chrome tray on an extending arm under the dash: the Americans were already trying to perfect the art of eating on the move.
Said dash is padded for comfort and safety, but the massive and unyielding steering wheel – on its equally unyielding column – offers nothing but certain death should you make high-speed frontal connection with a solid object.
In fairness, that seems unlikely because the Town and Country gives you few reasons to drive it anything but very carefully.
Some big cars shrink around you, but this one never feels anything less than very large, very soft and very left-hand drive.
The whispering straight-eight oozes it down the road like melted cheddar from a fondue set, its modest power incidental to its silken torque and near silence.
Once into ‘high’, gearshifting is purely optional – or would have been, had it dawned on me that, like all 1950 T&Cs, this one has the semi-automatic Fluid Drive, whereby the high gears come in with the overdrive when you ease up on the throttle.
I drove it as a manual in first and direct third via the hefty right-handed column shifter, the point here being that you could throttle down to almost nothing in that gear and pull away without stalling or needing to control the clutch, and thus treat the car as a (very) lazy single-gear automatic.
This gives you time to negotiate the steering, which is not powered but a very light system with nearly five vague turns from lock to lock.
It feels like more, especially in tight, low-speed corners where your arms flail as you struggle to make enough turns in the time allotted.
Drawing a veil over the handling (or lack thereof), the big Chrysler’s brakes at least work fairly well, even if you’d never guess they were four-wheel discs.
That’s right: discs, although not the floating-caliper type but a split disc with twin wheel cylinders that expand to rub against the insides of a spinning casing that from the outside looks like a conventional finned drum.
Standard on the Imperial but a $400 option on the T&C, the system was available on the bigger Chryslers until ’55, when better servos evolved to revive the fortunes of the faithful drum.
Being neither patrician pre-war pioneer, tailfinned ’50s jukebox nor muscle car, this Town and Country’s place in the world of American cars is not easy to pigeonhole.
Even woodie fanciers may give it a wide birth simply because it is a coupe, not a wagon, although the earlier convertibles have made good at auction.
The likes of Ike Turner, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were not dreaming of these Chryslers when they penned their ‘boy gets car gets girl’ 1950s fantasies.
This was not a car to strive for, but what you bought when you’d already made it, got the girl, and had little left to prove.
The vibe of this car is not early rocker with too many hormones, but middle-aged crooner playing golf – and probably more Bing Crosby than Frank Sinatra.
In a world looking towards the jet age, the Town and Country already seemed to be hankering for simpler times.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: Gateway Auctions
Chrysler Newport Town and Country
- Sold/number built 1949-’50/698
- Construction steel ladder chassis, steel and timber body
- Engine all-iron, inlet-over-exhaust 5302cc straight-eight, single carburettor
- Max power 135bhp @ 3400rpm
- Max torque 270Ib ft @ 1600rpm
- Transmission three-speed Fluid Drive semi-automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes Ausco-Lambert expanding discs
- Length 18ft 5in (5613mm)
- Width 6ft 3in (1905mm)
- Height 5ft 4in (1626mm)
- Wheelbase 10ft 9in (3277mm)
- Weight 3792Ib (1720kg)
- 0-60mph 23 secs
- Top speed 85mph
- Mpg 12-15
- Price new $4000
- Price now £40,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication
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