Walter Chrysler was a visionary. In a time of boring, bulky vehicles (the 1920s and 30s), he envisioned sleek new automobiles that would test the limits of existing technology, giving drivers a level of performance and sophistication they never knew could exist. Unfortunately, people tend to resist change, even when it’s beneficial. This led to some unfortunate fiascoes, like the 1934-37 Airflow, which bombed despite offering huge advantages over other vehicles of the time. However, it also led to amazing triumphs, like the 1941 dual-cowl Chrysler Newport Phaeton, one of the most innovative and beautiful automobiles ever built.
In ‘41, car design was just emerging from the “boxes on wheels” approach that reflected the staid, tradition-bound values of the 1930s. GM’s Harley Earl had unveiled the Buick Y-Job four years before, and Ford was pouring its own considerable resources into similar efforts. Chrysler, anxious to prove it could hold its own, turned to arch-designers Ralph Roberts and Alex Tremulis of LeBaron coachmakers, for help in building its own highly styled vehicle.
The LeBaron team threw itself into the project in earnest, ultimately turning out five examples of one of the greatest approaches to car building in automotive history. The 1941 Newport was a “phaeton,” or open-top design. Among its distinctive features were separate front and rear seats, each with its own windshield.
Under the hood was a 143 hp 322ci engine, with eight cylinders lined up in a row. The front seat had a cloth top that folded into the car’s bodywork. The rear seating area, or “cowl,” was covered by a metal boot raised and lowered by electric controls.
The body was crafted from aluminum, with a sleek, curving shape that would have made Marilyn Monroe green with envy. Two of the five Newports that were actually built (the original order called for six) featured hidden headlights, also known as “flip-up” lights to those unfortunate enough to remember the Pontiac Fiero. Unlike the 80s sport car, however, the motors that controlled the Newport’s lights actually worked.
The Newport was a huge hit for Chrysler. One served as the pace car for the 1941 Indianapolis 500. Actress Lana Turner purchased one as well. Unfortunately, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th of that year shelved whatever plans Chrysler may have had for the vehicle. The automaker spent the next four years building weapons for the Allied war effort.
Of the five custom-built Newports, three were sold by RM Auctions in recent years, including the unit that served as the pace car for the 1941 Indy 500. The buyer paid $687,500.00 for it in 2009. Whoever he is, he got a helluva deal.