It started as a design study. Chrysler had, by the late 1930s, considered adding a station wagon to the line. A wagon might bring more people with more money into their showrooms. Besides, Plymouth and Dodge had wagons, though they were little more than wooden boxes bolted to basic frames.
The Boyerton Body Works in Boyerton, PA got the call. Three styles were drawn, all based on a Dodge chassis. The gent who penned them named the trio “Country Gentleman”, “Country Club Sport” and “Town and Country”. Chrysler boss, David Wallace, disliked all three designs, but the name “Town and Country” appealed to his sense of style and image. The wagon project came to a halt, but the concept and the name lingered.
Wallace came to Chrysler through a transfer from a woodworking company in which Chrysler had a controlling interest. Pekin Wood Products of West Helena, AR supplied Chrysler with crates and boxes.
Wood was a common and essential component in early automobiles. Little more than motorized buckboards, the first cars relied heavily on wood’s ability to be worked easily while retaining strength and rigidity. Wood-framed cars were common through the Depression Era. America had vast forests of all kinds of wood. But the advance of metallurgical technology spurred by two world wars finally ended the need for the qualities of wood construction that augmented the prewar era’s crude suspension designs. Yet the nostalgia for wood-bodied cars became part of the so called “American love affair with the automobile”, even as the Republic turned its back on economic hardship and war.
Wood-bodied cars were not uncommon in America at that time. Ford and Mercury both offered convertibles and station wagons with wood coachwork. Nash had its Woodie Suburban sedan and Packard offered the wood-trimmed Station Sedan. Willys had a wood-bodied wagon named “Town and Country” in their 1940 catalog but, a year later, the name changed, inexplicably, to “Americar Station Wagon”.
When the war ended the only new face in American car dealerships was the elegant Town and Country Woodie in Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms. The immediate postwar period was the ultimate seller’s market. Most American automakers simply plugged the showroom gap with warmed over prewar models.
In the immediate post war realm of bland colors, limited options and hand-me-down designs the Chrysler Town and Country was the glamour car of the day. Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Cornell Wilde, Ray Milland and Barbara Stanwick all rolled in Chrysler’s instantly fashionable Woodies.
The labor intensive Woodie was the antithesis of the mass production sensibilities that had won the war. But the notion of craftsmanship lingered in gauzy civic memories of elegant Depression-era Duesenbergs, Pierce-Arrows and their ilk. Chrysler’s glamorous Town and Country was the sole link to the bespoke luxury car of the era between the world wars.
Town and Country price tags reflected that reality. A 1946 Town and Country convertible on the big New Yorker chassis cost $2740; a whopping 37 per cent more than the average 1946 model – if you could find one – and $340 more than the typical working man’s annual salary; more, even, than an average house in 1946. Repairs and maintenance for the Town and Country’s white ash-framed, mahogany veneered panels were equated to nautical expenses. A trunk lid for a ’46 Woodie cost more than a month’s salary, while the front door for a Town and Country sedan cost a third more than that.
Chrysler tried to be philosophical about the expenses: “…special attention [needs to be paid] to all joints, which at all times must be thoroughly sealed against moisture.” And, from a Town and Country service manual, this piece of sobering advice…“It has the grace and elegance of a yacht…Just as any yacht is refinished every season, so should the beauty and luster of the wood be maintained by periodic varnishing. Maintenance should be thought of as boating rather than motoring.” Indeed.
The original Chrysler Town and Country of 1941 was invested with the same sort of styling proportions that pleased the eyes of 1930s luxury car buyers: it was big and long. The vast steel roof borrowed from a Chrysler limousine gave the Town and Country a sleek and sweeping profile. Well-to-do people loved Chrysler’s elegant Woodie. The public was fascinated. Every Chrysler-Plymouth dealer wanted one to generate showroom traffic. Especially the post war convertible. From Hollywood to Southampton to Palm Beach, the soft-top Woodie replaced the prewar Duesenbergs as the conveyance of the stylish, rich and chic.
Detroit finally started to catch up with demand as the Baby Boom began to boil over. In 1947, Chrysler’s Woodie had its best sales year. But market realities came home to roost as the far less expensive Windsor Traveler Sedan, an all-steel number that shared many T and C features (including an identical roof rack), entered Chrysler’s sales catalog. Wood was out and so was the expense of maintaining a land yacht with annual refinishing.
By mid-1947 Chrysler’s Woodie lost its Mahogany veneer to new and far less expensive “Di-Noc” decals that simulated wood grain. They were cheaper, looked surprisingly like the wood they displaced and were much easier to maintain. The structural wood framing remained, and thus the Town and Country endured as a “woodie”.
The market had changed. Waiting lists evaporated and Americans were tired of brand new, decade-old cars. Detroit set about creating a new generation of automobiles. Chrysler found itself mired in the 1940s with a catalog of old designs. The last of the pre-war based Town and Country’s left the factory early in May, 1948. Chrysler’s 1949 sales catalog carried just one Town and Country, the convertible.
The new 1949 Town and Country, that according to sales material of the day, claimed “…was given the look reminiscent of the wood-bodied Town and Country.” At least the wood framing came from Pekins, just as it had since the model’s inception.
By the end (1950) 16,233 Chrysler Town and Country Woodies were constructed. That’s hardly a number to justify the investment of money and time that the Town and Country project consumed. In the end, that didn’t matter nearly as much as the Town and Country’s still potent legacy.
The name Town and Country survives on the flanks of minivans, a species created by Chrysler three decades ago. Eerily, the first generation minivans were tasked with the same domestic duties assigned to the original Town and Country five decades before.
The true legacy of Chrysler’s Woodie surfaced not long after a moribund Chrysler Corp. was rescued from fiscal doom in 1979 by an assortment of government guaranteed loans and a new generation of cars concocted by “Lido,” Chrysler’s celebrity CEO Lee Iacocca.
“Lido” was obviously a Woodie fan. In 1983 a full page, full color magazine ad selling Chrysler’s K-Car-based LeBaron Town & Country Convertible showed a formally attired Ricardo Montalban, a K-Car wagon with wood grained stickers and a similarly clad soft top LeBaron with Woodie stickers. But the real star of the ad was a genuine 1940s Town and Country convertible placed not very discreetly in the background. The point was simple: draw a straight, fat line from the Real Thing to the new thing. It was an advertising ploy.
A quick look at the sales scoreboard says the genuine ash and mahogany Town and Country accounted for 2030 of Chrysler’s 1946 sales; while Iacocca, Montalban & Co. managed to move only 1520 be-stickered soft top K-Cars.
The genuine Town and Country is a premium and desirable collector car and is still treated like automotive royalty. Mr. Wallace’s inspired choice of that evergreen name and ageless style has endured despite being applied to a stop gap economy car and Chrysler’s game changing mini-van.
The true commercial impact of the glamorous Town and Country was practically instantaneous, pushing style conscience car buyers into Chrysler showrooms and adding a luster to the brand that has survived into a new century.