Chrysler Town & Country cars, 1941 to 1984
Woodie Years (by Harold Mermel)
In 1941, Chrysler came out with the first steel-roof woodie wagon, called the Town & Country. Less than 1,000 of this luxury four-door car were built, in 9 passenger and 6 passenger versions, for city or estate transportation. As the company later wrote,
The celebrated 1941 Chrysler Town & Country would become the first luxury station wagon, appealing to affluent buyers with attractive design and interior fittings coupled to a larger and more refined cargo area than that found on competitor’s vehicles. Significantly, it was the industry’s first steel-roofed wagon. But to many this first Town & Country wasn’t a wagon at all, but rather a fastback sedan, a glamorous and soon-popular new type of car whose production run would sadly be limited to just 17 months by world events.
After World War II, the Chrysler Town & Country name graced a line of elegant convertibles, sedans and hardtops – but no wagons (Plymouth was the only Chrysler division to produce station wagons in the immediate postwar period, again featuring wood bodies supplied by an outside vendor).
In Collectible Automobile, Michael Richards called the 1941 Town & Country, built with mitred white ash, and possibly the world’s first hatchback sedan. He praised the joints so smooth they were impossible to feel, well-fitted and solid body panels, “lavishly applied” brightwork “with nary a bolt or screwhead in sight,” and a colossal radio with “deep, fat tones.”
Richards also found the story of its creation: Dave Wallace, general manager of Chrysler, decided the brand needed to sell a wagon, but did not want one of the “clumsy, boxy creations” then sold. He was looking for something tight and streamlined, with a sedan look; and not finding body builders ready to produce one, he turned to his own engineers. It was the first of its kind to be mass produced, though Packard, starting in 1938, had a similar design ready for custom order. Still, the Chrysler Town & Country eschewed wood structures with spearate liftgates and tailgates, using instead dual side-hinged doors. The interior had six or nine passenger capacities. The body was based on the Chrysler Windsor, and hte engine was the L-head 112 horsepower six with Fluid Drive and Vacuumatic transmission.
In 1942, the sheet metal was changed but the woodie design was similar. Again, less than 1,000 were built, due to Pearl Harbor stopping production in December, 1941. These two models are considered the grandfathers to the recent explosion of minivans and SUVs.
After WWII, the 1946 to early 1949 Town & Country woodies were made in much larger numbers, as sedans, convertibles and seven 2-door hardtops (the first production hardtops ever made by any manufacturer). Starting in 1947, Chrysler stopped using real mahogany for inner panels, switching to Di-Noc decals; they kept the ash body framing. The first pillarless two-door coupe was a Town & Country — built three years before GM started its first. Only seven were made, however. The most popular, by far, were convertibles and four-door sedans. Michael Richards noted that a 1948 Town & Country (pictured in his article) originally cost $3,420 — the equivalent of $32,166 in 2012 dollars.
In later design 1949 models, only convertible versions were made. In the last year of Chrysler woodie production, the T & C were 2-door hardtops only.
The T & C woodies were only built from 1941 thru 1950, with none made during WWII (1943 thru most of 1946). These cars are highly respected and sought after. Prices cover the spectrum, but usually on the high side. (A very few have even sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.)
Chrysler and Desoto did also offer box type woodie station wagons in 1949 and 1950. Plymouth and Dodge offered the box type woodie wagons throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Anyone who wishes to join the Town & Country Owners' Club can mention Harold Mermel and contact John Slusar at TandCregistry [at] cs.com.
Steel Chrysler Town & Country wagons
In 1949, Chrysler became the first American automaker to build all-metal wagons in quantity, beginning with the aptly named Plymouth Suburban. Eagerly purchased by those flocking to freshly built suburbs, the success of these cars soon prompted Chrysler to also add steel-bodied station wagons to its Chrysler, Dodge and DeSoto product lines, making it the first American automaker to build all-metal wagons in quantity.
In 1951, the Town & Country nameplate was again properly applied to a station wagon [but not a woodie], coinciding with the debut of the famous HEMI® V-8 engine and rekindling the association of Chrysler and luxurious, high-performance station wagons. The company enhanced this reputation through the creation of numerous station wagon engineering firsts, including roll-down rear windows for tailgates in 1951 and rear-facing third row seats in 1957. Tailgates, in fact, were a major focus of Chrysler innovation: window washers came in 1968, integral air deflectors in 1969 and, in 1971, ignition interlock to prevent children from opening the gate while the car was running. Cruise control, introduced by Chrysler just as the interstate highway era dawned in 1958, was another popular addition to the company’s smooth-riding wagons, which were often called upon for long, out-of-town family outings.
One of the best examples of Chrysler’s leadership in the category was the 1959 Town & Country station wagon. With 95 cubic feet of cargo space, it offered more carrying capacity than any other North American wagon. The third-row seat folded flat into the floor. To customize the interior of their new Town & Country, buyers could choose from among 22 combinations of fabric and vinyl, as well as such high-end options as Airtemp air conditioning, electronic speed control, automatic dimming headlights and “captive air tires,” which permitted the driver to reach a service station after suffering a flat and obviated the need for a spare-tire compartment in the cargo area.
Town & Country drivers and passengers in this era traveled with authority as well as comfort, thanks to the under-the-hood performance of a 413 cid, 350-horsepower V-8. In addition to Chrysler-created power steering and power window lifts, power brakes, power seats and a power radio antenna were available. Nor surprisingly, this most luxurious of American station wagons was also the most expensive, with factory suggested retail pricing in the $5,000 range, depending upon options selected by the customer.
In most years from 1951 through to the end of the big wagons, the Town & Country would ride on a longer wheelbase than the sedans they were based on, and frequently changes made to other vehicles would lag behind on the wagons, due to their much lower production numbers (tooling was good for around 100,000 vehicles). Indeed, Town & Country wagons were unusual until they were downsized and down-priced. Making the vehicles unique, on their own special wheelbase and with special trim and heavier-duty chassis and brakes in many years, added greatly to the cost, cutting their potential market. In some years, the Town & Country was a trim level above a standard wagon.
The Town & Country would continue as a full-size wagon, officially becoming one of the C platform cars in 1965, when the platform-lettering began. In 1971, the Town & Country moved in step with the other models, gaining Torsion-Quiet Ride to become (according to Chrysler) the quietest, smoothest-riding wagon in the industry; they also gained (some of these features were options) ventless window glass, carpeted cargo floor, lockable under-cargo-floor storage, cassette stereo with microphone, head restraints on the standard bucket seats, tilt wheel, power operated tailgate window, dual air conditioners, and concealed wipers. The Town & Country boasted a new woodgrained panelling that extended the full length of the wagon and across the tailgate, and was partly transparent to show the underlying paint color.
Dual headlights and fender-mounted turn signals were standard, as was a rear air deflector that sent exhaust fumes and road dust away rather than letting it curl up in the vacuum of the rear glass when driving. A tailgate wiper and washer were optional, too, while the automatic transmission was standard. The wagon body had a 122 inch wheelbase, but was just .2 inches longer than the other Chryslers; width was the same.
Cargo space was large, with a minimum 48.5 inch wide (max. 54.5 inches) floor and the ability to lay a 4x8 panel flat with the gate closed and locked (if the rear seats were lowered flat into the floor). The dual action tailgate could either swing open from the side, or lift up like a hatch. Storage pockets were molded into the cover of the rear wheelhousing; the vertically mounted spare tire was on the right of the cargo floor, just ahead of the tailgate, for easy access. An optional third seat let two adults or three children ride, facing backwards, at the end of the wagon. The maximum height of the rear opening was 29 inches; the cargo floor stretched 63 inches from the back of the rear seat to the end of the close tailgate, or 99 inches from the back of the front seat; and there were 104.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Over 16,000 Town & Country wagons were sold, over 1,000 more than the year before and solid performance for this type of vehicle.
A 1972 Chrysler Town & Country wagon was purchased by John Lennon, who reportedly enjoyed the car quite a bit — he could have had any car he wanted. His business manager and wife eventually had it replaced with something more consistent with his star status.
In 1974 and 1975, the Town & Country was a station wagon version of the New Yorker, including simulated walnut body sides, wall to wall carpet (including the cargo area), and a standard 440 and TorqueFlite. An auto-lock system automatically locked the tailgate when the ignition was on; a power tailgate window was standard and a front sway bar and heavy duty suspension were used for cornering under load. The two-seat version boasted 104.9 cubic feet of cargo space, and was able to handle a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood.
For 1975, the tailgate was closer to level with the cargo floor, for easier loading, the result of a revised hinging system. Also new was a built-in step at the tailgate, which used an extruded aluminum panel between the rear body and bumper; it pivoted out of the way when the bumper was deflected. A 400 cid engine could be swapped for the 440, and a new 1.8 hp high-speed starter was used.
In 1977, as Chrysler rapidly downsized their names (if not the actual cars), the name was transferred to the M-body (based on the F-body Volare); it would stay there until 1982, with styling and trim differentiating the top end Chryslers from the police-fleet Plymouths. These Town & Country models’ cost premium was no doubt less than it would have been had the popular Volare and Aspen wagons, using almost identical bodies, not been introduced years earlier. (These were continued as the Chrysler LeBaron; the Town & Country was a LeBaron wagon with a higher level of trim, as years earlier it had been a Newport wagon with a higher level of trim.)
From 1980, wagon tail lights maintained the older style from the 1977-79 body; given that dies last about 100,000 cars, it’s quite possible they were saving money by using the tooling as long as they could. Marine teakwood-grain (plastic) appliqués on body sides and liftgate were framed with simulated white ash moldings. Cut-pile carpeting — color-keyed to the interior trim —covered the cargo floor and sides up to the window trim and the back of the second seat-back. The cargo floor and back of the second seat had stainless-steel skid strips.
|Power (Exc. CA)||1977-78||1979||1980||1981-82|
|318 horsepower||145 @ 4000||140 @ 4000||120 @ 3,600||130 @ 4,000|
|360 horsepower||155 @ 3600||155 @ 3600|
|318 torque||245 @ 1600||245 @ 1600||245 @ 1,600||230 @ 1,600|
|360 torque||275 @ 2000||270 @ 2400|
With the second seat-back folded forward, the cargo capacity was 71.8 cubic feet on all wagons. A push button unlatched the second seat-back for folding forward. A carpeted floor panel—attached to the back of the second seat-back — pivoted forward to fill in the floor gap between the cargo floor and second seat and locked the seat-back down. This panel made the cargo floor continuous and gap free.
The Town & Country becomes front wheel drive
In 1982, the Town & Country moved into the front-wheel-drive world, using a modified Dodge 400 body. The rear-drive M-body was not selling well, and the sedan itself would linger on due solely to fleet sales, being sold to around 80% of police agencies across the country (as well as taxi fleets) thanks to its rugged construction and ease of repair.
The front wheel drive Chrysler Town & Country wagon would remain in the lineup through 1988, powered by four-cylinder engines; in 1983 and 1984, there was also a Town & Country convertible, complete with plastic panels designed to resemble wood. This was essentially the LeBaron convertible with different trim.
Chrysler Town & Country Specifications: 1973, 1980, 1984
|Town & Country||1973 (C)||1980 (F)||1984 (K)|
|Headroom, F/R||39.3 / 39.9||39.2 / 38.7||38.6 / 38.5|
|Legroom, F/R||41.8 / 39.1||42.4 / 37.4||42.2 / 34.8|
|Hip room, F/R||63.3 / 63.4||56.8 / 56.6||55.6 / 56.2|
|Shoulder room, F/R||63.2 / 62.7||56.0 / 56.0|
|Cargo capacity (cf)||104.2||71.8||67.7|
|Weight||3,545 - 3,617|
* with additional concealed cargo area for 2-seat wagons is 9.0 cu. ft.