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Fine Lines: Chrysler Town & Country

The Town & Country's original "Woody Wagon" paneling

The Town & Country's original "Woody Wagon" paneling eventually gave way to a more streamlined minivan design in modern models of the classic family car. Credit: Chrysler

You'll never again see a vehicle quite like the original Chrysler Town and Country. These days, no one would be foolish enough to construct a vehicle that combined real wood and metal on the exterior and as part of a vehicle's structure. After all, wood is for boats, fences and spice racks, right?

Actually, the the use of wood dates back to the earliest days of the automobile and was popularized by the advent of the station wagon in the early 1920s. However, Chrysler elevated wood-based trim to a high art form when it launched the first Town & Country in 1941.

It was basically a modified four-door sedan with a clamshell-style tailgate opening in place of a traditional trunk lid. The limited-production car was unusual in that it featured genuine wooden decking in place of steel for the doors, trunks and other body panels, which turned out to be a real attention grabber at the time and even moreso today.

From 1941-'42, Chrysler built close to 2,000 Town & Country models before World War II intervened. Following the conflict, the company revived its wooden-bodied vehicle for 1946 in four-door sedan and convertible body styles.

For a relatively low-volume automobile, the T&C sold reasonably well, but it was the drop-top that stole the show and the bulk of the action on the sales floor.

From its toothy, harmonica-style grille to its sloping rear deck, it was a sensuous sight to behold. The elongated hood seemed to stretch past the next block, a style made popular back in the 1920s and '30s by a number of custom coach builders that hand-crafted the bodies for many luxury cars of that era. 

The T and C was a premium vehicle, but was not exactly an upscale ride for the extremely rich and fabulously famous. Still, its laboriously applied mahogany body panels framed with white ash at least gave the appearance that they had been lovingly formed by old-world artisans. As well, the similarity  to the wood used to construct expensive water craft was blatantly obvious, further adding to the T and C's allure.

The sedans came with a 114-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine, but the longer-wheelbase (by six inches) convertible was fitted with a 135-horsepower "Spitfire" inline eight cylinder. Both operated through Chrysler's four-speed Fluid Drive semi-automatic transmission that allowed the driver to stop and remain in any gear without depressing the clutch, which was especially handy when parked on an incline. 

The price for this conspicuous opulence ranged between $3,000 and $3,400, a hefty sum that rivaled the cost of a top-line Cadillac convertible, but minus the wooden body parts.

As nice as the Town & Country looked, it remained factory fresh for short time, even if owners strictly adhered to the vehicle's maintenance edict concerning the car and feeding of the trim. That meant cleaning and varnishing the wood every six months, or at least bringing their car to the dealer's service department to have the work performed there. Those who ignored this advisory would eventually discover that the lumber on their once-fancy Chryslers had turned to faded and rotted scrap.

Chrysler sold more than 2,150 T&C cars in 1946, of which 1,935 were convertibles. Not included in these totals are are about a half-dozen or so two-door hardtops that served as trial-balloon prototypes. 

For 1947 and '48, the only significant change was the replacement of the mahogany panels with decal inserts that looked just like the real thing, but were more durable as well as easier and cheaper to install.

In a sudden barrage of post-war activity, all major manufacturers introduced new models for 1949. For its part, Chrysler kept the Town & Country line going, but offered only a New-Yorker-based convertible (the sedan was dropped). The ash wood trim on this version, as well as on the 1950 single-model Town and Country Newport two-door hard-top, was now more subtly applied and the car's appearance - and sales - suffered as a result. It would be the final year for natural wood to be applied on any T and C, although faux wood trim, including giant stickers on the side of Town & Country minivans in the late 1980s and early '90s, would return in later years.

Today the slightly abbreviated Town & Country name survives as Chrysler's flagship minivan, but it's a far cry from the classic wooden structures from the distant past.

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