By Brian Earnest
Sometimes, when Jeff Larger gets to talking about how ridiculously original — not to mention very rare, and very cool — his family’s 1942 Chrysler Town and Country sedan is, all he can do is laugh.
No matter how many times he is pressed to retell the car’s history and answer questions about how amazingly authentic and unusual the sedan is, even Larger seems to have a hard time believing it.
“Everything was totally original on it when we got it in the ’60s,” says Larger, a resident of Columbus, Ohio. “That’s really been a key and crucial thing with this car. Other than my dad putting tires and a battery in it in the late 1960s, he hardly did a thing to it. He actually ran on the original tires — which were really very unsafe — for the first couple of years he had it.
“The wood on the car is just perfect everywhere. It’s aged and has a patina that can only exist through time … You can see the grain of the wood. It’s not pretty and show-class like stuff that’s re-done. The age is all there. The leather, the cracks, the smell of the car. It’s a richness that only time can deliver.”
A 1941-’50 Chrysler Town and Country woody of any kind is a prize, but the Larger family’s barrel-back sedan is truly unique on many levels. To begin with, it’s a stunningly original and low-mileage car. The odometer shows just 24,000-plus miles, and only about 2,000 of those have come since Jeff Larger’s father Richard bought it second-hand in Cleveland back in 1966. The interior and wood are all original to the car. The drivetrain is also authentic, although at one point it did have the Fluid Drive automatic transmission rebuilt.
It is one of only 999 Town and Countrys built for the 1942 model year, and one of only 150 six-passenger versions — the rest were the more common nine-passenger models. Being unrestored makes the Chrysler even more unique. And then there’s the clincher: the car is an uber-rare “blacked-out” model that was one of the last off the assembly line before domestic car production was halted during World War II. That meant that a lot of things that were normally chrome were instead painted over, left unchromed, or omitted altogether. Jeff Larger has never seen another car like it, and he doesn’t expect another one will suddenly show up after 71 years.
“Our car is one of two six-passengers that still exist, we think, at this point, and the only one that is a full-out “blackout car” and that is what makes our car so unique,” he said. “There are some weird things about the body … The body number and chassis number don’t match up. The thought is that the body and chassis were leftovers and were put together right at the very end of the production run. Some pieces have chrome under the paint …The wheel trim rings, grille spears, spears on the hood, the lack of spears on the rear fenders — all those things are different on this car. A lot of the interior pieces that would normally be chromed were painted over or not chrome at all … It’s truly one of a kind from that standpoint. It’s one of a very few that were produced that way, and the only full-on pre-war model like this that we know of.”
The car was likely one of the very last Chryslers built before World War II, and was purchased off a Cleveland car lot by a man named E.S. Carpenter, who was looking for a car to use in his movie-making business. Carpenter ran a company called ESCAR Motion Pictures. He had the company name branded in gold leaf on the front and rear doors, and the stenciling still survives today.
“Mr. Carpenter was a little bit of an eccentric, even when he was younger in the 40s,” Larger says. “He did training films and so forth, and also developed some film processes that he became known for. He had some level of renown in that industry … He had the ability to buy a car in February [after civilian automobile production stopped] because he was doing some training films for war. He looked all over Cleveland for a wagon because he needed something to haul around equipment and the only thing he could find was this car. It was sitting on a lot in Cleveland.”
Although it was his work vehicle, Carpenter apparently treated his big Chrysler gently and only put 22,000 miles on the car before about 1954. “In October of 1953 it had 19,390 miles on it when he had the oil changed,” Larger noted. “That’s probably about when he stopped using it. Mr. Carpenter was extremely meticulous. If it rained he wouldn’t take it out. It has never seen snow. When people would see it at car shows — and this is awhile ago and they are all gone now — they would recount how if it got wet it would get put away and he would dry it all off. He would varnish the wood periodically. He treated it like a collector car almost from the start.”
The car was eventually put in mothballs in a storage building, where it remained until 1966 when Richard Larger came to look at it. “I was 9 years old at the time. Dad didn’t go out looking for a woodie, but he wanted an old collector car and in 1966 that was an old collector car!” Jeff said. “He noticed an ad for the car in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. At the time, Cleveland was burning. They had race riots and all kinds of crazy stuff going on in Cleveland. The car wasn’t really in an area that was very safe, but he went to look at it in this old business park. The guy needed to liquidate a bunch of stuff that he had in this old garage. He had a truck and the Town and Country and a bunch of camera equipment, which my dad didn’t have the foresight to grab. That stuff would be work a lot of money today, too… The car was up on blocks and covered in about an inch of dust at the time.”
E.S. Carpenter probably didn’t have any idea he was sitting on a car that would eventually become a recognized Classic and an old car hobby favorite. By the time Chrysler decided to build a station wagon, wood had largely fallen out of favor as a construction material among American car makers. Advances in steel allowed companies to stamp out metal bodies that were stronger, cheaper and easier to build than wood-frame cars. Still, there was a certain style and allure to wood, and it was still used on station wagons. None of the other woodies on the market had the architecture and imagination of the new Town and Countrys, however.
Only 999 of the 1942 Town and Countrys were built before World War II interrupted production. With their “barrel-back” profile, steel roofs and mitred white ash doors, they were a combination sedan/station wagon.
Chrysler unveiled the Town and Country arrived in 1941 in the intermediate Windsor line. That first year 200 sedans and 797 nine-passenger wagons were built as Windsors.
The stylish, streamlined Town and Countrys were a definite departure from the boxy wagons and sedans of the past. The wooden rear doors were hinged on the side for easier loading and nine-passenger models were equipped with a rear seat that could slide back to allow room for a center jump seat. The back seat could also tip forward to allow extra car go space. Under the hood was a 112-hp inline six that displaced 241.5 cid.
In 1942, after only one year, the Town and Countrys underwent a substantial update. The engine grew to 250.6 cubes and was rated at 120 hp. The front end received wrap-around stainless bars that ran all the way around the grille and both wheel openings. Inside, there was more Art Deco styling, with a marble-like steering wheel and dash and leather seat upholstery. Many of the cars were equipped with optional sun visors and luggage racks on top.
The Town and Countrys were the 1940s equivalent of a high-end SUV or crossover vehicle, and they were priced accordingly. With a base MSRP of $1,595, the six-passenger sedan was $175 more than a Windsor convertible coupe. The nine-passenger wagon was about $1,685, which was $560 more than the top end Ford Super Deluxe station wagon.
After World War II, Chrysler resumed making Town and Countrys in much greater numbers as sedans, convertibles and even a few hardtops. For 1949, only convertibles were built with the Town and Country nameplate. The T&C line took its final bow in 1950 when only a two-door hardtop was offered.
The Largers’ car was originally painted a handsome dark burgundy, but the paint had begun to fade as the car approached middle age. In 1976, Jeff viewed himself as a bit of a budding paint artist and convinced his father to let him repaint the car in the same factory color.
“I was actually an apprentice at Yenko Chevrolet, believe it or not,” he said. “At the ripe age of 18 or 19 years old, I thought I was this ‘great painter’! At the time the paint was pretty thin, so I painted the car in 1976. We never touched the interior at all. Nothing with the carpet or seats or headliner. Nothing else.”
After that, the historic Chrysler went back into semi-retirement. “We moved to Pittsburgh and really put the car into storage, pretty much, from the time my brother and I went off to college. Dad would get it out and drive it on weekends and to car shows … But mostly it just sat in his garage covered up with all kinds of junk. It became a package shelf from the late ’70s until 2004, when my brother Gary and I — who both live in Columbus — decided to get the car out, get it running again and get it freshened up.”
The brothers cleaned up the car’s engine compartment, detailed it, fixed a few minor things and had the bumpers re-chromed. “What little paintwork we’ve done is just basically to preserve the car,” he said. “Just a beautiful driving old car. It’s very smooth, other than the creaks and rattles because it’s a Town and Country. But it’s just smooth to drive. I like to keep it at my house in the summer and take it out at night, because I just really like even driving it even around the block. It’s so much fun. These cars are not like the other wagons of the day. The prewar Town and Country was such a unique body style.”
The venerable Chrysler has become a bit of a celebrity in the old car hobby, particularly in T&C circles. The car has been to Meadowbrook and a number of other big events, and is an attention magnet wherever it shows up. There’s no telling what it would fetch if the family ever decided to part with it, but Jeff Larger has a hard time imagining letting the car go.
“You think about it and those thoughts certainly occur to you. My dad is approaching 80 and he is becoming more concerned [about the car’s future]. That’s why companies like Hagerty [Insurance] exist, I guess,” he said. “But you try to enjoy it. It is a big part of our family history. That summer of ’66 is the summer my younger sister was born. My brother and I were 9 and 7 at the time and we grew up with that car … A lot of our family history has revolved around that car. We still have probably 15 cars between my brother and dad and I, but this is our centerpiece and our pride and joy.”
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce McCalley’s masterpiece Model T Ford reference book is back in print, in limited quantities. The ultimate Tin Lizzie reference.