I am presently the proud owner of a 2008 Chrysler Sebring convertible, a car that I grow more fond of everyday for a variety of reasons. I could ramble on for paragraphs about all the little reasons why but that isn’t my inspiration today.
My wife and I recently took a vacation and one of our stops was Detroit, Michigan. Being the consummate carguy that I am, a trip to the “Motor City” was inevitable at some point but I never expected to uncover my car’s storied ancestry.
The Walter P. Chrysler Museum is located on the grounds of the Chrysler Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, which is one of the many suburb communities of Detroit. This sprawling facility sits on 504 acres and includes a test track & proving grounds. The buildings themselves are over 5 million square feet total with enough parking area to shame an NFL stadium. The museum seems minuscule in the shadow of its automotive parent but great things can come in small packages.
I recommend the Chrysler museum for any gearhead but if you are a dedicated follower of the PentaStar, then this place is a gold mine. The main foyer is graced with concept cars while the first floor is early history. The second floor is filled with the development years most of us recall so well but the trip down the elevator to the “Boss’ Garage” is pure automotive candy.
Walter Chrysler was an innovator who was hired away from Willys (who he had just put back on their feet) to take over the ailing Maxwell-Chalmers automaker. Chrysler rolled out its first car in 1924 and it boasted an impressive list of features unheard of for a car of this price range. The 4 wheel hydraulic brakes were a first as well as an internally lighted instrument panel with an engine temperature gauge. The engine featured an air filter for its carburetor and internal pressure lubrication with an oil filter, both improvements that would give the engine greater durability. Yet it was the design of the engine itself that made it a harbinger of things to come, a high compression four liter, six cylinder engine that made more power than many of its larger competitors due to its semi-hemispherical cylinder head. Yes gearheads of the world you heard it right, this engine was the infancy of the legendary Hemi engines that would follow in the decades to come.
A scant four years later Chrysler put its car with its bold little engine to the ultimate test. The 24 Hours of LeMans had only been run for the first time in 1923, so the race itself was still new to the world but the automakers from all over the globe saw it as a crowning achievement even over the Grand Prix title of Europe. Chrysler entered four of its Model 72 roadsters in the 1928 event to take on the giants of the sporting car world. Bentley, Stutz and Aston Martin were all among the heavily favored cars to win, and all were vehicles that sold for as much as four times the price of the lowly Chrysler convertible.
The racecourse in 1928 was an unpaved, ten mile loop through the City of Le Mans and across the French countryside, but when the checkered flag dropped the winner was a Bentley, the Stutz was second and the incredible little Chrysler was third. Granted the distance between the winning car and the third place Chrysler was ten laps or about 100 miles, but Chrysler had proven to the world beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were here to stay.
As I stood there reading this information and gazing at the pale yellow roadster sitting in front of me, I could not help but be overcome with a swelling of pride in my Sebring outside in the parking lot. I had often wondered back in 1997 when the Sebring Convertible was introduced why they had chosen that particular namesake. I knew Sebring, Florida was the home to the storied 12 hours of Sebring endurance race, and that event was North America’s premier run-up to Le Mans. Yet here I was face to face with the grandaddy of all Chrysler convertibles, and a podium winner at the toughest automotive race in the world. Suddenly, Sebring seemed like a fitting homage to such a legendary ancestor.
While the modern day Sebring isn’t a performance giant by any means, and it doesn’t boast a Hemi powerplant, it has fulfilled the mission of a lot of value for its price. The Sebring convertible quickly became the darling of the rental car industry, thereby exposing more people to this little gem of a car than the showroom ever would alone. The Sebring has put the ability to own a nicely equipped,fun to drive convertible within the grasp of virtually class of people in the country. Even used examples that are now ten years old still fly off the car lots, purchased mostly by middle aged buyers which has spawned the term “The mid-life Chrysler”. So even many years after his passing, the cars that bear Walter Chryslers namesake are reaching the inner child in a great many of each year. I stand as a happily guilty example to this trend.
In the vein of offering innovation at an affordable price, I didn’t have to look very far in the museum to run across another amazing example. The 2008 model Sebring was the first car in its price range to offer a folding hardtop convertible. I knew Mercedes and other high end cars had this option for some years, and I certainly recall seeing a few examples of the old Ford Sunliner convertible at the Rods & Customs Show. Yet here in the concept car section of the museum I took in the sight of a sleek silver coupe, the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt. Only six of these beauties were ever built and its smooth aero design was penned by none other that Alex Tremulis, who went on to design the famed Tucker Torpedo in 1948. The one feature about the Thunderbolt that really struck my eye was that it was equipped with the first ever electrical powered retracting hardtop. So once again Chrysler has paid a fitting tribute to a past that has brought a history of firsts to the automotive world.
Chrysler has fallen on hard times of late and its last two partnerships have been less than stellar. Daimler-Benz pulling out when they did left Chrysler in bad straits and the Cerberus Group that bought in afterwards proved to be true to their namesake, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell. They were by their own admission “not car people”and certainly not worthy of holding the reigns of an automotive legend like Chrysler.
Chrysler’s latest partner however shows a good deal more promise. Fiat is the largest automaker in Italy and blankets such brands as Lancia, Maserati and Alfa Romeo. They also build aircraft and are spread across Europe, Asia and South America. Possibly with an infusion of Fiat’s help, we might see the return of a Chrysler to the Circuit De La Sarthe and the streets of LeMans. The Dodge Viper growled through Arnage and scorched the Mulsanne straights in 1996, but I have longed to see and hear the venerable rumble of the Hemi from a racing machine over the hard buzz of the Viper’s V-10.
Back in 2005, Chrysler tickled that fantasy with an incredibly sexy concept car called the “Firepower”. Based on the Viper chassis, the Firepower has all the class and style of the Corvette over the brutal,raw edges of the Viper. The SRT version of the new generation Hemi V8 bristled beneath its straked and vented hood. The Corvette has been the dominate force in GT class at LeMans for the past several years, proving that an American hot rod can run with Ferrari,Lamborghini and Aston Martin. How fabulous would it have been to see and hear the Hemi motivated Firepower challenge the world and stand on the podium once again. That would truly be a full circle achievement, and if the car came with a targa roof option, it could once again be the Chrysler convertible that took on the world. Alas the Firepower was simply a concept and I have read no further information that hints towards its production, but until the next “glory days” of Chrysler come to pass, I will drive my Sebring with a level of pride and an honored legacy to its incredible forefathers.
Long Live Chrysler, the Hemi engine and the passion that drives them both.
-T. August Green