Editor: Jaap Horst
A little more than 20 years ago, back in the late 1900s, a Chrysler executive wearing the hat of guest judge at Pebble Beach made a joking comment to his right hand man, something to the effect of “We ought to make our own classic next time we do a show car, taking advantage of all this.”
What he meant by “all this” was the grand sweep of car design tradition laid out before them at the Pebble Beach Concours, from early teens cars to the swoopy aerodynamically influenced cars by French coachbuilders, from about 1935 to 1940.
The man making the remark was Bob Lutz, at that time head of Chrysler, who, knowing full well the competition among the world’s automakers to have an attention-getting car on the “dream car lawn” (the lawn in front of the Del Monte Lodge, before you enter the actual concours) made a chance remark that resulted in one of the most radical concept cars ever made by a Detroit automaker. A car that was full-on retro. And this was in the mid-1990s.
A writer named Raphael Orlove, on the website Jalopnik, said "What started out as a chat between Maximum Bob Lutz and then-Chrysler design chief Tom Gale at Pebble Beach became a self-serving exercise in hubris. I can understand that you might want to turn two Neon inline-fours into a 4 liter straight-eight, but please have the decency to put it into an original, creative design and not just this shiny, tacky, lazy, unadventurous, rose-tinted piece of nostalgia. Rant over."
I beg to differ. Read on.
The name of the car was the Chrysler Atlantic. At the time Lutz was President of Chrysler and he was accompanied by fellow judge, Chrysler design chief Tom Gale .
Adding to the legend of this story (and I am aware various PR people probably finessed various separate incidents into one plausible story) Lutz made a sketch on a napkin.
Now turns out when they got back to the Chrysler Design Center, the troops (or design guys) weren’t given, according to the legend, the sketch but just told to study French coachbuilders like Figoni et Falaschi and Darrin and Fernandez and Letourneaur et Marchand, et al and see if they could channel what they were thinking. In other words, their assignment was not to set out to re-create a modern version of the Bugatti Atlantic but to come up with a car that, visually, inspired one to think of the pre-war grand tourers built by those coachbuilders.
The actual designer whose drawings came closest at Chrysler , i.e. the winner of the in-house competition, was Bob Hubbach, so it was his design that was built.
The best part of the design is…
…the nose, with its graceful (almost Jaguar XK-120 style) fenders and the faired-in headlamps and fog lamps. In fact on one website, a model car builder showed a roadster version of the Atlantic he was building, and with full fairings in the back, his proposal reminds you of the XK-120 roadster when fully spatted in the rear (an option at the time).
The grille texture is interesting– a sort of honeycomb. Maybe honeycomb isn’t prewar but the grille shape, a twin grille, is definitely prewar-styled. Most daring, like a low cut neckline on mademoiselle’s gown is the side windows dipping down –creating an extreme low slung look. Those windows are the highlight of the side view, along with the huge muscular rear fenders. The car measures 199.5” long, 75.8” wide, and stands 51.6” tall. Its wheelbase is 126”, and it rides on 21” tall wheels in front and 22” tall wheels in the back.
Alas, if the design were consistent all around it would be one of the greatest “dream cars,” but as they went around to the rear the car displays a modern day idea—the full width light bar taillamp (Buick Riviera?) going from one side to the other where in order to match the pre-war design theme of the inspiring marques, it should have had but a single or perhaps two small lamps, maybe even set in prewar housings. And then there’s a half hearted attempt at a “boat tail” shape incorporated in the rear deck but not coming all the way to the back as if they weren’t confident that it was the right shape to add. The rib down through the rear window and continuing over the roof is brilliant—a nod toward those few prewar Bugattis with magnesium bodies where they couldn’t weld the magnesium so they had a vertical rib sticking up from each body half, and fasteners punched through to fasten the body halves together.
The interior was also modern and didn’t have the wood and leather treatment I expected to match the period look of the exterior. Ironically that type of interior was to be found on another Chrysler show car --circa 1998--the Chronos.
But the main appeal of the Atlantic was the outside–and you have to call it a successful “tribute” car making an acknowledgement by postwar designers that the French, in the five years leading up to the war, were onto something special—an elegance that actually hasn’t ever been recaptured in modern times.
ENGINE CHOICE PRECLUDES A PRODUCTION VERSON
Now I know Lutz was born and raised in Switzerland, so he loved sixes, but when he ordered a 4.0 liter straight eight made by mating two 2.0 liter Neon four cylinder blocks nose-to-tail I think he doomed any thought that this could be a production car like the “hot rod” inspired Plymouth Prowler.
I think that engine choice, while mind boggling that he would do that to have an engine that superficially resembled a prewar Bugatti straight eight, killed any possibility of the car going into production because Chrysler– and no Detroit automaker for that matter– was ever going to go back to a straight eight, an engine configuration deader’n a doornail.
Mechanically it was a modern car. Unlike some concept cars, it was drivable but just enough to get up on the show stand. It had four-wheel discs with ABS, an automatic with Auto-Stick. The frame was especially built for the car.
Last I heard the car is in the Chrysler Museum. Lutz and Gale are retired and I am sure those touring the museum who don’t remember it ever existed are always surprised, like “What’s this prewar car doing over in the modern car section?”
Well, to answer that question, picture tall, urbane white-haired Lutz walking the 18th green at Pebble when he and Gale were judges, then stopping to light up that ever present Monte Cristo as he looked at a prewar Bugatti and saying something to the effect of: “We’ll show ‘em classic—we’ll build one.”
And they did…
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is doing a number of oil paintings of genuine Bugattis. For a list of prints available, or to talk about commissioning a portrait of your favorite, contact him at Photojournalistpro2@gmail.com