The Derham-Chrysler Connection

The Derham-Chrysler Connection

by Dale K. Wells

This article was first published in “The Chrysler Experience 2013”, a publication by the Classic Car Club of America Museum. All rights reserved.

We often see Cadillacs and Packards with with custom body work by the Derham Body Company of Pennsylvania because those marques were produced in much larger numbers. However, Chrysler wanted to compete in the luxury car market with their Imperial models, and in researching the CCCA Museum Derham files, there are 72 photos of Derham custom work on Chryslers. There are records of 118 completed cars, and 30 renderings of other design proposals including the famous Thunderbolt which was actually built by LeBaron.

This writer visited the local Chrysler showroom in 1941 when the Thunderbolts were being shown around the country. Every half-hour or so, the dealer would operate the all-metal top to show how the rear lid would swing up and the top would raise and drop down into the rear compartment completely out of sight. It was very impressive, and visitors were given postal cards as advertising souvenirs. Although the cars were built by LeBaron, the rendering by the Derham company suggests they were considering other designs, and perhaps building more cars for the market.

Because Derham’s principal market was in the Pennsylvania and New York area, many of the orders were from the Chrysler New York distributor. This indicates that there was a good working relationship with Chrysler officials, and raises an interesting question about how many cars were ordered by Chrysler family and top executives themselves.  The earliest file showing such an order is for Joseph Frazer, a Chrysler Vice-President, and the car is a 1937 Town Car with padded top designed to look like a four-door convertible sedan.

In 1940, Derham built a Landaulet sedan for K. T. Keller, Chrysler President. Then in November 1941, Chrysler New York issued four separate purchase orders to Derham, for a total of 47 various New Yorker sedans with partitions; mostly painted black and a few maroon, blue, and green. The file shows these cars were completed over the next several months, from January through May 1942. Since new car production ended in early 1942 by government orders to build war materials, it suggests that the factory may have shipped all the sedans to Derham before the cut-off date. Most were fitted with a divider glass, and rear seats moved four inches further back for more limousine type leg room.

1953 Derham Chrysler Victoria coupe
A very special 1953 Derham Chrysler Victoria coupe built for K. T. Keller, quite possibly a one-of-a-kind automobile.

After the war, Chrysler family members renewed their interest in Derham coachwork when Jack Chrysler ordered a 1949 Imperial four-door sedan with blind quarters and padded top. The following year Walter Chrysler ordered a similar car, but without chrome side strips nor hub caps. At the time when new cars were becoming available again in many colorful options, this car was almost conspicuous on the roadways being a huge black sedan with wide whitewall tires.

Derham obtained a Chrysler franchise after the war, and sold several cars with special trim and body work with the Derham nameplate attached. This provided extra business for the body work department as well as the service department.  By the 1950’s the quality and features of the luxury cars had reached the point that the market for custom coachwork seemed to be disappearing. Factories were selling new cars so fast that they did not seem to feel any need to offer custom coachwork. Derham was one of the last surviving custom builders, and the changing market did not provide much optimism for a return to the former level of sales.

1949 Derham DeSoto taxicab prototype under construction

In 1953, K. T. Keller requested a design for a hard-top Victoria, and this writer does not recall ever having seen photos of the completed car published before. Keller did order one more Imperial sedan in 1955 with partition, padded top, and smaller rear window, which is the last Derham car found in the files for Chrysler family members.

The corporation, however, issued orders for several concept cars with special trim or design features.

They include a Dodge two-door coupe with wraparound rear window (ala Studebaker Starlight coupes) and a DeSoto convertible with ‘tip-up’ hinged glass rear window.

Also, a DeSoto two-door coupe (ala Lincoln Continental personal coupe style with flat windshield and chrome window frames at a cost of $43,560).

One of the most interesting concept cars was for a new taxicab design. Although current generations may think of the Checker as being the most prominent cab seen in the big cities, the old black and white movies from the 1930’s and 1940’s are just as likely to show street scenes with DeSoto taxi cabs.

They are usually the long wheelbase bodies sold as 7-passenger sedans in most of the Chrysler Corporation marques during those years. In the Imperial Chrysler line, they would be offered with all the finest upholstery and luxury fittings, and as a DeSoto taxi, they were probably available with rough-and-tumble options such as leather upholstery and heavy duty suspension.

1949 Derham DeSoto taxicab prototype
A 1949 Derham DeSoto taxicab prototype (finished version.)

Many design critics and automotive historians believed the 1949-1952 Chrysler cars were too boxy and conservative in style. K.T. Keller, Chrysler President, believed gentlemen should be able to enter and sit in a car with their hats on. However, car manufacturers have always been under competitive pressure to offer new designs, and so Chrysler hired Virgil Exner in 1949 to restyle all corporation cars, with the result being the ‘Forward Look’ models of 1957 and ensuing years, including the famed ‘letter cars’ beginning with the 300 series in 1955 through 1971.