by Michael Lamm

Was this Chrysler model the inspiration for the Falcon in the 1936 movie, Speed?


Back in the early 1970s, I edited and co-owned a magazine called Special-Interest Autos. My partners were the principals of Hemmings Motor News.

As SIA editor, I regularly flew from California to Detroit to research articles and gather photos for future issues. In doing that, I’d typically drop by as many Detroit research facilities as time allowed. They usually included three or four libraries at General Motors (GM had 37 active libraries at the time), the Henry Ford Museum archives, the auto history collection of the Detroit Public Library, the AMA library and the Chrysler archives.

In those days, Detroit’s research facilities were open to just about anyone, and visitors were free to roam and browse at will. I could choose photos, and the car companies would nearly always make dupes for free and mail them to my office—very different from today.

On one such trip, I stopped by the Chrysler archives looking for pictures of experimental cars of the 1930s and ’40s. In a file of styling photographs, and I stumbled across a series of 8×10 glossies of a 1936 scale model that looked to me like a Bonneville streamliner. Interesting, I thought, and I tried to find out why this model was built, who made it and what became of it. No one seemed to know.

Then, about a month ago, I happened to be watching a movie called Speed. The movie, released in mid 1936, starred a very young Jimmy Stewart. The plot revolved around his work for a mythical car company. Stewart’s character had invented a new type of carburetor, and to test its performance, the company entered a car in the Indy 500 and also built a streamliner to set speed records at Muroc.

Some of the stock footage in Speed clearly came from Chrysler: scenes of assembly lines and executive offices. Also, most of the passenger cars in the movie were 1936 DeSotos, so apparently Chrysler Corp. had a hand in making this film.

More to the point, the significance of that streamlined scale model finally dawned on me. The clay must have been a study for the shape of the movie streamliner, a car called the “Falcon.” I have no proof, but the similarities between the 1936 Chrysler scale model and the 1936 Falcon are remarkable: the envelope body, the glass canopy and the large, single tailfin.

I’m not sure I’ve actually solved a mystery here, but I’d like to present the evidence as a possible theory. And I’d very much appreciate hearing from anyone who knows more about the connection (or lack thereof) between the Chrysler model and the movie streamliner. –Michael Lamm

  1. Rogerio Machado

    Considering the Chrysler Airflow saga at that time, some public stimulation about aerodynamic forms woud be theoretiically positive, so the Chysler “hand” over the film was justified. The aproach with Paul Jaray at that time (whose relationship with Chrysler goes back to 1928) and the Wunibald Kamm forms coud also generate some inspiration. I agree with you, probably that form was created under influence of Chrysler (Carl Breer) and the model coud de result of the design department.

  2. Bob Marcks

    Interesting! I want to see the film. Checked Netflix: not available.

    Googled: Speed James Stewart. A number of references, a DVD is available, a little pricey at $19.95 plus shipping, but I sprung for it, today.

    (There is a joke: “The best things in life are free, but the worst cost $19.95.” I hope this is the exception to the rule!)

    There was another film I recall from my youth on a fictional car company. It definitely included a Chrysler assembly line, I recall DeSotos, probably ’41s, and maybe Brian Donlevy in the cast. Anyone recall that one? Or availability?

  3. Steve Tremulis

    The car in “Speed” was built on and powered by a Cord L-29. There’s more to the story and some photos with Alex Tremulis behind the wheel from the 1970’s in the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club’s website here:

    It was also the subject of an Autopuzzles entry, complete with the reference to the Chrysler archive photos in the responses (you may have to register to see the pics, but it’s worth it):

    How it got from point A to B still seems mysterious…

  4. Bob Marcks

    I think I can add a detail to Steve Tremulis’ info contained in his Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg forum attachment.

    There is a reference to a “retired Western cowboy movie star” and his property, as to where the car was located in the mid-70s. I realize that I saw it there, and the star was “Wild Bill” Elliott. Check him out on Wikipedia.

    When I had an ad agency in Hollywood, I took afternoon breaks in a local coffee shop and there was often a guy sitting there like a “drug store cowboy,” only in this case as a “coffee shop cowboy,” wearing his 10 gallon hat. We were often the only ones there and we became acquainted. He was known as “Cowboy Chuck” I believe. He invited me out to a (his?) property (Elliott had died earlier) where a number of movie set people would get together on Sundays – mostly the studio worker bees as far as could determine.

    “Will Bill” Elliott’s name came up; I said he was one of my favorites as a kid in the ’40s. Elliott was cool because he wore his two guns butt forward in the holsters and do a cross hands lightning draw, ALWAYS beating the bad guys.

    “Cowboy Chuck” took me into the house and in one of the rooms, lo and behold, there were the legendary guns, belts and holsters of Will Bill Elliott, hanging on the wall. Cowboy Chuck was proud to say that he was the one who taught / recommended(?) that Wild Bill Elliott wear them that way. It became his trademark.

    Cowboy Chuck did tell me something about the car — prominently sitting, as seen — close to the road, I have long forgotten what. While it looked like a salt flats record holder, it was a semi-empty shell that didn’t look like it had ever been actually driven, so I was puzzled, but forgot about it – up until I saw the ACD Club photos and reference to a retired cowboy actor — about 42 years later!

  5. Ahhh. As far as I know, after the movie stint, this car was owned, or at least used around the Carpenteria, CA area for promos at a kind of raceway. It was then known by some as the “Thunderbowl Comet.” I have a photo of the car with three fellows standing in front of it taken prior to this time. And yes, as far as I know it was based on a Cord L-29 chassis. Certainly I can upload a photo if desired.

    The early version of this car was painted black and used streamlined metal disc covers over the knock-off wire wheels. This was when they were talking of making some kind of LSR with it. But the disc covers quickly disappeared and I never saw them again on the car.

    And yes, it was used for various attractions from hotels, car lots and more later in its life.

    Love the story about WIld Bill and Cowboy Chuck.

    Of course the Chrysler clay shows the lovely skeg line bright ribbed trim…which probably inspired (or at least highlighted) everything from the Thunderbolt, Hudson production cars, Packard styling exercises and prototypes, and others.

    I did occasional work for Mike Lamm in SIA years ago. I thought it was one of the greatest magazines ever to hit automobiledom! Mike set the theme and the bar for all those publications that came along years later showing in-progress styling/design and clay models. He dug deep for the behind-the-scenes histories that the rest of us could only wonder about. He was first to actually put this stuff on paper for the world to read. For that, I think we all owe Mike a debt of gratitude! Thanks, Mike.

  6. Michael Lamm:
    My dad bought me a subscription to SIA in 1973, and I continued it right up to the end—I still have them all! I can honestly say that you, and my Dad of course, lol, fostered my love of vintage cars and the history of the automobile. I have your incredible book, co-authored by Dave Holls, A Century of Automotive Style, and refer to it often. It was the last gift my mother gave me, just a few days before she died. You have greatly enhanced my love and understanding of the automobile industry, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    And a big hello to Bob Marcks, too!

  7. Found another copy of Speed on a great new free sale site called Bonanza (I have no interest in this)…only $12 here plus $3.25 shipping. My copy is on its way. From the description:

    Speed DVD James Stewart Wendy Barrie (1936)

    The story centers on a test driver who works at a major auto plant. He and his cohorts have invented a new kind of carburetor and are feverishly working to perfect and use it in the upcoming Indianapolis 500. As the race date draws near, the crew keeps having problems with their new invention. The owner’s daughter suggests that her father let her friend, an engineer, examine the device. He proves to be a big help, but then tension begins developing on the team as both he and the inventor have developed romantic feelings for the daughter. On the day the carburetor is finally tested, something goes terribly wrong and the test driver and the inventor nearly die.

    James Stewart – Terry Martin
    Wendy Barrie – Jane Mitchell
    Una Merkel – Josephine Sanderson
    Weldon Heyburn – Frank Lawson
    Ted Healy – Gadget
    Ralph Morgan – Mr. Dean
    Patricia Wilder – Fanny Lane
    Robert Livingston – George Saunders
    Walter Kingsford – Uncle
    Don Brodie – Track Official
    George Chandler – Rustic Bystander
    Jack Clifford – Master of Ceremonies
    Claudelle Kaye – Nurse
    William Tannen – Doctor
    Charles Trowbridge – Doctor

  8. Don Davidson

    My father-in-law worked on the movie speed car after it was recovered out of Henderson Nevada garage in the late 80s

  9. lahtonen jan

    I saw this car last winter in a nondescript garage in Scottsdale awaiting restoration. The car appeared to be mostly complete including documentation but the owner had so many other projects in queue, the restoration will probably not happen.
    I know where it is as well. Top secret stuff. Gary

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