The Greatness of Alex Tremulis: A Car Designer from Another Era (1)

The Greatness of Alex Tremulis: A Car Designer from Another Era (1)

My Tremulis piece was pub­lished in full in The Auto­mo­bile, March 2020. 

“That was a dif­fer­ent time,” Alex Tremulis told me, recall­ing his hey­day in car design. “The For­ties through the Sev­en­ties. Back then a sin­gle per­son could often influ­ence the shape of a car. Some­times the whole car. Of course, lots of our ideas were sheer rub­bish. But now and then, by luck or force of per­son­al­i­ty, we put some­thing good into production.”

Many famous auto­mo­tive designs did have whim­si­cal begin­nings. Bill Boy­er put port­holes on the rear roof quar­ters of the 1956 Ford Thun­der­bird to recall “the coach­work her­itage.” They became so icon­ic that they reap­peared on the retro-Bird in 2002. Dutch Dar­rin gave the sem­i­nal 1951 Kaiser its belt-line dip and vast glass area, which spread through­out the indus­try. Inspired by fight­er air­craft, GM’s Ned Nick­les cre­at­ed the post­war Buick’s “gun­sight” mas­cot and fend­er port­holes. Sarah Rags­dale, wife of a GM engi­neer, inspired the “hard­top con­vert­ible.” (She loved the sporti­ness of con­vert­ibles, but always drove with the top up to spare her coif­fure.) “Nowa­days, where design is large­ly spun by com­put­ers,” Alex Tremulis con­tin­ued, “you can’t imag­ine the fairy­land our busi­ness was back then.”

Starting at the Top

Unlike many of his styling col­leagues, Tremulis was ret­i­cent to blow his own horn. He always cred­it­ed the famous “cof­fin nose” 1936-37 Cord to Gor­don Buehrig, whom he regard­ed as a genius. When pressed, how­ev­er, he’d admit that it was he who gave the car its famous out­side exhaust pipes. Buehrig, whom Alex replaced as chief design­er for Auburn-Cord-Due­sen­berg, nev­er real­ly liked them. Lat­er he acknowl­edged that they had become a hal­lowed trademark.

Cord’s out­side exhaust pipes were Tremulis, the rest Buehrig. A 1937 Cord 812 sedan at Autostadt in Wolfs­burg, Ger­many. (Pho­to by Michael Berera, Wiki­me­dia Cre­ative Commons)

Alex once told me he was “proud to be a Spar­tan.” His Greek immi­grant par­ents, Anto­nia and Saran­tos, came from a vil­lage near that city. Alex was born in Chica­go in 1914. His fam­i­ly was well off, so he grew up dri­ving Stutzes, Tem­plars and Mer­cedes. His edu­ca­tion end­ed after high school, and he had no for­mal design or engi­neer­ing train­ing. Yet at the age of nine­teen, he found him­self at Auburn-Cord-Due­sen­berg, help­ing to cre­ate some of the fleetest and most beau­ti­ful cars on Amer­i­can roads.

* * *

In 1936, when Buehrig left, Alex became A-C-D’s chief styl­ist. “He had real inborn tal­ent,” Gor­don Buehrig told this writer. “He pro­duced many excit­ing shapes, but unfor­tu­nate­ly A-C-D was a goner. Between the Depres­sion and E.L. Cord’s stock mar­ket machi­na­tions, they were out of busi­ness by 1938.”

Alex moved to Cal­i­for­nia to build cus­tom bod­ies for Hol­ly­wood soci­ety. While there he designed a con­vert­ible for Amer­i­can Ban­tam, for­mer­ly the Amer­i­can Austin. Ban­tam Pres­i­dent Roy Evans asked him to cre­ate it from a new Ban­tam saloon. Sure, said Alex. The next day Evans said he’d changed his mind. “Too late,” replied Alex, “I’ve already cut the top off.” He drove the pro­to­type to the Ban­tam works in But­ler, Penn­syl­va­nia. Added to the line, it sold well.

Briggs and the Thunderbolt

Tremulis wan­dered to Detroit and the Brig­gs Body Com­pa­ny, where oppor­tu­ni­ty knocked. Chrysler asked Brig­gs for new designs to replace its aging fleet of post-Air­flow clunk­ers. “Styling at Brig­gs was almost a ‘good will’ depart­ment,” Alex recalled. “We could offer clients a fresh view­point, free from engi­neer­ing restric­tions, ded­i­cat­ed sole­ly to ideas.” The result was a pair of exot­ic dream cars. The New­port dual-cowl phaeton was styled by Ralph Roberts, for­mer­ly of LeBaron. The Thun­der­bolt was styled by young Tremulis. Chrysler built six of each.

Chrysler Thun­der­bolt (author’s collection)

Alex orig­i­nal­ly pro­posed the names Gold­en Arrow and Thun­der­bolt, after two British Land Speed Record cars. His pro­mo­tion­al slo­gan was “The Mea­sured Mile Cre­ates a New Motor Car.” Sir Hen­ry Seg­rave’s Gold­en Arrow had set the record 231.5 mph in 1928. Cap­tain George Eyston’s Thun­der­bolt set it twice, at 312.0 and 357.5 mph in 1937-38. At the last minute, how­ev­er, Chrysler changed “Gold­en Arrow” to “New­port.”

The Thun­der­bolt had the world’s first retractable hard­top, long and low on a 127-inch wheel­base. Its broad sin­gle seat could accom­mo­date four pas­sen­gers. Alex cre­at­ed the smooth enve­lope body, hid­den head­lamps; Budd stream­lin­ers inspired the wrap­around bright mold­ing. Push­but­ton electrics con­trolled the head­lamps, win­dows, trunk lid and top. The Thun­der­bolt and New­port were soon wow­ing crowds at car shows and Chrysler deal­er­ships around the country.

Tremulis believed the two cars “revived stream­lin­ing at Chrysler after the fail­ure of the Air­flow.” They influ­enced many lat­er pro­to­types. The Thunderbolt’s curved cor­ner bumper sec­tions were chrome-plat­ed brass, imprac­ti­cal in mass pro­duc­tion. Hid­den head­lamps appeared on the 1942 DeS­o­to, but were not revived after the war.

Tremulis in the War

After America’s entry into the Sec­ond World War, Tremulis joined the Army Air Corps. A lover of air­craft, he began sketch­ing advanced fight­er planes at what is now Wright Pat­ter­son Air Force Base in Day­ton, Ohio. On a week­end pass to Chica­go in 1942, he met Chrisan­thie Poli­tis. They mar­ried and lived hap­pi­ly ever after.

Tremulis Boe­ing X20 Dyna Soar, ear­ly 1960s, con­ceived near­ly twen­ty years before the Space Shut­tle. (Pub­lic domain / Nation­al Aero­nau­tics and Space Administration)

Alex left the USAAC in 1944, but his Air Force con­nec­tions con­tin­ued. Between 1957 and 1963 he helped design the Boe­ing X-20 Dyna Soar, a pre­cur­sor to the Space Shut­tle. The orbit­ing re-entry vehi­cle per­formed aer­i­al recon­nais­sance, bomb­ing, space res­cue, satel­lite main­te­nance and inter­cept­ing ene­my space vehi­cles. Alex always regret­ted that NASA can­celed the project just after ini­tial con­struc­tion had begun.

Meeting Tucker

Alex and Chrissie were from Chica­go, so they moved back there in 1946. Alex found work with the indus­tri­al design firm Tam­men and Deni­son. Among their clients was an ener­getic pro­mot­er with a vision of a ground-break­ing car: Pre­ston Tuck­er. “We met and hit it off right away,” Alex remem­bered. “He want­ed me to be his chief styl­ist, so he talked T&D into releas­ing me. Pre­ston could talk the birds out of the trees. When he looked at you with those soft brown eyes, you were hooked.” For a thir­ty-two-year-old styl­ists, it seemed the chance of a lifetime.

Part 2: Tremulis, Tucker, and Further Adventures…

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