1941 Chrysler Saratoga Coupe

Farnum Alston hadn’t intended to buy a “collector” car. At least, not a big old straight-eight Chrysler. The ’67 Shelby 350 GT that inhabits his Corte Madera, California, garage is more his type. Or at least, Farnum always thought so.

But still, since childhood he had been interested in automobiles, and one day he stopped by to take in an auction,”just to watch the action.” Famous last words! As he looked over the field before the auctioneer commenced his spiel, Alston’s eye was caught by an unusual Chrysler, a Saratoga three-passenger coupe. “The quality of the car was immediately apparent,” he recalls. And its proportions, with an extended rear deck balancing the impressively long hood, appealed to him.

Because it was a late entry, the Chrysler wasn’t listed in the auction’s advance publicity, and evidently most of the crowd was unaware of it until the moment the big coupe was driven onto the auctioneer’s platform. Farnum really hadn’t intended to become involved. But, he explains, “when the bidding stopped, I owned the car.”

It wasn’t until after he brought the Chrysler home that Alston fully realized what a gem he had acquired. For one thing, it has been driven a total of just over 9,000 miles. We’ll come to that part of the story in just a moment; right now it’s the scarcity of this particular model that concerns us.

The very next day, Farnum was contacted by three people who had heard about the Chrysler too late to bid on it. Each wanted to buy the car. One of them, in fact, declared that he had been looking for four years, without avail, for an eight-cylinder 1941 Chrysler coupe.

Little wonder! The Chrysler Division produced 161,704 automobiles during the 1941 model year. Of that number, just 771 – less than one-half of one percent – were straight-eight business coupes, some of these were members of the Saratoga series, while the balance were New Yorkers. In fact, the popularity of the three-passenger coupe had become so diminished by 1941 that in the Saratoga’s price class, the only competitors in this body style were the Buick Roadmaster and the Packard One-Sixty – both of which were built, like the Chiysler, in very limited numbers. Even this car, SIA has learned, had to be factoiy-ordered by its original owner, for demand for this model was so low that dealers rarely kept it in stock.

Chrysler offered five series of automobiles for the 1941 model year. At the top of the line were the big, costly Crown Imperials, while the price (and volume) leaders were the two six-cylin-der lines, the Royal and the Windsor. In between were two upper-medium-priced straight eights, the Saratoga and its upscale twin, the New Yorker.

Styling was brand new that year, and very attractive. The ’41 Chryslers were somewhat lower than before, slightly wider, 200 pounds heavier, and more than nine inches longer – although the wheelbase had actually been cut one inch, to 127.5 inches. Power came from Chrysler’s time-proven 323.5-c.i.d. flathead engine, rated this time at 137 horsepower, up from 135 the previous year.

Chrysler’s highly touted Fluid Drive, an extra-cost option since 1939, became standard equipment on the eight-cylinder cars for 1941, but in addition a new wrinkle was offered this time. This was the Vacamatic, a semi-automatic gearbox, used in conjunction with the fluid coupling and available with or without the familiar Borg-Warner overdrive.

We mentioned that the Saratoga coupe pictured here was factory-ordered by its original owner. The major advantage in this procedure, apart from the fact that it may have been the only way to secure this particular model and body style, lay in the purchaser’s ability to have it equipped precisely the way he wanted it. In this particular instance, the buyer specified both the Vacamatic transmission and the overdrive, evidently a somewhat unusual combination. Thus, five forward speeds are provided, with an overall final drive ratio of 2.56:1. One could hardly imagine a better combination for high-speed highway travel.

The Vacamatic is similar in operation to the later and more familiar “M-6” transmission. Variously known at the different Chrysler divisions by such names as Prestomatic, Tip-Toe and Gyromatic, the M-6 differs from the Vacamatic in that it operates by means of hydraulic pressure rather than by vacuum. In both transmissions, two ranges are provided, each with two gear ratios. Thus there are four forward speeds – plus a fifth in this case, thanks to the overdrive.

A conventional clutch is provided. Chrysler referred to it as an “emergency” clutch, which is misleading, for it is essential for shifting the transmission into either low or high range, or into reverse. Once under way (usually in high range), the shift is made automatically from third to fourth gear (or from first to second) when the driver’s foot is lifted momentarily from the accelerator. Then, in the case of an overdrive-equipped car, when the driver’s foot is lifted once again, the overdrive engages – again, automatically.

Other equipment on our feature car includes a push-button radio (“It only gets old stations,” Farnum observes with a sly grin); a crank-out antenna mounted above the windshield at the center post; and a heater with dual fans – the latter seemingly a case of overkill in a car with so small a passenger compartment. Wide white sidewall tires have been added in recent years, but the original skins, one of which still serves as the Chrysler’s spare, were standard blackwalls.

The first owner of this fine coupe was lumber baron John Milton Carson of Eureka, California, known throughout much of his lifetime as the dean of redwood manufacturers.

SLA readers who have visited the city of Eureka, on California’s north coast, must surely have stopped to admire the great Victorian mansion at the comer of Second and M Streets. Said to be the most photographed privately owned building in the United States, it is officially known now as The Ingomar, after the private club that is its present occupant.

But the mansion was built originally as the residence of William Carson, J. Milton Carson’s father. That was during 1884-85, when a slump in the economy had caused the elder Carson to shut new, 51-year-old automobile. The original, factory chalk marks are visible on the firewall. A sticker listing break-ing-in instructions is still on the windshield. The dashboard lights up, in Farnum Alston’s words, “like a pinball machine”; and the plastic dash trim, virtually irreplaceable, looks factory-fresh.

The body is so tight that pressure is created if the doors are slammed shut with the windows closed. The original spare tire, still in good condition, is stored in a tidy little compartment behind the driver. The trunk, nearly six feet in length, could readily accommodate a sleeping bag, except for surface irregularities that would make sleeping somewhat uncomfortable. The down his huge lumber mill. Unwilling to see his employees idle and probably hungry, the elder Carson hired those who wished to work to build this magnificent home for his family. Skilled laborers were paid two dollars per day; unskilled men drew one dollar. The Carson sailing fleet brought lumber, literally, from all over the world, representing all of the commercial types of wood then available.

Directly across the street from the mansion is Carson House, a smaller but still impressive Victorian, built by William Carson in 1889 as a wedding present for Milton and his bride. The younger Carsons lived there until after William Carson’s death in 1912, after which they moved into the mansion, occupying it for the balance of Milton’s life.

J. Milton Carson, who had become president and general manager of the Dolbeer-Carson Lumber Company a year or so before his father’s death, was evidently of a progressive turn of mind. In 1924 he built the first fully electric mill in the Redwood Empire, and like his father he was widely recognized for the excellent labor relations enjoyed by his firm, as well as for his active participation in civic affairs.

This, then, was the man who in the spring of 1941 placed the order for our featured Chrysler Saratoga coupe. He wasn’t able to enjoy it for very long, however, for on August 25 of that year a long-standing heart problem claimed Milton’s life. He was 76 years of age.

The Chrysler then became a part of the J. Milton Carson estate. For reasons that remain obscure, it was stored until 1956, when it was purchased by Ed Barwick, a long-time MoPar collector and Chrysler dealer in Napa, California. At that point the coupe had been driven a little over 6,000 miles.

In 1971, by which time the car had logged a couple of thousand more miles, Barwick sold it to a man named Guiton, owner of a small bus company based in Emeryville. Then, following Guiton’s death, it was purchased by an employee of the bus company, who eventually brought it to the auction house. And that’s where Farnum Alston came into the story.

It’s like a time machine,” Farnum says. Indeed it is; it’s virtually a brand original paint – a deep, rich blue – is thin on one side of the hood, but otherwise is in fine condition. And the engine runs like the proverbial watch.

It is not the purpose of this article to record driving impressions. But we were so impressed by this nearly new old car that we have to comment upon its smooth, quiet operation, even at fairly high freeway speeds. The engine is a veritable powerhouse, and the ride is extremely comfortable, even over roads that would create problems for many a modern automobile.

Milton Carson wasn’t given time enough to make full use of his handsome Chrysler coupe, but he left a fine automotive legacy for the rest of us to enjoy.