The Zeder name was well known in Chrysler circles from the founding days in the 1920s to the 1950s. Frederick Zeder was one of the ‘Three Musketeers’, engineers hired away from Studebaker by Walter Chrysler to ramp up his young company. A number of the Zeder clan worked at Chrysler, all in engineering.
Frederick Zeder’s son, Fred Junior, was also an engineer, but in 1951 he was in New York working in advertising. The younger Zeder was not only interested in advertising and engineering; he was interested in racing. He particularly admired the European sports cars that were just making their way to the States.
He personally raced a Chrysler-powered Allard J2, often against Briggs-Cunningham cars, which he much admired. Zeder liked his Allard, but wanted something more, something that could beat the Briggs-Cunninghams, Ferraris and Jaguars on the track and on the street.
Zeder enlisted a partner, Gene Cassaroll, a wealthy shipper of Chrysler products, and incorporated the Sports Car Development Corporation. Zeder reached into his book of Chrysler connections and hired a group of staff engineers to work at a makeshift studio at Cassaroll’s machine shop. Everyone was moonlighting, working part-time at night and on weekends, with the Chrysler management’s knowledge and (perhaps grudging) approval.
Zeder’s concept was to have a sports coupé that you could race on Sunday and drive to work on Monday. It would have an interchangeable body shell that would connect to the frame with four large rubber-bushed nuts to hold each body to the frame. The fibreglass racing shell was planned to be only 150 pounds, the aluminum body not much more.
Chrysler engineers designed a competition-spec frame, suspension, and braking system for the car, and installed a modified V8 truck engine with an aluminium-cased transmission from Spicer.
The design of the Storm was done by Hank Kean, who was a designer at Chrysler. When a quarter-scale model was built Virgil Exner, Chrysler’s head of advanced design, dropped by the studio and lent a hand to refine the concept – and, no doubt, to check up on his designer’s extracurricular activities.
After the model and chassis were finished, they were shipped off to Italy with the intention of having the body fabricated at Carrozzeria Ghia. But one of Zeder’s friends, a high-ranking engineer at Fiat, recommended that the car go to Bertone instead, probably because Ghia was fully committed to Exner-designed Chrysler projects.
Bertone accepted the project, with an initial estimated timeline of 90 days. But Bertone was already over-committed with the B.A.T. projects, and what was supposed to be a three-month project stretched into nine. Along the way, Bertone designers refined the design of the car and brought some reality to the drawings and model. One big change: the Storm was planned as a 2+2 coupé, but the rear seat didn’t fit in the final design. Zeder would have to be satisfied with a two-seater.
After finally completing the car, it was taken to Fiat’s legendary Lingotta track for testing and final adjustments. It was then entered in the 1954 Turin Motor Show, where it won first prize for design. Afterwards, the car was driven to Genoa and loaded on to the SS Andrea Doria for a stately cruise across the Atlantic (the ocean liner would become infamous in automotive circles a couple of years later when it sank off New England with the much-anticipated Chrysler Norseman concept aboard).
As the Andrea Doria arrived at the docks in New York, Fred Zeder was waiting. He drove the car off the ship and into Manhattan, where the (relatively) light New York traffic on a Spring Saturday morning allowed Zeder to park the car on the street in front of his office in Rockefeller Center.
Zeder would recall later, “I parked the car in front of the building and went up to my office to make some phone calls. A few minutes later, the doorman called and said the police were there. The car was creating a huge traffic jam. I looked down from my window and the crowd was four deep around the car.”
Zeder would soon drive his new baby to Detroit to show the family and his Chrysler connections. His uncle, Jim Zeder, who had succeeded Fred’s father as Director of Chrysler Engineering, looked the car over and asked to borrow it for testing at Chrysler’s proving grounds.
The younger Zeder was flattered and handed over the keys. He waited eagerly for reports, and of course, for the return of the Storm. Weeks passed, then months. Months would stretch into a year. Finally, the car was returned, almost two years after Uncle Jim ‘borrowed’ the car. What happened?
The ‘testing’ never happened. The Storm was locked in a garage at the Chrysler proving grounds and covered with a tarpaulin. Workers were forbidden to enter the garage, or even mention the car.
Why had Fred not demanded the car’s return? Probably because of all the connections, familial and collegiate, that were tied to the car. Zeder had been handed a lot of favours in the design and construction of the Storm. He no doubt felt it would be inappropriate to demand its return. Also, there were family politics involved. It would have been unseemly to smudge the family name with a suggestion of scandal and ill-treatment.
As for ‘Uncle Jim’, why did he essentially take the car hostage? Again, family politics and history seemed to enter into the decision. Jim’s older brother, Fred’s father, was a hard-charging, charismatic engineer who had the attention and admiration of Walter Chrysler. Young Jim Zeder lived in his shadow of his older brother.
Additionally, Jim was as conservative as his brother was adventurous. His nephew described him rather bitterly as “designed, dedicated, and determined to be dour and distrustful”. There was no way Jim Zeder was now going to be upstaged by a new generation of adventurous Fred Zeders.
In later years though, the younger Zeder put a more charitable spin on the whole affair: “If (the Storm) became a success, he’d share none of the credit. If it failed, he’d get all of the blame.”
After the car was returned to Fred Zeder, Chrysler officially passed on the project, stating it was too expensive to produce in any volume. Zeder, as his Uncle no doubt intended, had missed his window of opportunity. The nascent sports car market was full of new entries – the Corvette, the Kaiser-Darrin, the Nash-Healey, and even the Briggs Cunningham were well established in the public imagination. And Ford had just introduced the Thunderbird, establishing the personal luxury market. The Storm Z-250 was old news.
Fred Zeder would keep the Storm as his personal car, exchanging the car for his interest in the Sports Car Development Corporation. His partner, Gene Cassaroll, would take the business and reorganize it with a new partner, coachbuilder Paul Farago, as the Dual Motor Company. This new company would produce the fabulous Dual-Ghia sports cars (see last week’s Concept Car article). Dual Motors would, for a short time, live the dream of Fred Zeder.
Zeder would drive the Storm as his personal car for some 16 years, and then donated it to Northwood University in Michigan. It sat for 20 years there with no real maintenance, and when Zeder retrieved it in 1992, a new engine and revamped transmission had to be installed. He would drive it for a few more years, and ultimately it would be donated to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where it can be seen today as part of the permanent collection.