Automobiles in the 1930’s
The 1930’s will always be remembered for the dark times during the Great Depression. It was during this time that automobiles acquired nearly all the features that are evident today. Driving was confined to the middle and upper classes. The automobile industry did not fare well during the 1930’s; however, it was during this time that some of the major automobiles that are with us today were created.
This paper focuses on automobiles during the 1930’s. This paper will cover the construction of automobiles during the 1930’s. This paper will also discuss popular automobiles during the 1930’s. The purpose of automobiles and their effect on society will also be covered in this paper. Information for this paper will be gathered from books and the Internet.
The “Big Three” were Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. They emerged during the great depression, when they responded to the economic crisis by lowering their prices and limiting trade-ins. During this time, the “Big Three” continued to produce new cars with new features and designs(”DeSoto” Internet). During the Great Depression, smaller companies started to fold, driving out smaller independent producers(Internet). This development is what allowed the larger companies on the market to strengthen.
The automobile industry suffered severely during the great depression. The United States production of automobiles fell 44 percent by 1932 to 1,300,000 automobiles (Unstead 28). This was the lowest production of cars since 1918. Autoworkers were becoming jobless because of plant closings and lowered production(28). General Motors was able to make a profit during the 1930’s(29). Many firms went bankrupt during the depression; others went to truck production and managed to survive.
The use of steel greatly helped the automobile industry during the 1930’s. During this time period, steel could be pressed into different types of shapes(28). This gave car designers greater freedom to create different types of shapes. With these different shapes the car designers created cars with completely different looks than of previous cars(28). The 1932 Cadillac was the first car to eliminate the box-like look of automobiles(28). Morris Cowley said, ” Bodies have become less box-like, and there is more concentration on curves and streamlining with the addition of steel”(28). The cars stood high with more headroom and legroom for the passengers then cars do today.
A huge structural advance in automobiles during the 1930’s was streamlining. Streamlining was a way of styling cars that gave them an aerodynamic look(Bondi 188). The automobile manufacturers during he 1930’s designed cars with the same principles of airplanes and high-speed trains(188). Streamlining helped to reduce the car’s drag, and gave the car better fuel economy(188). It also reduced the wind noise that a car made because of its different shape(188). Alfred Sloan said, “visually, streamlining integrates the car’s visible features into a more unified and flowing whole, in contrast to the odd mix of shapes and angles of earlier automobiles such as the Model T”(188). Overall, with the advance of streamlining in the 1930’s, it helped to give automobiles a much smoother ride.
Ford’s V-8 got great reviews during the 1930’s. The car featured a drop frame construction, which brought the passenger compartment down from its high perch up on the axles to between the front and rear axles, where it is on most present day cars(Bondi 189). John Dillinger, who was considered by the Federal Beureau of Investigation to be Public Enemy Number One said, “You have a wonderful car. It’s a treat to drive one . . . I can make any other car take a Ford’s dust,”(189). Also the notorious bank robber Clyde Burrow wrote, “Even if my business has not been strictly legal it does not hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8(189).
The DeSoto Airflow was said to be the most revolutionary car of the 1930’s. The Airflow was the first car to have a unified body, giving the car a roomier interior(”DeSoto” Internet). The structure of the car also made it sturdier, which, at the time, most cars lacked. In the front of the Airflow, it had an art deco grille(Internet). The Airflow also had an integrated trunk and rounded headlights mounted over the front fenders. Charles Nash said that, “the Airflow was out of step with the buying public, which found it unattractive”(Internet). The public only purchased fewer then eleven thousand units of the DeSoto Airflow(Internet). Chrysler took the technical advances from the Airflow, and put them into its mid-priced sedans(Internet).
Powel Crossley, who was an inventor of inexpensive radios and refrigerators, spent his time during the depression trying to make a lightweight automobile(Bondi 189). In 1938, he completed a small convertible Sedan with tiny wheels, wide doors, and a streamlined hood and front end(189). This car was able to accelerate to the upper speed of fifty miles per hour with its eighty-inch wheelbase, forty-inch tread, and two-cylinder engine. It ran efficiently at fifty miles per gallon(189). This car sold for 325 dollars and only undersold the only other midget on the automotive market, the American Bantam(189).
Alfred P. Sloan brought up Sloanism during the 1930’s. Sloan’s definition of Sloanism was, “constant upgrading of a product”(188). Sloan’s strategy called for blanketing the market with a car at the top of every price range. Sloanism wanted consumers to trade up, for example from a mid-price Chevrolet to a Cadillac via a Pontiac, Oldsmobile, or Buick(188). Alfred Sloan’s remarks to his new idea of Sloanism were, “I hope to produce a car for every purse and purpose”(188). Sloanism brought General Motors to the top of the automobile industry, beating Ford in sales throughout the decade(188). Sloan’s thinking matched the public’s need for new styling and more exciting automobiles(188).
Because of better fuels, materials, and design, engine performances improved during the 1930’s(”DeSoto” Internet). An example is the Morris Cowly’s 1500 cc. engine of the twenties, which was replaced in 1932 by the 1292 cc.(Internet). The 1292 cc. developed more power and used less fuel. Tires also improved during the 1930’s. “Balloon” tires and independent suspension on front wheels gave the cars a more comfortable ride. Bumpers were also being used more and more in cars during the 1930’s(Internet). Safety glass was now being used for windows and hand-operated windshield wipers were being replaced by electric windshield wipers(Internet).
New advances on the body of the car were also developed during the 1930’s. New direction indicators were created, using a semaphore arm, which clicked out from a metal case on the side of the body and told other cars which way you were turning(Unstead 29). Most bodies were the saloon or sedan type, closed in against the weather. However, there was a demand for “sunshine” roofs, usually the sliding-panel type(29). The Station Wagon, or “Estate Car”, came onto the market as an all-purpose vehicle(29). At the time, most cars carried luggage on a steel rack connected to the back of the car, subsequently, an extension of the body into a tail compartment called the “trunk” was invented(Bondi 190).
In the 1930’s automobiles were the nation’s symbol of leisure, convenience, and security(Unstead 28). The middle-class and farming families did not want to give up driving even during the worst years of the depression(28). Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd said that during the worst years of the depression, the publics’ commitment to automobiles had not changed(28). Many new advances such as streamlining were added to cars to make them much more comfortable. People used cars to go to drive-in theatres, the first drive-in theatre opened in Camden, New Jersey in 1933(28).
In the 1930’s automobiles did not make as huge a jump as some may of hoped for, due to the depression. Many advances were made in automobiles during the thirties despite the depression such as streamlining and the use of steel. There were also new cars produced that used some of these new features. Examples are the DeSoto Airflow and the Ford V-8. It is interesting that only three manufacturers really made it through the depression. It seems that all the small manufacturers did not have the financial backing to make it through the depression. As bad a time this was for the United States, the automobile industry was somewhat able to stay resistant to the depression.
While doing this paper, I found it interesting that even during such a dark time in American history, the automobile industry was still able to achieve some accomplishments. Some of the additions to cars during the 1930’s are still with modern cars of today, such as electric windshield wipers and a trunk to store luggage. Unfortunately for the industry, production of these automobiles went down because of the financial situation in America. But with the use of steel, and the idea of streamlining, car designers now had a much larger variety of designs that could be used. Overall, from my perspective, it looks like the automobile industry did as much as it could during the decade of the 1930’s considering the circumstances around it.
Bondi, Victor. American Decades, 1930′2 – 1939. Detroit: ITP, 1995.
“DeSoto Airflow.” Internet. http://www.motorcraft.com/history/1930/index/index.shtml
(19 February 2000).
Unstead, RJ. The Thirties. London: Macdonald, Company, 1974.