Fab Four: Cadillacs, Pontiacs, Packards & Olds

Quartet of 1940s favorites from St. Louis show provides fitting salute to memorable decade in auto evolution.
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St. Louis Auto Show attendees were able to revisit the famous
Futuramic styling of the 1949 Oldsmobile Club Coupe.

Mainstream at nearly every serious old car show are cars from the 1940s. What is it about that decade of design that interests and intrigues collectors?

The subject was put to the test at this year’s St. Louis Auto Show, held Jan. 28 through Feb. 1. Four outstanding examples of American-made cars from that decade vied for public attention among hundreds of new cars and trucks showcased before nearly a quarter million people.

Included in the display was an exceptionally well-preserved 1940 Packard Darrin convertible victoria (one of an estimated 45-50 built on special order); a restored 1947 Cadillac convertible coupe that has registered 21,000 miles in touring; a head-turning 1948 Pontiac Streamliner Sedan, which is a time capsule of preservation; and a 1949 Oldsmobile Model 76 Club Coupe, magnificently rendered to restored perfection and driven. The cars belong to members of the Horseless Carriage Club of Missouri, Inc., which has been involved in the St. Louis Auto Show for 15 consecutive years.

Dipping in a Darrin
When the 1940 Packard Darrin was new, America was far removed from the war in Europe that had begun in late 1939. Congress had no intention of entering the war-torn coast of China where the Imperial Empire of Japan was ravaging the landscape. All that changed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

While some people at the auto show thought about that history, it was the Packard Darrin itself that evoked awe due to its design and rarity. Built in the Connersville, Ind., plant that was part of the Auburn operation, the classic Packard One-Eighty Victoria was the design creation of Howard “Dutch” Darrin. The auto show crowd was mesmerized by the sweeping lines, low silhouette and sleek appearance of the car. Its rakish windshield and “Darrin-dip” door lines were made even more pronounced with the elimination of running boards. The car’s 127-inch wheelbase accentuated its style. Design made this 1940 Packard memorable when it was new, and it remains enchanting today.

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It's not a surprise that this spectacular 1947 Cadillac convertible
got plenty of attention in St. Louis.

Cadillac class
If the auto show was an indication, Americans still respect size and sportiness. A magnificently restored 1947 Cadillac Series 62 Series convertible coupe grabbed its share of attention. Although the car had sold new around the $2,900 mark and was not as rare with 6,755 units being produced, it stole a high percentage of attention among onlookers, just as it did when new. Once the “flying lady” ornament was lifted to unlatch the hood, visitors were quick to examine the 346-cid V-8 engine that delivered 150 hp. 

The 1947 Cadillac was a freshened update of the marque’s prewar styling, and today’s crowd said it was still attractive. What caught many by surprise was the list of options which today’s new cars often carry as standard: automatic transmission, radio, power aerial, under seat heater, fog lamps, power top and power windows.

Powerful Pontiac
The lines of a low-mileage original 1948 Pontiac were quickly compared to the updated “Futuramic” design of the restored 1949 Oldsmobile at the display. One year made a huge difference in the styling switch at General Motors, although Cadillac and top-line Oldsmobiles were already dipping into that new styling in 1948. The viewing public acknowledged the difference in front fenders and roof lines. Some observed that the Olds was similar to Chevrolet in this regard.

Awe-striking Olds
When the 1948 Pontiac sold new, young married couples were settling down by the thousands. The first wave of the “Baby Boom” was well underway. Life held many promises. When the Futuramic 1949 Oldsmobile first took to the roads, it was fresh and exciting in styling, not high and boxy as in the past. America had entered the push-button age of gadgets and appliances. The car’s dashboard reflected that trend. Although the show car cradled a six-cylinder engine, attendees were told that Oldsmobile promoted its new Rocket V-8 engine as a reflection of the “Jet Age” and the “Rocket Age” to come. 

1948 and 1949 were grand years for GM. Pontiac reached fifth in sales for 1948. Oldsmobile claimed seventh for 1949. When the audience at the auto show heard these statistics, they stood in greater awe of the old cars.

A concerted display
The cars in the display reflected one of the most changeable decades in American history. From recession to war, then peace and prosperity, from Depression babies to Baby Boomers, the cars of the 1940s took citizens through the tumultuous decade full of fears, hopes and dreams. Visitors at the display experienced some of this by standing near the graceful fender lines, delightfully long hoods and distinguishing features of these cars of the 1940s. 

Did age play a part in the response of the crowd at the recent show? Yes. Little children seemed to consider all cars equal, whether new or old. The cars of the 1940s meant nothing to them. One reason: small children are still learning the meaning of time, eras and history. Another reason: they were not tall enough to distinguish many of the differences. Around age 10, visitors to the show started appreciating the old cars as different, bigger and — as some noted — classier than new cars. 

From age 10 through 15, children called the cars of the 1940s “gangster cars.” Onlookers in their 20s occasionally called the old cars “big boats” or “monster machines.” People in their 30s and 40s often said their grandparents had owned a car similar to one in the display. People in their ’50s on up recalled seeing the ’40s cars on the streets when they were younger.

The display of cars from the 1940s also promoted the virtues of preservation for unrestored cars, plus the benefits of restoration. The Packard and Pontiac were low-mile originals — not perfect, but outstanding in their authenticity and cosmetic appearance. The restored Cadillac and Oldsmobile were appreciated as touring vehicles and for their impeccable impressions. Visitors to the display were told that many good unrestored cars from the 1940s are still available, many at reasonable prices, in case they wish to enter the hobby. Several people voiced an interest to learn more.

The viewing public came to realize there are two types of dream cars: those that are restored to good-as-new condition and those cars that are so beautifully preserved that they reflect the outstanding craftsmanship of the era in which they were made.

During presentations by display officials, it was noted that an individual can make a great car even greater if the vehicle is pampered and protected from rust, vermin and decay — and after a good number of years, it becomes a gem with the delightful patina of the past. You can’t exactly duplicate its features, the aroma of original wool interiors, the feel of seats and the fit of body panels, plus depth of paint.

On the other hand, they were told that some cars beg for restoration to their former glory.

Truly, cars of the ’40s hold a special mystique that fascinates many car aficionados today. Because of the experience at the show, it is easy to conclude several things. Cars from the 1940s are appreciated for:

Nostalgia: For people born in the 1940s, these cars are reminders of their childhood. The same holds true for many people born in the 1950s. Younger generations like to see the “cars of their parents” or of their grandparents. 

Improvements: The 1940s were transition years marked by widespread progress. Automotively, only a small percentage of cars in 1940 used automatic transmissions. By 1949, the vast majority had the option. High-compression engines gained in popularity. Gadgets grew in appreciation, dash-mounted push-button radios being the most obvious advancement. 

Simplicity: Cars made in the 1940s are metal wonders, relatively simple to tinker into operation. Thick metal can be reworked. There is sparse use of plastic.

Honesty: If cars could be called “honest,” those made in the 1940s would quickly come to mind. These heavy cars were relatively nimble and easy to operate, straightforward in repairs, not hard to maintain and suffered through many strains and much neglect with hardly a whimper. Those are good reasons why cars of the early 1940s survived the ration years of World War II and went on to provide years of service, even to the present for collectors.

Collectible: Cars made in the 1940s provide fun motoring for car collectors and are appreciated by the public. Most are priced moderately and deliver many miles of trouble-free travel. That’s why they are the choice for tour-seekers who drive great distances.

Thanks to the following for making the display possible: Brian Sullivan, Tom Trouba, Ron and Dian Korb, Carl and Lorraine Riesinger, Don and Joan Hoelscher, R. Atkinson, R. Radel, plus Lou and Jackie Allen.

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