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It was 'Independents' Days' for carmakers in 1940s

Nash & Studebaker were bright beacons following WWII, and a sure sign that there was still room in the market for the smaller independent automakers.

The Nash Ambassador for 1951 wore the styling
its corporation preferred already in 1949 as the
postwar years matured. They were roomy,
comfortable, relatively nimble and reliable for
long trips or hard city driving.

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Wide-open vistas with the potential for fantastic sales success awaited the American car companies that had survived more than a decade of depression in the 1930s and nearly four years of war in the early 1940s. Among the companies itching for success were Nash and Studebaker.

It was a sellers’ market in the late 1940s. A car-hungry public was starved for new wheels, since their old sedans were dropping by the roadside from age, neglect, scarcity of parts and lack of mechanics. This was especially due to the recent Second World War. Car companies rushed to crank out new cars as fast as possible following the cessation of the war in mid-1945. The demand was so great, even prewar designs were acceptable.

Nash Motors, a division of Nash-Kelvinator Corp. based in Detroit, re-installed its automobile production line and ran off prewar versions slightly updated as 1946 models. Dealerships had failed and faltered during the dry war years when stockpiled 1942 cars were only available for essential services through government permission. Nash bolstered its surviving dealerships and signed on new ones.

A.J. Bruen, special representative of the U.S. Treasury Department, had a message for Nash dealers: “People never miss the water until the well runs dry ... Availability of money for financing business in general and the automobile business in particular appears to be in the same classification these days.” Loans abounded. Businesses boomed.

The future looked bright even with looming clouds building high. But there was a downer. On June 6, 1948, Charles W. Nash closed his eyes for the last time. Mr. Nash, called “The Great Independent,” had risen through experience. From the carriage business in Flint, Mich. he entered car production following an 1897 ride in a horseless carriage in New York City. He joined forces with David Dunbar Buick, soon heading the production of Buicks. Next, he garnered experience with Oakland, Oldsmobile and General Motors Trucks. He was granted the presidency of General Motors in 1912. In 1916, he purchased the manufacturing facilities of Thomas B. Jeffrey Co. in Kenosha, Wis. That’s when the corporation was labeled with his name.

Nash absorbed Lafayette Motors Corp. in 1924, thus adding the luxury carmaker to its stable. The Mitchell Motor Car Co. was merged with Nash in 1925. Production of Nash automobiles exceeded 138,000 by 1928. In 1936, Seaman Body was added to the corporate blend. Charles Nash, at 72, wooed George Mason as successor. But this came only after Mason demanded the inclusion of Kelvinator, the booming appliance company which he headed. The consummation occurred in 1937. Mason became Nash-Kelvinator’s president. Charles Nash led the board until his passing.

Mason forged ahead. The Nash 600 and Ambassador were called “stars on the highways” by Nash ad men. They signed a deal for Eagle-Lion Studios, Inc., to feature Nash cars in movies. Having a celebrity step from behind the wheel of a Nash on screen was good business. Mason loved it. So did Nash owners.

Around the bend was Nash’s new styling — aerodynamic and round, almost rotund, but a serious driving machine. Roominess was a welcome feature fit for postwar families on the go. Economy and performance were assured through Nash engineering. The future looked even brighter as 1950 approached.

A range of new car companies sprang up in the late 1940s. Many were green shoots of ideas that quickly browned and died. Some bore beautiful blooms that soon dropped as fresh corporations succumbed to a lack of financing. Others could not break the hard ground of competition and shortages of materials. The Playboy came and went shortly after the ink of its news announcements had dried. The three-wheel Davis and other provocative designs fell fast. Tucker gained immense news coverage but followed the same course.

Then there was Studebaker.

In the early 1950s, the car business in America was vastly different than a handful of previous years. It was a buyers’ market. Car companies savagely vied for market shares. Among the “Big Three” (General Motors, Chrysler Corporation, and Ford Motor Co.) it was the “survival of the fattest.” Their existences were not at risk, only their corporate waistlines. Among independent carmakers, it was “survival of the fittest.” While a few had some extra pounds they could lose, there wasn’t much flab that remained from lucrative wartime production profits. Newcomer Kaiser-Frazer had made a tremendous cut into the fat and muscle of the car market, thinning the shanks of some independents.

Studebaker had been among the first big car companies to issue its postwar styling. It scooped the Big Three. It led the parade with its 1947 “which-way-is-it-going” style that people adored or hated. Regardless, no one denied it was distinctive. It sold well, with high levels reached in 1950.

But change was needed. An April 1953 headline in “The Studebaker News” issued to dealers and salesmen shouted, “Smart, Gay and Dashing ... Auto Editors Sing Praises of ’53s For Styling And Performance.” The Studebaker head office added that its new 1953 models had attained “unquestioned leadership in styling of American automobiles.” The quote came from the February edition of California Engineer magazine — hardly a top-line publication that impressed millions of subscribers. But it was not alone.

Motorsport magazine announced in April that “Studebaker, styling pace-setter in 1947, does it again! … A place of honor among the ’53 cars must go to Studebaker for a refreshing design that incorporates function and beauty, character and grace, elegance and simplicity.”

Motor World magazine, in its February 27, 1953, issue, noted, “The (new, specially built, $5,000-plus sports cars now on the market) will have to take pretty much of a back seat to the really smart, gay and dashing new Studebaker.”

Speed Age magazine for April of 1953 added, “The Studebaker Corporation and designer Raymond Loewy have come up with an automobile that breaks as sharply with American contemporary design as did their postwar predecessors.” Then Popular Science acclaimed the 1953 Studebakers as “the result of a stylist’s dream come true.”

There were other accolades, to be sure, but endorsements and glowing tributes do not buy cars. Cash does. People liked much of what they saw in the somewhat European appearance of the 1953 Studebaker. Other people weren’t sure they liked it. Still others turned up noses and walked to competitors.

The advanced design was not sufficient to increase Studebaker’s share of the market. Its portion was dwindling, as were those of Nash, Hudson and Packard. Those heavy clouds seen on the horizon in the late 1940s were growing ominous for the independents.

The storm was brewing. But for a time yet, in 1953, hopes rose high in the hearts and minds of car executives who believed those clouds could be disbursed amid the dawning of a bright new future.

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