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The Roaring Twenties: Autos, Industry Start to Come of Age

The 1920s were a rollercoaster of a ride for the auto industry.
Before War #27 GP 7-10-15

The Roaring Twenties was a roller coaster ride for the American automobile industry, with peaks and valleys and plenty of high hopes. That’s just the way it was before the onset of the Second World War.

The decade began with a challenge. Due to the sudden conclusion of the First World War in 1918, the U.S. economy stumbled toward normalcy. In an era of “hands off” by the government, society sought its own ways and means to adjust toward a peacetime economy. Sadly, it was not very effective. Soldiers returning to civilian life had no assurance their jobs were waiting. Mustard gas and other atrocious evils of the concluded warfare left a good number of soldiers impaired. The economy took a tumble and a recession greeted the dawning months of the 1920s.

The industry struggled through. Some makers passed quietly. Others, such as independent Lincoln, merged to survive. Ford was a fine partner for Lincoln, albeit the leadership of both companies found it hard to cooperate. Lincoln’s principals found survival was more important than the supreme loss through failure.

While the first decades of the car industry saw loads of inventions and adjustments to car production and capabilities, by the 1920s, the basic design of an automobile had reached a standard. That was good to a degree since a hunger for motor cars developed after the post-World War I recession, and standardization allowed for greater mass production to meet demand. That, in turn, meant less risky experimentation and a move toward reliability and driver confidence as prime directives.

Mass production meant prices edged downward during the 1920s, which made car buying easier. Yet finance plans for loans on new cars also became more popular. Mass production and mass car sales meant the Ford Model T dropped to its bargain price of $260 in 1925.

The 1920s saw the car industry further begin to come of age. A used car market had arisen. Well, better to say it quickly “was a-rising.” First-time buyers were beginning to buy their second car, but did not know what to do with their first. Car dealers saw no profit in buying back the old models. Owners tried to interest dealers of their make with little success and lots of reluctance. Old cars soon were abandoned in droves, making a nuisance and hazard on city streets in large metropolises. In urban settings, car owners merely abandoned their vehicles in fields or consigned them to landfills. Seeing this, car makers eased into a pattern of used car sales methods that eventually redirected the industry. When trying times again came amid the Great Depression and then in World War II with the curtailment of automobile production, the used car market developed during the 1920s offered a glimmer of hope that dealers could stay operational.

The field of car makers had shrunk by the 1920s to those makes that mastered mass production and reliability. Seldom was it possible for a car company to survive on making a couple dozen cars per year in a building that used to be a horse stable. Gone also was the assembly of parts by hand with little regard for mass production techniques or moveable assembly line.

The 1920s were not notable for their automotive innovation, but there were glimmers of invention. In Waltham, Mass., inventor Francis Davis developed the first effective power steering system, which he installed in a 1921 Pierce-Arrow. Driver apprehension was hard to overcome, however, and bugs were to be worked out of the system. The biggest hindrances to mass use of the invention rested in two things: cost of manufacturing and uncertainty of buyers. The first really successful applications of power steering appeared on World War II military vehicles. The innovation didn’t show up on production models of automobiles until 1951.

Safety glass in car use was available in 1926, but car makers did not line up to include it. Why? Cars already sold without the feature. It was more costly. A luxury car buyer would be expected to add at least $200 to the new-car price of his next vehicle if safety glass was used. True, it saved and preserved lives by avoiding shattered shards of sharp glass in accidents. Yet outside of Stutz, which made safety glass a selling point, that wasn’t the concern of other car makers per se. Their actions were meant to bolster the support of bosses and stock holders rather than worry about the safety of car buyers. That view shifted greatly toward safer driving and safer cars as the 1920s cycled along.

Little more than two-score car companies were active in the Roaring Twenties. Those 40 plus concerns seemed to meet the growth of demand. As big companies grew larger, it was not uncommon for a manufacturer to introduce a companion car to its line. General Motors took the tip and eased the name Oakland out and of Pontiac, in.

When the sales dust settled for 1926, car production reached four million units, which amounted to 20 percent of the entire number of car registrations for the country. To augment sales, concerns such as Chevrolet made a quest of selling nearly two-thirds of a million Chevrolets in 1927. And old Henry at Ford was finally convinced that his beloved Model T had to go the way of progress and fade from dealerships.

The result of other events in the 1920s signaled an awakening in the car industry.

Let’s examine more of that in the next installment of “Before the War.”

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