• U.S.

Business: Four-Wheel Debutantes

9 minute read

The doors of Manhattan’s soot-flecked Grand Central Palace this week open on the 1939 version of the greatest annual U. S. fashion parade, The National Automobile Show.*

Keynote of every automobile show is burgeoning optimism. Last year optimism seemed logical—except for 1929, 1937 was the industry’s best year. But behind its optimistic front, the automotive industry knew as well as anyone else that the economic highway was being strewn with tacks. Warily, the industry proceeded with 1938 production, but not warily enough. By spring, when Depression II was in full slump, even low-gear production had turned out many more units than the dealers could move.

This week, however, the nation’s No. 1 industry is again bursting with optimism. By September 30, close of the automobile year, profits had declined as much as 70%, employment had been cut one-third, total production of 2,704,992 units was little more than half 1937’s. But even this figure was nearly twice as high as 1932’s Depression I low. And by the season’s end the glutted used-car market was back to normal and only 90,000 new cars remained unsold, an almost unprecedented cleanout of the nation’s 45,000 showrooms.

With the slate thus wiped clean, with the new cars full of genuine mechanical improvements and priced below 1938 (though still above 1937), and with the public snapping up the advance models and ordering more, Detroit was sure its 1939 fashions would click.

Most significant advance this year is the virtual disappearance of the familiar wobble-stick gearshift lever; almost all 1939 cars will sport some sort of steering-post-mounted gearshift either as standard or extra equipment. While most of these systems are merely conveniently placed substitutes for the old wobble-stick, some use the vacuum energy generated by the engine’s air-intake systems to operate automatic clutching and transmission changing. A few 1939 models (with optional equipment) approach this trend’s ultimate aim: to relieve the driver of all concern with transmission control, enabling him to give fuller attention to modern, high-speed traffic problems. Other changes: Running boards are abandoned completely in some models, optional in others. The rumble has given way to the 4-to-6 seat coupé. General savings in gas consumption and in wear & tear are promised from the overdrive, an automatic super-high gear that engages somewhere between 23 and 35 m. p. h., cutting the motor speed down almost to that of the drive shaft. Not the same as freewheeling, the overdrive provides free-rolling efficiency while still retaining the braking power of the engine; is conceded wider favor than free-wheeling since it requires no manual operation.

Other new wrinkles include rotary door latches that catch without slamming; increased visibility through bigger windshield area; sliding sunshine panels in sedan tops; “catwalk-cooling” grilles low-set on the catwalk apron between hood and fenders to scoop up the theoretically cooler air near the ground. Adopted by no manufacturer but approved by the U. S. Patent Office is an extra-special gadget invented by David O. Wilson of Santa Monica, Calif.—at the touch of a button on the dash, this rear-end device waggles a derisive tongue and gives a Bronx cheer to the horntooter behind (see cut ).

> In 1938 sales, as in 1936 and 1937, Chevrolet led the pack, hotly pressed by Ford, with Plymouth third. But stable for stable, the Ford, Lincoln-Zephyr combination ran third, the Chrysler line (Plymouth, De Soto, Dodge and Chrysler) second and General Motors (Chevrolet, Pontiac. Buick, Oldsmobile. LaSalle and Cadillac) far out in front. For 1939, Henry Ford has two major bids for a return to the day when flivvers led the field: 1) a new car, the Mercury, to tap the middle-price field; 2) installation, at last, of hydraulic brakes in all models. Only other newcomer in the field is an oldtimer, the Overland, which reappears as big brother to the little Willys.

The list from A to Zephyr.*

American Bantam, smallest of the streamlined lot (120 in. over all), comes in a standard coupé at $399, a station wagon no bigger than a doghouse at $565, and nine intermediate models.

Buick has low, spread-eagled, “catwalk-cooling”‘ radiator grilles, a distinctive narrow nose. Down in price from $16 to $102, the four straight-eight series of Buicks now cost $996 to $2,074. Standard on all models this year is the handi-shift gear control; optional on some are sunshine tops, stream boards.

Cadillac, lower and longer except in the unchanged V16, offers four models in its Sixty-One series, a Sixty Special (touring sedan), Fleetwoods for the custom trade, LaSalles for the middle-price buyer. Prices: $1,320 to $5,140. Features: “syncromatic shift” on the steering post, sunshine top, “Controlled Action Ride,” which reduces sidesway through a new rear springing system.

Chevrolet, Master 85 and Master DeLuxe, is priced lower at from $710 to $766. Available: vacuum remote gearshift control ($10). The vacuum gearshift system has a manual stand-by control, for use in getting the car going if the battery fails.

Chrysler. The six-cylinder Royal has been stepped up to 100 h. p., its price to $1,010. The Imperial eights ($1,198) have a new 135-h. p. motor. A “super-finish” on moving parts makes them fit to 2/1,000,000 in. Standard on the Custom job, extra on the others is the “Cruise and Climb” overdrive. Standard on all is a speedometer that sheds an approving green glow up to 30, an amber light through the 30s and 40s, a warning red over 50.

De Soto. In twelve models in two series, DeLuxe ($970) and Custom ($1,023), it frankly resembles the Chrysler. The motor precision is accurate to only 3/1,000,000 in. Extra: overdrive.

Dodge, eight years in the Chrysler family, is entering its own silver jubilee year. Like De Sotos, 1939 Dodges look like Chryslers, have ten body styles in Luxury Liner Special ($855) and Luxury Liner DeLuxe ($905). Only vestige of the old Dodge is the Rocky Mountain Ram and the nameplate.

Ford’s V-8 (60 or 85 h. p.) looks like last year’s DeLuxe: this year’s DeLuxe looks more like last year’s Lincoln-Zephyr. Priced at $669, $709, and $769, the new Fords have hydraulic brakes and a gearshift lever that bends out of knees’ way.

Graham is a one-class outfit, its three body styles with slick highbrow radiator fronts and no running boards. Price: $965. For $130 extra, it may be had with custom appointments or supercharger equipment that steps the basic 90 h. p. up to 116. Optional is a steering-post gearshift.

Hudson, dropping the Terraplane model, introduces a new 118 six for $898. The 112 six costs $806; the Country Club series, sixes and eights are $995 and $1,079 respectively. Low-slung, with low-set triptych grille-work up front, Hudson has a standard mechanical steering-post gearshift, an optional automatic gearshift control and automatic clutch.

Hupmobile, out of the running for more than two years, is back with a new president, onetime Chicago Dealer S. L. Davis, and the dies of the flashy, ahead-of-its-time Cord of a few years back. The low-priced Skylark six struck from these dies is sleek and slip-streamy with a 101-h. p. motor for which is claimed the fastest getaway of any U. S. car. Price: $895. (Later a 4-cylinder motor will be installed for a lower-price market.) Other Hupps: the Senior Six ($995) and Eight ($1,145), conventional streamliners with optional overdrive equipment. Standard on all: steering post gearshift.

Lincoln. All are custom-built except the V12 Lincoln-Zephyrs, which are fundamentally unchanged in design, still look modern after three years. Price: $1,360

Mercury, the Fords’ newcomer, has 116-in. wheelbase, a crested, prow-cut hood front, with low, horizontal grille work, bird’s-eye headlights in the fender fronts, a V8, 95-h. p. motor. Price: $934 Gadget: pinpoint pilot light for the ignition keyhole.

Nash offers 22 models in its four series of sixes and eights at prices ranging from $840 to $1,235. Ruggedly streamlined, Nash features for 1939 its “Weather Eye,” a dash control which tunes in interior air-conditioning like a radio; its sedan interior which makes up into two bunks for roadside snoozing.

Oldsmobile has three series: a new six-cylinder Sixty in the medium price field at $889 and its Seventy six and Eighty eight, lower-priced than last year at $952 and $1,043. Retained is the straight-line streamline; stressed is “rhythmic ride,” result of new coil springing at the four frame corners; standard is a handishift like Buick’s; optional, the automatic transmission.

Packard, entering its 40th year, is still unmistakably sturdy in its four types—Six, 120, Super Eight and Twelve. Thirty-three body models are available at prices ranging from $1,095 to $4,155. Overdrive is standard on the Twelve, optional on the Six, 120 and Super Eight.

Plymouth, Chrysler’s popular-price car, looks like Chrysler, De Soto and Dodge, has a 114 in. wheelbase, longest any Plymouth ever had. Its five Roadkings ($740), eight DeLuxes ($805), all turn up 82 h.p. Catchiest number showing is the convertible coupé, with a top that slides magically into place or back at the twist of a dashboard knob. Secret: intake vacuum power.

Pontiac introduces a Quality Six at $866. Lower this year by $20 to $40, the regular DeLuxe Six and Eight are $922 up and $970 up respectively. Unspectacularly designed, Pontiac inclines toward roominess, generosity in accessories.

Studebaker’s Commander costs $965, its State President $1,110. Trim and unfussed-over, both types have remote control gear shifting, optional overdrive, interiors conditioned by a “Climatizer.”

Willys in the ultra-low field all by itself, has dressed up its old running mate, Overland, to compete in the crowded medium-low price market. A sleek, rakish-nosed newcomer with open-visor headlights protruding from the fenders, the revived Overland will have a four-cylinder motor just as 1920’s Chummy Roadster did, this one developing 61 h.p. Prices: Overland, $595; Willys, $555 (without trunks).

>About one-fifth of all motor vehicles are used for industrial purposes. This week this billion-dollar fraction of the automotive industry will display its wares—trucks, trailers, tractors and accessories—in the vast Commerce Hall of Manhattan’s Port Authority Building. On the floor will be some 60 samples of 17 truckmakers’ vares, as well as displays of perhaps 80 accessory and engine manufacturers. Theme of the truck show is Diesel power, given a mighty boost in the automotive field because this year General Motors has built its own Diesel engines.

*To be followed, as usual, by shows in other cities from coast to coast.

*Prices given are for four-door touring sedans with trunks, at the factory, and except for Ford. Lincoln-Zephyr, Mercury, Willys and Overland, include the Federal tax.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com