Picture: 123RF/Mariusz Blach
Picture: 123RF/Mariusz Blach

The vehicle market in the US in 1932 was said to be “deader than a doornail” as the deepening Depression hit its lowest sales point since 1918. 

In 1929 Wall Street crashed, which resulted in the motor industry’s production for 1930 plummeting to 2.78-million from 4.58-million the previous year.

According to ‘American Cars of the 1930s’, compiled by the Olyslager Organisation, edited by Bart  Vanderveen and published by Frederick Warne & Co, this drastic fall-off in automobile production meant the end of many car manufacturers.

There was something special about 1930s American cars. They were renowned for their endurance, reliability and styling. As Vanderveen says, the 1930s was the decade of change from the “square-bodied” sedans and four-door phaetons to attractive streamlined models. Chevrolet added the “speedline” to its 1937 model. Chrysler went further with its 1937 C9 Airflow Eight and DeSoto with the S2 Airflow Six.

But the last word in styling was the 1937 Cord 812. As Fred Schnetler writes in ‘A Century of Cars’: “If ever there has been a magnificent lost cause, it was the Cord. It was the wrong car at the wrong time.”

It was the idea of Errett Lobban Cord, described as an American financial wizard who revived the “moribund” Auburn Automobile Company. It was he who instructed Fred and August Duesenberg “to build the finest car in the world”. What they built was the most elegant car to have been made in the US.    

It was the Cord L-29, which made its debut shortly before the Wall Street Crash and so had a short production run until 1932. Cord tried again in 1935. But production was interrupted and teething problems cropped up. As a result production of this “magnificent car ended in 1937 when the Duesenberg, Cord and Auburn empire finally collapsed”.

But as Schnetler says, Cord received what could be described as the highest honour in the automobile industry. “The Cord is the only car ever to have been deemed a work of art by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.”

Somewhat different was the 1933 Willys Four 77, redesigned as a result of the Depression. Schnetler describes it as “certainly one of the ugliest cars ever built”. However, it had one of the toughest engines ever built, the Go Devil Classic Four, the engine used to power Jeeps during World War 2.

Ugly or not, Vanderveen says it sold well enough to save Willys-Overland from bankruptcy.   

Schnetler describes the 1933 Terraplane as “one of the fastest cars ordinary people could buy”. Eric Louw, SA’s ambassador in Washington at the time, drove one.

Incidentally, bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker used a Ford, presumably a Flathead V8 model. It is said that Barrow was so satisfied the performance of the car that he wrote to Henry Ford extolling its virtues; its speed and acceleration made it the ideal “getaway” car.

King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, imported a 1936 Buick 8 Series 90 limousine shortly before he abdicated. The car accompanied him to the Bahamas where he was appointed governor-general. It was at the time of the mysterious murder of millionaire Sir Harry Oakes.

Vanderveen says the duke’s Buick provided “a high degree of privacy”, and it was often driven by the duke himself.

It was sold on auction in 1969, fetching £2,300.

Detroit copywriters were lavish in their praises of the different models. The 1931 Dodge was described as “a new beauty famed for its dependability”.   

In the case of the 1935 Auburn the copywriters said that vanity had to be excused. “Vanity and car pride are pardonable prerogatives in the new Auburn Six.”

Prospective customers were told that the 1935 Chevrolet was “the wonder car [that] had speedboat acceleration” and that “the silence of the [engine] is unbelievable”.

Packard simply stated: “Ask the man who owns one.”

Pontiac made good use of hyperbole. It described the 1937 Silver Streak as General Motors’ (GM) masterpiece and “the most beautiful thing on wheels”.

Pierce-Arrow, on the other hand, relied on understatement to get its message across. The colour advertisement depicts the spacious hall of a mansion with an elegant woman and a butler in attendance. “She drives a Pierce-Arrow” was the tagline.

Incidentally, Chevrolet’s well-known “bow-tie” marque comes from the pattern of the wallpaper in a hotel bedroom. It is said that a GM executive who was staying there cut out a piece of the paper, which then became the emblem of the one of the most popular cars in Detroit.