Thursday, November 4, 2010

1941 Packard One-Twenty Convertible Sedan; 1957 DeSoto Fireflite; 1958 Thunderbird -- One student's reflections on a visit to a Conours

Hi folks -- I received a most interesting report on a visit to the Dayton Concours by one of my students enrolled in HST 485, a seminar on the automobile and American life. I wanted to share this with you all --

Robert Buchsbaum III

Oct 23, 2010,

Hst 485: Automobiles

Prof. Heitman

Extra Credit Assignment: Carillon Park 2010 Concours Antique Car Show

A few weeks ago on a Sunday noon, September 19, 2010, I travelled to Carillon Park, Dayton to attend the 2010 Concours car show. Almost 200 old cars were there along with a few antique motorcycles and a couple of newer cars (like the 2007 Lamborghini Roadster). My reaction to the event was that it was a beautiful day, a festive atmosphere almost like a state fair, loaded with all kinds of people who were car fans, some with their families. Many of the car owners were on the premises, sitting or standing near their cars, some of them straightening things around their cars or handling car maintenance items such as rags or brushes. Many of the most avid car fans seemed to be older men and women who were themselves a sampling of Ohioan antiquity. I found myself wondering if they were there to reminisce in memories of their youth refreshed by seeing the kinds of cars they might have once owned and driven. I also found myself wondering if future generations would respect the culture of the car enough to continue these shows in later decades.

Of the many cars at the show, my attention was taken by 3 in particular, whose history and significance I would like to discuss in this report. They were: a 1941 Packard One-Twenty Convertible Sedan, owned by Don Williams; a 1957 Desoto Fireflite owned by Gregg Sipe; and a 1958 Ford Thunderbird owned by Michael Wellmeier. I do not know why I was spontaneously drawn toward these three cars—possibly a combination of fascination with their odd model names (“One-Twenty,” “Fireflite,” and “Thunderbird”) and something about their overall shape and style caught my imagination and gained my appreciation and interest. My thoughts came back to my parents’ 1986 Corvette Stingray and the idea that perhaps one day it could be an antique at a show like this.

The Packard motor company was significant in American history as the role model of the big, luxury car that catered to the upper (or upper-middle) class budget and offered a powerful, luxurious, handsome, big vehicle. The company founder was a mechanical engineer who anecdotally started his car company in Warren, Ohio after he was challenged by the maker of the Winton car in 1898 to “build a better car.” The Packard company was in existence until it was taken over by Studebaker in the 1950s and by the mid 50s the Packard design disappeared from the market. Packard contributed the first steering wheel and powerful engines that grew in number from 1 to eventually 12 cylinders. Packard cars were the most popular and famous American luxury car of the first decades of the 20th century, expensive and usually purchased only by the rich, until they lost their position of dominance in the 1930s as the GM’s Cadillac took over the lead.

In response to losing its position as the number one big car, Packard diversified by developing a medium sized (or slightly smaller “large” looking car) the “One-Twenty” which became popular as a vehicle cheaper in price and thus available to a wider spectrum of middle class customers. However, eventually it came to compete for sales with other smaller cars that were increasing in size toward the One-Twenty size. The One-Twenty’s hey day was in the 1930s and the last version was made in 1941 as WWII broke out. Since Packard went to airplane production once the automobile companies were “conscripted” by the U.S. government, it did not return to making Packard cars until the post WWII era of the mid 1940s until it finally was absorbed by Studebaker due to economic nonviability. During the 1930s the One-Twenty had sales around 17,000 to 28,000 per year, which is a goodly number considering the Great Depression was ongoing. Its price at that time was generally under $2000, which was considered moderate for the time.

Packard cars were very well thought of by their owners and indeed, the company’s slogan was “Ask the Man Who Owns One.” Packard’s significance in history was to set a high standard of quality and reliability that helped guide the auto industry into the manufacture of cars that the nation could be confident in owning and operating. It also created an aura of prestige as a gentleman’s car meaning a sign of upward social and economic status, and as such may have had a role in helping form the identity of class consciousness in what was purportedly a democratic society of people with equality. As a prestige symbol, it may have subconsciously contributed to elitism in America. Packard’s legendary victory in speed racing cars was peaked in 1919 when its “Gray Wolf” car set new records. The “Gray Wolf” was a model that became sold in quantity to the public. It had a top speed of 149 mph. Packard stopped its interest in speed and durability competition races after its great victory in 1919. The One-Twenty 1941 models, such as the one at the Carillon Concours car show, represented the “last hurrah” for the Packard One-Twenty series and foreshadowed the ultimate end of an era to which Packard had materially (and attitudinally) contributed.

The DeSoto company was an offshoot of the Chrysler Corporation and lasted from 1928, when it was introduced by Chrysler founder Walter Chrysler, until 1961, when the last models were sold without further production. It was named for Hernado DeSoto, a Spanish conquistador who had brutally colonized much of the lower half of North America in the 1500s but to the American public the DeSoto car symbolized freshness, bold adventurousness, and a jazzy perspective on life. As the model went through stylistic changes in the 1930s through 1960, it came to acquire a more futuristic space-age appearance. The DeSoto line consisted mainly of V6 and later V8 engines and was considered a mid-price range car for the middle income type of car buyer looking for comfort, style, and reliability. Business sales started out phenomenally with around 80,000 sold the first year and remained brisk even through the Depression. During WWII, DeSoto built army tanks and other war production items.

After WWII, DeSoto returned to production and reached one of its peak sales years around 1949 to 1950, after which it fell into progressive decline until its disappearance as a model after 1961. DeSoto cars usually outclassed their competitors with a futuristic or romanticized appearance starting with the 1934 “Airflow” that was based on aerodynamic studies showing cars had previously been built “backward” in terms of their aerodynamic efficiency. The “Airflow” looked a little like an elongated Volkswagen “Beetle” with a front grill to let air pass through (hence, the car’s name) more easily. It was designed to have the front row seats forward and the engine moved between the front wheels, a futuristic design with good stability that caught on in the car industry. Just prior to WWII, in 1939, DeSoto cars had acquired a plush “Hollywood” look and in the late 1940s acquired a futuristic “rocket” shape. One of the trademark features was the wide front grille that resembled a toothy smile. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the DeSoto cars became larger and more powerful, including new more efficient engines that were built in competition with other car manufacturers who were engaged in a kind of “horsepower” race to see who could build the most powerful engine for a mid-size car. Around this time (early 50s) the word “fire” became a part of these more powerful Chrysler and Desoto cars, including the DeSoto FireDome and the Chrysler Firepower.

By 1955 the DeSoto Fireflite V8 was being sold. It had a powerful “hemi” engine and was styled to project an image of power. By 1956 the DeSoto Adventurer, a very powerful car for its size, was being sold with the slogan “DeSoto sets the pace.” In 1957, the year of the model I saw at the Carillon car show, DeSoto introduced a radically new, futuristic style for its Fireflite cars including fan-shaped tail-lights that provided air stability at high speeds. Although sales were high this year, a number of 1957 models had severe manufacturing defects due to quality control problems, damaging the DeSoto reputation. At the same time, corporate struggles among the Chrysler manufacturer businesses were not supportive of expansion for DeSoto into the lower price range market. As sales continued to drop, the Desoto production factory was moved to Chrysler and finally dropped by 1962.

The DeSoto represented a middle range “dream car” or futuristic car during the 1930s to 1960. It gave fire and imagination to the rest of the car industry with its breathtaking stylistic innovations and became very popular in its heyday with the average American family of moderate means looking for reliability and perhaps trying to make an impression on the neighborhood with a flashy car that looked better than its cost. As such it went right along with the futuristic and space-age inclinations of America as it moved through the post WWII phase, a time of aspirations and increased material prosperity compared to WWII and the Depression of the 1930s. Not only an impressive car in its time, the DeSoto remains impressive at car shows. Ford Motor Company started in 1903 with Henry Ford and soon led the nation with its factory production line, low priced cars that were alphabetically named including the famous Model T. Ford diversified its production line with luxury Lincoln cars and mid-priced Mercury cars in succeeding years. It also developed hot rods called Roadsters.

One of its more interesting lines was the Thunderbird, which has undergone 12 generations of styles from its origin in 1955 to the first decade of the 21st century. Ford decided to manufacture a personal luxury car that looked like a sports car when Chevrolet came out with the Corvette in 1953. The first generation of Thunderbirds were made 1955-1957. These were sleek cars with sports appearances and 2 doors. They sold under 20,000 units in the first year.

A second generation of Thunderbirds, known by the nickname “square birds,” were the first generation of Ford cars to use what has now become the familiar unibody frame. It was also the first of many Thunderbird generations to have 4 doors. The second generation “square bird” was introduced in 1958 (the year of the model I saw at the Carillon car show). Beginning with the second generation “square birds,” the Thunderbird skyrocketed in popularity and began selling at around 90,000 or more cars per year, probably because it appealed to middle to upper price buyers with families who needed a 4 door car rather than a 2 door car; it probably also appealed to the buyer who wanted to fantasize or romanticize about driving a car with sports car features and looks, but also wanted a practical but luxurious personal vehicle that would be usable for everyday life activities such as driving to work or driving the family around.

Every few years Ford would come out with a new generation of Thunderbirds, accounting for generations 3 through 12. All of these were 4 door cars. The generations were called by slang names such as “jet birds,” “aerodynamic birds,” and “big birds” to emphasize how they were uniquely styled.

The model I saw, a 1958 “square bird” 4 door car, was built at a time when the U.S. was involved in the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. and had turned the corner on McCarthyism; it was heading rapidly toward the “military-industrial” complex predicted by Eisenhower and was about to enter the space-age race to the Moon as well as greater political complexities with the soon to arrive Vietnam Conflict. So this was a time of increasing American aspirations, conservative tendencies, high consumerism, and guarded attitudes about the world and the future. For a time of cautious optimism, the Thunderbird may have been a way for a car owning male to act out, through the appearance and performance of his vehicle, fantasies about being virile, aggressive, powerful, and flashy, while behaving in a much more conservative fashion when outside of his car. For today’s antique car enthusiast, the Thunderbird of the past offers a chance to reminisce about earlier days when life was a simpler event. It is also of interest that Thunderbirds are a modern car, so the legend goes on...

Works Cited

Duricy, Dave. The origin of DeSoto cars (a Chrysler division), 1-20. (accessed October 10, 2010).

Edmunds publishing group. “Ford Thunderbird History.” ) (accessed October 15, 2010).

Grant, Marcus. "The History of Packard Cars." October 20, 2010. (accessed June 10, 2009).

Edmunds publishing group. Ford History. (accessed 0ctober 15, 2010).

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