Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Transition to all Steel Automobile Bodies During the 1920s: Budd Coachwork

Cars as Homes
            Since the 1920s, the home and the automobile have been inexorably linked.39 Perhaps a word should be said at the outset about psychological meaning of these two things. The word home – and clearly very different than house – has a meaning that is distinctive in American culture and in the English language. For example, home is not exactly translatable in the Italian, French, or Hungarian languages. It is a sacred place to many, a sphere in which inhabitants shape a material environment that is essentially reflective of self. For many individuals, the home is a place of relaxation, comfort, and intimacy with others. The walls and ceiling of a home provide safety from the elements and hostile others. The home is also a place of special objects. In some cultures, the Middle East for example, the car dashboard contains numerous trinkets. A generation ago, St. Christopher medals were attached to many American dashboards. Not only did my parents always have a St. Christopher medal in the car, they also had other non-essential gadgets from time to time. For example, my cousin had a 1950 Oldsmobile with a vacuum-assisted pop-up bird on the dash that responded to increases and decreases in acceleration. It was like having a bird in a cage in the living room.
            In any case, typically for men, that special object attached to the home is often the automobile, a possession that conveys status; for women, the things that mean the most in a home are usually connected with loved ones or special people. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eurgen Rochenberg-Halton, the home “brings to mind one’s childhood, the roots of one’s being.”40 I can certainly attest to this with regards to the car as an extension of the home, as some of my first memories center on the dashboard, radio, ashtrays, lighter and upholstery of my father’s 1948 Chevrolet.
            For the car to be an extension of the home, it had to be closed rather than open, unlike the pre-WWI roadster or touring car. Thus, the first and undoubtedly most important step in creating personal space in the automobile was the closed steel body. Historian James J. Flink has called this development “the single most significant automotive innovation.”41 Almost immediately after World War I, public demand increased dramatically for a closed car that would no longer be a seasonal pleasure vehicle, but rather all-weather transportation. The few closed body cars built before WWI were extremely expensive and the work of custom coach builders. This rise in demand during the 1920s, coupled with a remarkable number of concurrent technical innovations in plate glass and steel manufacture, resulted in a revolution in production methods, productivity and economies of scale. William J. Abernathy has carefully characterized the transformation that took place on the shop floor and assembly line, the first fruits of which occurred when in 1921 Hudson first mass-produced a closed car. The transition away from rag tops (the word convertible was first used in 1927 and officially added to the Society of Automotive Engineers lexicon in 1928) was rapid and contributed to a venerable prodigy of production by the end of the 1920s, as depicted in Table 4.
Table 4. Transition from Open to Closed Cars
Open Cars (%)
Closed Cars (%)
Source:  John Gunnell, Convertibles: The Complete Story (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: 1984), 129.
            Significant improvements in the quality of sheet steel were certainly part of this story, but so too were developments in welding technology, the development of sound deadening materials, and construction of the single unit body. All of these innovations and far more were pioneered by the Budd Manufacturing Company. Typical of the Budd All-Steel ads of the mid-1920s was one that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926, with the headline “Put the Protection of All-Steel Between You and the Risks of the Road.”42 Like the safety inherent in a home, the steel body protected its occupants, especially women and children. The ad continued, “Self preservation is the first law on Nature. Today, with 19,000,000 cars crowding the highways . . . With the need for safer motoring more urgent than ever before . . . America is turning to the All-Steel Body. It is the greatest protection ever devised to prevent injury in the case of accident. See that your next car is so equipped!”  A second 1926 Budd ad, like the first mentioned, depicted a closed car traveling down a busy city street but in its own clear lane, separated on both sides by huge sheets of steel that prevented the masses of cars on each side from touching the car and harming its occupants. The headline for this ad read in part, “The protection which it [the all-steel body] brings to you and to your families is priceless – yet the cars which have it cost no more than those which do not.”43 Clearly, the message was that Budd-engineered closed body cars were worth the money spent.

 The rationale Budd used in ads published during the 1920s continued during the 1930s in the General Motors ads featuring the “Turret-Top” design that contained such sentences as, “The instant feeling of security you get . . . is beyond price.”44 Surprisingly perhaps, the pitch toward safety was far more prevalent in ads of the 1930s than one might think, although ironically during the early 1930s convertibles were the center of many ads, even when closed cars were pictorially featured!45 On the eve of WWII, however, the theme of the home and the car was clearly brought together, as reflected in a Hudson advertisement featuring a beautifully attired woman sitting in a plushy upholstered rear seat. The ad touts the availability of “a wide selection of interior color combinations that harmonize with the exterior colors . . . at no extra cost!” This ad has clear-cut similarities in terms of an emphasis on color and comfort to paint ads of the same period, as exemplified by the Sherwin-Williams Paint and Color Style Guide of 1941.46
            In automobiles, up to now, one upholstery color has usually done duty with every body color. Carpets, floor mats, steering wheels, and trim have introduced still other assorted colors and tones.
            Now Hudson’s Symphonic Styling gives you, in your 1941 car, the kind of color that permit a wide variation in the details and equipment of each individual car, without interfering with orderly, efficient mass production. Symphonic Styling is the climax of this long-time development.47
            With the widespread adoption of the closed body car by the late 1920s, automotive engineers next turned their attention to the suspension system.48 To the uninitiated, suspension system engineering involves very complex mechanics and geometry.49 One area of concern focused on shock absorbers or dampeners. In addition to mechanical and hydraulic improvements, air springs, or the insertion of an inflatable inner tube inside a coil spring, was one strategy developed during the 1920s and 1930s to improve ride. A second involved driver control of the shock absorber system, and in 1932 Packard pioneered a Delco-Remy unit in which a cable mounted on the dash vastly enhanced ride quality and handling.50 The most important innovation, however, was the introduction of independent front suspension.51 First used by Mercedes in 1932, independent front suspension was installed in Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile and Chrysler vehicles in 1934, with Ford only adopting this technology after WWII. Pre-war Pontiacs and Chevrolets employed a not nearly as effective Dubonnot design. The potential advantages of independent front suspension, however, were never fully realized, however.

            The closed body style was designed for all-weather driving, as previously mentioned, but it took several decades before climate control within the personal space of the automobile became efficient and widely introduced. Beginning around 1925, aftermarket manufacturers began to sell hot water type heaters for American automobiles.52 The problem of heating the car was more difficult than what one might initially think: proper controls and the mixing of heated air coming from a heat exchanger with ventilated fresh air did not take place until 1937, when Nash introduced its WeatherEye system. Variants of the Nash system were introduced by Buick in 1941 and Ford in 1947 (Magic Air). 

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