Monday, May 22, 2017

Another Auto History Legend: the closed car of the 1920s

Historical "facts" are often passed on from generation to generation in automotive history.  Take my narrative on the coming of closed car bodies in the 1920s, from chapter 5 of my The Automobile and American Life:

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
Year
Open Cars (%)
Closed Cars (%)
1919
90
10
1920
84
16
1921
78
22
1922
70
30
1923
66
34
1924
57
43
1925
44
56
1926
36
74
1927
15
85
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.”43 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.”44 Clearly, the message was that Budd-engineered closed body cars were worth the money spent.


Note the second sentence, underlined italicized and in red. Then check out this ad in a 1917 issue of Auto Topics:




Note that my highlighted sentence is inconsistent with above image!  A good reason for the appearance of the 2nd edition of my The Automobile and American Life, slated for the second half of 2017!


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