Clunkers & Creampuffs

Chapter 14: The Postwar Boom (1946-55)

As peacetime arrives, automakers struggle to meet pent-up demand for cars, new or used

by James M. Flammang

First cars to reach dealerships in 1946 differed little
from prewar predecessors. Note lack of rear side windows
on this Plymouth convertible – a quirky characteristic
of that moderately-priced brand until 1949 redesign.

After World War II ended in 1945, the clamor to purchase new cars demonstrated how firmly entrenched the automobile had already become. Before the war, more than 29 million cars had traversed American roads. Slightly more than half of American families owned one.

Starting in 1946, months after the Japanese surrender, production of new vehicles began; but it would be a while until supply could meet the postwar demand. Meanwhile, car-deprived buyers were eager and willing to pay bonuses (premiums) to get one of the few new models that could be found.

A "gray market" in "new-used" cars persisted until early 1949. During that period, a 1948 car might have cost the customer at least $500 over list price. Used cars also were in short supply as the postwar boom evolved.

Ceiling prices established by the OPS (Office of Price Stabilization), for both new and used cars, lasted until 1953.

Were the new car models of 1946 and 1947 better than their prewar predecessors? At first, they were just carryovers, similar if not virtually identical to the final 1942 vehicles. Warmed-over prewar designs created a "seller's market," as anything on wheels could easily find a buyer. Auto sales were barely dampened by the 1948-49 economic recession. But by 1949, all the new cars differed substantially from those prewar models.

Well into the 1950s, however, many low-income people were still driving prewar autos. Those late '40s models wouldn't become cheap enough to attract economically-troubled motorists for some time. Meanwhile, the postwar boom largely left them in the dust.

At the 1950 NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association) convention, one topic stood out: the desire to get the 16-17 million remaining prewar cars off the American road.

The seller's market in new cars lasted until at least the end of the postwar boom period. When was that? Opinions differ, but it could have been 1951, or perhaps 1953 when the Korean conflict ended. Or, some analysts have suggested, as late as 1956.

During the decade following the Allied victory in Europe and Japan, with cars rolling off the assembly line for the first time in four years, ownership totals rose steadily. Many urban folks who had managed without a car through the Depression now felt deprived without one. Returning veterans, in particular, typically put a brand-new automobile high up on their lists of immediate goals.

With fully redesigned postwar models available from nearly every manufacturer, sales set a record in 1950. More than 6.6 million new cars reached eager buyers, while registrations hit 40 million. It had taken a couple of years for the auto industry to catch up with growing demand, but by 1950, most folks who craved a new model already had one or could obtain one – provided they had the cash or credit status to cover the cost. Which many families did, as early inklings of substantial postwar prosperity began to appear.

Average earnings of full-time workers remained on par with prices established before World War II, but they rose at a much faster rate in the early postwar years. New-car sales rose steadily through most of the period from 1946 all the way to 1960, peaking in 1955, but then fluctuated considerably.

Used cars would become more readily available as the trade-ins went through the marketing process, but stability in the auto industry took several years to arrive.

Several attempts at developing a cheap new car for the masses fizzled during the postwar boom era, mostly with few (if any) vehicles sold. That short-lived newcomer list included the Del Mar, the three-wheeled Davis, and the King Midget (one of several new makes that could be assembled from a kit). Crosley, introduced before the war, was among the few that captured a significant number of sales into the early 1950s. A handful of mini-size foreign brands also began to trickle into the U.S. market, but their heyday would be a few years into the future.

Even Americans starved for new transportation, it seemed, wanted their cars fully loaded. Upwardly-mobile young families typically shunned small, stripped-down new cars. If a spanking new model wasn't in the cards just yet, they might opt instead for a deluxe-looking used sedan with a familiar brand name.

Though remaining reasonably strong, sales sunk somewhat in the early 1950s. A second boom arrived in 1955, with 7,920,186 new cars sold (42 percent more than in 1954). That record would endure for the following decade. Seven out of 10 families now enjoyed auto ownership.

"Real" new American automobiles arrive (1947-53)

Nearly every manufacturer offered all-new, redesigned models in 1949. Some were ahead of the pack, including Hudson's step-down profile launched for 1948, and Cadillac's adoption of tailfins – inspired by wartime aircraft – in the same year. Studebaker had debuted its distinctive postwar design for the 1947 model year, often dubbed the "coming or going?" model because of the similar profiles of its front and rear ends. A dramatic redesign for 1953 gave Studebaker's two-door coupes a host of design awards, including a spot in a "Ten Automobiles" exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Chrysler (including Dodge and Plymouth) introduced its squarish postwar design during the 1949 season, after releasing a few final 1948 cars as 1949 models. Ford products enjoyed a total redesign for 1949 and a distinctive leaning-forward follow-up in 1952. Most GM brands followed a similar pattern, with dramatically altered 1949 models and a switch to a more upright profile for '53.

Chevrolet for 1955 adopted a squarish stance, making use of GM's A-body, that soon became highly sought-after – especially if equipped with the new overhead-valve V-8 engine rather than the familiar six-cylinder. Pontiac took on the same body, also with new V-8 power. Ford switched from its long-lived flathead V-8 to an overhead-valve version for 1954. Dodge had offered its first V-8 a year earlier, in an abundantly redesigned body. Plymouth joined the V-8 parade for '55.

Chrysler introduced its V-8 in 1951 models. Studebaker offered its first V-8 in 1952, while Hudson never took the V-8 path at all until its merger with Nash in 1955. Packard turned to V-8 power for 1955. A big Packard V-8 powered Studebaker's 1956 Golden Hawk, but in the following year, the company made supercharging available for its Hawk coupes.

Willys, the Jeep maker, was the only major manufacturer not offering a short-stroke, overhead-valve V-8 by the mid-1950s. Kaiser-Frazer dropped out after the 1954 season, without ever going the V-8 route.

After 1953-54, the only way to obtain a car with a straight-eight engine was to head for the used-car lot, in search of a Pontiac or a Buick Special. Both GM brands discarded the inline-eight option by then, substituting a more modern V-8. Packard did likewise, powering its final models with a hefty V-8. Only a handful of postwar cars could have four-cylinder engines, including the Henry J (also marketed under the Allstate brand). Lincoln had installed the last V-12 in a major American make in its 1948 models.

By 1955, the well-documented "horsepower race" was underway, and that year saw a number of new entrants. Chevrolet in 1955, later dubbed "The Hot One," could have either a mild six-cylinder engine or the new V-8. Ditto for Pontiac. Chrysler launched its 300 series for 1955, hitting the one-horsepower per cubic-inch barrier: 300 horsepower emanating from 300 cubic inches. A few years later, Chrysler's legendary "Hemi" V-8 (with hemispherical combustion chambers) joined the high-performance group.

Not only did V-8 engines proliferate, and grow in both size (displacement) and power output, but such performance options as four-barrel and multiple carburetors appeared during the late Fifties. So did an early version of fuel injection, installed on select Chevrolet models in 1957.

Standard dual exhausts had been a Cadillac feature since early in the decade, but were now seen on an expanding number of models – especially on cars aimed at the emerging youth market.

Manual transmissions remained available from most manufacturers through the Fifties, virtually all with column-mounted shift levers. Without a doubt, fully automatic units were clearly the wave of the future.

For Easy Shifting, a comprehensive history of the automatic transmission, Click Here

Buick, Ford, and Mercury cars experienced no major structural change for 1955, but displayed a markedly different look. Wraparound windshields were arriving. Buick and Oldsmobile introduced four-door hardtop body styles. Bodies came in surprising pastel colors. Two-tone paint schemes gained in popularity, and Dodge was especially notable for its three-tone choices. Critics mocked alleged similarities between models, yet the differences were nearly always visible at a glance.

On the technical side, more cars adopted 12-volt electric systems and tubeless tires had forced aside the old inner tubes. Suspended brake and clutch pedals replaced those that descended into the floor. Ball-joint front suspensions substituted for the previous kingpin setups, though Studebaker retained the latter. Inside, Chrysler products briefly adopted a protruding gearshift lever for the automatic transmission, followed by pushbuttons.

On the "never-never" – a new world of "easy" payments

New automobiles cost more in 1955, augmented by availability of new power options. Also new were longer time-payment plans. The old 24-month contract, including a hefty down payment, was being replaced by 30-, 36-, and even 42-month agreements.

During the first 9 months of 1955, the total value of auto contracts grew by $3.7 billion, to more than $14 billion. New loans came to $15 billion, which was twice the 1954 total. About 72 percent of new-car buyers bought their 1955 models on credit, versus 59 percent in 1953.

In a statement to its dealers, reported in The New York Times, General Motors Acceptance Corp. warned that "some customers who should buy used cars are being induced through easy terms to take delivery of new cars." Others were purchasing bigger cars with more options, thus raising the outlay further yet.

With the Korean conflict over in 1953, this was the era of postwar prosperity – a compelling drift toward life on the installment plan. Resistance to credit buying had been fading since the return of World War II veterans.

In contrast, a "Depression mentality" remained prevalent among many older folks. Critics of the easy-payment, credit-over-cash society might have been viewed as old-fashioned moralists, eager to keep hard-working Americans from obtaining as many modern pleasures as possible.

Up-to-date Americans wondered: "Why accept a stripped-down Chevy 150 when one could get a Bel Air with power steering and brakes, a deluxe pushbutton radio, and power-packed V-8, by adding a few dollars to the monthly payment." If an automatic transmission wasn't standard, why not pay the extra couple of hundred dollars for it? For that matter, why deny yourself the comfort of air conditioning, still a comparative rarity in automobiles but available for a few hundred dollars more.

World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, re-elected in 1956. Unemployment dropped below 4 percent. Virtually no one foresaw the forthcoming 1957-58 recession.

Reaching toward the American Dream

Wages had been rising steadily (faster than car prices) since 1946. The average full-time worker earned $76 per week in 1955. That was triple the average 1940 wage, and more than 28 percent higher than in 1950. More than half of American families earned over $5,000 annually. All appeared well with the world.

General Motors dealers were selling 13 used cars for every 10 new ones. Some 8 million vehicles on American roads were over 15 years old (with an average of 85,000 miles on the odometer). The average car was now less than six years old.

Teenagers and young adults, having grown up during wartime and the early postwar years, lacked the firsthand experience with deprivation and high unemployment of their elders. Observing the rising American prosperity, coupled with the greater availability of bigger and better commodities, and inundated with appeals from advertisers, they asked: Why deny yourself these newly created pleasures? Indulge yourself.

Sophisticated marketing techniques had been developing for some years. For the first time, the young foresaw a life better than their parents' – at least in terms of material acquisitions. Thus, desire was already there. Availability of "easy" credit merely cleared the way toward the no-down-payment, suburbanized society to come.

Older folks can be seen as learning from their juniors, about the new credit-based world and how to participate in it. The young had few qualms about signing on the dotted line for a new or late-model auto, the latest console TV, and so forth. Before long, most parents were following along.

Societal pressures mattered, too, especially in those newly-created, tract-house suburbs with carports and car payments, perhaps including a two-car garage to be filled. Transplanted urbanites no longer were content with an older car or – perish the thought! – walking. Those freshly styled hardtops and station wagons became a vital indicator of one's status in the community, not mere means of mundane transportation.

Because of lower birthrates during the Depression, there were fewer teenagers in 1955, but their impact was increasing. By the mid to late Fifties, many were driving their own cars. Used cars, naturally; but the 1955 teen wasn't as satisfied with a third- or fourth-hand jalopy as his or her predecessors had been. As soon as that first full-time job was offered, it would be time to start looking for a better, newer automobile.

With unemployment minimal, most high-school graduates could get a decent-paying job right after graduation. Some were already working long hours before accepting that diploma. Car dealers knew that the freshly affluent young were likely to be steadily employed for the foreseeable future (except those subject to the peacetime draft). Better yet, they would be among the most enthusiastic customers.

Acquisition of a sporty or flashy car – perhaps a Bel Air or Crown Victoria – was often seen as a reason to work at an otherwise unrewarding job. One's car served as the entry point into the realm of commerce and credit. Job applicants were likely to be asked, "How much do you owe on your car?" Those with elderly cars, bought for cash, might have faced a vacant stare of disbelief. Why, everyone owed money on a car, didn't they?

Compared to what came later, those amply redesigned models in the 1949-54 period might still have been on the dowdy side (with a few stimulating exceptions, such as the slick 1949-50 Oldsmobile 88 and Mercury coupe). Driven with relaxed, if agitated, ease by James Dean in the 1954 film Rebel Without a Cause, a mildly modified black example of the latter model inspired the car-purchase fantasies of countless teens. Nearly all of them were male, imagining themselves behind the wheel of a similarly dechromed, lowered Merc, its sheetmetal curves inviting the glances of young ladies. Or so they hoped.

Their fathers and uncles, meanwhile, might have entertained a lascivious thought or two about ladies of another sort, suggested by the pointed front bumper guards on Cadillacs of that period. In risque circles, they came to be known as "Dagmars," named for an amply-endowed woman who appeared regularly, in black-and-white, on late-evening TV.

For more on teenagers and their cars, go to Chapter 18

Buying on credit helped set the country on a new postwar path. Ready to take on considerable debt, both grown-ups and youths tended to assume that tomorrow will be brighter yet. A householder could have technical marvels right now, and pay later when incomes would be even higher

While employed by the Federal Bankruptcy Court in the Sixties, this author was astounded by the long procession of bankrupts who were there solely, or at least primarily, because of car purchases. More shocking yet was the number who had co-signed for a friend or relative, who then skipped on the monthly payments. Perhaps all wasn't quite that utopian in the world of credit.

Click here for Overview: Casual History of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 1: Early Days - Rich Men's Playthings, Poor Men's Dreams

Click here for Chapter 2: Ford's Model T and the Masses

Click here for Chapter 3: Production and Prosperity

Click here for Chapter 4: "Easy" Payments

Click here for Chapter 5: Family Cars and Family Life

Click here for Chapter 6: Five-Dollar Flivvers

Click here for Chapter 7: Rise and Fall of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 8: Saturation and Salesmanship

Click here for Chapter 9: A Global Blowout

Click here for Chapter 10: Selling in Hard Times

Click here for Chapter 11: Wheels for the Workingman

Click here for Chapter 12: Okies, Nomads, and Jalopies

Click here for Chapter 13: Motoring in Wartime

Click here for Chapter 15: Chromium Fantasies

Click here for Chapter 16: Dealers Face Image Problem

Click here for Chapter 17: Wheels for the Fifties Workingman

Click here for Chapter 18: Teens, Rods, and Clunkers

Click here for Chapter 19: Everybody Drives

Click here for Chapter 20: Personal History of Clunker Ownership

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