The Radically Advanced But Aborted 1947 Chevy Cadet: GM’s First Deadly Sin?

The Willys Aero CC got me thinking (again) about the Chevy Cadet, and how close it came to production. In a GM Deathwatch I wrote at TTAC, I even made the bold claim that GM’s decision to kill the Cadet was their very first Deadly Sin:

In 1947, GM killed its Cadet small car program, after spending millions on development. In response to surveys showing that urban Americans wanted smaller, less expensive and more efficient and functional cars, GM set out to create the definitive modern small car. GM’s Financial Operating Committee, based in New York, refused to authorize the funds to put the Cadet in production. They feared the program wouldn’t provide the automaker’s [then] customary 30 percent return on investment.

On this day sixty years ago, GM began to die. The whole premise of its success was based on the ever-more rationalized manufacture of full-sized cars (and trucks). When GM refused to accept a less than full–sized profit on a small car, it sealed its future. To this day (02/26/2008), GM (North America) has never had a successful, profitable small car program.

Strong words, but lets take a quick look at what could have been the most advanced small car on the planet.

Hemmingsblog has a reprint of noted historian Karl Ludvigsen’s article from 1974 here, and it makes for fascinating reading. The brilliant engineer Earl MacPherson headed up a development team, and started without any preconceived notions. It was to be a compact and light (2200 lbs) sedan to seat four comfortably, and the solutions to achieving that end were remarkable.

It was the first application of MacPherson’s famed struts, but in both front and rear suspensions, which were fully independent. Interestingly, MacPherson rejected front wheel drive, and came up with a solution to maximize interior space without resorting to it. He placed the three-speed manual transmission under the front seat, and connected it to the engine and rear differential with rigid tubes. It was a clear foreshadowing of the 1961 Tempest’s solution, and one that is still in use among certain vaunted performance cars (Corvette, Ferrari).

A modern OHV six with 133 cubic inch displacement (2.1 L)  made sixty-five horsepower and gave the Cadet snappy performance and a top cruising speed of 70 mph, which for 1945 was excellent for a small car. The four wheel long-travel independent suspension gave it handling better than any GM car, and a superb ride too.

Perhaps the one aspect that seems like a bit of a questionable choice was MacPherson’s decision to use tiny 12″ wheels and tires, in order to get a decent turning radius while keeping the front wheels faired-in, a styling gimmick of the time. That also mandated very small brakes.

The Cadet was to be sold for $1000. The car’s ambitious rear suspension was perhaps the biggest cost impediment, and final prototypes reverted to a conventional solid rear axle riding on mono-leaf semi-elliptic springs.

GM built vast factory space to build the Cadet and its new components, but in 1947, in the midst of the huge post war boom for cars, GM saw no reason to risk capital and scarce facilities on the Cadet, and pulled the plug. Chevy’s Sales Team had been asked if they could move 300k per year, and they gave a thumbs down. MacPherson soon left for Ford, where his struts found a welcome home. The last Cadet prototype was destroyed in 1968, right about the time the Vega was being developed. Hmm.

Anyway, a fascinating story, and a classic GM one at that. Aim for the moon; chicken out. Or cheap out, if it did get built. At least with small cars.