Curbside Classic: 1936 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe – Is It Too Early For A Dubonnet?

(first posted 11/1/2012)   The 1930s were the greatest decade of automotive innovation and change. At its beginning, cars looked like tea tins with wheels sticking out; by its end, some looked ready for the 21st Century. Although more conservative America didn’t exactly embrace radical, rear-engined streamliners like the Tatra, there was a seemingly infectious spirit of exploration and innovation in the air on both sides of the Atlantic.

Stylistically, the  influence of the Streamlined Decade was evident on even the most prosaic American sedans, including this sleek 1936 Chevy. It wasn’t all show, though; all those tasty curves and graceful accents sat atop a very innovative independent front suspension–designed in France, no less, that incubator of automotive radicalism. Then again, this might be one of many Chevys that were converted back to a more familiar (if less comfortable) solid-beam axle. In a scenario that would play itself out so often, the maintenance-intensive Dubonnet “Knee Action” was not yet up to American-style use and abuse. Innovation is a bitch…

André Dubonnet was a wealthy heir to the the Dubonnet wine business who lived life fully, although he did end up almost bankrupt. A highly-decorated WW1 fighter ace, he went on to race cars before turning his attention to a number of automotive inventions and innovations. The most commercially successful one was his trailing-arm independent suspension “système Dubonnet”, which he sold to GM as well as a number of other major European manufacturers.

Dubonnet went on to father one of the most remarkable cars ever, the 1937 Dubonnet Xenia, a one-off Hispano Suiza H6C built by Saoutchik and designed by Jean Andreau.

Followed in 1938 came this radical streamliner, powered by a rear-mounted Ford V8. Eventually, Dubonnet lost most of his fortune on early flirtations with solar power; nothing ventured…

image:earlytimeschapter.org

The steering kick-back and other annoyances of rough-and-tumble solid-axle front suspensions were a formidable issue prior to the wide-spread adoption of independent front suspension. There was an industry-wide (Ford excepted) move to ifs in about 1934. Cadillac engineer Maurice Olley developed a SALA (short arm-long arm) system that would become nearly ubiquitous; however, in 1934 it was not available to Chevrolet or Pontiac, so feeling left out, those two divisions looked to France and bought Dubonnet’s system, where it was already employed on some race cars and high-end machinery.

It’s seemingly impossible to get a really good image of how the Dubonnet suspension looked,  but here’s a few cutaways. It’s unlike any modern suspension system; here’s an excellent description from an article on the subject at obrasmechanicos.com:

The Dubonnet system consists of a pair of oil-filled shock and spring units, hung off the king pins and connected to the wheels by short trailing arms. A transverse link pivots on threaded bushings at the brake backing plates to provide lateral wheel support. Each unit contains two shock absorbers and two coil springs, one inside the other. As the trailing arm rises under load, it cranks the lower spring seat upward, compressing the outer, main spring against the upper spring seat. After 1 7/8” of movement, the secondary spring comes into play to give a progressive spring rate. Preload and ride height can be adjusted externally. The upper shock functions during spring compression, the lower shock dampens rebound. A massive cross member provides the torsional rigidity needed to keep the wheels parallel.

A unique feature is the way all traces of bump steer are eliminated. The tie rod ends mount to the shock units, which pivot on the king pins, but do not move vertically with the wheels. Thus, wheel joust and rebound cannot translate as steering inputs. All other commercial IFS systems which I am aware of require the tie rods to rise and fall as the suspension works.. The tie rods can only be in a geometrically neutral position when the wheels point straight ahead under moderate load.

The really unique aspect is that these self-contained units sat outboard of the kingpins and rotated with the wheel. Interestingly enough, in recent years both Michelin and Continental have developed integrated, in-hub e-drive/suspension systems. While not exactly along the Dubonnet’s lines, they do share a certain conceptual similarity.

Despite lacking any anti-dive geometry, it was an innovative approach, and a very effective one–as long as a full oil level was maintained. Otherwise, the double-acting shocks became utterly useless, turning the front end of the Chevy into a Pogo stick.

 

Chevrolet warned owners to check the oil level every 1,000 miles, but it wasn’t a habit “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” Americans were willing to take up. The seal where the pivot arm exited the bottom of the unit was prone to deterioration, and the oil leaked out. Chevrolet made some running improvements, but by 1939 gave up on the Dubonnet in favor of a more conventional IFS. Since the Knee Action system was installed only on the Master DeLuxe Series, the parts for converting to a conventional front end were readily available.

I found this ’36 Master DeLuxe sitting in mixed company; guess which one I headed to first? I’ve loved mid-thirties cars since my earliest days. The design language of the Streamlined Decade spoke most eloquently to me even as a very young child, and it has never stopped. Even fairly prosaic cars like this Chevy are a magnetic force field that sucks me in.

This is my language of choice, expressed through the right materials. Within a few short years, a heavy and crude hand would take over, and it’s just never been quite the same for me since.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures that day, but I could spend quite a bit of time just relishing how that windshield is set into the body. Its lack of a chrome surround takes the cake; in the ’50s customizing era, that came to be known as “Frenching”.

I don’t know who exactly takes credit for the ’36 Chevy, but it was during the glory days of Harley Earl’s Art and Colour Section at GM, founded in 1927. By the mid-thirties, Earl was on a roll, and GM’s design supremacy was in ascendancy. Earl’s work rarely challenged the best and most innovative designers out there, but he knew what his job was: to consistently make GM products highly attractive, without ever pushing the frontiers; no Dubonnet for Mr. Earl. I’m speaking of the thirties, forties, and early-mid fifties. We all know it didn’t end so well.

 

In 1936, the original generation of the Chevy “stovebolt” OHV six was in its last year, making 80 hp from its 206.8 cubic inches. It was a sensation when it debuted in 1929–“a six for the price of a four”– and Henry Ford countered it with his 1932 flathead V8. Chevy then decided to spend the next 23 years focusing on things other than being the fastest low-priced car, although in some years the “Blue Flame” six was almost the equal of the Ford. More significantly, the Chevy’s torque curve made it more tractable in typical daily driving, and it was smoother to boot. Built to Henry Ford’s exacting standards? Maybe not. For 1937, the Chevy six was totally redesigned, and subsequently enjoyed a long life that lasted through 1963.

Another innovation appeared on the 1936 Chevy: Hydraulic brakes. Needless to say, Henry Ford wouldn’t have any of this new-fangled stuff: No independent suspension, no sixes and no hydraulics. Henry had been to the mountain top, where he was given the one true template for the automobile. The rest were all heretics.

The interior is attractive, and pretty typical for American cars of the period (as well as a few British ones well into the late ’50s). And that steering wheel looks almost exactly like the one on the 1967 Mini Cooper S from the other day. One could argue that everything that followed was mere window dressing, for better or for worse.

That’s how humans were designed to sit, as long as there were just two of them. And getting into and out of a two-door back then was more a matter of just walking in, rather than an advanced yoga exercise.

From the late fifties on, cars from the thirties looked so old-fashioned with their tall bodies, big wheels, separate fenders and truncated back ends. It’s no secret that automotive shapes have been moving back in that general direction for some time now. Hallelujah!

Now how about some waterfall grilles?