Automotive History: Celebrating V-J Day – When Cars Came Home From The War

(first posted 9/2/2011)    I hope everyone will spend a moment of quiet remembrance today for the occasion of the end of the bloodletting that was World War II. It was this day in 1945  in Tokyo Bay that the USS Missouri played host to the end of the old world order and the hopeful beginning of the new. The killing was over, the fires were out. It was time to begin again. Part of that promised new world was, for the first time since 1942, new cars for civilian use. Here at CC, our remembrance today will cover what we know: Cars and the companies that built them. We’re going to take a look at those crazy months right after the shooting stopped, when Detroit took off its uniform and went back to the business of building the American dream machine.


America- Summer 1945– When the Japanese surrendered on September 2nd, there were 12 million Americans in uniform. By a year later, 10 million of them would be civilians again. Being Americans, there was just one thing that they all agreed on-that they could live with rationing, shortages and minor privations for a little while longer, but one thing that they couldn’t do without was a new car. The sellers’ market was on. It was nothing short of a new gold rush for Detroit. The claims that car makers staked on the market in those days would come to resemble a “gold fever” of sorts – some would endure and make their owners rich and some would be revealed as worthless claims on fool’s gold.

FoMoCo- Summer 1945

Ford: Even before the shooting stopped in the Pacific, Ford was building civilian cars again. On July 3, FoMoCo delivered the first postwar car (A 1946 Super Deluxe) to president Harry Truman. What Truman received was a 1942 model with a different grille and a few changed styling details, but was essentially unchanged from the last cars assembled in the months after Pearl Harbor.

One difference that was apparent to observers : The postwar cars had real chrome and stainless trim. The “blackout” cars of the ultra short ’42 season would not return after the war. Ford teased the rest of the buying public through late summer with glimpses of the Ford in their future and finally threw the gates wide on “V-8 day”, October 26th.

For many dealers, it was a mob scene as paying customers cashed war bonds and withdrew overtime pay to buy a new Ford. Materials shortages severely crimped production , but Ford did manage about 35,000 new cars before the end of the year. That was good for first place in sales in an unusual year. The sales charts in the first 12 months after the war would have some unfamiliar names in strange places,but this was no ordinary time in the car business. New Fords ranged in price from just over $1000 to just under two grand.

By far, Ford was in the worst financial shape of the Big Three. Years of internal rot had emptied the company of talented designers, engineers and marketers as the founder increasingly turned day to day operations over to Harry Bennett and his goons following the death of Edsel Ford in 1943.The company was losing more than $10 million a month at one point and its very survival was in question as the war wound down. It would take another Ford to right the ship and ensure the survival of FoMoCo.

Lincoln-Mercury:  L-M returned after the bombs stopped falling, despite the senile resentment that Henry Ford harbored toward both. Fortunately, three weeks after V-J day, the old man retired to his estate (and his mistress) and grandson HF II took the helm. This assured the survival of Mercury and the revival of Lincoln, which was down to two series and suffering from lack of identity, direction and market presence.

L-M had become a separate division within Ford on November 1st, and for the spring selling season, introduced the magnificent Mercury Sportsman in early April. By the standards of 1946, the Sportsman was an overpriced, ($2209 – about twice the price of a new Ford) impractical traffic builder car that was never meant to be a serious offering. Today, a concours example can fetch a quarter million of our dollars- lite – if you can find one. Only a little over 200 were ever built and only about 5 survive today.

General Motors- Summer 1945

GM’s massive size and commanding market presence was a blessing when things went well, but when the machine stopped, every part of the economy felt the pain. GM entered the postwar world with high hopes after the surrender was signed, but there were dark clouds building and company management seemed to be oblivious to their scope and meaning. Those clouds broke when just over a quarter million GM workers went on strike on November 21 st.

The effects were immediate. Assemblers, painters and machinists were idle, along with uncounted numbers of supplier, dealer and transport employees. The GM workers were demanding a 30% pay hike (in line with wartime inflation) but antagonized management with the suggestion that the extra cost could simply be added to the price that GM charged for its cars. GM reacted sharply, huffing that prices were none of the union’s business and dared the workers to walk out. The union happily obliged (below) and the assembly lines again ground to a halt.

GM’s labor agony finally ended in March when workers went back to work on the 13th and production ramped up in time for the spring selling season. Neither side could claim a clear cut victory in their bitter disagreement. The seeds had been planted for decades of labor tension, but for the moment, the status quo ante would paper over what would become this company’s eventual downfall.

Chevrolet: Chevy was starstruck and snake-bit after V-J day. Of course, the cars were rehash designs left over from ’42 like everybody else, but building them was a nightmare for the brass at Chevy. First was the steel shortage. Sheet steel became hard to get when all of the manufacturers of cars, appliances and even toys were all bidding fair for the limited supplies available.

Then there was the restive labor force: In the spirit of patriotism ,workers had pledged to refrain from striking (but those pledges were not binding ,indeed, Ford workers staged several brief strikes during the war) and after the war was won, workers across a wide swath of America walked off their jobs and demanded raises to catch up to runaway wartime inflation. GM workers aligned with the United Auto Workers walked out on November 21, and the great GM machine ground to a halt. Through that first postwar winter, dealers continued to eke out a business with used cars, service work and the trickle of cars produced before the strike.

Chevy followed the industry trend with the cars it did manage to build. They were ’42 designs shorn of their austerity look. New grilles, brightwork ,and minor styling details were the main difference between these cars and the last ones from ’42. The public didn’t care. Anything on wheels would sell and waiting lists were long.

Buick-Olds-Pontiac: Pontiac came roaring back from the war with 10 models spread across two series (Streamliner & Torpedo) and two engine choices an inline 6 and straight 8. Both series used the A body (shared with Chevy) . Trim and minor details distinguished these from the ’42s.

Pontiac 1946 Foldout-02

Pontiac made great play after peace broke out of its role in producing armaments. This was a smart strategy as all of the demobilized servicemen represented a huge potential market. Pontiac was in the juiciest part of the market-prices bracketed upper trim Fords,Dodge and other GM makes.

Oldsmobile stood pat with the tried and true in the brave new world. The 76 and 78 series offered the usual range of sedans ,coupes and convertibles as well as a woody (real wood ) wagon. The art deco look of the late postwar models hung around, but it’s days were truly numbered. For that first selling season of peace, Olds still offered the hoary old L head 6 and 8’s with 100 and 110 horsepower respectively.


Buick had some room to move. After the demise of the La Salle in 1940, Cadillac had tried to occupy the gap between that make and Buick with its Series 61. Meanwhile, Buick offered a whale of a value by selling a car with just as much content and performance for less money. This line rationalization in the corporate hierarchy helped Buick sales jump by almost 100,000 cars in the last full year before the war. Upper middle was on the move at GM, and Buick was in position to benefit handsomely.


Cadillac: Lots of service men (like my great uncle) bragged that they drove new Cadillacs during the war. That’s because Caddy made the engines, treads and other parts for the U.S. Army’s tanks. When those tanks were no longer needed , “The Standard Of The World” returned to making products with a little higher profit margin: the Series 61 and 62 , The Fleetwood and 75. All of the Caddys rode on C or D bodies, the C’s shared with upmarket Buicks.

Oddly, Hydramatic was optional on Cadillac in these years. It would not become standard on the Standard Of The World until the new postwar models. Prices were skyrocketing in these months due to postwar inflation – no Cadillac listed for less than $2000 by February and the top line Fleetwood had soared to almost $4700 in the strong dollar of those days. (This in comparison to a price range of $1500-$4000 right after Pearl Harbor).


Chrysler Motors – Summer 1945

Dodge 1945 Ad-01-586x800It’s overlooked today, but Chrysler was a young car company in 1945. Founded on the remains of the Maxwell – Chalmers company, Chryco had just celebrated its first quarter century when peace returned. Mopar really covered more of the middle market than Ford, with two divisions (Dodge , De Soto) that took on the three at GM. But one part of the company’s game was not up to snuff: The lack of a fully automatic transmission would become a liability on the sales floor as the decade wore on.

Chrysler: Chrysler was probably one of the least changed full sized cars coming back into production after V-J day. Other than grille details and minor body trim , the big Chrysler was a copy of its late self. Real chrome was back and Chrysler had plenty of it.

Also back after the war was “Fluid Drive”, ChryCo’s answer to the GM Hydramatic. In a Chrysler, it was called the Prestomatic. Fluid Drive used a fluid coupling with a traditional gearbox to simulate a true automatic, but there was still a clutch pedal and you could still shift as needed. It was smooth and durable (as durable as the bulletproof manual box that it was derived from) , but was no substitute for truly modern automatic transmission.

Chrysler did have one new model to offer: the spiffy Town & Country woody convertible. It was a stunningly beautiful wood and sheet metal work of art that drew in traffic to Chrysler showrooms, where salesmen used the old soft soap to push the metal that made the money.

Chrysler was probably the make most affected by the postwar inflation that caught fire in the days after the hostilities ended. As a lower ranked major producer, Mopar had to buy raw materials in the open (spot) market in competition with producers of other goods that used those same material and was not “vertically integrated”, so it paid the asking price for steel, rubber and glass and and passed the costs on to the customer. This meant that the MSRP of all Chrysler built models jumped dramatically after the war. No price/volume leader Plymouth could now be had for less than a grand. Dodge, Desoto and Chrysler models all posted similar increases.

Dodge:  Dodge wisely made more hay with its Fluid Drive in the immediate post war years than any other division at Chrysler. This is probably because the old flathead 6 under the hood from the pre-war years had been around for a decade and there really wasn’t any news on that front. Dodge took off quite well after the war. There were lots of factory workers with savings and war bonds to spend that wanted to buy up in the Mopar line -but not too far up.

Dodge was so popular that it moved into 4th place in overall sales this year, ahead of even such names as Buick and Olds. But the numbers were deceptive. Almost all of Dodge’s ’46 assemblies were made after January 1946. The late summer and autumn were wasted re-converting production lines to cars and trucks. Another thing to remember regarding Dodge and every other make: those first cars to be assembled after the war were essentially pilot production models,well developed prototypes, if you will.There would be running changes as strategic materials became available later on,which can confuse collectiors (and historians) even today.

DeSoto: DeSoto was the “sick man” of Mopar after the war. DeSoto had consistently done about one third of the sales volume that Dodge enjoyed and ’46 was no exception.

DeSoto dealers were most commonly paired with Plymouth dealers to cover the low/medium price territory and this arrangement was becoming passe as DeSoto sales stagnated and dealers justifiably concentrated on their volume leader.


DeSoto did offer a “Custom Suburban” model that extended the wheelbase, added a roof rack and dispensed with the aft bulkhead for a giant luggage- swallowing cargo area. Suburbans were popular as taxis and airport limos. They were pricey: a Custom Suburban stickered for just over $2200, Cadillac territory.

Plymouth: ChryCo’s volume leader claimed 50 (!) improvements over the last pre war models built in February 1942. For ’46, it was low suds, lo-po sixes and stubby pre war bodies. The car was price competitive and over a quarter million units shipped in those frenzied days after the shooting stopped. The pre war Plymouth formula was not to be altered in the immediate post war world: Low maintenance, slow revving flathead sixes, no auto or semi auto gearboxes and lots of value in a tight package. Plymouth had been the industry’s traditional number three seller in the years before Pearl Harbor and that pattern would not change in the postwar sellers market.

Independents – Summer 1945

Most of the buzz in the auto world in the immediate postwar months was being generated by the independents. Studebaker introduced the first all new cars since the war and Graham Paige began turning out Frazers at its facilities just ten months after peace was declared.

It looked for a moment like there would be a paradigm shift in the automobile market, a shift that would take some of the market power away from the Big Three and turn back the clock to the earliest days of motoring, when dozens of makes and manufacturers battled for market share and economy of scale.

But it was a false spring for the independents. The sellers market and unbalanced supply/demand equation of the war years created the illusion of limitless need for new models and new companies to make them. The company that was founded based mostly on this illusion, Kaiser-Frazer, would enjoy a season of success and then begin a long, agonizing decline that resulted in its exit from passenger cars less than a decade later. But for now,the summer and fall of ’45, all of that was still in the unknowable future. In the moment, cash customers wanted new cars and they wanted them now.

Studebaker-The postwar world looked bright from the vantage point of South Bend. After turning out landing craft, gun carriers and anti aircraft guns between 1942 and ’45, America’s oldest vehicle manufacturer already had plans to steal a lap on the big 3 by having a new postwar design ready in just 8 months; a blink of the eye in Detroit.

Studebaker 1946 champion

Studebaker would get back in the market with the prewar Champion (now called “Skyway Champion”, above) for the back half of ’45 and go “all in” for a new postwar car after a very short run of ’46 models

Americas oldest car maker came to market with the first clean sheet design in the spring of 1946.

The all new Studebaker (CC here) was a stunning departure from the models that had emanated from South Bend before (and just after) the war. The separate front fender was gone. That sheet metal blended nicely into the body, while there was only a hint of a pontoon at the rear. Blunt, bright front ends could not have been more changed from the previous design motif.

Highlites from early Road & Track issues

The look was stunning. Studebaker had gotten out in front of the Big Three, but as time would tell, there are no permanent victories in the car business.

Nash– Nash had always been one of the better managed independents. It had wisely diversified into consumer products in 1937 after its merger with Kelvinator Corporation.

Nash, like Studebaker, had its eye on a postwar model that would owe nothing to the then current “600” or Ambassador. Prices were grinding inexorably upward, with near monthly increases announced by the factory due to accelerating inflation. Nash was still a mid/upper mid priced car and the top models cost just a few pennies shy of $2000.

Nash 1946 suburban

Nash added one model to the lineup after New Years Day, but it’s as rare as a unicorn these days: the Sedan Suburban (yet another Suburban on the market) retailed only about 275 copies in that year. It sold for an imposing $1900 when a new Buick could be had for around $1700 nicely equipped.

Hudson: Old line Hudson had entered the postwar car market with money in the bank from war work, but the hard times of the late depression years had weakened the company so deeply that it never fully recovered during its years as an independent. Hudson had introduced a new full size car in 1941, and that model would be essentially unchanged except for some minor trim after V-J day.

For the year, Hudson would place 9th overall in the sales derby,which would be its high water mark before being subsumed in the AMC merger in 1954.

Packard– Packard resembled an aging widow that is forced to hock the family jewels to keep up appearances in the immediate postwar years. The company had done incredible work in building its engines under lend lease for use in the famous Mustang fighter, and Packard 12 cylinders were standard engines in PT boats. (Like the one that future president John F. Kennedy skippered in the south Pacific).

The company had introduced a new line of cars in 1941 dubbed the Clipper and these would be the line that survived the war.

Packard’s fate as an independent automaker was sealed by March of 1946, but it just didn’t know it yet.The company would stick with the still contemporary “Clipper” models while developing what amounted to a clumsy face lift for ’49. The senior Packards that had taken on Cadillac and Lincoln were gone forever, and the car would be a medium priced make forthwith.

This put the car squarely in the sweet spot that the Big Three would defend to the last ditch, and that meant that Packard would have to meet them on every front. This was absurd. The company had never made more than a few million dollars in its best years and when price and selling competition returned to the market, it was doomed.

Willys: Far and away, the most famous vehicle of the second world war was the General Purpose Light Scout Car -The Jeep.

When peace returned,Willys would cash in on the name and reputation of its most successful war baby in a way that would ensure that the company would survive and thrive with a niche product that could readily adapt to peaceful uses. The CJ (Civilian Jeep) uncovered a market that car makers didn’t even know existed before the war, and Willys uncovered a few more by simple experimentation. The Jeep served as a tractor, fire truck, sawmill power plant (via a power takeoff from the engine) and personal courier car for countless backwoods types. It was a throwback to another era: the era of the universal car known as the Model T. Willys had turned away from the pre-war Americar and cast its lot (for better or worse) with its Jeep.

W-O brought the all steel Jeep station wagon to market when their steel allocation increased and the model was an immediate hit. The company made the vehicle a bargain at its $1495 price, and Willys had begun work on yet another line extension, the Jeepster. It would debut in 1948. The Jeep was the gift that kept on giving.

Graham-Paige: On the face of it , G-P was the weakest of the independent car makers. In fact, it was not really a carmaker any more at all. The company’s automobile lines had shut down in 1940, but the corporation gained a lifeline with war work that kept its plants busy after the car business became untenable in the year leading up to Pearl Harbor.

But outward appearances were deceiving – this company was where the action was. Former Packard executive Joesph Frazer saw in the moribund company the means to jump into the car business with a new vehicle that would exploit the pent up demand of a nation that had not seen new cars for three long years. Frazer knew the car business, but he needed a money man, someone that could harness the capital, physical plant and materials needed to get a new model off the ground. That man was Henry J. Kaiser.

Kaiser was already a folk hero of sorts. He had perfected the art of building Liberty Ships in as little as six days at his massive shipyards during the war and had been a “can do” executive that made his chops while managing massive New Deal projects during the depression. Kaiser had an itch for the car business, but needed someone like Frazer to tell him where to begin and how to design, engineer and market a new vehicle from the ground up. They formed Kaiser Frazer on July 25th and set out to conquer the car business. Their vehicle would be Graham Paige, an old line manufacturer that had (as noted) gotten out of car making before the war. Defense work kept the doors open long enough for Joe Frazer to buy the company in 1944.

Graham 1940 ad

Like a lot of hasty war marriages, this one would not stand the test of time – but that is to predict the events of 1954. For the moment, work was underway on one of the first postwar models to hit the market, the eponymous Frazer. As we will see, the car that emerged may have been right for the times, but the times would soon be changing.



That car emerged as a Frazer on May 29, 1946 and went on sale 30 days later. The Frazer obviously owed nothing to the prewar styling school that involved separate front and rear fenders and pointed prow grille.

There were no swoopy art deco lines and excessive ornamentation. In fact,the look was rather roly-poly and plain, and while by no means unattractive, it just couldn’t live up to the “miracle car” hype that had attended its gestation.

Kaiser FWD -001-800

Meanwhile, the Kaiser side of the partnership was wasting time and resources trying to develop a front wheel drive car that would incorporate torsion bar suspension, unit bodies and a complex front drive system that would cost a fortune to perfect. The “K-85” would have been based on the conventional Frazer already near production, but intractable engineering problems made the whole thing wildly impractical and Kaiser wisely decided to build a more orthodox car after prototypes of the K-85 highlighted the cars numerous problems.

All of the innovations that Kaiser envisioned would eventually find their way onto the market, but in 1946,the science just wasn’t there. Like a lot of dreamers new to the car business, he wanted to sell the cars of the 50’s with technology still stuck in the late 30’s.


Of course there were minor makes in existence and on the drawing boards in that feverish spring of 1946. Crosley had gone back to building its eccentric little car (and would enjoy its best years ever in the sellers market).


 Meanwhile Preston Tucker was busily planning a revolutionary new car that would stand the industry on its ear. That is, until his financial shenanigans caught up with him soon afterward.

So there it is, the way it was for a few frenzied months just after the last world war ended. The legacy of that unique time lives with us still, some 65 years after it all went down. Before we depart this golden age, lets tie up the loose ends with a look at the class of ’46 from Detroit.

Ford: FoMoCo would eventually turn itself around and become a world class company by the mid 50’s. Henry Ford the elder died before he could see an all new car with his name on it hit the market in late 1948.

It would be the springboard for the resurgence of his namesake . Despite some harrowing ups and downs over the years, Ford is alive and (relatively) healthy today and looking to the future with confidence.

GM: General Motors is still around, of course, but it’s not the GM of 1945. Years of bad management and myopic decision making finally caught up with the company and it declared bankruptcy in 2009.

It was rescued by the U.S. Government and while still open for business, it’s just a shadow of the colossus that ruled the industry in the 40’s. Meanwhile, Pontiac and Oldsmobile have joined Sheridan-Knox, Oakland and Viking in the family graveyard (and a new wing has opened for Saturn, Hummer and Saab)

Chrysler: Who could have guessed that in 2011, America’s number three car company would be owned by the Italians? It’s true, and Chrysler is still around, although in a very different place in the market than in 1945. DeSoto was terminal by the late 50’s and the nameplate was axed in 1961. The company itself has been at death’s door many times in the years since the war . The Germans at Daimler tried their hands at ruining running the company and the result looked like the last moments of the Hindenburg.

Fiat provided a dollop of cash (along with a healthy slug of your tax dollars from Uncle Sam) and Mopar lived to fight another day. But only time will tell if this latest rescue will stick.

Independents:  Most of the independent makes from 1945/46 are gone, dead and buried. Studebaker expired in an era when the federal government didn’t bail out carmakers  and it finally went under in 1966. The company survived, but was out of the car business for good.

Packard hung on as an independent company until 1952, when it essentially bought Studebaker and became Studebaker-Packard. It dropped the Packard name altogether in 1962 and became just Studebaker.

Nash- Nash is with us still, but it takes some mental gymnastics to recognize it. Nash merged with Hudson in 1954 and became American Motors, AMC itself dropped the names of its component parts from its rolls in 1957 and later bought Kaiser -Willys to acquire the Jeep line of products. Then AMC was purchased for an Italian sonata by Lee Iacocca of Chrysler in 1987, again, to get another companies’ hands on the Jeep portfolio. This gave rise to the legend of the “Jeep Curse”.

The saddest story of all was the meteoric rise and tragic fall of Kaiser Frazer Corporation. K-F built and sold over 138,000 cars in its debut model year of 1947, which would have made it the second largest independent (behind Studebaker), but the initial acceptance of the car was an illusion. For all of the ballyhoo, K-F products were rather frumpy and old fashioned, and their Continental straight-six engine was a tepid performer.

It was a public desperate for cars that put K-F in the game and its time in the spotlight would be brief. After misjudging the market for 1949, When the Big 3 would finally bring out fresh postwar models, the company found itself with acres of unsold cars piling up around its corporate factories. You only get one big mistake in the car business (unless you are GM) and Kaiser- Frazer had made theirs.

Joe Frazer got out of the day to day battles with the Kaiser side of the enterprise in 1951 and the company was merged with Willys in 1954. The financial razzmatazz couldn’t save the passenger car business and the final Kaisers (the Frazer had been discontinued when Joe got kicked upstairs) were assembled in 1955. Only the Jeep remains today from the Willys days to mark the passage of time.