Classic CC History: “That Special Time”- The U.S. Auto Industry During The Korean War

On December 29,1952, CBS television ran a documentary by iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow entitled “Christmas In Korea”. For an hour that evening, the few Americans that had TV sets watched as an unsanitized version of events in Korea was presented in stark black and white. That broadcast gave greater insight to millions of Americans of just how great our soldiers sacrifice was in that strange, unpopular conflict. The Korean War by that point had been raging for over two years. Back home, our “police action”, (in politicalspeak), imposed no great change in most Americans day to day lives. Nonetheless, the American automotive industry kept a worried eye on the conflict in Asia. The memory of no cars “for the duration” was still fresh from World War II. Unlike World War II, there was no rationing, no blackouts, no rush to join the service. It seemed a distant war that was being fought for unclear objectives in a strange land of which most Americans knew little. Today, our thoughts at CC are with our men in uniform in the strange places of the present day,and our remembrance will return us to the time when our carmakers faced and conquered challenges in the marketplace and the Cold War became very hot in one corner of the globe.

The Korean War years were an odd interregnum for the U.S. auto industry. The sellers market of the postwar years had just ended, but the horsepower race had yet to begin when North Korea invaded the South in June of 1950. The postwar boom had enabled the industry to support the Biggest 3 and half a dozen independent makes (as well as several minor operations that survived on the margins ),but smart executives knew that the way of the future would be consolidation and innovation.

Visionaries like Nash’s George Mason (above) surmised that when the “sell anything” era ended, the auto industry would be a game among giants, with little room for second tier competitors. To that end , Mason (and other independent managements) began looking at new market niches and financial arrangements that would allow their operations to survive the shakeout that they correctly foresaw. Within a half decade, their prediction had largely come true, with four independents (Nash, Hudson, Studebaker, Packard) becoming two ( American Motors and Studebaker- Packard respectively) and one independent leaving the market entirely (Kaiser Frazer-Willys). Niche player Crosley Motors vanished completely.

The cars themselves were making an evolutionary transition in these years from the art deco/bar of soap/inverted bathtub genre to the crisp, angular finned fantasies that they would become within just a half decade. Powertrains were just beginning the transition from low revving straight eights and sixes to high compression overhead valve mills. The dramatic new postwar designs from the Big 3 were just 18 months into their run when the hostilities commenced on June 25, 1950. Unlike the last war, there would be no government ordered production freeze this time. But there would be production cutbacks. This was due to a shortage of steel due to economic factors beyond the carmakers’ control.

The most immediate issue was runaway inflation that began when war mobilization began in earnest in the fall of 1950. Wages and prices were climbing, and with them, the cost of the industry’s most critical raw material-steel- was skyrocketing. Steel went into everything from tanks to toys and with a swelling demand for armaments, defense needs were given absolute priority through production quotas, beyond which steelmakers were free to sell to all comers. But as the war ground on, the steelmakers found that the government quotas meant that they could not sell enough product on the private market to make a profit.

To many steel executives, the government’s first call on their production looked a lot like the system that we had gone to war to oppose. The situation was starting to spin out of control before president Harry Truman declared a national emergency on December 16, 1950. This gave the government a lever to put a lid on wages and prices while the hostilities raged. It also started the process of assigning production quotas to carmakers for the duration. The quotas were backward looking: A 30 percent cut in allowed production meant that the producers’ market shares were more or less frozen while the conflict ground on. But government decrees don’t produce steel, and the big steel companies had to allocate their civilian output in rough proportion to manufacturers market share. Thus the age old maxim “the rich get richer” was never more true.

Our profile will cover the model years 1951-53, but our focus will be the ’52 and ’53 editions. By the outbreak of hostilities, the 1951 models were locked in and it would only be later in their production run when shortages would make themselves felt. The constraints of space prevent a model for model review, so I hope that you’ll indulge me if I miss a favorite sub series or specialty edition. But do feel free to contribute in the comments below.

General Motors-


As the nation’s largest carmaker, GM was also one of the world’s largest defense suppliers. The company turned out trucks, tanks and armaments of every type, just as it had in World War II. GM had begun the transition from low suds inline engines in the first wave of postwar models in that it released in 1949. The Olds Rocket engine bowed that year beside a similar new powerplant from Cadillac that would start the rush to higher revving, more powerful V-8’s across the entire corporate line by 1955. But for 1952-53, Olds and Cadillac retained their favored status as performance cars in the company price ladder. The rest of the company’s offerings would continue to make do with the proven technology of their inline sixes and eights.

1952-53 Chevrolet

Chevy’s first postwar body reached the end of its natural life cycle in 1952. The new for ’49 line had been a big winner for the company and a new body was planned for ’53. One style that had passed out of favor was shown the door when the last ‘52’s rolled off the line- the Fleetline series only retailed 37,000 units and Chevy wisely decided to free up production capacity for the latest marketplace fad- pillarless hardtops. The Bel Air hardtop was a market sensation when it went on sale in 1950, and other makes rushed to get a version of this body style in their showrooms. The Bel Air was a bargain at $1914 and Chevy could sell every one it could build. The Bel Air gave GM almost total market price point coverage for hardtops. Buick and Olds also added the model to their lineups, but both retailed for over $2800- almost a thousand dollars more than Chevy.

Chevy’s conventional passenger car line was broad and deep in these years. The company was almost a “GM within GM”. The model hierarchy ranged from low buck business coupe ($1416) to the station wagon ($2191) and just about every body type in between. The 1951 Chevy was the last year for the new-for-’49 A body (shared with Pontiac) and new sheetmetal was offered (along with a couple of new model names) for ’52-’53.

One change dictated by the war was the use of so called “Korean Chrome” on bumpers, grilles and pot metal trim pieces. The name referred to the practice of skipping the nickel in the process of binding the chrome to  a flash of copper and then the steel and coating the whole thing with clear lacquer. The result was rust covered trim pieces after just a year or two (even faster in the midwest) Nickel was tightly controlled by the government as a strategic defense material and the problem persisted until 1954.

The big news from Chevy was the introduction of the snazzy new Corvette in late summer 1953, just six months after a concept car was shown in public for the first time. For all of the ballyhoo that it later generated, the first edition Corvette was a pretty conventional car. A Chevy straight six engine and Powerglide transmission , along with a conventional rear axle meant that performance and handling would be commendable, but not radical. The use of fiberglass bodies caused no small amount of buzz, but the car was more of an image builder than practical business proposition in those days. The car’s $3513 price made it the most expensive Chevrolet in the lineup-if you could get one. Production was only about 300 (mostly hand built) copies.


Pontiac was a cleverly slotted buy up option for Chevy customers in these years. While sticking with its straight eight and six cylinder engines, upper make options like Hydramatic were available for buyers willing to pay just a little more money for a flashier, better equipped car. Pontiac carefully covered the ground between Chevy and Oldsmobile with a wide price range and two trim levels (Standard and DeLuxe) that included a hardtop, convertible and even a sedan delivery model. Pontiacs sold well enough to keep the division in the top five of industry sales in all three war years. Production rocketed from about 270,000 units to almost 420,000 in 1953.


Olds had gotten a new body and a new engine in the first postwar models released in 1949. For 1951-’53 , GM didn’t tinker with the formula that was so obviously working. The “Rocket V-8” was a real sales advantage in these days of twenty five cent gasoline and Olds never missed an opportunity to play up the Rocket’s performance edge. In fact, the company dropped six cylinder engines from the lineup altogether to concentrate on the Rocket.

Oldsmobile was positioned perfectly dead center in the GM “ladder”. Aspirational buyers could drive an Olds based on a GM “A” body for a little as $2262 and  move up to a “B” platform (shared with Buick) for just a few hundred dollars more. The top of the line Olds 98 Fiesta Convertible would set you back $5717 in 1953.


Buick almost perfectly mirrored the times during the early 50’s-a rising tide lifting all boats. GM’s near luxury division had fielded boring (but dependable) straight engines since the thirties and had added its Dynaflow automatic to the drivetrain options list for 1948. The new postwar model lineup had created some overlap with Oldsmobile on the upper end of the mid price scale. Buick shared a “ B” body with Olds and edged into Cadillac territory with it’s more expensive offerings . The Buick Roadmaster identified its owners as part of the successful professional class in these days. It’s pricetag ($3977) was considered nouveau riche for 1952.

Buick proudly celebrated its golden anniversary in 1953.


Cadillac had staked its claim to luxury after World War II and never looked back. In the Korean war years, (with Joe McCarthy chasing invisible communist spies throughout government), Cadillac almost assumed the mantle of patriotism as it signified the difference between poverty and prosperity brought on by the capitalist system. To own a Caddy was to confirm that hard work and thrift could pay off in America.

Cadillac had been provided with its own modern high compression engine in its first postwar redesign of 1949 and continued to offer roadable high performance in a package that included models from $2900 (1951 Series 62) to $7750 ( 1953 Eldorado).

Ford Motor Co.

FoMoCo did defense work for the government during the Korean War, but its role was not nearly as extensive as in World War II. Partly, this was because the permanent Cold War defense establishment was beginning to make industrial mobilization as we had known it obsolete. There would be no more mile long assembly lines of heavy bombers being built by car companies in the jet age.

Giant “military-industrial” contractors would be a permanent fixture of the economy that produced arms even in peacetime. Ford adapted well to this new reality. Not well remembered today is that FoMoCo and Chrysler were in a battle for second place in the industry in these years. It was only in 1952-53 that Ford Motor’s market share again exceeded Chrysler’s and stayed there more or less permanently.


The Korean War years saw the continued resurgence of the Ford Motor Company after a near death experience in the late forties. The revolutionary 1949 Ford literally saved the company and it would see only minor refinements through 1951. The 1952 models were new, but not radically so: modern,  but not flashy. The old flathead V-8 was the one constant in these years, even if the body that it was wrapped in changed substantially.

Ford, like every other make, could only produce the cars that it could get the steel to build, so sales showed a dramatic decline for ’52-’53. After the armistice was signed in 1953, the company would engage in an attritional price war with arch rival Chevrolet. Neither giant harmed the other, but their salvoes inflicted mortal wounds on the independents, which began merging in order to survive. Ford blanketed the market with two and four door sedans, a line of wagons, convertibles and coupes. Low buck, straight six strippers were the value leaders in these years as Ford didn’t attempt to field a compact car.


Mercury reverted back to its traditional role as a premium Ford in 1952-53. The Merc had been a junior Lincoln during its first postwar design iteration in 1949-51 and cribbed the Ford bodyshell when that model got a new look. The only difference was a three inch longer wheelbase and much flashier detail work. The Mercury also got a stroked version of the Ford flathead engine that bumped stated horsepower up by 10 over the cheaper mill. Prices ranged from $2200 to $2900 in these years.


Lincoln shared the Ford and Mercury styling idiom of 1952. In fact, the Lincoln lost a lot of its unique styling from the previous cycle and the market was not kind. Sales for 1952 were just under 19,000 and Cadillac was running away in the competition at the top of the market. Lincoln would sell many more cars in 1953 (about 41,000), but was slipping relative to its old rival from GM. It would take the next generation of Lincolns (and the rapid fall of Packard) to make real progress against the Standard Of The World.

Chrysler Motors

Chrysler Motors was still a relatively young corporation in these years. The influence of Walter P. Chrysler had faded and the company was now guided by the technocratic business school types that were averse to risk taking and loathe to innovate if the existing technology could get the job done. Thus, the old fashioned Fluid Drive would hang around until 1954, by which time it was a real liability in the sales race to the Ford-O-Matic and GM’s Hydromatic. This plus a confusing and poorly focused gaggle of models and sub models made these years a trying time for dealers, shareholders  and customers.


Mopar’s flagship line had one huge advantage in any head to head matchup with competing cars in these years: The magnificent Hemispherical Combustion Head engine. We call it a Hemi these days and it helped Chrysler overcome dullard styling in those years. The 331 inch engine was expensive to assemble, but it packed a punch that could stand comparison with any powerplant on offer from GM or Ford.

Chrysler’s lineup included the new Custom Imperial Limousine for 1953. Chryslers $2495 starting price put the car in direct competition with the likes of Packard ($2494) and Kaiser ($2313) .


DeSoto got its own hi-po V-8 for 1952, but even a hemi couldn’t push sales back above 100,000 units. The make was hard to slot after changing positions in the market with Dodge after World War II. The 276 cubic inch “Firedome” V-8 was capable, but was mated to the old fashioned Fluid Drive transmission, which was looking more and more dated as the years went by.

Styling was likewise a sticking point in these years (as was the case with Mopar’s entire lineup). The car finally got a one piece windshield (above) in 1953 to go along with more brightwork. The base Desoto listed for $2339 for 1952 and $2364 for ’53.


Dodge was deadly dull during the early 50’s. The division offered the same flathead six cylinder engine that had been standard since the thirties and plans were under way to replace the mill with its new “Red ram” unit in 1953.

This engine would be the first really high performance powerplant installed in Dodges and its also made use of big brother Chrysler’s Hemi technology. Despite not being exciting to look at, Dodge sold well in these years. Prices ranged from $1900-$2600.


ChryCo’s popular priced make ( $1600-$2200) was a large part of the reason that the company surrendered second place in industry sales to Ford in these years. The 97 HP six (the only engine on offer) in all models of Plymouth dated to the mid thirties and was becoming a millstone that was hard to disguise. Plymouth sales dropped by over 200,000 units in 1952 and by ’53 was less than half of Ford and Chevy. It would take the Exner “forward look” models of 1955 to reverse its sales decline.


Dark clouds were gathering for the independents in these years and several makes would not live to see 1960. Feeble management and simple economics were wrecking the balance sheets at Kaiser and Hudson, while Nash and Packard desperately sought merger partners that could keep the game going a little longer. The largest independent, Studebaker, was battling dangerously high fixed costs and an aging, unproductive workforce while trying to fend off the big three and keep shareholders happy. Studebaker celebrated its centennial in 1952 and boldly plotted a course for a second century. But within just a decade and a half, the company was out of the auto business for good. Indeed, by the end of the 1960’s,only one independent automaker would survive to challenge the Big 3 for market supremacy.


Studebaker squeezed one more season out of its 1947 body for 1952. A new grille and some minor trim changes were the only real differences that year. The company celebrated its centennial with parades, books and even keepsake medallions for employees. But management knew the truth, even as they put on a brave face for the public.

But all of that changed for 1953. This was the year that South Bend came to market with a true landmark design that still looks good today. The Raymond Loewy designed Studebakers had their shortcomings (insta-rust coachwork, flex frames) but no one could deny that they were a styling coup.

Studebaker would hang on to the ’53 body shell for way too long, but for the moment, the company fielded one of the best received cars on the market.


Packard was in terminal decline in these years. Every monthly sales report showed that the company’s move out of the luxury field and into the middle market after World War II was a disastrous downward brand extension. A new body for 1951 had been followed by a boardroom shakeup in 1952 as the company brought in turnaround specialist  James J. Nance to try to salvage something of the business before it was too late.

Nance shuffled models and marketing strategies, but sales continued to collapse. By 1954, Packard would buy Studebaker in a desperate effort to survive, but by then the marque was too far gone to save. Nance had correctly recognized that Packard had squandered its luxury image after World War II and set about trying to recapture the exclusivity that the brand had once enjoyed. Packard would continually retrench, but when the last “true” Packards rolled off the line in 1956, the brand ceased to be and expired as a tarted up Studebaker.


If there was a company in worse condition than Packard in these years, it was venerable old line producer Hudson. The company’s last original full size design had come in 1948 with the step down models that proved almost impossible to restyle economically. Thus, for ’52-’53, Hudson was fielding the same basic car that had appeared five model years earlier.

To make matters worse, Hudson management essentially staked the company’s future on the new compact Jet for 1953.

The Jet was a sales disaster and burned corporate funds that would have been better spent to restyle the full size cars. Within 18 months, Hudson would cease to be an independent company and by the end of 1957, the Hudson brand would be relegated to the dustbin of automotive history.


Nash was still relatively healthy in the Korean War years. The company had been a pioneer in the compact market with its successful Rambler in 1950 and its full size cars still made a profit. But the enormous capital demands to create new models was forcing the company to look at a merger partner in order to stay in the game. The company was in the consumer field with its Kelvinator line of appliances, and the shortage of steel affected its operations there as well. For 1952, Nash introduced a striking original design as the Pinin Farina designed Nash debuted.

The basic bodyshell would carry Nash until AMC phased out of the brand in 1957. Nashes covered the upper middle market in these years. Prices ranged from $2150 for a basic Statesman to $2830 for a snazzy Ambassador.

The company dabbled with a true sports tourer in these years by offering the magnificent Nash Healy roadster (also styled by Pinin Farina). The cars $4000 and up price tag meant that production was miniscule. Just over 300 N-H copies were sold. They became instant collectibles.


After a falling out with business partner Joseph Frazer, Henry J. Kaiser pressed on with the handsome 1951 restyle of his company’s big cars for  1952 and ’53. The Frazer was history. It had been discontinued after the last 1951 models were sold.

The company still offered the Henry J as its compact entry, but sales for that model were dropping like a stone and corporate cash reserves were melting away. One of the biggest issues was the lack of a decent engine for the big Kaisers. The old Continental straight six could only produce 115 horsepower and this made the 3100-3400 pound curb weight models feel weak kneed and underpowered.

Any potential buyer that drove an Olds with a Rocket engine wasn’t going to look twice at a Kaiser that felt like a slug and sold in the same general price range. Sales slumped badly for ’52 (just 32,000 units) and even worse for ’53 (28,000) and it was becoming clear that Kaiser was a goner. The company would purchase Willys in 1954, but its future in North America was sealed by that point. Kaiser would find success with his eponymous cars-but that success would come in South America.


Willys jumped back into the conventional passenger car market in 1952 with its Aero line. The Aero was the company’s first purpose built  passenger car effort since the 1942 Americar. Four series (Wing, Ace, Eagle,Lark) combined for just over 31,000 sales in the debut year. The Aero was a clean sheet design that owed nothing to previous models, yet found itself in a crowded  niche when three other independents tried to market compact cars. Sales would peak in 1953 after a minor model reshuffling,but then fell sharply. the car would live out its days in America as part of the by now mortally wounded Kaiser empire.The company still built its CJ line of jeeps for home consumption,but the car-like Jeepster had been discontinued after a small number of 1951 models were sold.

Willys still produced the most loved and well known vehicle of the previous war-the Jeep. In 1952, the company brought the CJ 3 to another stage of military development by introducing the M38A1 model for the Army. The M38 A1 proved to be rugged and dependable just like the original and would lead to the development of the CJ 5 in 1954.


The Crosley story came to its end in 1952. The car had benefitted enormously from the sellers market in the postwar years, but by the early 50’s , it looked strange and out of place among the ever bigger, ever flashier mainstream offerings from Detroit. By the end of 1951, founder Powel Crosley realized that his dream of building a spartan, basic everymans car was dead.

In the spring of 1952, he began the process of selling the company to General Tire and by mid year, the Crosley was off the market.  Sales in the last year barely amounted to 2000 copies. Prices ranged from $943 to $1077.

Before we close the books on the cars of the Korean war, let’s take a moment to consider the legacies of that unsettled time. How did we get from there to here?

The Korean War itself is still technically ongoing. The warring parties only signed an armistice in July 1953 and have remained at battle stations since then. Grim faced border guards stare across barbed wire and tank traps with guns at port arms in case of renewed conflict.

The war itself was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for the U.S., UN and South Korea. The north’s attempt to conquer the south was thwarted and the south became one of Asia’s strongest economies.North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung maintained an iron grip over his half of the country until his death in 1994. His strange, psychotic son Kim Jong Il inherited his  title and offices and died December 17, reportedly of a heart attack.

Today, the Korean auto industry is rapidly supplanting the Japanese as one of the most dynamic in the world. Meanwhile, North Korea endures periodic famines, industrial obsolescence and political isolation even from its former allies.

The Big 3 are with us today of course, but they would be unrecognizable to a car buyer of that era. Pontiac and  Oldsmobile have disappeared from showrooms as have DeSoto and Mercury. GM and Chrysler have gone bankrupt and Ford makes most of its money on large pickup trucks. Ford has cemented its place as the number two automaker behind GM

The independents days were numbered after the sellers market of the postwar period ended in 1949-50. After a series of mergers, consolidations and financial engineering failed to save their businesses, the indies began winding up their days as stand alone automakers. Kaiser was the weakest of the group and decamped for South America (taking Willys with it) in 1955. Nash and Hudson combined to become American Motors in 1954 and Studebaker and Packard became Studebaker -Packard that same year. S-P dropped Packard after a small run of 1958 models and became simply Studebaker. The company finally surrendered and stopped building cars in 1966.

One of the big beneficiaries of the Korean War was, oddly enough, Japan. Strategically located across the Sea of Japan from the Korean peninsula, Japan began to re-industrialize  to supply vehicles to American occupation troops. This provided the capital for the country’s carmakers to learn the techniques that they would later use to capture the bottom, middle and later a goodly piece of the top of the American market.

They would learn and refine a method of production that would allow quantum leaps in quality called Statistical Process Control. The teacher was an American- W. Edwards Deming.

So 58 years later, we find America involved in another abstract struggle that has sent our troops to distant lands for complex objectives. I hope that you will take a moment today to remember their sacrifices and keep them in your thoughts.