In a tale that is becoming more commonplace by the day, I was recently told I would be working from home for at least three weeks. As a man who watches little news and is almost as apolitical as a man of reasonable intellect can be, I can only imagine the furor taking place in the vast landscape that is the internet. Although I am certainly feeling the vague uneasiness about how easily the “Spinner of the Years” can alter lives, my love of history has me thinking of parallels. This 1942 Studebaker Champion is an extreme example of one.
Almost exactly a year ago, my wife and I drove the seven-hour round trip to South Bend, Indiana, to see this car, a 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow. Five were built, three remain, and I had only seen one once in my life, back at the turn of the millennium. “Knowing how way leads on to way,” I had to visit the Studebaker National Museum to pay homage to one of my favorite show cars from any manufacturer. The Silver Arrow is stunning, majestic. But there was another car in the basement whose austerity seems more appropriate for a world only a year hence.
This 1942 Champion is a rare “blackout” model. As December 1941 rolled into January, the government decreed that automakers limit their use of chromium and aluminum, as those materials (and rubber) were needed for the war effort. Buick started using cast iron pistons in some of its engines, and all automakers painted the trim of their cars, creating these aesthetically plain but historically wonderful blackout cars.
By February, the government had ordered all automakers to cease production of cars for the duration of the war, and Studebaker itself produced its last prewar car on January 31st, 1942. This Champion was built on January 29th. We now know that it would be a long three and a half years of privation for American citizens, who lived with rationing in addition to the dread of a worldwide war and loved ones in imminent danger.
Over the last week, American automakers stopped production lines, and are now offering to build respirators to help treat victims of the coronavirus. While we can only hope that we are not in for a catastrophe of the kind lived by our ancestors, and building respirators is a far cry from the heady days of the “Arsenal of Democracy,” it is hollow comfort that America has seen hard days before.
Studebaker produced over 29,000 Champions for the 1942 model year, and few of those were blackout models. This number was down from almost 85,000 Champions in 1941.
The 1942 Champion itself was mildly updated for 1942, with a new front end to differentiate it from its 1941 counterpart. In 1941, America was certainly aware of the possibility that it would be thrust into war, but it became a nightmarish reality over the course of one day. When the 1941 models were introduced, few could foresee the position in which the country would find itself one year hence.
That is all I can think about at I choose my photographs from one year ago. A pandemic is not, at least in the traditional sense of the term, a war among nations, but the sense of uneasiness that all of us are now feeling is real. Today, I can simply hope that we can look back on the last few weeks with relief, and that 80 years from now, there isn’t a three-model-year span missing from automotive history books.