Dealer Classic: Planning Automobile Dealer Properties – GM’s Postwar Vision


(first posted 6/4/2016)    In 1948, the postwar boom was in full swing.  After almost 20 years of Depression and wartime rationing, people were buying – cars, homes, TVs, you name it.  And commercial construction was finally taking off as well, to serve burgeoning demand.  The people at GM knew this meant a lot of dealers would be building new dealerships, and they produced a remarkable book to help them come up with state of the art facilities.  Planning Automobile Dealer Properties was the result, a large 11×17 book that has no equal before or since.



The first part of the book was full of practical information about siting, lot size, and the treatment of the different operating areas – new cars, used cars, service, and parts.  Despite the color two-color illustrations, the real prize was yet to come.


The heart of the book was 15 prototype dealership designs, each with its own full-color, full-page rendering, descriptive text, and a “blueprint”, usually hidden behind a foldout on the right.


These were not in-house GM designs.  They were the winners of a series of competitions staged by GM and conducted by the Architecture Forum under the direction of the influential and brilliant George Nelson.  Having been trained as an architect, I can’t imagine a similar competition happening today.


Each of the designs was based on a different program, or set of requirements a dealer would likely have.  This one, for example, was for a narrow lot on a busy road.  There were designs for corner locations, for dealers who also sold gas, urban dealers, and dedicated truck dealers.


Stylistically, each one was individual, aside from the “GM” lettering.  Collectively, they paint a picture of roadside design in the early postwar era.  Lots of glass, structural glass panels and glazed brick, and very expressive design.  Modernism, but with a popular, commercial bent.


From today’s perspective, these images tell us a lot about how the dealer business then differs from today.  For starters, the showrooms are small, 2 and 3 car displays, and there’s almost no new car storage in any of the plans.  Which makes sense when most companies were selling one size of cars and buyers typically ordered new cars versus buying off the lot.


And when cars were more simply equipped, and more easily repaired, there was a lot more emphasis on parts and accessories retailing, as this page from the first section indicates.  quite a contrast to the walk-up window with maybe a display case you’re likely to find today.


Another big difference is location.  This is one of only 2 multi-story, urban designs.  Like their customers, the dealers were decamping to the suburbs, and most of the book is dedicated to suburban – or at least out-of-downtown, single-story designs.

The real difference, architecturally, is the lack of corporate identity.  There’s no reason why GM couldn’t have taken the same 15 designs, and created a small, medium, and large standardized designs for each of their five car brands.  But back then it was expected that a dealer would have his (and aside from my Great Aunt, they were almost all “He” back then) own, individual design.  Some brands like Studebaker had fairly standard designs back in the 20’s for large city dealerships, and Ford made a few efforts as well before the war, but they were exceptions to the rule.

Vansand Chryco dealer

Unlike their roadside counterparts the motel and restaurant chains, automakers were slow to recognize the benefits of standard signage, let alone buildings.  Not until the early 60’s  would Chrysler be the first to take the plunge, with the Pentastar program developed by Lippincott & Margulies, the design firm that pioneered corporate identity.  But that’s another, fascinating story.


I’ve had a 44-year love affair with this book since I first encountered a copy in our local Carnegie Library in 1972.  We moved away, and when I later checked back, that copy had disappeared.  Fast forward to 1986, and I found another copy shunted away in an odd corner of the main University Library – where I was the first person to check it out since 1951.  And finally, about a dozen years ago, I found this copy for myself.    It’s a time capsule, a snapshot of a time when the future was bright and selling cars was very different.