(first posted 3/6/2015) It is said competition brings out the best in people. After our recent visit with a 1932 Ford (here), it seems only natural to examine and scrutinize the formidable competition from Chevrolet. Adversarial relationships begin with distinct events, and this is the oldest Chevrolet covered here so far. Here’s what happened.
Chevrolet was co-founded in 1911 by Swiss immigrant and race car driver Louis Chevrolet. Chevrolet would ultimately be a four-time driver in the Indianapolis 500 and, after leaving his namesake in 1915, founded Frontenac Motor Corporation, a supplier of race parts for Ford’s Model T.
Chevrolet’s business partner and co-founder was none other than William C. Durant, the man who would twice take control of General Motors and twice be ousted from the company.
Production began in 1912 with the Series C Classic Six. The Series C was quite upmarket at $2,150, and featured four doors (an unusual element at the time), a compressed air starter and a three-speed gearbox located in the rear axle. Sales of the Series C that year were 2,999; only two are known to still exist. All were powered by a 299 cubic inch (4.9 liter) T-head straight-six producing 40 horsepower.
A six-cylinder Series L followed, but the subsequent four-cylinder Series H (seen here as the Baby Grand) is what established Chevrolet as a formidable entrant in the low-price field. This was the first Chevrolet not equipped with a standard electric starter, and it was reflective of Chevrolet’s going downmarket.
The Series 490 from 1915 realized admirable success, propelling Chevrolet from somewhere below tenth in sales in 1915 to fifth place in 1916. By the time the Series 490 was phased out in 1922, over 785,000 had been sold. All were powered by an overhead valve 2.8 liter four producing 26 horsepower.
Not abandoning the higher priced market completely, Chevrolet offered the concurrent Series D for 1917 and 1918. The Series D has the distinction of possessing the first Chevrolet V8, an overhead valve power plant with 36 horsepower emanating from its 288 cubic inches. Chevrolet was purchased by General Motors in 1918.
Durant exited GM for the second and final time in 1920. Upon his departure GM performed an analysis of the Chevrolet brand.
After Chevrolet catapulted into being the fifth best-selling brand in the United States in 1916, it was in a distant second place to Ford in 1919 and 1920. Despite this highly enviable market position, the analysis recommended liquidating Chevrolet as the competition from Ford was viewed as too overwhelming. The conclusion was GM’s pouring resources into Chevrolet was futile as it had around 4% market share in contrast to Ford’s 60%.
This recommendation was an affront and challenge to Alfred Sloan, then assistant to GM President Pierre S. DuPont. Sloan viewed Chevrolet as being Ford’s primary competitor.
Alfred Sloan, a mechanical engineer, was a poster child for decentralized management. He believed key decisions should be made by those closest to the situation, as these decisions would be the best informed and in the best interests of the company. Sloan also knew such empowerment nearly guaranteed buy-in from employees as decisions had been theirs, not something handed down from above.
Sloan exercised the antithesis of Henry Ford’s centralized management. Ford was notorious for not warmly receiving the ideas of others; his relationship with son Edsel is proof. Henry Ford ruled, even if he had to hire people such as Harry Bennett to assist him. It’s little wonder Ford was in such disarray in Henry’s later days. This chaotic atmosphere likely contributed to Sloan’s confidence in the Chevrolet brand. Sloan saw and comprehended the very big picture; the goings-on at Ford were not sustainable.
Chevrolet did not aim directly for Ford during this period. A Chevrolet was usually a bit pricier, but unlike the Model T, Chevrolet presented itself as a fashionable means of transport, offering a variety of colors and the harder to quantify element of style. Of all the things the Model T was, colorful and stylish it was not.
Sloan originated the concept of having a tiered system of brands, allowing one to work upwards through a series of distinct nameplates as their means grew. Despite the dissolution of Pontiac and Oldsmobile, the Sloan system is still exists at General Motors.
A reinvigorated and highly focused Chevrolet began to seriously dig into Ford’s market share during the 1920s, overtaking it when Ford finally cancelled the Model T in 1927. Despite some leap-frogging of sales leadership from 1928 through 1930, by 1931 Chevrolet had solidly established itself as the top selling brand in the United States, outproducing Ford by 50% in the very economically depressed 1932 model year.
This significant sales difference is likely overlooked with the general excitement of Ford introducing its V8 that year and the number of Ford’s from this period that still exist. Despite the wave of products coming from Dearborn, Chevrolet wasn’t exactly sitting around twiddling their thumbs for 1932.
After having dumped their four-cylinder engine after 1928, the infamous Stovebolt Six (once a derogatory name, as it was originally marketed as the “Cast-Iron Wonder”) had a positive track record, with power output up a healthy 20% for 1932. Rated at 60 horsepower, it was only five horses behind Ford and, more importantly, did not have the substantial teething problems Ford had with its original flathead V8s.
During this time period, each model year bore a unique series name; for 1932 it was the Confederate, with our featured car being the Standard Coupe. In addition to the bump in power, wire wheels were in their second year of being standard equipment.
Styling greatly reflected the other GM lines, with several Cadillac-influenced cars and such body styles as the Landau Phaeton that were not offered by other GM divisions. This stylish approach worked wonders on the sales front and helped propel Chevrolet into being the sales heavyweight of the United States auto industry.
Unfortunately, all things come with a cost. The sales volume was the envy of everyone, yet the 1932 Chevrolet was starting to outpace its higher priced corporate brethren. The Confederate line was offered in 17 unique permutations; conversely, one rung up the ladder at Pontiac, the successor to Oakland upon its cancellation in 1931, there were only six body styles in each of two trim levels. When one climbed the ladder to Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac the number of body and trim combinations kept increasing every step of the way, with Cadillac having 55 unique body/trim combinations for 1932.
Perhaps the cornucopia of body styles could be attributed to their being planned when the delightful excesses of the 1920s were still in full swing. Going forward to, say, 1934 shows Chevrolet having two trim levels and a total of 13 body styles. That same year Pontiac had one trim level with only seven body styles. As in 1932, the 1934 offerings increased when climbing the ladder to Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac – which was up to 64 body/trim combinations.
The 1980s brought news of GM sharing styling among divisions, with many cars looking far too identical. However, this was ancient news, as General Motors had started the practice over a half-century prior with the Chevrolet Confederate being an early practitioner. Even GM management referred to these cars as being a “Baby Cadillac”. The only tangible difference was that Cadillac styling started to dribble onto the Chevrolet the following year instead of both being basted in the same styling pot. When any Tom, Dick, or Harry can buy an entry-level Chevrolet that mimics your crown jewel of Cadillac, it amplifies one at the diminution of the other.
Sloan’s Ladder developed micro-cracks very early on. The splintering that led to near fatality occurred much later.
Regardless, seeing this 1932 Chevrolet Confederate was an enriching experience, seen her itching to turn right onto old US 66. Proudly wearing Idaho plates, and parked near the United States Army’s Ft. Leonard Wood, it certainly appears someone found a very classy way to see the U.S.A.