Curbside Classic: 1940 Graham Supercharged Sedan – Graham Jumps The Shark

(first posted 4/27/2012)    Grab the Kleenex; the Graham story is a real tearjerker. All too often, the good guys do lose; and timing is everything. The three Indiana-bred Graham brothers were already stars in the industry when they bought ailing Paige Motors in 1927. They instantly turned it around, and were a roaring success by 1929. You already know where this is going: all downhill, thanks to that little inconvenience called the Great Depression. But the Grahams never gave up trying, until it was all over in 1941. Sometimes they tried a bit too hard: the 1938-1940 “sharknose” Grahams only hastened the inevitable demise of the company. Never underestimate American’s conservatism, as Chrysler had already learned with the Airflow. Lean a grille a bit too far back or forwards, and folks think it’s a subversive plot. Oh well; at least Graham went out with style, if not in style.

The 1929 Graham-Paige was a handsome but not exactly a style-setting car, very much in the idiom of its time. But it was successful, with some 80k sold, a superb showing for a smaller brand. The Graham Bothers crystal ball said things were only looking up, and so they invested in a big new factory in Dearborn, Michigan. But it would never again produce that many cars, or even anything close to it.

Stylistically, the Grahams really made their mark in 1932, with the Model 57 Blue Streak. Unless one is familiar with the design subtleties cars of this vintage, it may not be apparent just how advanced this car was, without being too radical. Sryled by Amos Northup, who had created the superb 1931 Reo Royale, the Blue Streak took that very clean design one step further, with the first fully skirted fenders on a mass-produced American car. That, and the gracefully handled “radiator” grille, was a sensation, and the next year, almost everyone had skirted fenders too. Graham (unsuccessfully) tried to capitalize on that, proclaiming it as the “most imitated car on the road”. But sales were collapsing; down to an abysmal 11,000 for 1933.

For 1934, Graham tried another stab at innovation: the first moderately-priced supercharged car. The Custom Eight was available for as little as $1295, and the 265 inch straight eight delivered a healthy 135 hp, good for an honest ninety. In 1933, Graham dispatched the legendary driver Cannonball Baker with a pre-production Graham Custom Eight on a coast-to-coast run. Baker completed it in 53 hours and 30 minutes, which given the roads of the times was mind-boggling. It was this record that inspired Brock Yates to create the Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash which ultimately broke the still-standing record, some forty years later.

For 1936, Graham continued its down-scale death-march, dropping all eights, and concentrating on their 217.8 inch six, in both regular and supercharged form. In another cost-saving measure, 1936 and 1937 bodies were shared with Reo.

The Graham supercharger was essentially a down-scaled and simplified version of the centrifugal supercharger that Duesenberg used. Engine-driven and geared to run at up to 23,000 rpm, the little blower was designed more to fatten mid-range torque than a huge increase in top-end output. The sprint from zero to fifty took some thirteen seconds, excellent numbers for the times. Graham also was unique in using a four-speed transmission.

With the 217.8 inch supercharged six making 120 hp, the emphasis was more on its ability to make power comparable to a larger and heavier engine, and the resulting economy.

That approach is quite similar to today’s “low boost” turbo engines, but Graham was taking things a bit far…

with this claim. Maybe that’s where all those rip-off aftermarket “atomizers” mileage-boosters got their inspiration from. Sounds good, but…

In an act of desperation, Graham unleashed the radically-styled “Spirit of Motion” for 1938. Also designed by Northup, the forward thrust nose was very unusual for the times. Needless to say, the rest of the front end was anything but ordinary either. Typically, the press and design profession loved it, and it won numerous awards including the prestigious Concours D’Elegance in Paris. But a combination of bad timing and public wariness tanked the new Grahams.

In 1937 – 1938, the economy took another precipitous decline. The new Graham, as exciting and adventurous as it was, bombed out. First year sales were an abysmal 5020. Undoubtedly, Graham’s downward momentum was becoming a negative feedback loop. If this had been a Pontiac, it might have been a different story.

The 120″ wheelbase 3250 lb Graham could tick off the run to fifty in under eleven seconds, and top out at almost 95, and deliver up to 25 miles per gallon. But nobody was having it. We’ll stick to our tried and true…

What do a couple of good guys from Indiana have to do to catch a break? One innovation after another; they even pioneered the use of anti-sway bars. All for naught.

The Grahams weren’t called “sharknose” at first. In 1942, the Raymond Loewy styled PRR T-1 appeared, a massively complex, and ultimately failed steam locomotive. It was quickly dubbed “the sharknose”, and then the name was transposed unto the Graham. The really big question is whether Loewy cribbed the design from the Graham; actually, it’s not really a question.

Can’t say goodbye without a glance at the rear compartment. Cars of this era were so comfy back there, if a bit narrow. A tall sofa, and vast legroom; this and all the other Graham goodness for about $1200. I know what I’d be buying in 1940.

This very streamlined moderne taillight alone is worth that. Can we just take a minute and really take that in?

By this time, it was down to one Graham; Joseph. And in the final act of desperation, he threw a half-million of his personal money into an ill-conceived idea to re-use the Cord 810 body, along with Hupp. John Tjaarda was given the challenge of adapting the fwd Cord body to the shorter-wheelbase rwd Graham and Hupp frames. Given the difficulties, he did an admirable job, but it was a disastrous decision in the first place. The Cord body was never designed for mass production, and the roof alone had to be welded together from seven different pressings.

Both the sharknose and the Hollywood were on tap for 1940; oddly, the Hollywood was actually a bit cheaper than the supercharged sharknose. For 1941, only the Hollywood soldiered on; until production ceased. Although the Grahams had terrible timing with their car business, the company did a booming business during WWII.

And the company went on to have a long future; after selling the company to Joe Frazer in 1944, Graham-Paige was one-half of the Kaiser-Frazier combine. By 1947, G-P sold the car side of its business to Kaiser, and went on to have a long life in other ventures, like Madison Square Garden and several NY pro teams. Needless to say, they were more lucrative than the car business ever was.