Every once in a while, one is privileged to encounter something so special, it’s jarring. Like a rare flower growing in a landfill or an original Picasso accidently stocked in a thrift store, encountering a car from 1941 anywhere, even most car shows, is unusual. Finding one parked on the street is next-level special. The strange sense I got was that time had warped around this beautiful car.
The curbside spot it’s parked at is on an old street, going back well before 1941, but in a section of the city near downtown that has redeveloped and gentrified such that there is practically nothing left from 1941 except perhaps the curb itself. Almost everything in the pictures here, including the skyscrapers, is much more recent, but the car looks like it was parked there in 1942. The world moved on while it got stuck here in a moment waiting for its owner to come sauntering back wearing his fedora, smoking a Camel and whistling the latest Glenn Miller tune.
Apart from the sense of anachronism, I was taken by the car itself and how very fetching it is. My personal contact with 1940’s cars is almost entirely limited to automotive events, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one randomly parked on the street. I’m not old enough to have a personal connection with the Prewar automotive era, but the period is an interesting one because it’s easy to forget just how rapidly cars were changing in that span between the world wars.
The first Chevrolets were made in 1912 and after a tumultuous first several years, the company settled into its home as General Motors’ entry-level car around 1920. The mid 20’s saw the emergence of a car recognizable as having Chevy’s now-familiar persona of a budget car offering a bit more style and content. In 1925, it was the first low-priced car to offer Duco paint in multiple colors. In 1927, it adopted a more elaborate grille shape, rounded fenders, and “bullet” shaped headlight buckets. 1928 saw a new larger body, with (what would become) the long-running “Stovebolt” overhead valve six replacing the four-cylinder engine for 1929. Along with the rest of the industry, Chevrolet went from being a very blocky, upright car containing wood framing in the body in 1930 to being a significantly larger, rounded and streamlined all-steel-bodied car by 1940.
Mechanical advances were numerous during the 1930’s as well. A not-even-close-to-exhaustive list on Chevrolets includes: Hydraulic shock absorbers (1930). Synchromesh transmission (1932). Interior ventilation system (1933). Independent front suspension (1934). Hydraulic brakes (1936, four wheel brakes had come in 1928). Stovebolt engine upgrades (1934 and redesign in 37).
The 1941 Chevrolet looked somewhat similar to the 1940, but looks are deceiving as it was revised to the point that I believe it could be considered a new generation. The bodies were virtually all new on a chassis that was mostly carryover but widened. Though subtly sleeker (e.g. note the increased windshield rake), the size of the car was the biggest change, so to speak.
The new model added 3 inches in wheelbase and length, an inch in width and lost an inch in height (longer. lower, wider!). The new body gained even more interior width in the passenger area by expanding over the running boards, adding 3 inches to the bench seat.
To get a sense of how much cars had grown in the prewar period, comparing 1941 to 1927, the car had a 13 inch longer wheelbase plus a whole lot more overhang front and rear. 1941’s 3130lb sedan was 855lb heavier. The 26hp propelling the 1927 car had grown to 90hp for 1941.
Financially speaking, it is remarkable that 1941’s least expensive sedan ($795) was only $100 more than 1927’s, (price would drop for 1928 and keep dropping through 1933). On a weight basis, that’s 38% more car for 14% more money, and you were getting an almost immeasurably more refined, reliable, better-engineered car.
The larger 1941 Chevrolet was part of the division’s strategy of offering more value, trying to become a sort of “baby Buick”. The front end looks a whole lot like it’s aping the 40/41 Buick. The upsized 1941 Chevy had only a 5in shorter wheelbase than the base Buicks. And in a move that foreshadowed the introduction of the Caprice 24 years later, midyear Chevrolet brought out a new flagship four-door sedan: the Fleetline.
Initially a submodel of the top Special Deluxe series, the Fleetline was behind only the Special Deluxe convertible and wagon in price. The main feature of the Fleetline was its body style, a five-window four-door sedan. With the midyear introduction of this style, Chevy was the final GM division to jump into what would be the dominant sedan body style in the near future.
The style was introduced on the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special, Bill Mitchell’s first wave-making design. The car had vent panes in the rear window rather than separate rear quarter windows and a more pronounced, distinct coupe-like trunk in what could be considered the first “three box” or “notchback” American sedan design. For 1940, the style migrated to top or near-top of the line models for Buick (Roadmaster and Super), Oldsmobile (Custom Cruiser), Pontiac (Torpedo Eight), and even LaSalle in its final year (Special).
The 1938 Sixty Special is also famous for being the first American sedan by a major manufacturer to appear without running boards (after the obscure Ruxton in 1929-30 and the unforgettable but low-volume 36-37 Cord), a feature all these new sedans would also have, though running boards were quickly evolving out of existence industry-wide. All Chevy cars had concealed running boards for 1941, just having a shallow body flare out at the rocker panels over where the running boards would be. Chevy’s Fleetline would become its own model range for 1942 and add the Aerosedan, a fastback two-door.
Getting back to our beautiful feature coupe, it’s a Special Deluxe, the higher of the two model ranges that year. The lower range was called Master Deluxe, which confuses me, since a Master is supposed to be the boss, certainly over his Special brother. Over at Buick, Special was the entry-level line while the Roadmaster was the top dog (not counting the Limited semi-limousines). And if all models are “Deluxe”, does the term retain any meaning?
The interior is as appealing as the exterior. The 3-inch-wider bench seat, in combination with the column shifter, makes three passengers in the front seat plausibly comfortable. The black pedal to the right of the accelerator is the starter button. The white plastic knob above the speedometer is the wiper switch. 1940 was the first year Chevrolet used any of the new-fangled material plastic in its interiors. The vacuum-operated column shifter made its debut as an option in 1939 and became standard in 1940.
The dashboard looks quite posh for a Chevrolet, to my eyes at least. Perhaps that’s because while the exterior styling clearly borrowed some inspiration from Buick (i.e. copied), the interior looks like the designers peeked at the test answers of another division. The driver gets a highly symmetrical dash with temperature, ammeter, and oil pressure gauges. The dash also has knobs to manually adjust choke, throttle and octane (adjust the ignition timing to match your gasoline). I was surprised to find out the car came with an interior hood release, a security feature some cars decades newer didn’t have.
The Special Deluxe models get a horn ring, a handsome stem-wind clock to match the speedometer, 4 bright trim strips outboard of the speedometer/clock, and a generous amount of metal trim painted to look like wood. I’ve always found this variety of imitation wood to be more attractive than the plastic wood used in later decades. From what I’ve been able to gather, radios weren’t a factory option, but were available as a dealer-installed accessory to mount in the dash. The cost to be able to hear the flash news reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor while driving was $25 for a basic 5-tube model and up to $60 for an 8-tube deluxe model rivaling the power and sound of a nice home unit. That calculates to $478 and $1,150 in 2022 dollars!
The 1941 coupe with a back row is officially called the Five-Passenger Coupe, upgraded in title from 1940 when it was called the Four-Passenger Coupe, owing to the increased width of the interior. What I can’t figure out is why it is Five and not Six. The back seat is smaller than the sedans’, but presumably the leg room is what’s limited more than the width as the brochure specifically asserts that it’s a full-width rear seat. And it’s not like it had seat belts to tell people how many passengers it was officially supposed to have. I’m certain many a Five-Passenger Coupe has carried six passengers over the years, plus a couple in the trunk if a drive-in movie was the destination.
The engine is beauty in simplicity. Modern engines may have lots more features, power and durability, but modern mechanics can only fantasize about having so much space and accessibility.
To compensate for the weight gained with the 1941’s growth, the 216.5 cubic inch ohv six gained 5 h.p. to give it 90 h.p. (@3300rpm) and 174 lb-ft torque (@1200rpm), a benefit of a number of detail improvements such as reshaped combustion chamber (giving it 6.5:1 compression over the old 6.25:1), new smaller but more efficient/durable spark plugs, improved coil and ignition points, and improved water pump.
Trunk space is pretty large. A couple of cozy unticketed drive-in moviegoers could definitely fit back there. Coupes and convertibles had a tray over the spare while sedans had the spare mounted upright on the left, both intentional so the spare could be used without having to remove all the contents.
My impression of a car eternally stuck in a time warp didn’t last for long, as the owner came back to the car and he was not in fact dressed like an artifact from the Big Band era. He was a 21st century classic car lover who had recently purchased the Chevy. He was quite friendly and gave me free reign to photograph the car and write about it on Curbside Classic. The car was completely restored in the 1980’s and still looks fantastic.
Though plenty attractive from the factory, at some point this car was the recipient of seemingly the entire Chevrolet accessory catalog. So far I’ve spotted a trunk guard (the tall appendage in the center of the bumper), front and rear bumper guards, back up lights, tailpipe extension, wheel trim ring, larger wheel discs (with the red slots surrounding the stock-style hubcaps), chrome rear fender guard (stock is black rubber), front fender trim (slatted chrome behind the wheel opening), fog lights, side window rain guards, electric turn signals, and hood ornament figure.
Presumably whitewall tires would have been optional, but the brochure doesn’t show any cars with whitewalls nor mention them as available and they aren’t in the accessory catalog linked above. Did Chevy dealers offer to install on new cars? Owners may have been on their own to buy them from a tire dealer, which wouldn’t have been hard since original tires probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a year or two of typical use anyway.
The Chevy soon drove off and time re-synced. This little oasis of unusualness was gone and the block was back to its regular boring modern automotive background.
The new body/chassis changes for 1941 would last through 1948, though the 42 model would have significant styling changes in the front fenders, hood, and grille (with 46-48 models having only minimal revisions) giving the 1941 Chevy one-year-only styling. They sold just over one million passenger cars that year, a feat they had only previously achieved in 1927-29 and wouldn’t again until 1949.
Many prewar Chevy enthusiasts consider 1941 a special year, both because of it’s unique, attractive shape and, of course, since it was the last full model year before World War II totally disrupted the industry. The world may have left 1941 well behind it, but this Chevy continues to bring a sense of that time to everyone fortunate enough to encounter it.
Photographed August 17, 2020 in Houston, TX.
Related reading: There ain’t much as this is the first 41 Chevy car featured on Curbside Classic. I mentioned Duco paints, and if you haven’t read it, J.P. Cavanaugh wrote a fascinating series on car paint history – Automotive History: The Long Road To The White Car (Part 1)
He also did a nice article covering this generation of Buicks – Curbside Classic Double Feature: 1941 Buick Super and 1948 Buick Roadmaster – The Look Of Success
Paul covered the first and second generation Chevy Fleetline – Cohort Classic: 1949 Chevrolet Fleetline Special Two Door Sedan – Your Choice Of Fastback or Notchback