At first blush, it would seem the truncated 1942 model year was one of the more challenging in automotive history given the discontinuation of automobile manufacturing for focusing on the war effort. However, the actual challenge and struggle was the transition from the war effort to producing automobiles in late 1945 for model year 1946.
The entry of the United States into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 did not trigger automobile manufacturers such as General Motors to begin production of military items. These efforts had been ramping up for over eighteen months and the war simply escalated this further.
The Chevrolet division of General Motors was awarded its first contract with the War Department in April 1940. This initial contract was for the production of 75 mm shells. Chevrolet would ultimately make over 8 million such shells in both high explosive and armor-piercing varieties.
Shell production was simply the opening shot in the manufacturing barrage that was Chevrolet. In short order, the War Department would further contract with Chevrolet for 4×4 trucks, 90 mm anti-aircraft guns, armored cars, and aircraft engines.
Chevrolet was reminding the public of their ongoing efforts in this ad from the October 20, 1941 issue of Time magazine. GM’s advertising about their helping with national defense also helped advertise and emphasize their manufacturing might. With United States involvement in the war being viewed as imminent by many at that time, such ads also likely helped serve as encouragement to Allied forces elsewhere in the world.
The last Chevrolet passenger car left the assembly line amid heavy automotive rationing on February 6, 1942, and nearly all assembly plants were immediately converted to war production. The only Chevrolet factory not fully dedicated to the war effort was in Saginaw, Michigan. Among its various products, the Saginaw plant was making replacement parts for all the Chevrolet cars and pickups that would have to serve their owners for the unknown duration of the war.
By the time Japan surrendered in August 1945, Chevrolet’s contribution to the Volume Production for Victory effort was staggering.
In addition to the explosive and armor piercing shells mentioned above, Chevrolet plants also produced 2,000 90 mm anti-aircraft guns with another 3,000 barrels for use as spares. Chevrolet also produced 5.7 million pounds of magnesium casings for aircraft engines plus over 2 billion pounds of gray iron casings for various and assorted mechanical parts.
In the mechanical realm, Chevrolet produced 500,000 trucks in 4×2, 4×4, and 6×6 guises. The bulk of these trucks were produced in St. Louis with most of the remainder made in Baltimore.
Additionally, a sizable number of the GMC trucks used in World War II were built by Chevrolet for GMC. Unlike today, there used to be tangible differences between Chevrolet and GMC trucks.
Aircraft engines is where Chevrolet truly pounded the drum of their abilities during the war. Chevrolet would make over 60,000 Pratt & Whitney radial engines with peak monthly production being 3,502 engines in November 1943, the highest aircraft engine production by any manufacturer ever at that time.
The aircraft these engines powered were numerous. A fourteen cylinder, 1,200 horsepower version was found on the B-24 Liberator bomber (shown); similar was used on the C-47 and C-53 cargo planes.
An eighteen cylinder, 2,000 horsepower Chevrolet produced Pratt & Whitney engine could be found on both the P-47 Thunderbolt such as this one and the P-61 Black Widow fighter planes.
Chevrolet had nine manufacturing centers and eleven factories in ten states converted to war production. Two more assembly plants were designed and under construction around this same time, with expansion plans at various existing factories. With this tremendous manufacturing ability, it would seem that refocusing on production of civilian vehicles would be a snap.
Some elements were pretty straightforward. On Friday, August 17, 1945, the contract for military trucks was cancelled. All trucks on the assembly line in St. Louis were simply taken apart and the various military based elements of the assembly line removed. Production of civilian pickups commenced on Monday, August 20. Having produced a half-million trucks during the war, there wasn’t a drastic change of process to accomplish this.
The plants that produced automobiles were an entirely different story. To produce war material, all assembly line components for car production had been removed entirely at the beginning of the war. Further, these plants and factories had been heavily reconfigured for military production and had to be altered back to being conducive for automobile production.
Providing an added layer of complication in resuming production, autoworkers went on strike and steel was a very precious commodity. With consumers finally being able to exercise their pent-up demand, many industries – even toy companies – were aggressively vying to acquire whatever steel they could.
Working through these abundant challenges, the first new Chevrolet rolled off the assembly line in Kansas City on October 3, 1945. When sales were tallied for the 1946 model year, Ford had outsold Chevrolet by 70,000 cars.
Like the offerings from the other manufacturers, the 1946 Chevrolet was a warmed over 1942 model, itself a rehash of the entirely new 1941 models (shown). Names for trim levels changed from Master Deluxe, Special Deluxe and Fleetline in 1942 to Stylemaster, Fleetmaster, and Fleetline for 1946. All sat on a 116″ wheelbase and were powered by a 90 horsepower 216 cubic inch (3.5 liter) straight six.
It should be noted sedan style Fleetmaster and fastback Fleetline were the upper trim levels. In 1946 the word “fleet” was associated with swiftness found from being fleet-footed, not bulk sales. The Stylemaster sedan seen here was a member of the bottom trim level, sharing body panels with the Fleetmaster.
Not only names were shuffled around at Chevrolet in 1946, but management was shuffled around also. In June 1946, Marvin E. Coyle, who had been with Chevrolet since 1917 and its general manager since 1933, was promoted to executive vice president of General Motors.
Replacing Coyle was Nicholas Dreystadt, a thirty-year GM employee who had been general manager at Cadillac since 1934. Dreystadt, a German immigrant who had worked as an apprentice at Mercedes-Benz, is often credited for saving Cadillac during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Among the strategies Dreystadt had employed to make Cadillac the most profitable division per unit was to implement many production efficiencies plus eliminating the make’s early 1930s policy of refusing to sell cars to those of African descent.
Dreystadt’s goal was for ever higher production of an ever higher quality product. Dreystadt’s philosophy, likely a product of both his time at Mercedes and his coming from the early days of GM, was public approval of products had to be earned. Chevrolet would build its 19 millionth vehicle on December 5, 1946.
One of the Chevrolet’s built sometime after production resumed in October 1945 is this 1946 Stylemaster.
This Chevrolet has been sitting for sale next to the road near my in-laws for a while. So during a trip there last week, I swung by to get some pictures; in the process I was able to talk to the owner.
The gentleman who purchased this Chevrolet new was the father of five children. The very first thing the proud new owner did was drive to the upholstery shop to have the seats covered, which gives the impression he was either quite fastidious or his kids were on the slovenly side. As the owner pointed out, this being done wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since the original upholstery has never been exposed to anyone’s bottom side.
At some point in time, the original owner sold the car to his nephew. The nephew drove it some, but upon taking a trip somewhere in Illinois, the Chevrolet developed a mechanical issue. While the issue is now unknown, it cost a fortune for the car to be towed back to the owner’s home.
Upon its return, the nephew parked the Chevrolet in his shed. It sat there for the next twenty-seven years.
The current owner is only the third owner of this Chevrolet. He had purchased it to make it into a novelty car for his grandchildren; he told me he was split between making it into a mafia car or a police car. Due to several of his children getting divorces, and his having a heart attack, the car remains unmolested. What you see is the way it left the Chevrolet factory, with only the effects of time working on its appearance.
That spot in the middle of the trunk lid is the only real blemish on the car. The owner suspects there was a faulty paint job at the factory; whatever happened, it is rather like the mole on Marilyn Monroe’s face. It adds a stylish blemish to the Stylemaster.
Despite owning the car for a decade, the owner has driven this car exactly three times. He says his wife was the primary driver as he doesn’t get along well with a clutch. Like all the other Chevrolet’s built this year, it has a three-speed manual transmission.
The owner told me if a person can get this car to 55 mph they should consider themselves successful. With 4.11 gearing in the differential, combined with 90 horsepower being on tap, this car wasn’t meant to be a powerhouse.
Weight is a factor in that scenario but not as much as it would appear; the dry curb weight for this Chevrolet is 3,175 pounds. For comparison, this is about 150 pounds less than the 2014 Volkswagen Passat I drove to get these pictures. This Chevrolet is large but it isn’t overly heavy.
This car runs but needs a repair on what sounds like either a clogged fuel line or an unhealthy fuel pump. It quickly starts and runs smoothly as long there is fuel in the carburetor.
When telling my seventy-seven year-old father-in-law about this Chevrolet, and mentioning the fuel issue, he knew exactly what I was talking about. Apparently back in the day his parents also owned a 1946 Chevrolet. He said it often had the same issue, sometimes accompanied by a sticky float, and this caused it to be a frequent recipient of cursing by his father. A series of quick applications of a ball-peen hammer to the side of the carburetor was a frequently reliable fix.
Might it simply be a quirk for the era?
While Chevrolet regained its top sales position for 1947, never again would the story leading up to the production of any Chevrolet be as extended and interesting as that of the 1946 models.
Found on February 22, 2016, along Route 47, west of Winfield, Missouri