The question of how the all-new post-war cars would look was a pregnant one. Since the Big Three mostly stood pat with their 1941/1942 designs right through 1948, expectations were high for their 1949 models. Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth handled this challenge rather differently, and arguably the Chevy was the most successful of the bunch. It was built almost unchanged for four long years, and by 1952, it was ready to ride off into the sunset. By then it was already something of a classic; having walked that tightrope of being neither too advanced nor too stodgy, it hit the all-American sweet spot.
Beginning in 1933, a design revolution took place. 1932 was the last year most American cars would sport the “classic” look, with fully exposed flat radiators, free-standing headlights and fenders, and narrow, boxy bodies, like this Chevrolet,
The 30s were “The Streamlined Decade”. There was a huge influence from radical aerodynamic cars with “envelope” bodies, as pioneered by the highly influential Tatra 77 streamliner of 1933. With its short, blunt hood, wide body, flowing and integrated fenders, and long, swept tail hiding its rear mounted V8, it was a complete departure from the “classic” design, whose origins were the horse-drawn carriages of the previous century.
Starting in 1933, all American cars started showing evidence of streamlining, if only very tentative and superficial ones at first. They were wise not to adopt aerodynamic design too radically, having learned from the painful example of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow (above). Americans were (and are) both fashionable but yet also conservative; negotiating this radical transformation of the car successfully required waking a fine line.
Within just a few years, American cars had adopted much of this new design language, but substantially watered down. They still sat on conventional chassis (no rear engines, please!), the bodies were tall, and they still sported long and proud hoods, like this 1946 Chevrolet, which was new for 1942. And it would be built with almost no changes through 1948. The forties were off to a very slow start stylistically, thanks to the war, mostly.
Alternatively, Chevrolet also offered the fastback Fleetline body style starting in 1942, as a more serious nod to the streamlining trend. Have it your way.
But the extreme aerodynamic style created a conundrum for the designers: taken to its logical conclusion, wouldn’t all cars end up looking like pods, like this 1939 Schlörwagen?
It’s a problem that has been vexing designers since the late 1930s, and is very much a front-burner issue today again, with the advent of self driving cars, like this Google prototype. Who cares how it looks if it’s just a generic transportation pod? Automotive design needed to be expressive and emotive, in order to keep folks coming back for a new one every two or three years.
This problem kept GM designers busy during the immediate post-war years, and undoubtedly some advanced design work was going on all through the war. This shot from 1946 shows a number of ever-more advanced models, reflecting a natural progression towards a rear-engined, short-hood model not totally unlike the Schlörwagen, right down to its center driving position.
This Cadillac clay from 1945-1946 clearly shows the influences of that model, with its enclosed front wheels, short hood, hidden headlights set in rounded and bladed fenders, smooth flanks and wrap-around windshield. Clearly, the all-glass roof was not going to fly. It was also very low for the times.
Called “Interceptor”, this design graduated to a proper running prototype. This could well have been the 1948 Cadillac, and if so, would undoubtedly have been the template for the rest of the GM line. The 1949 Chevrolet could well have looked like this, with a bit less chrome and exposed headlights.
Needless to say, GM thought the better of it, and took quite a different tack with what became the production 1948 Cadillac. A much more conservative, restrained, traditional and taller design was adopted, with a classic long and proud hood that featured a more expressive front end with exposed headlights and classic egg crate grille. GM was not quite ready for a design revolution as embodied by the Interceptor; the lesson of Chrysler’s failed Airflow would affect Detroit’s studios for decades.
At the rear, the final ’48 Cadillac design also deviated from the long and low flowing Interceptor’s tail in three very significant ways: it was relatively short and tall, it had “hips” instead of smooth slab sides, and of course it had the first of the iconic fins, modest as they were, yet.
There’s even a GM Proving Grounds film clip of the Interceptor in the company of a 1946 Cadillac, a production 1948 Cadillac, and a 1948 Hudson, which was the only really bold design of the post-war era. The Hudson reflected the design direction that Cadillac had obviously been contemplating, but had rejected. And this film was apparently a way to assess that decision, in hindsight.
It’s all-too obvious that the ’48 Cadillac was just the big brother by one year to the 1949 A-Bodies, as they share much of their basic design. GM had clearly established its new post-war design language, and it was to be a success; new and fresh, but not too challenging. Cadillac and the other C/B body cars received some substantial refreshes in 1950 and 1952, but the A Bodies were built with only minimal changes right through 1952. The Chevrolets got a succession of new grilles and some trim adjustments, but were otherwise remarkably unchanged. Was it a more enduring look than the competition?
The first new post-war cars in America were the Kaiser and Frazer, which arrived in May of 1946 as early 1947 models. “Dutch” Darrin had designed the original concept and models for these cars, featuring the latest in the sleek, smooth-sided “pontoon” look, but his designs were modified (to his great displeasure), and the resulting production cars had some rather odd proportions. It certainly was new, but probably a bit too smooth and bland for most Americans’ taste, at least after a year or two.
The 1947 Studebaker followed shortly, with more character lines, including rear hips, to break up what could otherwise have also been a very slab-sided car.
Hudson’s dramatic 1948 “Step Down” was perhaps the most adventuresome of all of the new post-war cars, and reflects more closely the direction that GM had considered but rejected. The Hudson’s design ended up looking old within just a few years, and because it was mostly unitized, would have been very difficult and expensive to change, leading directly to the brand’s demise. But in 1948 it was quite the sensation.
The 1949 Nash Airflyte took a similar direction as the Hudson, going even one step further by enclosing the front wheels, leading to its being called the “Bathtub Nash”. But it wasn’t quite as low as the Hudson, which gave didn’t help its proportions.
So far, all of these cars we’ve looked at generally were priced above the Big Low-Price Three, so let’s examine what Ford and Plymouth came up with in 1949.
The Ford is a bit of a mixed bag. It has a lot of merit, but there are iffy aspects, like the awkward rain channel running across the C Pillar on the four door sedan, shared with the two-door sedan, which had a bigger rear side window. Now something like that would never have gotten by Harley Earl. The Ford was a rush job, as very late in the game for planning their new 1949 lines, it was decided that what had been planned for the Ford was too big, and it was kicked up to become the ’49 Mercury. Outside stylists were offered the chance to compete with the in-house teams for a new design, and former GM and Loewy designer Richard Caleal’s proposal won.
One could say that it’s a better 1947 Kaiser, as it too is an exponent of the slab-sided pontoon look. It was certainly a welcome change for Ford, and it sold well. But it didn’t seem to age all that well, and by 1952, Ford had a new car to replace it.
Over at Chrysler there were no apparent anxieties about how low and sleek their new ’49s should be (1949 Plymouth above). Chrysler president K.T. Keller was very clear on the matter: they should be tall! And with a short tail. Tall enough for a tall man to wear a fedora and still have plenty of room. “Cars should accommodate people rather than the far-out ideas of designers,” Keller said. “We build cars to sit in, not to pee over.”
America seemed to agree with GM’s version of the new post-war look, even if it did hark back to the pre-war era with its rear “fenders”. It avoided the slab-sided look, which simply didn’t hold one’s attention for very long. And its shape, proportions and detailing were all more complex than the competition. As ubiquitous as these were, there was no corresponding fatigue. That is a hallmark of excellent design.
And if the notchback style wasn’t quite your thing, Chevrolet also offered the fastback Fleetline series, available in two and four door sedans through 1951, and only as a two-door in 1952. Chevrolet was hedging their bets by offering two distinct versions of their cars, unlike Ford and Plymouth, although it was hardly necessary. As it turned out, the fastback’s best days were over, and its share was in decline.
Either way, Chevrolet buyers voted with their wallets versus the competition.
Ford and Chevrolet both got huge boosts in 1949 with their new cars; Plymouth didn’t. Ford actually beat Chevy that year, but that was mostly because the Fords got out of the gate earlier. That ended up biting Ford, as the ’49s had numerous quality and assembly issues, which Ford had to scramble to fix for 1950. 1952 sales were of course impacted across the board by the Korean War. Chevrolet had a banner year in 1950, hitting almost 1.5 million units, a phenomenal number and a record that would stand until 1955, when it sold 1.7 million cars.
Chevrolet sold some 4.5 million of this generation of cars over its four year production run, built in ten plants across the country. The profits generated must have been staggering. These were golden years for GM and its stockholders; life was still relatively simple, in this time of just three body shells over five divisions. Things would soon get a whole lot more complicated.
Chevrolet was of course famous for its OHV sixes, which changed the game in 1929 by offering “a six for the price of a four”. Henry Ford soon upped the ante with his V8 in 1932, but Chevy stayed with its proven formula until it augmented it with another game-changer, its brilliant 1955 OHV V8. The Low-Priced Three differentiated themselves with their engines as well as their styling, as Ford played up its flat head V8 (a flathead six also joined the lineup in 1941), and of course Plymouth was solidly wedded to its venerable flathead sixes, which dated back to 1933.
Chevy’s six dated back to 1937. This one is the 216.5 CID version, as used in the standard transmission models. With a 6.6:1 compression ratio, it was rated at 92 gross hp @3400 rpm, and 85 net hp @3300 rpm. With its standard 4.11:1 rear axle ratio, it was geared on the low side, as was generally the custom back then. A car had to be able to get going on the steepest hills with a full load, even if it only had some 170 (net) ft.lbs. of torque between 1000-2000 rpm. And overdrive was not an option, thanks to the Chevy’s torque tube rear end/drive shaft. 60 mph had the engine spinning at 3060 rpm. Peak engine speed was 4200 rpm.
Needless to say, Chevrolet played up its experience with OHV engines and their intrinsic advantages, such as more efficient porting and superior cooling, since the ports didn’t have to share block space with the water jackets. The Chevy six made about the same hp most years as the Ford V8; the reason the Fords were faster (until 1949) was simply because they weighed a couple of hundred pounds less, in part due to their primitive suspensions.
As can be seen in the cutaway and from this photo, these Chevy sixes had splayed valves. As such, they rather look a bit like the “porcupine” valves of the Chevy big-block V8 engines.
But since these are not cross-flow heads, it seems a bit odd to angle the exhaust valves away from the direction of the port. The cylinder-head portion of the combustion chamber surrounds only the exhaust valve; the intake valve is flush with the face of the head. Combustion chamber science was hardly mature, but it was this design that led to it being called the Chevy “Blue Flame” six, as a blue-colored flame connotes one with the most complete combustion.
Chevrolet tried to put a positive spin on its four-way lubrication system, which involved metered pressure to the valve train, vapor spray to the cylinder walls, a pressure stream aimed at special “dippers” on the connecting rods, and direct pressure to the main and camshaft bearings. Full pressure lubrication is considered optimum, and Chevrolet eventually modified the larger 235 CID version to full pressure lubrication in 1954.
I’ve heard some folks malign these engines because of the lack of a full-pressure lubrication system to the rod bearings, and refer to them as “babbitt pounders” (babbitt is a white metal alloy used in plain bearings). Oddly enough, it’s something I’ve only encountered in recent years on this site, as I was always under the impression that these engines were about as tough as it got.
Millions of these sixes were built with this lubrication system for almost twenty years, and they were used in military vehicles and medium and large trucks that were run full-out, all day long. If a Chevy “babbitt pounder” truck can haul maximum allowable loads like logs out of the forest or a semi trailer across the country, they couldn’t have been all that bad, as Chevrolet truck sales were very strong during this period. And when and if the rod bearings wore down enough to become audible, dropping the oil pan allowed one to readily remove shims from the connecting rods to compensate for wear.
This one has the optional oil filter. Chevrolet quality was generally at a high point during this era. It had been building throughout the late 20s and 30s, but Henry Ford’s legendary obsession with the finest quality steel and other materials made it hard to top a Ford during those decades. But by the 40’s that was mostly a moot point.
In 1946, Nicholas Dreystadt, a thirty-year GM employee and previously the General Manager at Cadillac, took the helm at Chevrolet. Dreystadt started out in the industry as an apprentice at Mercedes-Benz, and made quality a top priority. The new 1949 cars were the beneficiaries of his focus on quality, and these cars were arguably the best-built Chevrolets ever.
It’s strictly anecdotal, but in Iowa during my first time there in 1960-1965, lots of farmers and other folks still drove these, including university student families. And when I moved back there in 1971, one could still find these old Chevy farmer’s cars (and pickups) running still, which made great cheap wheels for us kids. And perhaps oddly, they were generally not rusty, or at least not seriously so. Part of that might have been that salt maybe wasn’t used so much back then, especially on rural gravel roads.
Meanwhile, Fords of that particular era were decidedly scarcer, and folks rather avoided them as cheap used transportation. The issues with the new 1949s might have put folks off. But they seemingly didn’t last as long, or maybe there were just a lot more Chevys sold in that part of the world.
Admittedly, the Plymouths and Dodges were the best finds of these old timers back then; everyone knew they were built like the tanks they looked like. But they weren’t easy to come by; their owners knew what they had.
There were two important additions to the Chevy line in 1950 that probably help account for that record-breaking 1.5 million sold that year. The Bel Air hardtop was the first in the low-price field, and almost perfectly mirrored the Cadillac’s new hardtop.
The other sensation of 1950 was the Powerglide (“PG”), the first fully-automatic transmission in the low-price field. In a way, the word “automatic transmission” is a bit of a misnomer, as it suggests that gears were changed automatically. They weren’t: the Powerglide, in its original format, was a one-speed transmission with a wide-range torque converter and a manually selectable Low gear for steep hills or those seeking a faster getaway. Starting in 1953, the PG did start out in Low and shifted automatically into Drive, for brisker starts.
Yes, these early PG-equipped cars were like their Buick Dynaflow cousins in conveying a sense of being in a powerboat rather than in a car, with the engine speed barely increasing as the car oozed forward. But it was a great convenience, at a time when new consumer appliances were all about the convenience. Folks were tired of washing their clothes in a tub, heating their bath water on the stove, and shifting their own balky gears and using a clutch. The fully automatic operation of these rightfully-named slushboxes was worth the minor trade-offs. And who was in a big hurry in 1950 anyway?
In order to offset the PG’s tendency towards sloth, the larger 235 CID version of the six, which had been a truck-only engine previously, was made standard. It was a whole power train unique to the PG-equipped cars: the 235 six made 105 gross/98 net hp, had a commensurate bump in torque, and even sported hydraulic valve lifters. The rear axle ratio dropped to 3.55:1, which offset some of the fuel economy loss of the bigger engine and PG. It made for more relaxed cruising; 60 mph now had the engine turning only 2640 rpm.
Among other engineering features, Chevrolet claimed to have the strongest and stiffest frame as well as the largest brakes (11″ x 2″) in its price class. Suspension was by the usual SLA (short-arm, long arm) coil-sprung control arms at the front, and leaf springs at the rear, with the previously-mentioned torque tube, meaning a solid connection of the drive shaft and rear axle, with torque reactions taken up against the only universal joint just behind the transmission.
The interior packaging on these cars was one of the high points, as they were very roomy given their reasonable 115″ wheelbase and measuring a few inches less than 200 in overall length, thanks to their 65″ height.
Seats are tall, and even with the front seat all the way back, rear leg room measures over 41″. If you’re of a certain age (or older), slipping into the back (or front) seat of one of these will evoke a flood of memories. The enveloping shape, the natural fabrics, the smells, the feeling of being well ensconced in a comfortable and roomy cabin, where the captain never lights the “Please fasten seatbelts” sign, and one isn’t confined by them or consoles and individual seats. It’s like sitting on comfortable sofas that wend their way gently through space.
These cars were designed for a time when families were large, and sedans were the designated hauler. There was a three-row station wagon, but it was expensive and wagons were just not very common yet as typical family cars. So no matter how many kids there were, they all fit, one way or another.
Like about a dozen Niedermeyers and Payrs did in 1959, when we all piled into the Olds 88 version of the same A-Body for a confirmation outing in Innsbruck (I’m in front). Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so fond of these cars. In the 1950s in Europe, these GM cars of this vintage were considered the finest cars in the world, and were luxury cars conveying high prestige. Riding in this hired black Olds sedan was the equivalent of a hired S Class or Rolls-Royce today.
The big steering wheel was designed for a time before power steering (or air bags). Its ratio (19:1) was actually faster than later Chevrolets, thanks to the large diameter rim which afforded plenty of leverage, with four turns, lock to lock. The gearshift also was designed for actual use, not just for style, and the large, smooth knob adds a nice tactile touch to the experience of wending one’s way through the three forward gears, synchronized on the two upper ones.
And since Dad felt flush enough to buy a nicely-trimmed DeLuxe, why not splurge on the tube AM radio too? And what was the first song that came on, on the way home from the dealer?
Probably Leroy Anderson’s Pop Orchestra’s “Blue Tango”, which spent 38 weeks on or near the top of the charts. Rock music was still some years away, and the blues that inspired it was hardly mainstream in 1952.
So what about this particular baby-blue sedan that I found sitting in front of a classic California bungalow in the tiny and bucolic village of Pescadero, a mile or so inland from the Pacific and just on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains from Silicon Valley? Its co-owner Debbie appeared on the front porch, and was happy to have me shoot, and tell me a bit about the Chevy, which has been in a friend’s family since new, and recently has joined a ’55 Chevy in the garage in back. Her husband Frank later e-mailed me some more pictures, and filled me in on the story:
So the ‘52 was given to us by our friend Connie. Her grandparents bought it new in Long Beach, CA. It was built in Los Angeles. It’s a Deluxe, with a radio but no heater. It was a daily driver, turned over to her father at some point and driven until 1986. Parked at the family home in Long Beach until acquired.
We picked it up in July 2014, and aired up the bias ply tires. We got it to fire but it wouldn’t run. We trailered it back to Pescadero, CA.
New fuel tank, carb rebuild, fuel lines flushed and filter added. Complete brake service including, wheel/master cylinders, lines, shoes, drums, hardware, seals. Tires, a few suspension parts, tune up, hoses, belt, generator rebuild, wiper motor service. A few trim pieces replaced, and used bumpers acquired that are in better shape than what was on the car.
Since owned driven several thousand miles, entered in local car shows. And I/we try to drive it at least 2-3 times a month. It’s not fast or nimble but it is very fun to drive! Love the whistle of a 6 cylinder.
Me too. These old Chevy sixes do emit a distinctive tone, a happy combination of gentle valve train ticking, the intake sighing, and the murmuring spent blue flames of its exhaust. It’s a most familiar one, too, given how common they were for decades. Yes, I fell in love with this blue car, and would have happily listened to its six purring away smoothly for the long drive up the coast back to Oregon with me. But it’s already found a good home here in Pescadero.
So I’ll have to use my imagination as I slip behind the wheel. Or the memories, from years ago, which are still as fresh as the spring grass coming up in the meadow across the lane.
The sun may have been setting on this four year old design in 1952, but it’s been basking in the afterglow ever since.
More Chevrolet history: