Truckstop Classic: 1941 Chevrolet COE: Streamlining Arrives Down On The Farm

(first posted 8/1/2011)    What is it that makes this old farm truck so compelling? Sure, all the usual superlatives can be invoked: its just awesome, cool, and absolutely dripping with sculptural impact, patina and history. That’s plenty of fodder to write about, along with enumerating its archaic details. But there’s much more: the thirties is undoubtedly the most revolutionary decade ever in terms of design, and by that I mean all industrial design. Everything from washing machines, cameras, trains, cars, trucks and just about anything else built by man started out the decade looking like what it was in its most functional state: naked; well, maybe with a bit of frilly underwear. But within a few short years, that would all change: streamlining, which arose purely from its functional roots, now enveloped everything in its slip stream. Even a potato truck.

One only needs to look at almost anything that sprang from the factories and foundries ten years earlier, liker this 1930 Chevrolet truck, to see how drastic the change was in a few short years. The cab is still an enclosed carriage, bolt upright and shaped (and mostly built) like they were in the previous century. The radiator, headlights and pretty much everything else is purely functional. Of course, a certain degree style is part of the package, and colors became more common after 1926 with the introduction of pyroxylin paints.But that was minor compared to the radical influence of streamlining.

The origins of streamlining go back remarkably far. The ideal streamlined form was described in 1804 by Sir George Cayley as an “a very oblong spheroid”. And already in 1865, Samual Calthorpe patented an “air-resisting train”, looking remarkably advanced given the times.

It would take some eighty years to finally see his impact, but when it hit, it was dramatic. Raymond Loewy, who would go on to become one of the most influential industrial and automotive designers, stands here with one of his early creations, the Pennsylvania RR S-2.  The fact that these streamlined steam locomotives were maintenance nightmares and soon stripped back to their naked selves, with every pipe, rivet and valve exposed, is largely beside the point.

Diesel locomotives didn’t have those constraints, and their arrival in the early thirties made them the poster children of the whole genre: diesel streamliners. And there’s a whole lot of the City of Denver in this Chevy truck. We’ll get back to that in a minute, but let’s just confirm that it wasn’t just things that moved through the air, no matter how slow or fast, that were streamlined.

Everything, from cameras, washing machines, and the lowly kitchen range were completely re-imagined, in the most fertile few years of the history of design. That pioneering range (above right) was designed in 1932 by Norman Bel Geddes, the earliest of his cohorts, a theater set designer who simply set himself the task of imagining everything from a tiny cigarette lighter to whole cities in the new idiom. He soon had corporations knocking on his door, and hired dozens of engineers, designers, architects and draftsmen to carry out his endless imaginings.

The fact that this all happened mostly in the very depths of the Great Depression added complexity and urgency to the whole industrial re-imaging of almost every product. On one hand, corporations were none too thrilled to have to spend billions to completely retool in those difficult times. But streamlining was also seen as a possible salvation, a way to stimulate consumer interest at a time when that was desperately needed. Too bad it was a one-time event; we could use such a revolution again. (Walter Dorwin Teague designed this brilliant 1936 Kodak Bantam).

My Illustrated History of Automotive Aerodynamics can be found here, so we won’t cover all that, and we’ve digressed way to far already. But there has never been a more transforming influence on design, in part because it coincided with the whole emergence of the concept of the modern design profession.

The grand detours from streamlining started in the fifties and reached their zenith in the sixties, when something “new” had to be invented, even if it was the exact polar opposite of streamlining. But one can’t have a reaction unless its to something. And the all-enveloping body, no matter how boxy or gaudy, still owed its origins to the streamline revolution. And there’s no need to even mention how full circle things have come.

So here we are at last, down on the farm after our rambling detour with this fine example of late thirties styling. It appeared on these Chevy trucks in 1941, and were built mostly unchanged until the new Loadmaster trucks of 1949. The COE stands for cab-over-engine, a concept that trucks have offered since their earliest days. It offered a shorter wheelbase, which was generally more of a concern with the length-restricted semi trucks, but why not for a potato truck too? Looks more impressive than the low riding conventionals.

Of course, there is a price to pay. Before we look at that closer, here’s a view of what was state-of-the-art in trucking comfort in 1941. Remember, the streamlining design revolution was way ahead of other aspects of technological development. Under the stylish skin, things hadn’t changed quite as much. And that seat is far from original; someone wanted to improve that aspect just a wee bit; in the seventies, from the looks of it.

So let’s point that camera down on the floor, where we see a large protrusion that looks like a giant valve cover.

That’s because it is, practically. There’s the real thing, a 216 cubic inch Blue Flame six, just an inch or so below the thin un-insulated cover. Horsepower was 78 or 80; that still meant something at a time when most folks had grown up with horses. What’s conspicuously absent is the intake and carburetor; I’d guess the COE versions had different plumbing with an updraft carb, most likely. But the plugs are easy to change in the rain.And that’s a wild looking shifter, emerging from a hole in the wood floor. Those pieces of plywood look like they come up quite readily, in order to get at the engine a bit better.

Because there’s nothing up front except the radiator, and a curious-looking brake master cylinder, or is that what that is?

Let’s close its mouth, and take in one more shot of that wild front end.

To tell the truth, this design clearly shows that it isn’t from the peak of the streamlined years, and is feeling the need to be bolder and more expressive, than the more restrained version that preceded it.

Now why do I keep assuming that this was a farm truck anyway? Well, that “spare” wheel has a distinctly agricultural look to it, unless the owner was planning to put these oversize dubs on it all around. What size would that be anyway? 42″? 46″? Just needs to be chromed. Take that, all you donked Chevys.

A little help explaining this would be handy. It’s a semaphore, obviously, and not to unlike European cars used to have for signaling turns. But this one is mighty large, on one side only, and the truck has turn signals. Something to do with its former profession?

Did someone mention patina? This is a truckload of it, and perhaps overweight at that. How many boots have stepped up here?

A kid who works here told me this Chevy truck was a fine runner and ready to roll down Hwy 99. Top speed? Don’t ask. As long as the potatoes didn’t rot by the time you got them to the processing plant, who cared? Forty five tops, is my guess, and I might well be high.

Well shoot; I should have looked at the tags earlier. They’re from 1946, and look mighty original. That’s ok, this model came out looking the same in ’41, and that’s a lot closer to the streamlined decade than 1946. Don’t want to re-write or toss out that endless pre-amble. Maybe he bought it used.

And someone has apparently bought this one, because it’s already left the rest of its friends at the CC Truckstop. Somehow, though, I doubt it chuffed up the highway under its own power. And quite likely, it will end up looking like this. Not a totally happy thought for me, but I better make my peace with that.


1955 Union pacific EMD E9: The Last Of The Diesel Streamliners

An Illustrated History of Automotive Aerodynamics, Part 1