“What is that big old car?”
A passerby asked that question as I was taking the above photo… timely, since I was transfixed by seeing a 1940s-era car in a modern setting. We’ve discussed this topic before here at Curbside Classic – that modern cars are dimensionally similar to those of the 1940s – but viewing such a comparison in a random parking lot drove this point home for me. This 1947 Chevrolet, and the Toyota that’s six decades newer, share a mighty similar size, though the journey from there to here took a long, low and wide detour.
The overall shape of 1940s cars wound up being somewhat of an interim phase in car design… between the old-fashioned tall-and-narrow look, and the longer-lower-wider trend that took hold for decades following. In short, what was new became old, and now it’s new again.
Before we take a look at the size comparison between this old-timer Chevrolet and its parking lot neighbor, let’s journey back to the 1940s.
General Motors’ Chevrolet Division was on a roll entering the 1940s, having been America’s best-selling nameplate for most of the previous decade. Chevrolet succeeded during the bleak Depression years by providing a useful combination of good value, up-to-date features, and a reasonably stylish appearance.
Given its high sales volume, an all-new Chevy for 1941 was highly anticipated. To modern eyes, the styling changes for ’41 may not appear dramatic, but this car illustrated the budding design trends that were to become much more noticeable in subsequent decades. Chevrolet’s press release summed up the styling intent:
In general proportions, the new Chevrolet is longer, wider, and lower. In keeping with its more generous dimensions, the car’s styling of low sweeping lines, with accent on the horizontal, intensifies the swift massiveness and safe stability which are designed into the car.
Dimensions themselves changed only modestly with this 1941 styling refresh – wheelbase and overall length each edged up by about 3″, width by about 1.5″ and height shrank by a fraction of an inch. But design characteristics augmented these changes.
The above list, from GM’s comprehensive guide to the car’s engineering features (full pdf available here), highlights the “new features” for ’41 Chevrolets, likely to be used as talking points by sales staff. Features such as a “more massive lower-appearing front end,” “wider, more massive body,” and “greater accent on horizontal lines” show what Chevrolet’s design staff was aiming for. The term massive (used repeatedly) is interesting here, because is shows that GM’s designers, led by Harley Earl, ensured their new streamlined design appeared sufficiently formidable.
Some of the significant design features included eliminating the valleys between the fenders and the (now wider) hood; flush-mounting the headlights and parking lights into those fenders; concealing the door hinges; and providing a more steeply sloped windshield. Those looking for mechanical changes might have been a bit less impressed, since the 216-cid. 6-cyl. engine, the 3-speed transmission and Tiptoematic clutch were largely carried over, as Chevrolet did not synchronize mechanical upgrades with new designs.
Perhaps the most important single design change was the omission of exterior running boards. Instead of traditional running boards (which, according to the ad above could double as a seat for winos, a perch for miscreant youths, and were the cause of numerous other ills), the car’s contoured door panels concealed an inner rubber-covered step. With these types of changes, Chevrolet hoped to shed the “old-timer” look of the automobile’s early age.
1941’s changes wound up being popular. Over a million 1941 Chevrolet passenger cars were produced overall, including 100,000 in just the first five weeks of production.
The brief 1942 model year brought about a restyled front end, featuring a grille with larger bars, a broader hood, longer front fenders, and headlights spaced further apart. Cumulatively, these minor changes accentuated the car’s bulk, suggesting that the 1941 redesign may not have appeared “massive” enough. But of course, problems such as headlight spacing withdrew from most people’s minds as world events took a much different course for the next several years.
On February 1, 1942, the US government ceased all civilian car production due to the country’s involvement in World War II. Like other manufacturers, Chevrolet quickly pivoted to producing war materiel, including military vehicles, aircraft engines, armor-piercing shells, and other items for the war effort. It would be 4½ years until auto production resumed, in October 1946.
1946 Chevrolets were – like cars worldwide – largely clones of prewar models. Consumers, though, barely minded. Orders for ’46 Chevrolets far outpaced production capacity. The most significant change to the cars themselves was in their nomenclature, updated with more grandiose names – hence the prewar Master DeLuxe and Special DeLuxe became the Stylemaster and Fleetmaster.
Mechanically and dimensionally identical, these two models differed only by trim levels. The minimal differences included details such as additional chrome trim, a different steering wheel design, interior lighting, and other minor features. For buyers seeking something a bit different, a distinctive torpedo-shaped Fleetline range was offered as well, sitting atop of Chevrolet’s model line.
Our featured Stylemaster hails from 1947, a year for which, once again, Chevrolet made few changes. In reality, they didn’t need to make any changes at all, given the postwar surge in new car demand. According to General Manager T.H. Keating, Chevrolet had orders for more than one million cars and trucks at the beginning of 1947 (though undoubtedly many of those customers placed duplicate orders for Fords, Plymouths or others as well). That staggering demand dictated that model year changes be modest, if for no other reason than executives wished to avoid the typical one- to three-week factory shutdowns to retool for new designs. Or, as Keating said, a quick model-year changeover avoided “causing the car-needy public to face further inconvenience and disappointment.”
The modest types of changes for 1947 mostly involved ornamentation. In place of the ’46 model’s chromed side spear, less brightwork was used on the ’47, with the goal of accentuating the car’s smooth contours. Streamlined-looking badges on the sides of the hood substituted for the side spear.
At the very front, parking lights now flanked a grille that was modestly redesigned, with chunkier and wider crossbars, in a way to emphasize the car’s width and bulk (going for a still more massive look). In another change that took up less acreage, Chevrolet redesigned the front emblem.
Updates were somewhat more noticeable inside, with a modernized dashboard and upholstery. This interior appears as if it has been reupholstered, but is otherwise mighty original. The front seat is wide enough to hold three people, as is the rear seat, though somehow I neglected to photograph this one.
While sparse by modern standards, the Chevrolet’s dash was a well-laid out command center for the day – “handsomely finished in bright metal and plastics” in GM parlance. In addition to the large speedometer and clock, the driver also had four small gauges on the dashboard’s left-hand side – for fuel, water temperature, oil pressure and an ammeter. Incidentally, the white lever above the speedometer is the windshield wiper control. Vital controls are all within the driver’s sightline.
The item to the left of the steering column is a rubber-bladed fan, for either ventilation or defrosting. While not a factory option, these types of fans were popular at the time, with this one painted to match the interior color.
Taking a tour around this Stylemaster, we can see some of the details that were significant at the time. For example, the rear window is curved both horizontally and vertically in order to match the car’s contours.
Here we can see the more modern look provided by the lack of running boards, and how the lower door panel’s flare conceals the interior “safety step.”
Underneath its skin, the time-proven six-cylinder engine developed 90 hp, and was the only engine available on these cars through this generation. In an era when car design changed quickly, engines were more likely than other major components to achieve veteran status, and such became the case with Chevrolet’s Blue Flame six, which debuted in 1937 and stuck around minimally-altered through 1963.
Chevrolets during the 1940s came in numerous body styles, including four different types of 2-doors – a business coupe, a five-passenger sport coupe, the Fleetline Aerosedan, and our featured car’s body style, which was called the “Town Sedan.” During the 1941-48 model years, 2-doors accounted for over two-thirds of total Chevrolet car sales, and the town sedan, with its streamlined looks and copious passenger room, was the most popular of these body styles. Around 950,000 Town Sedans were produced during this generation. However, as the decade progressed, fewer customers opted for Town Sedans, as the fastback Aerosedan began to capture more customers’ hearts.
For 1947, roughly 88,000 Sytlemaster Town Sedans like this one were produced, accounting for just 13% of the 670,000 total Chevrolet cars produced for that year. By comparison, its 1941 equivalent, the Master DeLuxe Town Sedan, sold 221,000 units… 22% of Chevrolet production that year.
In fact, the entire Stylemaster lineup struggled somewhat in these immediate postwar years, as it was handily outsold by the costlier Fleetmasters and Fleetlines. Postwar prosperity and optimism dictated that even value-oriented Chevrolet buyers would part with some extra money for a few added nicities or styling touches. In this case, our featured Stylemaster carried a base price of $1,219 – for $67 (or 5%) more, a customer could order a Fleetmaster instead, or for $94 (or 8%) extra, could spring for a Fleetline Aerosedan.
At every price point, 1947 was most certainly a seller’s market in the US auto industry, since throughout most of the late 1940s, new orders outpaced retail deliveries. Drivers were anxious to replace their worn-out prewar cars; in 1947, the average age for a Chevrolet on the road was 8 years – well past the best-by date for cars in this era. And many cars were well above that average.
For 1948, Chevrolet received yet another grille, interior design upgrades and even some minor engine improvements, but once again high demand dictated that the Division make only the most minor of changes. 1948 wound up being this body style’s last year. Cars such as this from the immediate post-World War II period managed to be both new and old simultaneously – even though they represented the newest cars available, customers were eagerly awaiting completely different designs that would point to a brighter future. And that future was even longer, lower and wider.
1949 Chevrolets were the first genuinely new Chevys in quite a while – and timely too, since Ford had introduced their first new postwar model six months earlier. The design was exactly what the carbuying public was seeking… an intensification of the 1940s design trends of longer, lower and wider – both in dimensions and in styling features that accentuated those dimensions.
Those design trends would accelerate quickly. By the end of the following decade, the longer, lower and wider mantra began producing cars of exaggerated proportions. Our 1947 featured car probably looked downright ancient 11 years later when these models rolled into Chevrolet dealers.
Like many design trends, longer, lower, wider was taken to excess industrywide, reaching its crescendo in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, with energy crises demanding more compact cars, and with the growing popularity of vehicles such as pickups and minivans, trends changed. As put by Chuck Jordan, GM’s vice president of design, in 1989, “We were longer, lower, wider… then all of a sudden we were shorter, higher, narrower.”
Which brings us back to this picture of our featured 1947 Chevrolet parked next to a 2010 Toyota RAV4. Toyota sold over 170,000 RAV4s to US consumers in 2010, making it one of America’s best-selling cars. But more importantly, the compact utility vehicle class to which the RAV4 belonged would swell in popularity over the next decade. Just seven years later, US RAV4 sales would surpass 400,000 – with dimensions largely similar to this 2010 model.
It’s not just an optical illusion that makes these two popular vehicles – separated by more than six decades – appear to be similarly sized. In both height and width, the Stylemaster and RAV4 measure almost identically to each other (though the Chevrolet is more than a foot longer).
And while the Stylemaster’s features, designed in the 1940s to ensure a more massive appearance, do in fact seem to make this old-timer appear solid and hefty…
…it looks downright petite next to one of today’s larger cars, in this case a fellow Chevy.
But that this car’s dimensions fit neatly into a parking lot with cars 60 years newer is somewhat startling, even for those of us aware of this trend having taken place. I wonder if a car enthusiast time traveler from the 1960s or ’70s would be shocked or amused at seeing the dimensions of everyday cars stretched upwards, 1940s style? Or would such an enthusiast be pleased not to squeeze into low-roofed cars any longer?
Maybe this is the optimal size for a vehicle — not too big, small, high or low.
If located at a car show, I might have only given this fine Chevrolet a quick glance. But here in a modern parking lot, Chevrolet’s 1940s-era styling strategy and that decade’s overall transitional trends shone through. This car’s dimensions were once heralded as the newest trend in automotive design… then it became quickly outmoded. Now it’s new again.
Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in May 2017.