The Year the American Auto Industry First Hit One Million in Inventory

The American auto industry hit the million mark in inventory for the first time in 1960. This story about the new record appeared in March of that year:

Although this article tries to paint a rosy picture, the country was on the precipice of a recession caused in part by industrial overexpansion to meet post-war demand. Another reason for the high inventories in the auto industry was the record output of compact cars which were surging in popularity. During the first week of March, it was reported that the six compact cars accounted for 25.1 percent of the total output for the week. In addition to the AMC Rambler and the Studebaker Lark, the Big Three were offering the Ford Falcon, the Mercury Comet, the Plymouth Valiant, and the Chevrolet Corvair. Chevrolet was outpacing everyone in terms of both production and sales.

Automobile inventories have been in the news regularly for the past few years, due mainly to the lack thereof. It was downright spooky to drive by the empty dealership lots, barren wastelands caused, at least in part, by production cuts during the pandemic and global microchip shortages. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently published this visual depiction of the fluctuation in domestic auto inventories since 1994.

Domestic Auto Inventories (AUINSA) | FRED | St. Louis Fed (stlouisfed.org) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Domestic Auto Inventories [AUINSA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/AUINSA, June 17, 2024.

As you can see from the chart, inventories have started to rebound from the depths plummeted to in February of 2022. Even so, those unpleasant sky-high prices do not appear to be coming down anytime soon.

For comparison purposes, you could buy a new Chevy Biscayne in 1960 for around $2,300. For a couple hundred dollars more, you could get yourself a new Bel Air two-door hardtop Sport Coupe.

That is roughly equivalent in purchasing power to $26,000 today. There are still some new car options under $30,000 in 2024, but none will give you the same thrill you would get from cruising around in that ’60 Sport Coupe. Let’s hope improving production numbers and rising inventories translate into lower prices and better access for today’s buyers, but even if inventories return to that million mark, buyers will never again have access to the fine and diverse automobiles available the first time it happened:

The Year Automobile Designers Became Dress Designers

I happened across a story in a 1940 newspaper about automobile designers making a foray into women’s fashions. The feminine styles were supposed to match the 1941 automotive offerings and were designed by the same men who created those body styles. This was all done to promote the New York auto show. There were pictures to go with the story, but no names, so I had to keep digging. I discovered that the first one was designed by none other than Harley Earl, and this streamlined creation in silver rayon featured wings to mimic the hood emblem on a ’41 Caddy.

Photo credit: Rex Gray, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The stories I found do not give credit for this stylish jacket with a yolk based on the shape of the Packard grille. Perhaps the designer was Howard “Dutch” Darrin?

Photo credit: David Berry from Rohnert Park CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This swimming suit is based on the 1941 Chevrolet. You can see the shape of the grille on the model’s midsection, and her shoes were even made out of Lucite!

This ensemble was designed, I believe, by E. T. Gregorie and was meant to complement the Mercury. Notice the belt, which was based on the Merc’s bumper guards, and a purse modeled on the hubcaps.

Photo credit: JOHN LLOYD from Concrete, Washington, United States, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One article said this coat was made with upholstery plaid, so it must be based on Chrysler’s Highlander. Oliver Clark was likely the one who designed this modish outerwear.

This promotion was done in cooperation with Harper’s Bazaar magazine, and the clothing was actually available to be purchased on Fifth Avenue. I have no idea how well it sold, but I would absolutely purchase all of it today if still available (and I might run someone over to get to that hubcap purse).

The First Chevrolet Impalas

This advertisement for the 1958 Chevrolet, made in conjunction with the Kansas City Auto Show, describes the 17 models available in ’58:

Note that the lineup includes Impala models as part of the Bel Air series:

This marked the first opportunity for a member of the car-buying public to purchase a Chevrolet Impala, but it was not the first time General Motors utilized that particular name. A “dream car” presented at GM’s 1956 Motorama car show was a futuristic five passenger sport sedan that was, believe it or not, called a Corvette Impala.

Like the production Corvette, the Corvette Impala had a fiberglass body. It was almost the same width as a Chevrolet sedan, but four and a half inches longer and six inches lower. The power plant was a 225-hp Super Turbo-Fire V8 with 9.25-to-1 compression ratio, high-lift cam shaft and a four-barrel carb. Being a GM product, it naturally had a Powerglide transmission.

In a departure from the typical more-is-more styling of the 1950s, little chrome was used. It did have a toothy, Corvette-like grille, however.

So, would you have been in the market for this Impala concept car, described as having “fleet, buoyant lines that accent motoring adventure with safety and luxury?” Or do your preferences in motoring adventure run more along these lines?

Chevrolet Knee Action in the 1930s

We just picked up two fabulous 1930s Chevrolet dashes:

These would be correct for a 1933 Chevrolet Master or a 1934-1935 Chevrolet Standard, and this was an interesting time for General Motors as 1934 was the year the company introduced a new feature marketed under the colorful name of “Knee Action.” This revolutionary new design feature was a much-needed independent front suspension. The ride quality in early automobiles suffered because stiff front springs transmitted road shocks to the frame causing the front end to rise and fall. The consequent rise and fall at the rear of the car made backseat riding uncomfortable as passengers were jostled with each bump in the road. General Motor’s new Knee Action design allowed the front wheels to move up and down with the irregularities of the road without imparting the shock to the frame and passengers.

This diagram and accompanying explanation were part of a 1934 advertisement:

It appears an entire advertising campaign was built around this new feature. Here are a few more:

The “Big Three” and “Little Three” Car Companies of 1954

I found this blurb in a 1954 newspaper:

If you’ve been watching the automobile news, you know that there are now only six passenger car manufacturers in the U.S. – the “big three” and the “little three.”

So, can you name the six surviving car companies of 1954?

The Big Three are easy to identify:

Ford

General Motors

1954 Chevy Corvette

1954 Chevy Bel Air

Chrysler

Recalling the Little Three is more problematic as there was a lot going on in the way of mergers and acquisitions. In no particular order, they are:

Studebaker-Packard – Detroit’s Packard Motor Car Company bought Indiana-based Studebaker in 1954 and became Studebaker-Packard.

1954 Studebaker Station Wagon

1954 Packard Clipper Super Touring Sedan

Kaiser-Willys – Kaiser-Frazer had started up after WWII, riding high on the post-war boom. The company struggled in the early 1950s after a series of missteps, and the Frazer name was dropped. In 1953, Kaiser purchased Willys-Overland and, in 1954, the companies merged into Willys Motors, Inc.

1954 Kaiser Darrin

1954 Kaiser

1954 Willys M38A1

American Motors – AMC was formed in 1954 when the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation merged with Hudson.

1954 Hudson Hornet with Twin H-Power

1959 Chevy Impala

The Chevrolet Impala appeared in 1958 as part of the Bel Air line-up, but for 1959 it was redesigned and introduced as its own series. The dramatic redesign included the distinctive grille shown above as well as a bat-wing trunk lid and cat’s eye tail lights:

Standard under the hood was a 235 inline-six, but a V8 was an option in either 283 or 348-cubic inches.

1959 Chevrolet Brochure

It was great timing, too. The country was coming out of recession and consumers were ready to buy. One newspaper story from November, 1958, was titled, “New Cars: They’re Selling,” and it featured many of the new cars for 1959:

Grieg, Michael. “New Cars: They’re Selling.” The San Francisco Examiner, 30 November 1958, p. 1.

It was a good year for automakers, but clearly a good year for consumers, too. My goodness, buyers must have loved their choices!

1937 Chevrolet

The grille on this Chevy was part of the “Diamond Crown Speedline Styling” that was new for 1937. Chevy’s tagline was “The Complete Car – Completely New,” and other innovations like all-steel unisteel bodies by Fisher and new six-cylinder high-compression valve-in-head engines were enough to make Chevrolet the best-selling automobile that year.

Chevrolet. Advertisement. The Daily Messenger [Canandaigua, NY], 2 December 1936, p. 3.