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:

An Armored Cadillac and an Army of Fords

In the years leading up to World War I, the United States had no large standing army and no processes in place for the building and support of such a force. For this reason, steps were taken to train civilians to be able to defend the country. One idea promoted by General Leonard Wood involved the use of military training camps for civilians, and you can read more about that here: The Plattsburg Movement and its Legacy

One of these camps was located on the shores of Lake Champlain, and, in 1915, a writer for the New York Tribune named Hank Caldwell traveled there to watch a motor train consisting of 15 vehicles pull into the camp. The motor train did not have an official title, but the officers involved, including organizer Captain Raynal C. Bolling, dubbed it the “First Motor Machine Gun Company.” The caravan consisted of trucks, ambulances, and transportation cars furnished by companies like International, Mack, and Autocar. Buick and Simplex contributed wagons with mounted machine guns, but the undisputed star of the caravan was an armored Cadillac that had recently crossed the country on a tour with cadets of the Northwestern Military Academy under the command of Colonel R. P. Davidson:

This eight-cylinder Cadillac had steel armor, a Colt machine gun, and ports for rifle fire. Gas mileage was 10 miles to the gallon, and it was said to be painted battleship gray with delicate black striping.

Credit: August 1915 issue of American Motorist

General Leonard Wood was interviewed by Caldwell during this visit and made some interesting comments about his desire for American automobile owners to organize, under the direction of the army, in defense of the nation: “As a trained body, our hundreds of thousands of motorists, with their cars, would be one of the powerful arms of our army.”

Wood noted, “The national rivalry of our motor manufacturers has brought about a great variety of cars of all sizes and descriptions,” and therefore the first step would be to form motor corps consisting of only one make of automobile to enable the interchange of parts and tires. When enough owners driving a given make of car was found, the next step would be to assemble them in a camp setting where they could be given military training.

Wood also thought that each owner should bring some friends along:

“It is possible that an owner could be induced to muster enough recruits to fully man his machine. If so, he would come into the training camp with his car and four, five, or six men, according to the capacity of his machine, and. . .in this way we should obtain enough men with every two or three hundred cars to form a regiment. To this regiment we could assign trucks, ambulances, armored cars, machines guns, and special motor vehicles. . .”

1913 Ford Model T at the Republic County Historical Society & Museum at Belleville, Kansas.

So, the United States government was contemplating outfitting the cars of citizens with machines guns; file that one under, “How times have changed.” The participants attending this 1915 camp were enthusiastic about the idea. Caldwell reported this about a Mr. Derby from North Carolina who had driven his Ford to the camp:

“Mr. Derby said that he is convinced the light car is the practical thing for army use and that upon his return to North Carolina. . .he will organize a company of 100 Ford cars, and it is his intention to mount them with machine guns and drive from North Carolina to the encampment next year. He thinks this idea should be taken up by Ford owners in all parts of the country, and next year he says we should have 700,000 Fords ready for use against the invader.”

1913 Ford Model T at the Republic County Historical Society & Museum at Belleville, Kansas.

These days, Mr. Derby, I would recommend using the Ford F-150.

Another Mystery Car Part (Hint: It Is Not Made by Mercedes)

Do you recognize this emblem?

This three-point star measures three and one-half inches in width and, although it bears a strong resemblance, it is not a Mercedes emblem. A helpful seller recently listed this full set of six, complete with original packaging and part number, on eBay.

These stars were an accessory “star ornamentation” sold by Ford in the 1950s. The back side of the packaging contains the following installation instructions:

Studebaker made a similar tri-star emblem in 1953, although the Studebaker version is considerably larger at around 9″ in width.

I don’t how many Ford owners would be comfortable drilling a total of twelve holes in the fenders of their car just to add these stars, but that may be why I have never seen any actually mounted on an automobile. If you have one, send me a photo at americancarhistorian@gmail.com.

Nebraska State Patrol’s 1950 Ford

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

1964 Ford

This beautiful 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 XL hardtop is pictured in front of the Mill at the annual Stuhr Museum car show in Grand Island, Nebraska. Check out the gorgeous white leather interior and bucket seats:

The tail lights in ’64 were the size of dinner plates and featured the sunburst design:

When you think of Ford in 1964, you likely think of the introduction of the Mustang, but Ford’s emphasis in 1964 was on power. Ford advertised it as “total performance”:

Clockwise from the top: Thunderbird, Fairlane, Galaxie, Falcon

Engine options for the Galaxie included five different V-8s, ranging from the 195-hp 289 to a 425-hp Thunderbird 427 V-8. Excellent choices for a fabulous Ford line-up!

The Greyhound Murphy Cap

The iconic greyhound pictured above is adorning a 1929 Lincoln. Of all the hood ornaments and radiator caps ever produced, the greyhound might be the one most reproduced. It is definitely “buyer beware” when it comes to the greyhound as even sellers frequently don’t know what they have. I picked up this greyhound radiator cap years ago:

The underside of the cap is marked “THE MURPHY CAP MFG BY RUPERT DIECASTING CORP KC MO.”

Rupert Diecasting was located in Kansas City until moving to Kentucky in the 1960s. I have been told that this cap was only produced in 1933, which makes it pretty rare. I haven’t been able to verify that, but it makes sense as I recently found a copyright infringement lawsuit that was filed against Rupert by Franklin Diecasting in 1933 regarding Franklin’s copyrighted “Greyhound Combination Ornament and Radiator Cap”. If you have any additional information on the Murphy Cap, I would love to hear from you. Contact me at americancarhistorian@gmail.com.

First love

Like the 1968 Mustang featured in the Steve McQueen flick “Bullitt”, my very first car was a ’68 Mustang. Unfortunately, it was a coupe, not a fastback, and sadly had a straight-6, not a 390. It was also full of Bondo, but I loved it and do wish I had it back!

Imposters!

Old, aftermarket hub caps keep finding me lately, and some of them are just hilarious. Inexpensive replacement caps were sold by companies like Western Auto and J.C. Whitney, but the logos had to be altered enough to avoid pesky trademark infringement laws. Some of them are pretty good facsimiles thereof, like this Cadillac replacement cap. It is heavy duty and looks like the Caddy emblem, but has lines instead of ducks:

This one has stars instead of ducks.

Frankly, they both look better than the modern Cadillac version that has been sanitized of its history and personality. For Chevy replacements, a dash was commonly used in place of the bowtie:

This one is for a 1954 Chevy, and it is a pretty good copy, too. You have to look hard to see that it is a dash and all one piece (the real ones have a separate center insert).

The really entertaining versions are the ones with altered spelling. I have seen dog dishes that say “Dodoe” instead of Dodge, for instance. The Chrysler replacement cap pictured below says something like “Clrrfrlir, although the “i” is mysteriously undotted.

This is one of the famous “Bool” caps made for a Model A Ford:

I have heard that they also made a “Fool” version. I’m not sure who would want to drive around with those on their car (but I know of a few people who should).

A Grand Christmas Gift

This wonderful Ford advertisement was published in time for Christmas of 1936, and the Ford flathead V8, which first appeared in 1932, was also a “grand gift” for the law enforcement family. Never before had so much horsepower been so affordable. By 1934, the Ford flathead had 85 hp, and this 1934 ad claimed Ford had the only V8 under $2500. (Note that it was way under with prices starting at only $515.)

Stories about bad guys doing horrible things like robbing banks and gunning down police officers were splashed all over the front pages of newspapers, so, as one Ford rep explained, “We are answering the challenges of gangsters by giving police these speedy, powerful cars.” In 1934, New York City added 85 shiny new Fords to its fleet. The cars were lined up fender to fender outside the Ford factory at Edgewater, NJ, and they almost completely spanned the 1500-foot-long car assembly building:

San Francisco received their new fleet of Fords in 1936:

These early successes earned a solid reputation and a loyal following that made Ford the police car of choice for decades until being knocked off its pedestal (temporarily) by Mopar in 1969.

And who could possibly disagree with the sentiment expressed by that 1936 advertisement? A Ford V8 WOULD make a grand Christmas gift!