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In the weeks before D Day, there was already unfounded optimism that the war in Europe would be over by Christmas, and that without the Germans, the Japanese would fold quickly. So at the top levels of American government and business, there was a shift of attention towards the postwar period, even if nobody knew exactly how soon that would arrive. War Production Board regulators approved Detroit’s request to build the first new civilian trucks since they ceased production in 1942. But automobile companies weren’t allowed to restart car assembly lines, not until VE Day arrived.
The verdict of the financial experts was bleak: the dislocation caused by reconversion from war to civilian production, plus 11 million men returning to the labor force, was almost certain to cause another Depression. It looked like we were going back to the hunger and strife of the Thirties. With many of our best and brightest convinced that the Fifties was shaping up to be a poverty-stricken, drab and colorless decade, in the last year of WWII Ford and General Motors launched programs to build small, spartan cars that would retail at the lowest possible price. They would have been big Detroit’s first real “compact cars”.
The wider picture: Donald Nelson, chairman of the War Production Board, was “WPBoss” in Time Magazine’s breezy shorthand, nearly as newsworthy a federal bureaucrat in his day as Anthony Fauci is in ours. He was something of a protégé of the crowd around Henry Wallace, by almost all accounts the most left-wing vice president of the 20th century. By 1942, Nelson was given czar-like powers to convert American industry to war production, which he seemed to do with spectacular success. He was a well-publicized hero of the press, a colorless New Dealer who gradually became seen as a dictator and a scapegoat. Donald Nelson’s signature was at the bottom of every factory poster urging harder work. Even Albert Speer was a grudging admirer. Speer complains in his memoirs that despite his vaunted Nazi powers, he was powerless to control private industries as tightly as the government of “free market” America ran theirs.
But Americans got restless as the war continued, year after year. With victory seemingly in sight by early ’44, there was irresistible public pressure to begin loosening the rules, sensibly and fast. However, “sensibly” and “fast” meant different things to industry than they did to government.
What the bosses of the nation’s automotive companies could legally do was plot and plan. In early-to-mid-’44, they contemplated what the cars of postwar America would be like, for the not-so-far-off, futuristic fifties and the immediate, remaining years of the forties. They couldn’t spend money on tooling up for production, not yet, but they were now legally permitted to use design and engineering resources on future projects.
Chevrolet had a couple of late-thirties prototypes of experimental smaller cars, done as a just-in-case exercise for the design department. They weren’t considered daring or appealing by the mid-Forties, although one of them would be the starting point of the Holden, produced by GM’s Australian subsidiary. In 1944, the engineers from Melbourne were already in Michigan, working with engineers to design the first car of nearly total Australian manufacture. (BTW, that’s the car pattern that would continue for decades Down Under: bigger than European, not quite as big as full-sized American cars.)
For what GM intended as America’s first compact alternative to big cars, the 1944-’45 plan was bolder, a little more radical in design. It was a conventional setup, motor up front, driving wheels in the back. Yet the Chevrolet Cadet looked strange enough to be distinctive. It followed what’s usually a shrewd maxim of small car design: Make the passenger compartment as big as you can, with everything in the front and back of it as small as you can. But in the mid-Forties, that sensible guideline looked, well, stunted, unfashionably snub-nosed and bob-tailed, its tiny wheels making it look less like a potentially real Forties car and more like, in today’s terms, an animated character from Disney’s Cars.
General Motors hoped this plaintive plainness wasn’t the immediate future of American motoring, but they wanted to be prepared, especially given that FDR had finally decided to run for a fourth term as the Win-the-War president. He and his New Deal would be in the saddle through the end of his term in 1949, so Wall Street—and Detroit–better be resigned to it.
It looked like the War Production Board was going to be a semi-permanent fact of U.S. life, allocating steel and other vital materials even well after the war. Certainly, WPB executives and staff did nothing to discourage that view, especially in convivial discussions with their allies on Capitol Hill.
But something unexpected happened. In May 1944, Vice President Henry Wallace began a tour of the eastern USSR and China. At a KGB-run death camp for gold miners in Kolyma, Wallace saw only a happy-go-lucky Russian Klondike. He made many gullible statements that would haunt him for the rest of his public life. Partly as a result, over the summer Roosevelt declined to choose Wallace for another term as his Vice President. Instead, he chose a peppery, relatively obscure Missouri senator as his running mate, Harry Truman. That one decision, nearly forgotten now, changed history as much or more than any other wartime decision FDR made. It sent shock waves throughout the vast federal bureaucracy: for the first time, the New Deal was cautiously starting to trim its sails. Almost immediately, in August 1944, Donald Nelson, the public face of unpopular rationing and production bans, was eased out at the WPB.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth Inauguration took place indoors, on a freezing January day. Within three months, Harry Truman was president. Four months after that, WWII was over. The charter of the War Production Board formally ended 90 days later, but the agency staff’s self-protective instincts won it a seamless transfer to a new Civilian Production Board in November. Over time, though, the CPB would be seen as relatively toothless, compared to the WPB’s command economy of 1942-’45.
In 1945 one thing all car companies quickly discovered, whether they were industrial behemoths like GM, or smaller independents like Packard, Nash, Studebaker or Hudson; in the immediate aftermath of WWII, demand to replace worn-out cars was so great that even warmed over 1942 models would satisfy the public. For the time being that’s all they needed to do. Nobody knew how long that phase would last. After that unknown point, the Big Three (General Motors, Chrysler, Ford) would need to have placed the right bets on the right cars for a future that might be a great deal poorer—or richer—than the present. As usual, the independents would follow whatever they did.
Ford was set to shrink their main car, the standard Ford, which otherwise was set to share the same upside-down bathtub, rounded torpedo design theme as Ford’s upscale lines, Mercury and Lincoln. At a make-or-break meeting for Ford’s first postwar designs, the company decided to keep most of them, but go back to the drawing board for the Ford. Two years later, in the spring of 1948, this resulted in the early introduction of the ’49 Ford, one of the classic car bodies of the dawn of the Fifties. The company was able to efficiently re-use the discarded “bathtub” small Ford they’d designed in 1944-46 by shipping the design to their French subsidiary, where the European-sized car became the Ford Vedette.
The new Truman Administration was plenty partisan, with a junkyard dog’s sense of territory, but they weren’t as ideologically Left as FDR’s now-old crowd. The pivotal 1946 off-year Congressional elections brought the GOP back to power. Despite a nationwide wave of strikes for higher wages, big business became cautiously optimistic about prospects for postwar economic growth.
GM spent millions in 1946 creating factory space to build the Cadet. Yet it ended up canceled and the public, then and ever since, was barely aware of it. Detroit decided that while a smaller car that needed less gas wasn’t a crazy idea, it wasn’t needed enough, in that era, to make a gigantic investment in producing compact cars worthwhile. They were selling every full-sized car they could build.
Did they pass up an opportunity? Four independent car companies bet their corporate lives on the premise that they did, with investments in new lines of compact cars for the early Fifties. In three out of four of those cases, they lost big enough to take their whole company down with it: Kaiser’s ugly Henry J, thrown together with the express purpose of getting government-backed loans; Hudson’s equally ugly but much better-engineered Jet; and Willys’ Aero, good looking, well-made small cars that gave Willys’ mostly rural and suburban Jeep dealers a conventional family car to sell. (Its slogan: “Meet the Jeep’s beautiful sister!”) Unlike the other two, the Aero deserved to succeed, but the company was just too small to survive. All three companies would have been better off putting that development money into homegrown V-8s for their standard cars.
The one compact that survived, and went on to thrive as one of the success stories of the Fifties was Nash’s Rambler, a nameplate that would outlive that of Nash itself. Well equipped and almost luxurious for its day, it made no pretense of being cheap. It could keep up with traffic on the new superhighways and seat a family of five, yet got excellent gas mileage and was easier to fit into a tight parking space.
One more thing. The 1944-’46 compacts-that-never-were are a forgotten vision of what experts predicted for a grim postwar world. But they weren’t the only alternative wartime vision of the cars we’d see, and the life we’d have, in the near future. Most car designers were in uniform by 1942, but many of them kept sketching exuberant hopes about the prosperity, confidence, flashiness and freedom ahead for us in the Fifties.
This post is part of Ricochet’s Group Writing Project, administered by Clifford A. Brown.Published in