The United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, and, it wasn’t long until the Big Three vehicle manufacturers were conscripted into the military like many Americans. For several years, production shut down completely and the major automakers devoted themselves entirely to the war effort. It had been a hard few decades for the automotive industry, which was barely recovering from the Great Depression when war broke out across the world. Wartime propaganda encouraged people to share vehicles and save gas with slogans spread across portraits of dirty soldiers saying, “Have you tried to save gas by getting into a car club?” One such poster got straight to the point: “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler! Join a car-sharing club today!” Halted production and a growing culture of vehicle conservation threatened even the biggest auto giants, who responded gracefully and inspirationally with a league of post-war vehicles that were a pleasure to drive—and to admire. Here are the top 5 iconic American classic cars of the Forties, a long-awaited bunch of beauties:
1.1941 Chrysler Crown Imperial
The Crown Imperial, truly the jewel in Chrysler’s crown, first appeared in 1926. On par with Cadillac and Lincoln in terms of style, luxury, and elegance, by the time the 1941 Crown Imperial’s unibody rolled off the assembly line it sat atop a 144 inch wheelbase with a 323 cubic inch engine in its belly. Customers who chose the C-14 Crown Imperial purchased a car much akin to the Chrysler Royal while C-15 owners preferred the privacy of the Town Sedan Limousine, with its blind rear quarter panels. The C-17, the third Chrysler Crown Imperial available in 1941, was the “Airflow model.” Chrysler debuted Airflow design a generation earlier and the 1941 Crown Imperial perfected it. Chrysler ads from the early Forties feature elegant swaths of colorful fabrics and the line: “The beautiful Chrysler: tailored to taste!” These advertisements emphasized the Crown Imperial’s customizability—a mark of excellence at the time. And the ads didn’t lie—Chrysler offered dozens more options than its competitors, making it all the more impressive to the luxury crowd.
2.1946 Buick Roadmaster
The Buick Roadmaster’s arrival on the automotive scene in 1936 was a celebration of Buick’s progress. The Buick sales catalogue from that time boasts that “it literally named itself the first time a test model leveled out on the open highway.” A decade later, after WWII production halts ended, when the 1946 Buick Roadmaster hit the streets, it was a young classic, having earned its place as one of Buick’s most beloved vehicles. The Roadmaster sat on a 129 inch wheelbase with a straight-8 overhead valve engine and 144 horsepower. As of 1946, you could drive a Roadmaster coupe, sedan, convertible, or station wagon—two years later the Riviera hardtop coupe joined the family. If you looked closely at the Roadmaster, you might see similarities with the Oldsmobile, with whom it shared the same structure. The Roadmaster need not impress with tons of chrome or decadent design details—its simple elegance proclaimed its value from across the road—or the highway!
3.1948 Tucker Torpedo
The Tucker Torpedo isn’t just a car—it’s a legend. Car historians speculate that the Tucker Torpedo, which only survived one year of production, was “assassinated” by the Big Three, who saw it as a threat. While the Big Three had been busy supporting the war effort, Tucker was designing away and ready to take advantage of the huge post-war demand when the time was right. Had the car not met any resistance, it would surely have been the next big phenomenon. But several mishaps kept it from getting off the ground. Still, despite their best efforts, the Big Three didn’t keep the Tucker Torpedo from being recognized as one of the safest cars ever made, having pioneered safety features that no one else had thought of yet like a third headlight, anti-theft protection, and seat belts. Alas, a small budget combined with problems in the press did the Tucker Torpedo in and it didn’t live to see another model year. But it lives on as a legend of the automotive industry and we have it to thank for modern vehicle safety as we know it today.
4.1948 F-Series Ford Pickup
The same year that the Tucker Torpedo met its doom, the Big Three came back onto the scene. Ford re-entered the auto market after WWII with its F-Series pickup truck, designed to compete with Chevrolet, the light truck sales leader. Ford took a unique approach to its light truck marketing, focusing on the car’s “living room comfort.” Indeed, the F-Series’ “million dollar” cab was taller, wider, and roomier in general—three people could easily and comfortably ride inside atop the comfy coil spring bench seats. (Some speculate that Ford spent roughly a million dollars designing and developing its famous cab.) Rubber insulation kept noise to a minimum while softening the ride. The F-Series came in three main sizes—the F1 had a ½ ton capacity, the F2 had a ¾ ton capacity, and the F3 could haul a ton. The 1 ton haulers could choose between three and four-speed transmissions while F1 and F2 owners only had the three-speed floor shift transmission as an option wth either the 226 cubic inch 6-cylinder or the 239 cubic inch flathead V-8 under the hood.
5.1949 Cadillac Coupe de Ville
Coming on the scene in 1949, the Cadillac Coupe de Ville was an instant success, named Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine. Maybe its because it was one of the first of many fabulously popular hardtop convertibles, sharing that debut with the Buick Roadmaster Riviera and the Oldmsobile 98 Holiday. Cars to come would take their cues from the 1949 Coupe de Ville’s timeless style. With a 331 cubic inch engine with 160 horsepower coming standard in the heart of the 213.9 inch behemoth, Coupe de Ville drivers were no shorter on speed than they were on style.
For more on the top iconic American classic cars of the last century, stay tuned for the upcoming post—the Fifties!