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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

April 26, 1996

The year 1946 was an exciting time for American car buyers and it's hard to understand the general euphoria that prevailed 50 years ago unless you were there. World War II was over and we were sitting on top of the world, ready to buy anything that wasn't rationed.

And of all those non-essential "dream" items that we longed for, at the top was a new automobile. We had been limping along driving well-worn derelicts (my dad drove a rolled-over Ford that had been resurrected for the duration) and we were ready for new "wheels." All the pre-war players were back (the exception being La Salle) and almost all of them rushed into production with restyled '41 models.

But some survived only to fall later. These are the makes that made it through the war only to disappear some years later.

CROSLEY - Industrialist Powell Crosley had a dream of making an inexpensive and economical car for the American public. His '39 offering was as stark as a tool shed and powered by a minuscule two-cylinder engine. But the 1946 Crosley was an all-new, still-tiny product that was more conventional in design and powered by a four-cylinder engine that was an update of one Powell had made for the government. For six years, Crosley made sedans, convertibles and even sports two-seaters but the end came in 1952 when General Tire and Rubber (by then the major stock holder) pulled the plug.

DESOTO - The DeSoto was conceived and first produced by Chrysler in 1928 ostensibly to take a page from the GM marketing manual and make "A Car For Every Pocketbook," plugged in between Dodge and Chrysler's own lower-priced Model 65. But its prices were basically the same as it's "little brother" Dodge and after the war, DeSoto had a problem maintaining its own identity and reason for existence. Its "stretched" '46 Suburban was actually a limo and thousands saw service as Yellow Cabs in the late '40s. But, alas, by '61, DeSoto was absorbed by Dodge.

HUDSON - A very old name (the first was an '09 version), the Hudson was innovative but stodgy. My mother's uncle was a Hudson mechanic for 30 years and swore that his "F-head" '27 Super Six was the fastest car on the road and was quite willing to prove it to anyone he encountered, as I was told. The company survived World War II with a re-grilled '42 and introduced its sensational Step-Down monocoque cars in '48. It dominated NASCAR stock car racing in the early '50s with its famous Hornet but passed away in 1953 when it merged with Nash.

NASH - Another old timer, dating back to 1916. Nashes were always relatively popular, and in 1946 re-entered the market with its pre-war cars, but managed to upgrade them with more luxurious appointments. As an interesting historical note, a Nash Ambassador was the pace car for the first post-war re-run of the Indy 500. It introduced the "compact car" to Americans in '50 with its Rambler (a name from Nash history) and its strange little Metropolitan (made by Austin of England) in '54. A merger with Hudson in 1954 produced the American Motors Corporation which became part of Chrysler in '87 by way of a previous merger with the French automaker Renault.

PACKARD - "Ask The Man Who Owns One" had been the Packard motto since 1901 and it was arguably the most prestigious name in American autos before World War II. Although the post-war Packard was of high quality, it was never able to recapture its pre-war panache. Its problem was a reluctance to keep up with the times and later, styling that appeared bloated compared to the competition. It kept its straight-eight flat-head engine years after Cadillac went to a modern overhead-valve V8 and it showed in sales. Packard merged with Studebaker in 1954 and the last Packards (labeled '58s) were, in reality, rebadged Studebakers.

STUDEBAKER - With the oldest name in wheeled vehicles (it produced horse-drawn wagons for the Union Army during our Civil War), Studebaker emerged from World War II with a face-lifted pre-war model. But by the spring of '46, the company produced the first truly modern auto design developed by a major manufacturer. It featured an "envelope" body (a first in this country) with fenders that were nearly as high as the hood and the trunk, another first. But like the others, it lacked capital for expansion and in an attempt to stay in the game, it merged with Packard. The last Studebakers were make in Canada in '66.

WILLYS - Having made a name for itself manufacturing the wartime Jeep, Willys was the only company that didn't return with a rehashed pre-war auto. Instead it offered "civilian" versions of its returning veteran. It made "true" Jeeps but also offered a civilian line that included a station wagon, a phaeton and a sedan delivery that all bore the Jeep "look." Willys made sedans again in '52 but left the market altogether in '55, although they subsequently made a vehicle in Brazil. Kaiser (of HMO fame) bought Willys in '54 and was in turn absorbed by Chrysler.

War is Hell and World War II particularly grim. But nearly as bad were the car companies who survived it unscathed - only to fall "hoers de combat" in the Car Wars that followed.