The Great Depression was a difficult time period for the American automobile industry. During this economic downturn, some American automakers attempted to boost sales by offering cars featuring advanced technology. One automaker in particular who sought to do this was Graham-Paige Motors, a struggling independent firm based in Detroit, Michigan. Around 1933, Graham-Paige came up with the idea of mass-producing a car fitted with a device usually reserved for race cars and high-end luxury cars: the supercharger. The end result was America’s first moderately-priced supercharged car: the 1934 Graham Custom Eight.
Introduced at the New York Auto Show in December 1933 and offered at a decidedly moderate price range of $1,245-$1,330, the Graham Custom Eight was a modified version of the widely acclaimed, but slow-selling, Graham Blue Streak (which appeared in late 1931). Even without its supercharged engine, the Custom Eight was an advanced car for its time. A relatively large car, it was built on the Blue Streak’s innovative and low-slung “Banjo” chassis, in which the car’s rear axle was placed in large openings in both sides of the frame. The car was clothed with the Blue Streak’s trend-setting body shell. Designed by Amos Northup and detailed by Raymond Dietrich, the body featured styling cues that were already being widely copied by other American automakers at the time of the Custom Eight’s introduction, including a sloped grille, skirted fenders, and a hidden radiator cap.
But it was the Custom Eight’s supercharged engine that really set it apart from its contemporaries. The engine itself was a well-proven 265.4 cubic inch straight-8. It was fitted with a centrifugal supercharger designed by Graham-Paige’s Assistant Chief Engineer F.F. Kishline, which was largely inspired by a Duesenberg design. Mounted between the carburetor and the intake manifold, the supercharger itself was powered by the engine’s crankshaft and its rotor was capable of spinning up to 23,000 RPM.
Equipped with this innovative engine, the Graham Custom Eight was capable of a high level of performance for a car of its price range. The engine produced a then-impressive 135 horsepower and gave the car a top speed of over 90 miles per hour. The supercharger gave the engine excellent mid-range torque, which was very useful for passing on two-lane roads. Much to the surprise of Graham-Paige, the Custom Eight’s supercharged engine also proved to be remarkably fuel-efficient and easy to start in cold weather. Perhaps most importantly of all, the supercharger was very reliable and a number of them lasted over 100,000 miles without breaking down.
Largely due to the bad economy and its relatively expensive (but by no means excessive) sticker price, the Custom Eight was not a huge seller. Nevertheless it was well-received by the American motoring public, and it sold well enough to help Graham-Paige Motors survive the Great Depression. With assistance from the Custom Eight, the firm succeeded in significantly boosting its sales to 15,745 cars for the 1934 model year. The success of the 1934 Custom Eight encouraged Graham-Paige Motors to continue offering moderately priced supercharged cars, which it did until 1941. It can also be argued that in the long term, the Custom Eight helped Graham-Paige stay in business long enough to sell off its car assets and turn itself into a thriving real estate firm, a transformation it successfully carried out in 1947.
The 1934 Graham Custom Eight was replaced by an updated and restyled version for the 1935 model year. Surviving examples are technically fascinating collector items today.
Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 642-644.
Graham (1934): Graham: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Graham Range, 1931-1934, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Graham Custom Eight (1934): Graham: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Cavalier, Crusader, Custom Eight, Deluxe Six, Eight, Prosperity Six, 1931-1937, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 647, 650.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.