The 1949 Mercury: How a Family Car Became the First “Lead Sled”

Mercury was launched in 1938 as a result of Edsel Ford’s determination to fill the large gap between the economic Ford V8 offering and their higher-priced Lincoln-Zephyr.  Ford had stylists led by E.T. Gregorie create a model to fill that gap and to prevent customers from looking at other car makes like Dodge.   The first prewar Mercury 8 did not share paneling with the existing Fords or Lincolns, but in essence was similar to the existing Ford models, although it had a more powerful engine and extra space in the passenger area.  Most of the differences were in style, but it still looked like a Ford.

Postcard for 1949 Mercury Sport Sedan.

Postcard for 1949 Mercury Sport Sedan.

The Mercury 8 did not change drastically from year to year until 1949, when suddenly, the Mercury 8 became a brand new car, unlike many ever seen before.  Ford had set up the now separate Lincoln-Mercury Division in 1947, most likely accounting for some of the changes that set the 1949 Mercury 8 apart, and in a sense even predicting the shift in design.  The 1949 Mercury 8 was the make’s first new post-war model. The styling looked far more like a Lincoln, with a long sleek body that completely stood apart from the boxier Fords and other American models available at that point.  In fact, it actually shared a few body panels with some of the smaller Lincoln models.  It was released unusually early, in April of 1948. The car featured a 118-inch wheelbase and was powered by Ford’s Flathead V8 engine, which developed 110 hp.

Trade catalog image of 1949 Mercury.

Trade catalog image of 1949 Mercury.

This change had a marked effect on the Ford and Mercury lineup.  The Mercury 8 exploded into popularity, and sales that year broke records for both Ford and Mercury, although this might be partially because of the much longer sales year.  Production reached 301,307, and as a result, the model did not change much between 1949 and 1951.  The car filled the gap for those looking for an “entry-level” luxury vehicle, and was meant to appeal to anyone who was not quite able to reach for the high-priced Lincoln models.  This potentially accounts for some of the popularity of the vehicle, as well as the longer- than-normal sales year.

Trade catalog image of 1949 Mercury 6-Passenger Coupe.

Trade catalog image of 1949 Mercury 6-Passenger Coupe.

However, there is possibly another reason for the 1949 Mercury’s popularity.  Almost immediately, the car became an eagerly sought-after model for customization.  One of the more famous examples was the 1949 Mercury chopped by Sam Barris.  It became the first of the “lead sleds,” customized mid-size American cars focusing on style rather than speed, as opposed to the hot rods that were very often made from Ford’s V8.  The Mercury 8 became the signature model to chop into a “lead sled.”

As a result of the new image created by these customized versions, the car made its most notable appearance in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause.  James Dean drove a customized 1949 Mercury in his role as Jim Stark, cementing the image of the Mercury as a “cool” car, optimal for those looking for  something to chop.  This was quite different from the idea that Ford had in mind when it created the Mercury to be an affordable family car, but it helped preserve the popularity of the 1949 Mercury, and in fact it is still a model sought after by car collectors today.

Sources

The 1949 Mercury! – New…All New!: Mercury: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Mercury Range, 1946-1951, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Auto Museum Online  

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1010-1011.

Legendary Collector Cars 

Postcard for 1949 Mercury Sport Sedan, Pictorials Series: Mercury: Postcards, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Vance, Bill. “Family Car Became a Hollywood Hit.” National Post. October 6, 2000

Annalise Berdini is a Summer Intern for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

“To Build Soundly Whatever Their Generation May Require:” The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, 1930-1968

Ever wonder why the Fisher Body Corporation, makers of automobile bodies, used an early 19th century carriage as their logo?

Image of the Body by Fisher logo. Saturday Evening Post, September 2, 1922, page 35.

Image of the Body by Fisher logo. Saturday Evening Post, September 2, 1922, page 35.

The Fisher emblem was modeled after a carriage belonging to Napoleon I of France. This carriage symbolized the luxury and elegance that the Fisher Body Company hoped to bring to American consumers. Napoleon’s coach also evoked a strong tradition of craftsmanship. The company began as a family-operated carriage-making shop in Ohio during the late 1800s. This carriage logo was prominently displayed in “Body by Fisher” advertising campaigns. The emblem also appeared on the Fisher Body Company’s automobile frames produced throughout the 20th century for manufacturers, such as Ford, Buick, Cadillac, Studebaker, and General Motors.

In an effort to preserve their craft tradition while simultaneously grooming a new generation of automobile innovators, the Fisher Body Company organized the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild in 1930. The Craftsman’s Guild worked to encourage American and Canadian boys between the ages of twelve and nineteen to become interested in automobile technology and design. Organizers created a yearly model-making contest for members who competed to build the miniature Napoleonic carriage of the Body by Fisher logo until the contest switched to producing model cars after World War II.

This image shows a young boy working to carve his model Napoleonic carriage for the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Contest. Saturday Evening Post, April 2, 1932, page 46.

This image shows a young boy working to carve his model Napoleonic carriage for the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Contest. Saturday Evening Post, April 2, 1932, page 46.

The Fisher Body Company distributed information about the Craftsman’s Guild through organizations such as the Boy Scouts and the YMCA. Young men also learned about the carriage-building contest from periodical advertisements. The July 14, 1946 issue of American Weekly featured a “Body by Fisher” advertisement stating that the company offered, “Thousands of dollars in university scholarships and cash awards for best miniature Napoleonic coaches or model cars submitted by boys of 12-19 years inclusive.” Boys who saw these advertisements could visit their local car dealer or they could write directly to the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild to receive more information about the contest.

The Craftman’s Guild granted university scholarships of $5,000 each to the top four model builders at their annual convention. Historian Ruth Oldenziel notes that, “When the guild was founded in 1930, $5,000 was an average worker’s income for three years and would buy eight Chevrolets or Fords; in 1940 Americans could buy a house at that price” (Oldenziel, 143). Therefore, young men highly coveted these scholarships, especially by those teenagers who dreamed of being the first members of their families to attend college during the years of the Depression.

An early 1960s advertising campaign for Body by Fisher featured a model carriage like those created by Craftsman’s Guild members. This advertisement declared, “The tailored trunk tells the tale…Built-In Quality of Body by Fisher.” Saturday Evening Post, Februrary 13, 1960, page 119.

An early 1960s advertising campaign for Body by Fisher featured a model carriage like those created by Craftsman’s Guild members. This advertisement declared, “The tailored trunk tells the tale…Built-In Quality of Body by Fisher.” Saturday Evening Post, Februrary 13, 1960, page 119.

In an undated magazine advertisement, Fisher Body Company executives explained that their goal in establishing the Craftsman’s Guild was to “see this country peopled by men to whom honor can be given for their ability to design well and to build soundly whatever their generation may require.” Participants worked towards this goal by spending long hours working to complete their replica carriages or model cars. The rules of the contest required that all the parts of the Napoleonic coach be made by hand and have functional moving parts. While working with a variety of mediums including wood, metal, and fabric to construct their models, young men gained patience and cultivated an attention to detail, which were skill sets necessary to become successful engineers and automobile designers. Fisher Body’s coach building contest was successful in grooming a future generation of male technophiles, and over half of the General Motors design staff by the late 1960s had been members of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild as teenagers.

Several advertisements from Fisher Body, including information about the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, are currently being processed as part of Hagley Museum and Library’s Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. Share your memories of the Fisher Body Craftsman Guild on the Vinson Blog!

Sources

Body by Fisher advertisements, Fisher Body: Tear Sheets, ca. 1920-1970, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

“Fisher Body Company” .

Oldenziel, Ruth, “Boys and Their Toys: The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, 1930-1968, and the Making of the Male Technical Domain,” in Boys and Their Toys?: Masculinity, Class, and Technology in America edited by Roger Horowitz (New York: Routledge, 2001): 139-169.

“Our Heritage” .

“Styled for Smartness, Steeled for Strength,” The American Weekly (July 14, 1946), Fisher Body: Tear Sheets, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Alison Kreitzer is the Graduate Assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at the Hagley Museum and Library.

Porsche 356 – From Humble Origins to Sports Car Legend

In the years immediately following World War II, the German automobile design firm of Dr. Ing. h.c.f. Porsche AG was struggling to get back on its feet. The firm was operating out of a temporary shop in Gmünd, Austria, having been driven from its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany by Allied bombing raids. The war’s devastation upon the firm was further compounded by the imprisonment of the company’s founder, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle), and several key personnel in a French prison. In order to survive, the Porsche concern had been reduced to building and repairing farm implements, and renovating cars.

Postcard of an early Porsche 356 Closed Coupe.

Postcard of an early Porsche 356 Closed Coupe.

In the midst of these difficulties, Ferdinand Porsche’s son, Dr. Ferry Porsche, set out to get the family firm back on its feet. To accomplish this end, he started work on a sports car based mainly on Volkswagen Beetle components. The end result of this endeavor is largely responsible for making Porsche the thriving automaker that it is today and became a legendary sports car in the process: the Porsche 356.

First built in 1948 and introduced to the public at the Geneva Motor Show in 1949, the Porsche 356 was originally a decidedly humble machine. Built on a steel platform chassis, the 356 used the same rear engine, rear-wheel drive layout as the Beetle. In its initial form, the 356 was powered by a tuned version of Volkswagen’s air-cooled flat-four engine. Displacing 1086 cc (66.3 cubic inches) and equipped with dual carburetors and larger valves, this power plant was good for a rather modest 40 horsepower. The car was equipped with a Volkswagen suspension system, which employed torsion bars with trailing arms on the front and torsion bars with swing axles on the rear. Outwardly, the 356 was clothed with a highly aerodynamic, closed-coupe body. Because steel was scarce in early post-war years, the very first 356s used aluminum body panels, but these were soon replaced by steel body panels.

Trade catalog image of Porsche 356B Speedster, ca. 1959-1963.

Trade catalog image of Porsche 356B Speedster, ca. 1959-1963.

Even though it was modestly powered and cobbled together from Volkswagen parts, the Porsche 356 was blessed with truly sporty performance characteristics. Due to their light weight and excellent aerodynamics, the earliest 356s were capable of a surprisingly-fast claimed top speed of 85 miles per hour. They also possessed excellent road-holding characteristics for their time. The 356 soon acquired a reputation for high performance with sports car enthusiasts and it became a brisk seller. So much so that 356’s sales enabled Porsche to return to its original headquarters in Stuttgart in 1950. By 1955, Porsche had grown into a prosperous small automaker.

Trade catalog image of 1960 Porsche 356B Cabriolet.

Trade catalog image of 1960 Porsche 356B Cabriolet.

The Porsche 356 went on to have a remarkably long production life (1948-1966). Beginning a pattern that it would repeat with later cars, Porsche continuously developed and improved the 356 over the course of its production run. Originally a closed coupe, the 356 later became available with Cabriolet and Speedster bodies. Exterior changes eventually included a single-sheet windshield, a larger rear window, and raised headlights. Technical improvements included larger and more powerful engines and an improved suspension system. Most significantly of all, Volkswagen components were gradually replaced by those designed by Porsche.

Superseded by the Porsche 911, the last Porsche 356 (a 1965 model) rolled off the assembly line in 1966. Approximately 78,000 Porsche 356s were built. Happily, it is believed that around half of these cars remain in existence and surviving examples are highly prized collector’s items today.

Sources

All It Shares with Other Cars – Is the Road: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 650-656.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p.1254-1255.

How Stuff Works – Porsche 356 History

Porsche: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Porsche 356 Registry

Porsche 356B: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Postcard of an Early Porsche 356 Closed Coupe: Porsche: Postcards, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Type 356 Porsche: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The 1930-1934 American Austin

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Austin 7, popularly known as the “Baby Austin,” was one of the most popular and influential cars in the world. Cheap to buy and economical to operate, Austin 7s were much beloved by those who owned them. Not only were they immensely popular in the United Kingdom, they were also well-liked in other countries, so much so that Austin allowed them to be built under license by Dixi in Germany and Rosengart in France (see The Baby Austin: A British Interpretation of Motoring for the Masses at http://hagleyserver.org/vinson/2012/10/the-baby-austin-a-british-interpretation-of-motoring-for-the-masses/).

Photograph of a surviving example of a 1930 American Austin 2-Place Roadster.

Photograph of a surviving example of a 1930 American Austin 2-Place Roadster.

In 1929, encouraged by the success of the Austin 7 outside of the United Kingdom, Austin’s founder Herbert Austin hit upon the idea of building and marketing the car in the United States. In order to do this, Mr. Austin established American Austin Car Company, Incorporated to build the Austin 7 under license and set up a production facility in Butler, Pennsylvania. The end result of this ambitious venture was not a success, but went down in the annals of automotive history as an early attempt to market a small economy car in the United States: the 1930-1934 American Austin.

Trade catalog image of the 1930 American Austin 2-Place Cabin Coupe.

Trade catalog image of the 1930 American Austin 2-Place Cabin Coupe.

The American Austin, which was also referred to as the Austin Bantam, was an Americanized version of the Austin 7. In most respects, it was similar to its British relative. Much like the “Baby Austin,” the American Austin was a truly tiny car, riding on a 75-inch wheelbase and a 40-inch track. Underneath its skin, the American Austin was built on an Austin 7 chassis and was powered by a “mirrored” version of the Austin 7’s inline-4 engine (engine components that were mounted on the left side of the British car were moved to the right side on the American car), which displaced 747 cc (45 cubic inches) and was good for 15 horsepower. In an effort to make them more visually appealing to American customers, the American Austins were given striking new body shells, which were designed by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and built by Hayes Body Company of Detroit, Michigan. American Austin Car Company also went to great lengths to promote the car’s economic attributes, claiming it to be capable of fuel economy in excess of 40 miles per gallon.

Trade catalog for American Austin’s (referred to as Austin Bantam in this case) “Free Motoring” maintenance plan, in which one year’s worth of gasoline, oil, tires, and repairs are included in the car’s purchase price.  Unfortunately, even during the Great Depression, this innovative marketing idea was not successful.

Trade catalog for American Austin’s (referred to as Austin Bantam in this case) “Free Motoring” maintenance plan, in which one year’s worth of gasoline, oil, tires, and repairs are included in the car’s purchase price. Unfortunately, even during the Great Depression, this innovative marketing idea was not successful.

The American Austin made its debut at a private exhibition during the 1930 New York Auto Show and the first examples rolled off the assembly line later that year. Initially, it appeared that it might succeed, with American Austin Car Company claiming that it received 184,000 orders. But the onset of the Great Depression prompted the cancellation of most of these orders. This problem was further exacerbated by the American motoring public’s resistance to small economy cars. Even more remarkably, good fuel economy was not seen as being terribly important at the time. As a result of this combination of factors, the American Austin never became a big seller.

American Austin Car Company, Incorporated went bankrupt and ceased production of the American Austin in 1934. Approximately 19,000-20,000 American Austins were built. The few surviving examples are highly collectible today.

Sources

A Car to Run Around In: Bantam: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1930-1937, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

American Austin Bantam Club

the Bantam keeps ahead – Gasoline, oil, tires, and Repairs for a year now included in the purchase price!: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1930-1937, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 49-50.

How Stuff Works – 1930-1934 American Austin

How Stuff Works – How American Austin Cars Work

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 37.

Photograph of 1930 American Austin 2-Place Roadster: Bantam: Photographs, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Vinson Pictorials Series: A Window to the Past

Hello, readers! My name is Annalise Berdini and I am the summer intern processing the Pictorials Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. I’d like to give a little overview of what I have been doing since I started and highlight some of the interesting materials I’ve come across while working through the collection.

Postcard of a Baker electric car advertisement.

Postcard of a Baker electric car advertisement.

As a devoted collector of automotive literature and materials, Z. Taylor Vinson spent much of his life corresponding with other like-minded collectors across the globe, sharing tips, materials, and insights. Many of the items in the Pictorials Series, which consists of photographs, prints, postcards, and the like, include letters or notes from the collectors who sent them along to Vinson. This gives unique insight into the way Vinson was able to develop his collection, making global contacts, and often close friends, who sought out and shared the same items for which Vinson searched.

My job so far has been to process the Pictorials Series. This involves surveying the series’ contents, arranging the materials, and placing the materials in acid-free folders and protective sleeves. The images in the Pictorials Series depict the development and growth of the automobile, even including images of mockups, prototypes, or one-of-a-kind vehicles that never made it to the production line. Some of the images, especially the postcards, are as much an example of the automobiles of the period as the social and economic climate of that time period.

Henry J advertising postcard.

Henry J advertising postcard.

The Pictorials Series provides a fascinating look at how these early cars were marketed, and how those strategies evolved during each change that affected the countries in which they were made. For example, a Baker postcard of a reproduction of an ad from the early 1900s shows the car being marketed to “high society.” A set of Henry J. postcards from the 1950s includes images of the nuclear family ideal that was prevalent at the time. One item in the Chevrolet file is a photo of assorted ads depicting changes in attitudes towards women and the need for an economic car. Vinson’s pictorial materials also provide a unique window into the past, giving a taste of how automobiles developed and changed, along with the world itself.

Photograph of three Chevrolet advertisements.

Photograph of three Chevrolet advertisements.

Sometimes, the materials do not quite fit into the car make hierarchy, simply because they are not about cars! Vinson was a true collector, and as such, did not limit his acquisitions entirely to autos. The Pictorials Series contains materials depicting airplanes and airships, buses, trains, and ships. It also holds stamps depicting the royal families of some of the countries Vinson visited (he was extremely well-traveled) and postcards depicting scenes from various locales. An assortment of personal items that show Vinson and his family, and a few photos that capture the construction of his “Autotorium” are found in this series as well.

It is fascinating to have a collection of images that expand beyond automobiles into general transportation and travel, as well as to have a record of Vinson’s life and interests in images. Researchers and car enthusiasts alike will find the Pictorials Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson collection to be a valuable and exciting resource.

Annalise Berdini is a Summer Intern for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Introducing the Z. Taylor Vinson Manuscripts Series!

Greetings!  My name is Alison Kreitzer, and I am the Z. Taylor Vinson Graduate Assistant.  I am currently processing the Manuscripts Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, which will be available to researchers in 2014.  The Manuscripts Series document Mr. Vinson’s career as an attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1967-2003.  These materials provide insight into the development of Federal motor vehicle safety standards in the decades following the passage of the National Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.  Throughout his career, Mr. Vinson was instrumental in implementing safety regulations for passenger and commercial vehicles that we continue to benefit from today.  The Manuscripts Series of his collection is a notable resource for researchers interested in automobile design, automotive safety, and the history of consumer advocacy in the United States.

Lamborghini badge on the cover of the company’s 1975 certification petition for the Lamborghini Countach LP400.

Lamborghini badge on the cover of the company’s 1975 certification petition for the Lamborghini Countach LP400.

As an attorney-advisor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mr. Vinson corresponded extensively with automobile manufacturers, congressmen, citizens, and fellow NHTSA staff members to interpret and enforce Federal regulations for automobile safety.  His correspondence files make up the bulk of the Manuscripts Series.  These files predominately focus on issues of manufacturer compliance with Federal policies regarding the production, importation, and sale of automobiles and automotive equipment within the United States.  Mr. Vinson and his fellow legal staff members worked extensively to provide manufacturers and citizens with interpretations of the various safety standards that regulated everything from windshield wipers to braking systems.  The NHTSA’s litigation team also drafted and reviewed proposed amendments to these regulations before they were passed into law.  Unpublished and published copies of these Federal Register dockets pertaining to specific safety standard rule-making decisions are included within these correspondence folders.

Photograph of the Lamborghini LP400 from Lamborghini’s 1975 certification petition.

Photograph of the Lamborghini LP400 from Lamborghini’s 1975 certification petition.

A second substantive section within the Manuscripts Series documents petitions made by both foreign and domestic automobile manufacturers for exemption of their vehicle models from specific aspects of the Federal motor vehicle safety regulations.  Manufacturers requested exemptions due to financial hardship, limited production runs, and made arguments that elements of their automobile designs were inconsequential to the overall safety of their vehicles.

This section of the Manuscripts Series is predominately arranged by automotive manufacturer and will be of particular interest to scholars and enthusiasts of renowned automotive manufacturers.  For example, Lamborghini petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1975 for certification of their Countach LP 400, which influenced the shape and design of sports cars throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  The applications for exemption and certification includes over 90 pages of information, diagrams, and photographs documenting the various internal and external components of the Countach LP 400!

The Manuscripts Series also contains correspondence documenting Mr. Vinson’s involvement with the Society of Automotive Historians (SAH) in the 1990s.  He held various positions on the Society’s executive committee during this period.  The files in this section document Mr. Vinson’s involvement in several administrative tasks for the organization, including planning of yearly meetings, organizing membership materials, and overseeing SAH finances.

Mr. Vinson was very successful at combining his personal interests in collecting automobile ephemera with his professional career working to implement vehicle safety standards as an attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Not only did he leave Hagley a wonderful collection of automobile memorabilia, he also left behind a comprehensive record of his contributions to automobile safety.  The Manuscripts Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection promises to be a fascinating resource for years to come.

Alison Kreitzer is the Graduate Assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA – Displaced the Model T

Trade catalog for the 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA Capitol, featuring an image of the 2-Door Sport Cabriolet.

Trade catalog for the 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA Capitol, featuring an image of the 2-Door Sport Cabriolet.

At the beginning of the 1920s, the Ford Model T reigned supreme in the American automobile market. Cheap, mechanically simple, and easy to repair, the “Tin Lizzie” was much beloved by the American driving public. But Ford changed the Model T very little and by the middle of the decade, a combination of stiffer competition, advancing technology, and changing customer tastes rendered the Model T obsolete. Faced with such realities, in May 1927, Ford shut down its production lines for 6 months to retool for production for of the Model T’s successor, the Model A. When Ford temporarily went offline, other manufacturers sought to fill the gap in the market. One car succeeded in displacing the Model T as America’s best-selling car: the 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA.

The 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA was the end result of some very shrewd product planning and development. Starting in 1923, at the instigation of General Motors Corporation’s president Alfred S. Sloan, Chevrolet adopted a strategy of offering cars that were low-priced, but a little more expensive than the Model T. In return for a little more money, Chevrolet offered its customers much more in the way of updated technology, modern styling, and creature comforts. Built and marketed in accordance with this strategy, Chevrolet cars proved quite competitive with the Model T and the company dramatically increased its market share between 1924 and 1926. When the Capitol AA was formally introduced in January 1927, it helped drive the Model T out of the market. When Ford temporarily ceased production, the Capitol AA became the top-selling American car for the 1927 model year.

Trade catalog images of 3 of the 8 available body styles for the Chevrolet Capitol AA: Landau, Sedan, and Coupe.

Trade catalog images of 3 of the 8 available body styles for the Chevrolet Capitol AA: Landau, Sedan, and Coupe.

The 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA was a reasonably modern low-priced car for its time. Riding on a 103-inch wheelbase, the car was powered by a 171 cubic-inch inline-4 engine, which was good for 26 horsepower and featured air and oil filters as standard equipment. The car’s engine was mated to a modern 3-speed sliding gear manual transmission. The Capitol AA was fitted with a handsome contemporary body shell, which featured full crown fenders and bullet-shaped headlights. Customers had a choice of 8 different body styles, ranging from a 2-Door Roadster to a 4-Door Landau Sedan. Of particular interest was the 2-Door Sport Cabriolet, which came equipped with rumble seat, a Chevrolet first.

Selling in the $525-$745 range, the Chevrolet Capitol AA typically cost $160-$200 more than the Ford Model T. Nevertheless, it was more than a match for the Model T and was well-received by the motoring public. American drivers liked the Capitol AA’s modern appearance and were pleased to discover that it was a more comfortable and better performing car than the Model T. The Capitol AA also earned a reputation for being a high-quality car over the course of its production life and was found to be quite durable. Such qualities made it a worthy top-seller.

The Chevrolet Capitol AA was superseded by the Chevrolet National Model AB for the 1928 model year. More than 678,000 Capitol AA’s were built. Largely due to the events of 1927, Ford and Chevrolet became archrivals in the American automobile market and remain so to this day.

Sources

83 Quality Features – Chevrolet for Economical Transportation: Chevrolet: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Chevrolet Range, 1925-1927, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

How Stuff Works – 1927 Chevrolet Series AA Capitol

How Stuff Works – 1908-1927 Ford Model T

How Stuff Works – 1923-1927 Ford Model T

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 283, 292, 571, 586-587.

The Most Beautiful Chevrolet in Chevrolet History – World’s Lowest Modern Quality Cars: Chevrolet: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Chevrolet Range, 1925-1927, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Three New Faces Join the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection Project Staff

I am pleased to announce that some new faces have just joined the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection Project staff at the Hagley Museum and Library. Without further ado, I would like to use this week’s blog to introduce three new staff members who will be helping us process the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection this summer: Alison Kreitzer, Annalise Berdini, and Cassia Balogh.

Alison Kreitzer is the Z. Taylor Vinson Graduate Assistant. This summer, she will be responsible for processing the Vinson Collection’s manuscript materials, which document Mr. Vinson’s professional career with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ms. Kreitzer is a graduate student at the University of Delaware, where she is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History’s American Civilization Program. Her research interests include twentieth century cultural history, material culture, and the history of technology. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores the history of American dirt track automobile racing in the mid-Atlantic region during the twentieth century. Ms. Kreitzer also has previous processing experience. In the summer of 2010, she processed the Collins J. Seitz Papers at the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington, Delaware.

Annalise Berdini is one of two Z. Taylor Vinson Summer Interns. This summer, she will be responsible for processing the Vinson Collection’s visual materials, which consist of a wide variety of visual formats, including, but not limited to, photographs, photo negatives, slides, and postcards. Ms. Berdini is a graduate student at Drexel University, where she is working towards an MLIS with concentrations in digital libraries and archives. Previous to joining the Vinson Collection staff, she worked in public libraries and volunteered at Hagley in the Library’s Digital Collections. Ms. Berdini is also the President-elect of the Special Libraries Association’s Drexel Student Chapter.

Cassia Balogh is the other Z. Taylor Vinson Summer Intern. This summer she will be responsible for processing the Vinson Collection’s artifacts, which consist of a wide variety of three-dimensional objects, including, but not limited to, toy cars, model cars, numerous other types of automobile memorabilia, and award plaques. Ms. Balogh is a recent graduate of Marist University in Poughkeepsie, New York and Scuola Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, Italy, where she studied Conservation and Art History. Previous to joining the Vinson Collect staff, she gained experience working with artifacts at the Penn Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In her spare time, she enjoys all kinds of arts and crafts.

Please join me in welcoming Alison, Annalise, and Cassia to the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection Project. I will look forward to seeing them contribute to the project in a big way as the summer progresses!

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia: Hollywood Status Symbol

Hollywood celebrities have long had a reputation for swanky and opulent lifestyles. Their taste for luxury often extends to the cars they buy for their personal transportation. For some entertainment luminaries, only the most exclusive and luxurious cars will do. During the late 1950s, there was one car in particular that was much-coveted by the Hollywood celebrity set: the 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia.

1956 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

1956 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

The 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia was a limited edition luxury car built by Dual Motors Corporation of Detroit, Michigan. It was based on the Dodge Firearrow, a concept car exhibited at the 1953 Turin Auto Show in Italy. Offered at a then-hefty sticker price of $8,000, it was specifically intended for a wealthy and stylish clientele. The Dual-Ghia was a decidedly large and heavy car, riding on a 115-inch wheelbase and weighing in at a hefty 3600 pounds. It was fitted with a striking low-slung convertible body hand built by Carrozzeria Ghia, an exclusive custom coach builder based in Turin, Italy. The car was also given a sumptuously appointed interior, which included Connolly leather upholstery, full-deck carpeting, and a chrome-framed dashboard.

Underneath its skin, to make this exclusive car easy to service, the Dual-Ghia used readily available components sourced from Chrysler Corporation. Customers had a choice of two engines: a Dodge Firebomb V-8 engine, which had a displacement of 315 cubic inches and was rated at 230 horsepower, or the more popular Dodge D-500 Hemi V-8, which had the same displacement, but was good for 260 horsepower. Both engine choices were mated to a Chrysler Powerflite automatic transmission. In addition to being easy to service, the Dual-Ghia proved to be an excellent performer for a large car. According to Motor Trend magazine, the Dual-Ghia could accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 8.2 seconds and had a top speed of around 124 miles per hour.

Publicity photo of the 1957 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

Publicity photo of the 1957 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

The Dual-Ghia made its public debut at the 1957 New York Sports Car Show, where it caused a public sensation and garnered rave reviews. It also attracted the attention of entertainment luminaries and soon became a very fashionable automotive status symbol among the Hollywood celebrity set. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, high-living members of the famed “Rat Pack,” were probably the most iconic Dual-Ghia owners. Singer Eddie Fisher and actor Glenn Ford also owned Dual-Ghias. Actor Desi Arnaz and songwriter Hoagy Carmichael were noted Dual-Ghia owners as well.

Although the Dual-Ghia was a prestigious car and highly sought after by the Hollywood set, it was not a profitable venture for Dual-Motors Corporation. One reason for this was because of Dual Motors’ owner Eugene Casaroll’s insistence that the Dual-Ghia be built to the highest degree of craftsmanship possible, it was an extraordinarily expensive and labor-intensive car to build (it took 1300 hours to fabricate the body and 200 hours for final assembly). In addition to that, because the Dual-Ghia was aimed at a very wealthy clientele, the market for it proved to be quite small. As a result, it was not the financial success Dual Motors hoped for.

A total of 117 1956-1958 Dual-Ghias were built. It is believed that around 30 of these cars are still existence and surviving examples are cherished collector items today.

Sources

Adventure…with Elegance!, Dual-Ghia: Dual-Ghia: General Publication, Serial, and Trade Catalog: Specific Model, ca. 1956, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Conceptcarz – Dual-Ghia

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 259-260.

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 459.

How Stuff Works – 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia

MacDonald, Don, “Not Just a Bomb…A Dual Bomb,” Motor Trend, August 1956

Photograph of 1956 Dual-Ghia Convertible

Publicity photograph of the 1957 Dual-Ghia Convertible

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Datsun 240Z

During the 1960s, Japanese automakers were making inroads into the American market. At the time, they were widely (and I would argue unfairly) perceived as being manufacturers of cheap and unimaginative economy cars. One Japanese automaker who actively sought to change that perception was Nissan Motor Company, which at the time built and marketed cars under the Datsun nameplate. In 1965, Nissan designers started work on a sports car that was specifically aimed at the American market. The end result of the of the Japanese firm’s labors was a legendary sports car that is credited with establishing Nissan as a world-class automaker: the Datsun 240Z.

Photograph of a Datsun 240Z.

Introduced in late 1969 as a 1970 model, the Datsun 240Z (called the Datsun Fairlady Z in Japan) was a medium-priced sports car. Designed by a team led by Fumio Yushida, it was intended to compete with European mid-price sports cars in the American market, which included offerings from Jaguar and Porsche. In terms of engineering, the 240Z was a thoroughly conventional, yet state-of-the-art sports car for its time. It employed a front engine, rear-wheel drive layout and rode on a 90.5 inch wheelbase. Power came from a potent inline-6 engine, which displaced 2.4 litres (146 cubic-inches) and was initially good for 150 horsepower. Customers were offered a choice of either a 4-speed manual transmission or a 3-speed automatic. The 240Z was equipped with 4-wheel independent suspension, which employed McPherson struts and coil springs. Outwardly, the car was clothed in a sleek and stunning-looking body shell, which featured a long hood and a fastback roof.

The Datsun 240Z was also a very capable performer. According to Nissan, it could accelerate from 0 to 60 in less than 9 seconds and had a claimed top speed of 125 miles per hour. It was also blessed with outstanding road-holding abilities. Owners and automotive soon discovered the 240Z’s high quality of construction and it earned an enviable reputation for being tougher and more reliable than comparable European sports cars of the time. The 240Z’s reputation for high-performance, durability, and dependability was further enhanced by its successes in motorsports competition. In the United States, the 240Z became a dominant force in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) sports car racing. Elsewhere in the world, the 240Z proved to be a capable rally car, twice winning the prestigious (and notoriously rough) East African Safari Rally (1971, 1973).

Photograph of a Datsun 240Z.

To top it all off, not only was the 240Z a modern design capable of a high level of performance, it was noted for being a bargain package that gave exceptional value for the money. Initially offered at a base price of $3,526, it undersold other mid-price sports cars of the day. Due to its durability and reliability, it proved cheaper to operate and maintain than its European competitors. American sports car enthusiasts quickly grasped the exceptional value offered by the 240Z and the demand for it soon exceeded supply.

The Datsun 240Z enjoyed a successful, albeit relatively short, production life (1969-1973). For the 1974 model year, largely due to tightening American safety and emissions regulations, it was replaced by the Datsun 260Z, which was essentially a 240Z with a larger 2.6 litre engine. Over 140,000 Datsun 240Z’s were sold in the United States. Surviving examples are highly sought after today.

Sources

240Z: Datsun: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 240Z, 1970, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 212-215.

Datsun 240-Z: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 240Z, 1970, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 389.

How Stuff Works – Datsun Sports Cars

How Stuff Works – Nissan Z History

The Z Car Home Page

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.