Sharks are formidable creatures, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, one of nature's little subtle reminders that you are not necessarily at the top of the food chain. It's no wonder we find them compelling. I'm old enough to remember the excitement that ensued when Jaws first hit the theaters, and the shark has been a pop-culture icon ever since. One of the cable channels likes to celebrate an annual "Shark Week," serving up seven straight days of documentaries about sharks, with spectacular and sometimes lurid footage of sharks swimming, sharks jumping out of the water, sharks attempting to eat the camera operator, and so on.
You can think of today's presentation as Car Lust's attempt to serve up a few shark bytes of our own. Our subject "shark" lives on dry land, it probably won't bite you, and Steven Speilberg will never make a summer blockbuster about it . . . although, if you use your imagination, . . . okay, cue the menacing theme music . . .
Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the highway comes . . . Sharknose!
Now, at this point, many of you are probably thinking that not only have you never before heard of a 1938 Graham-Paige Sharknose Spirit of Motion, much less seen one, you didn't even know until five seconds ago that there ever was a Graham-Paige Motors Corporation. A brief history lesson is perhaps in order.
The three Graham brothers, Joseph, Robert, and Ray, were energetic entrepreneurs who started out in the glass bottle business in 1901. They sold that business in 1916 and used the proceeds to go into truck manufacturing. Their truck-building firm was acquired by Dodge in 1925. The Graham brothers became Dodge's largest shareholders, and got positions in management and seats on the board of directors out of the deal.
This lasted about six months. Unable to get along with Dodge's bankers, the Grahams quit Dodge and sold their stock. As part of their disengagement, they signed non-compete agreements which prohibited them from going back into the truck business.
The non-competes didn't say anything about automobiles, however. The Grahams bought the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Company, a small independent carmaker with declining sales whose owners wanted out of the business--but which had just built a new factory building. Beginning in 1928, cars were sold under the Graham-Paige brand name. The company officially dropped the "-Paige" from the nameplate after 1930, though most people still referred to the cars as "Graham-Paiges" right up to the end.
Like many of the smaller prewar manufacturers, Graham got its powertrain components from outside sources. Its cars were powered by a Continental engine--a flathead straight-six or straight-eight--and used a Warner Gear (later Borg-Warner) transmission. The engines came from Continental as a short block, which Graham finished with cylinder heads of its own design.
Graham's cars were notable for a few unique engineering touches. Graham began offering a supercharger option in 1934. While the blowers were a bit finicky and had teething problems, they did give a six-cylinder Graham performance comparable to a Pontiac straight eight. Graham also used a four-speed transmission at a time when nearly all other passenger cars (even high-end luxury models) used a three-speed, and it was an early adopter of sway bars. Finally, Graham had what may have been the first "digital" speedometer, using a rotating drum with numbers marked on it in place of the usual dial.
Up through the 1937 model year, Graham's styling was mainstream conventional, like the '36 Cavalier sedan above--a neat and attractive car, appealing in a sensible-shoes way, but not a whole lot different than its contemporaries. Sales had been declining through the 1930s, mostly as a consequence of the ongoing Great Depression, and the operation was losing money. The powers that be decided that maybe a dramatic restyling would turn things around. Give the car looks to match its supercharged performance, the reasoning went, and it would sell better.
The design was started by Amos Northup of Murray Corporation, and finished by others when Mr. Northup died unexpectedly. It was given the name "Spirit of Motion," and it expressed that spirit with a grille and fenders and even wheel openings that leaned forward, as if the car couldn't wait to get moving. The "motion" theme was further reinforced with horizontal accents running down the hood and across the doors. Everything was rounded off in streamlined Art Deco fashion, and the rear fender was given skirting to make it look even more streamlined.
The Spirit of Motion required completely new tooling, which cash-strapped Graham-Paige financed by selling the designs and body dies for its 1936-37 models to Nissan in Japan.
The new design was unveiled to enthusiastic praise from design professionals and the automotive press. It won design awards from the Concours D'Elegance in Paris, the Prix d'Avant-Garde at Lyon, the Prix d'Elegance at Bordeaux, and the Grand Prix d'Honneur at Deauville.
Sales, however, were disastrous.
The Spirit of Motion had the bad timing to be introduced in the fall of 1937. We who were born too late to have lived through the Depression tend to think of it as one continuous span of uniform misery running from the 1929 stock market crash straight through to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The actual economic history is a little more complicated: after hitting bottom in 1932 and '33, the U.S. economy had clawed its way out of the hole in fits and starts, to the point where in 1936 every economic indicator except the unemployment rate was almost back to where it had been in 1929. In the middle of 1937, however, the economy took a sharp drop that lasted into 1938, an event the historians call the "Roosevelt recession." A recession is exactly the wrong environment in which to be introducing new automobiles with edgy styling--as Ford would also find out twenty years later on "E-Day."
And that was the Spirit of Motion's other big problem. The car isn't ugly by any means. It has a design theme, and it follows through on that theme from front bumper to tailpipe with a consistency that few others can match. It's easy to see why artists and design professionals liked it.
On the other hand, it's definitely not mainstream styling for 1938. It's interesting, but it's not lovable. The forward-raked front end gives it a bit more drama and malevolence than most people would want in their daily driver--on a vehicle intended as a family car! Remember, too, most families that owned cars back then could only afford one car. People might be willing to have something that's a little out-of-the-box in the looks department as a second car, but they're not so willing when it's their only car.
Though the Spirit of Motion sold poorly, Graham-Paige was stuck with the design--it couldn't afford another retooling, and the dies for the previous model were off in Japan under new ownership. The car held over into 1940, selling only about 8,800 units total in three model years. This was unsustainably bad. In fact, one might be tempted to say that, on account of the shark-nosed Spirit of Motion's poor showing, Graham-Paige jumped the shark. The last Graham automobile rolled out of the factory in April of 1940.
(The ill-fated Spirit of Motion wasn't the last car to wear the Graham name, however. In 1940, Graham-Paige briefly built the Hollywood, an attractive little ride which used the body dies from the 1936-37 Cord 810/812. The Hollywood is an interesting story in its own right, but it'll have to wait for another day.)
So where does "Sharknose" come from?
The "Sharknose" nickname was originally applied to three different series of locomotives built for the Pennsylvania Railroad by Baldwin Locomotive Works, all of which were styled by Raymond Loewy & Associates: the T-1 duplex-drive steam locomotives built from 1942 to 1946, and two different models of diesels built after the war. Loewy's designers gave these locomotives a dramatic forward-raked nose which is similar in basic concept to the grille of the '38 Spirit of Motion. After the rail buffs pinned the "Sharknose" name on the Baldwins, the car buffs retroactively applied it to the Graham-Paige. I don't know if Loewy's designers deliberately set out to copy the Graham-Paige design, but given the resemblance, it's easy to see why they ended up sharing a nickname.
And with that, our shark tail--er, tale--is fin-ished.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The black '38 Sharknose at the top of the page is owned by a member of the Graham Owners Club International; the image comes from the Club website's photo gallery. The red and silver two-tone comes from Wikipedia, as does the dashboard photo and the Pennsy T-1. The menacing gray Sharknose closeup comes from this for-sale listing at the Antique Automobile Club of America website. The restored 1936 Cavalier photo comes from Restomod Plus, which did the restoration.
UPDATE: located by regular commenter "tigerstrypes":