1929: It Was a Very Good Year
Ah, 1929. The stock market crash and flappers.
That, in a nutshell I suppose, is probably about all anyone really thinks of 1929 if they think about it at all. This is something of a new area for me, and for Car Lust generally; most of us are far more interested in cars from about the 1950s onwards, though we've certainly not ignored the pre-WWII era totally: We've looked at the Stout Scarab (often referred to as the first minivan), the Graham "Sharknose", Ford's Model T and its role in the Great New York To Seattle Race of 1909 (and attendant cars therein), we mustn't forget The Deusy, and. . . .well, that's about it, apart from a few making cameo appearances in some car show posts.
Why? Well, we tend to gravitate towards cars we have some experience with, generally the sorts of everyday cars that have been in production when. . .well, when we've been alive. Also, many of the cars from the interwar years are only preserved in museums and by collectors, which tends to make them not terribly visible on an everyday basis, and such ancient automobiles tend to inhabit the rarefied air of Concours d'Elegance shows that we here at Car Lust rarely are allowed into visit. But there was really quite a lot going on in the automotive world in 1929, not all of it having to do with cars of the rich and famous; a few innovations had made themselves known in and around 1929 that eventually became standard among automobiles of today. So it's worth having a look at the last year of the Roaring 20s and see what was going on, car-wise, so grab your cloche or bowler hat, plus-fours, comb up your bob, and let's 23-Skiddoo out of the 21st century for a bit of history.
As always, this isn't really meant to be an exhaustive list of all-things automotive from 1929, but a collection of cars and car-related elements that I personally find fairly Lust-worthy. Feel free to add in your own in the comments.
There was a lot going on in 1929 besides speakeasys, flappers, and Black Tuesday. Still-vivid memories of The Great War stirred Ernest Hemingway to pen his semi-autobiographical novel A Farewell to Arms, in which he relates some of his experiences driving an ambulance -- quite probably a Model T -- with the Italians fighting the Austro-Hungarian Empire (that's him to the left there). The same war also prompted Erich Maria Remarque to publish Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), another semi-autobiography of a WWI veteran. If you get a chance, watch the 1930 film as it's really quite gripping, if a tad dated. Both have remained classics of the genre, although the war they describe was too soon eclipsed by an even greater war then being planned, at least in outline, by a former WWI corporal who was, for much of 1929, busy trying to build membership in the Nazi party in the face of economic prosperity.
Also debuting that year were the Popeye and Tintin comics. The latter, authored by Belgian Georges Remi, isn't as well known here in the States -- at least not before the recent movie adaptation -- but it was exceedingly popular in Europe for much of the 20th century and has much in common with Tintin's latter-day incarnation, Indiana Jones (though Spielberg has said he had never heard of Tintin prior to making Raiders of the Lost Ark). I remember picking up some English-language versions as a young lad and being scared witless at some of them.
Speaking of movies, talking films were starting to be made in greater numbers as filmmakers got the hang of adding audio tracks to their films. The Broadway Melody, the first major motion picture musical of the "talkie" era, won the Academy Award for Best Film, which was also the first year that the Oscars were given out. Also new that year was In Old Arizona, the first full-length talkie to be filmed outside of a studio ("on location" as it were), and On With The Show, the first Technicolor movie of the talkie era.
Elsewhere, the St. Valentine's Day massacre took place in Chicago on February 14 (duh), cementing Al Capone as Public Enemy #1. A fellow named Charles Grigg also introduced a new product, "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda". . . .otherwise known as 7-Up. Like many other soft drinks of the day, it contained pharmacological ingredients, in this case lithium citrate which was used as a mood stabilizer much the way lithium is used today in bipolar, depressive, and manic patients (it was removed from 7-Up in 1950).
Closer to home, Paul Galvin and his Galvin Manufacturing Corporation came up with an idea near and dear to nearly all motorists today. A former artillery officer in the trenches of WWI, Galvin had a series of business failures earlier in the decade, even winding up for a time as personal secretary to Emil Brach, he of Brach's Candy fame. By 1928, however, Galvin and fellow inventor Edward Stewart had developed what they called a "battery eliminator" which allowed a home radio to be run off of the alternating current (AC) of home electrical outlets. The company eventually began producing their own AC radios and sometime late in 1929 the company began developing what would be their most profitable product: the model 5T71 car radio. In point of fact, the introduction of the actual product occurred at the Radio Manufacturers Association convention in June of 1930, but the basic idea for a standardized manufacturer-installable car radio owes its practical origin to 1929. Obviously, people had been putting portable radios in their cars for a while already -- much like the tape deck of later decades -- and probably the first truly mass-produced car radio was the Transitone TH-1 by the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company (aka, Philco) starting in 1927. By 1929 various other manufacturers had also begun producing automotive radios. But the Galvin model was, arguably, the first really commercially successful product that could be installed as a factory option and cemented the car radio as a permanent fixture in automobiles from then on. In fact, it was so successful that Galvin decided to rename the company to something a bit more descriptive and mnemonic: Motorola.
Now, one might argue -- and I do -- that as far as cars went, 1929 marked the end of what is probably the First Golden Age of Automobiles: The Roaring Twenties. At the beginning of the century there were some 2,000 companies making automobiles, which by the teens were mostly high-end models for the rich and famous who often used them to compete in outlandish races. But once Henry Ford got his Model T into full production, the automobile became much more of a commodity product affordable to far more people who could use them for their daily tasks. By the late '20s, the number of car companies had dropped considerably (to around 200), and a much wider range of choices was available from the humble Model T to the uber-autos of the fabulously wealthy and virtually all niches in between. There was a heady profusion of automobiles of every conceivable variation, from basic transportation to the stunning heights of luxury, performance, and elegance, probably reaching its zenith in the Deusenberg. And I'm not even dealing with the Europeans! Truly an exceptional time in automotive design. Be that as it may, here are just a few of the notables available or introduced in 1929 that strike my Car Lust fancy.
First up: Pickup trucks. At Ford, they had been basing the truck line on their Model T platform for years (designated the Model TT) and while both the cars and trucks had sold well (to put it mildly), the "T" line had been getting a little long in the tooth by the mid-'20s, given Henry Ford's reluctance to change anything at all about the basic operation of the vehicle. While other manufacturers had adopted the now-standard configuration of throttle, brake, and clutch pedals, the Model T had kept the same somewhat awkward configuration that they had had since the early 1900s. Finally, the last Model T rolled off the line in May of 1927 and production began on the new Model A in October (production actually ceased completely in the interim), which turned out to be Ford's second giant automotive hit. Henry Ford had finally relented and provided the A with the conventional set of controls, so driving a Ford was finally familiar to drivers of other makes and by the end of its run in 1931 sold almost 5 million copies.
Following earlier precedent, Ford based its new truck line on the Model A and called them the Model AA. Though built on the same basic chassis as the car, the frame was larger and heavier befitting its workaday nature; they were also heavier duty than the T-versions, rated at 1-1/2-ton as opposed to the 1-ton TTs and came with a 40 bhp 201 cubic inch I4 -- same as the car. It also had the same basic 4-speed manual transmission as the Model A, but it was geared lower to haul more weight at low speeds. It went through a few changes throughout its short run (6 years), but was still a hit and was even produced in several foreign countries.
Over at Chrysler, Dodge had been formally purchased the year before, even though Chrysler started selling their Fargo truck line the year before -- basically trucks made from DeSoto and Plymouth parts. The 1929 Dodge was still a design of the old Dodge Brothers, but it was a nice looking line of trucks. The Merchants Express, a 1/2-ton model, is a real looker, IMO, just what you'd expect a rip-roaring hot looking pickup truck to look like. In 1929 the line used a couple of 6-cylinder engines and one Maxwell 4, giving 78/63 and 45 bhp, respectively. To my eyes anyway, the Dodges looked way cooler than the Fords. They eventually standardized their lighter pickups on a 4-cylinder engine that was brought over from Plymouth.
Elsewhere at Ford, while rearranging their pickup line they added a wholly new model that was to change the automotive landscape fairly dramatically, though it wouldn't be recognized as such for years to come: the station wagon. Vehicles like this weren't unknown prior to 1929; various manufacturers had been putting boxes on the backs of Model T's for years. In fact, most automobiles up to the early 1920s came from the factory in largely open designs with fabric coverings instead of all-metal rooves -- convertibles, in essence. Then in 1922 Essex (a division of Hudson) produced the first affordable (to the masses) fully-enclosed sedan. And in 1923 the Star company began producing a station wagon.
Station wagons ultimately derived from railway station vehicles (hence the name) where they functioned as "depot hacks" and were primarily thought of as commercial vehicles. Up until 1929, most manufacturers had farmed out the production of the passenger compartments -- which were primarily made of wood -- to outside companies. Ford, not one to outsource much of anything if they could help it, came out with a wagon version of their Model AA for the 1929 model year. Also made of wood -- Ford owned their own forests and lumber mill, which helped -- it, too, was designed primarily as a commercial vehicle, though that was, as we know, destined to change in the ensuing decades.
Now for a couple of items at the other end of the market. Lest you think the Japanese were the first to sell a front-drive car in the US, two companies came out with models in 1929: Cord and Ruxton. Many have probably heard of the former; the 810/812 are as popular as collector cars as their look is distinctive. But preceding that glorious Deco wundercar was the L-29 which debuted in 1929. It was a more conventional-looking car but utterly gorgeous nonetheless (many at the time felt the 810 was ugly in comparison). It was designed as front-wheel drive and, without the transmission core, was able to be much lower than other cars of the time giving it a very sleek look. It used the Lycoming I8 engine from Auburn and produced a very respectable 125 bhp. Unfortunately, it also weighed 4700 pounds which put it at a relative disadvantage compared to other higher-end cars of the time.
Cord beat out Ruxton for the American-made front-drive crown by a few months. The Ruxton is an odd car; it wasn't designed by any of the big manufacturers, but was produced -- after a series of failed attempts to sell the design to anyone willing to produce it -- by the Moon Motor Car Company in St. Louis, MO. The original design was by New Era Motors of New York and was designated the Model C. Like the Cord, the lack of a transmission tunnel allowed the car to look long and low, accentuated by the removal of the running boards. Some models were fitted with weird looking "cat-eye" headlights but most owners ended up adding standard lights to their cars so they could actually, you know, see at night. Both the Cord and Ruxton had their share of problems and the front-drive concept never really caught on and the next American-made front-driver was the Oldsmobile Toronado in 1966.
Any guesses as to what the 3rd best-selling car in 1929 was? It was a Hudson. 1929 was pretty much the high-water mark for Hudson, placed somewhat below Packard on the luxury depth chart, but higher than Ford. Hudson had a good reputation in those days with a number of innovations to their credit including dual brakes and "idiot lights" for the oil pressure and generator. Probably their best feature was the engine: the Super Six. Although it was first developed in 1915, Hudson continued to refine the design until it culminated in the 1929. Since its introduction, Hudson incorporated a lot of features into the engine to give it far more power than ordinary straight-sixes. They balanced the crankshaft with counterweights to reduce vibration and give it much smoother operation, and also put the exhaust valves on the engine block instead of in the cylinders -- which was apparently much more efficient -- and all of these tweaks combined gave it a reported 80% increase in power. All this performance came at a price (literally) and the engine was more expensive and difficult to produce. After 1929 they dropped the Super-Six and went to conventional V8s, but apart from perhaps the later Hornet and Jet, the '29 is probably Hudson's high point.
Over at GM, Cadillac made what may be their first true standard-setting cars, the LaSalle. It wasn't new for 1929, but by that time the LaSalle had reached pretty much iconic status. Up until about 1926 GM's line had a gaping hole in it between the upper-level Buick and the bottom-end Cadillac, and they were seeing Buick owners who could be potential Cadillac buyers opting instead for Packards. Its look based largely on the Spanish Hispano-Suiza, the LaSalle had 5 different body types including a roadster, coupe (including a convertible), phaeton, and town sedan among others. And with Dupont's "duco paint" introduced a few years earlier, a number of two-tone colour (that's the way GM spelled it) options were available. It was an immediate hit and in 1929 GM switched most production to its longer 134-inch wheelbase, bored out the engine to 5.4-liters, and included their new Synchro-mesh transmission. Together with fatter wheels than were common at the time it made for a buttery-smooth ride as well. Stunning good looks, power, luxury, and typical Cadillac quality probably made the LaSalle their first true Classic.
The good times were not to last, however. When the Great Depression began (arguably) in late 1929 it caused a sea change in the automotive industry. Up until that time, a lot of car companies were fairly small -- boutique businesses we'd call them today -- but by 1932 sales of all makes had fallen off by nearly 75% and probably half of all automobile manufacturers had failed. Luxury brands were probably the hardest hit: Pierce-Arrow, Stutz, and Peerless all went out of business along with some speciality makes such as Cord (part of Auburn that bit the dust in 1936). But the 1920s bequeathed to us a number of innovations that eventually became standard for decades to come: the aforementioned synchromesh gearbox, automatic transmissions, hydraulic brakes, and independent front suspension.
As I mentioned in the Model T post we in the modern world tend to look back on those early cars as something of a novelty of the rich and famous -- expensive trailer queens nowadays -- or playthings for those daring young men in their driving machines. But most of 'em were built for the masses to go about their daily business, running all over town, delivering milk, and carting away accident victims, and mostly just functioning much like cars of other eras have. It's too bad that most of what we have these days to look at from that era are generally the pricier vehicles that tend to get preserved, but I suppose some day a future Car Luster will no doubt be bemoaning the lack of Pontiac Aztecs to enjoy.
Well, maybe not.
Credit: Where possible, I tried to find period photographs showing the vehicles as they were rather than restored-to-the-hilt modern show cars. That top photo is Joan Crawford and her 1929 Ford Town Car from My Love of Old Hollywood blog, and that of Hemingway in his war uniform is from Wikipedia. The image of one of the original Galvin car radios is from the TimeLine site. The 1929 Ford pickup is from the ever-useful HowStuffWorks and the 1929 Dodge pickup comes from the aptly named PickupTrucks.com. The Ruxton is from, oddly, MyChurchGrowth.com, and the LaSalle ad is from Old Car Advertising. And I couldn't resist another photo of the Ruxton (same source) next to a typical car of that era to show off its low-slung appearance: