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The History of American Technology -- Fall 1998

The Automobile Industry, 1940 - 1959



Fuel consumption for automobiles averaged 733 gallons of gasoline per year.

The U.S. Army invited 135 manufacturers to submit proposals for a 4-wheel drive utility vehicle that would weigh no more than 1,300 pounds and carry 500 pounds. Just two companies bid: American Bantam and Willys-Overland. American Bantam won the development contract, but soon proved unable to meet the Army's production schedule or meet the design requirements promised in the first prototypes. Willys-Overland was invited to share the work. Engineers at Willys-Overland soon took over in a redesign of the Bantam, which had proven overweight and under-powered. The heart of the Willys effort lay in a new 4-cylinder engine capable of producing 60 hp. Coupled with drastic weight reduction effort, which even included mixing extra thinner into the paint, the new engine got the first production order (1941) for the vehicle Willys-Overland dubbed the 'Jeep'. In 1941, the Army paid $740 each for its first Jeeps. The military bought its last Jeeps in 1982.


GM's top designer, Harley Earl, made a tour of a Lockheed hanger where he saw a test model of the hot new P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. The P-38, with its twin-engines, twin booms, and twin tails, gave Earl an inspiration for a styling change in automobiles. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning went on to become the only U.S manufactured military aircraft to remain in production throughout the course of U.S. involvement in World War II.

While the "Twin-Tailed Devil"--was dominating the skies of Europe and the Pacific as the most successful fighter/bomber of WW II, Harley Earl was developing the designs for GM's new generation of post-war cars. The twin propeller spinners of the P-38 showed up first in the distinctive knobs that came to characterize the front bumper ornaments known popularly as the "Dagmars" on GM's cars in the late 40s and early 50s.

The twin tails showed up first in Earl's styling for the tail lights of the 1948 Cadillac. Within a decade, those first modest 'rudder design' tail lights that Earl put on Cadillacs had become the monstrous tailfins so characteristic of U.S. cars in the 1950s. The styling fad had run its course by the early 1960's, when Earl's successor at GM, Bill Mitchell, led the way in a new styling trend that emphasized 'boxy'.

The 'boxy' look dominated American cars from the 1960s into the late 1980s. At that point Ford's designer Jack Telnack led the way into a new 'stream-lined', aerodynamic tear-drop look with the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable--the very look Harley Earl began to reject on the day he made his tour of the Lockheed hanger.

National Labor Relations Board forced Ford to allow collective bargaining.


From this point through 1945, the U.S. auto industry produced 20% of the total U.S. output of war material manufactured to fight World War II. The total value of goods produced by the U.S. automobile industry in the war effort surpassed $29 billion.


First Volkswagen Beetle produced. The "Bug" remained in production until 1977.

The U.S. stock of automobiles was seriously aged and depleted as a result of suspended auto production during the war. Of the 25 million registered vehicles in the U.S., over half were more than 10 years old.


With World War II production finished, Willys-Overland introduced its popular 'CJ'--the Civilian Jeep. By 1949, Willys was well established in a niche market for "distinctly personal" sport vehicles that kept the CJ mark alive through all the realignments of the auto industry across the next 40 years.


Introduction of the first tubeless tires


U.S. production of automobiles accounted for 2/3 of the world total.

In the post-war auto boom, the U.S. produced just over 8 million units in a worldwide total of 10.5 million. Second place Britain rolled out 784,000 new cars. The struggling Japanese industry produced 32,000 vehicles.

Economies of scale in producing automobiles dictated a minimum production run of about 200,000 units to maintain a profitable operation for any one model.


In a move dictated by the economies of scale required for production of automobiles for the U.S. market two of the 'Middle Five', Nash and Hudson, merged to form American Motors.

Two of the traditional 'Middle Five' in the U.S. auto industry, Studebaker and Packard, merged under the pressures of economies of scale in auto production.


A good year worldwide for the automobile industry with just over 13.7 million units produced. The U.S. remained the giant with 9.2 million units, but the second place British had come on strong with production of almost 1.3 million units. The Japanese, with 69,000 cars produced had more than doubled output since 1950.

Fuel consumption for automobiles averaged 790 gallons of gasoline per year in the U.S.

Ford introduced the first 2-seater Thunderbirds.

Chevrolet introduced its first V-8 models--the Chevy 283. Half of all new cars sold had 6 cylinder engines, which had slower acceleration, but typically offered far better gas mileage than the V-8.

Sales of automobiles in the U.S. reached the unprecedented level of almost 7.2 million; fewer than 52,000 were imports.


Germany: Engineer Fritz Wankel produced the first Wankel Rotary engine, the first fundamental breakthrough in engine design since the development of the diesel in 1895. Automobile manufacturers showed instant interest in the new design, which initially seemed to promise a 25% weight reduction, smoother operation, and lower production cost as trade-offs against slightly greater fuel consumption. The lure of the Wankel proved strong on manufacturers, and many including GM and Mercedes began new development programs. A few put the design into limited production, but all ran into the same problem--engine wear. Despite enormous R&D expense in materials and machining techniques, Wankels wore out fast, and as they wore, performance dropped off dramatically, They often required an expensive engine overhaul after as little as 50,000 miles in service. Despite the manufacturers' love affair with the Wankel, the market consistently rejected models powered by Wankels. For producers, the profit potential looked enormous; for consumers, the trade-off for very slight improvements in new-car performance appeared in much higher operating and maintenance costs. In 1968, Toyo Kogyo of Japan became the only major automobile manufacturer ever to offer cars that were powered exclusively by Wankels--the Mazda. They could not make a strong showing in the market, and within several years Mazda had introduced traditional reciprocating piston engines. Mazda has tried off-and-on since to make a go of models powered by Wankels, but no manufacturer has yet achieved a real success in the market.


Just 8% of the cars sold in the U.S. were imports. Over half those sold were Volkswagen Beetles.