For the automobile, the ‘30s was a breakaway decade. The stock market crash and the worldwide Depression it triggered accelerated the evolution of an industry full of entrepreneurs, inventors and artists. The ‘30s swiftly became the era of engineers, as auto manufacturers scrambled for mechanical advancements to stimulate sales.
Set the stage: 1930. There are 23 million cars and trucks in the United States, equally divided between city and rural dwellers. There is no such thing as a freeway. Gasoline can be purchased for as little as 10 cents a gallon, and there is no nationwide procedure for teaching or licensing drivers, so new-car dealerships have driving instructors on staff. Insurance, with fire, theft, collision and a $25 deductible, costs $50 a year. Heaters and semaphore-type turn signals are fairly recent inventions and are optional equipment on most cars.
The crash sent the price and sales of new cars plummeting, but the Roaring ‘20s momentum of a major industry would not be denied, and the early 1930s saw the introduction of passenger cars with 12- and 16-cylinder engines--Bugatti, Cadillac, Marmon and Lincoln.
The last steam-powered car, built by Californian Abner Doble, appeared in 1932, the same year BMW built its first car, the model 3/20. Styling trends included “clamshell” lights and sweeping fender lines. Interior sun visors were a new option.
Futurist Buckminster Fuller created his famed balsa wood and aluminum Dymaxion car in 1933, while in Germany, Audi introduced a four-wheel-drive passenger car. In 1934 came the start of the aerodynamic era, with striking streamline designs from Hudson, Hupmobile, Pierce Arrow and--from Chrysler--the Airflow, a concept too sleek for its times.
In August, 1935, America’s first parking meter was installed in Oklahoma City, and one month later, the Rev. C. H. North of the Third Pentecostal Church received America’s first parking ticket. Crash helmets became mandatory for drivers in the Indy 500, and Sir Malcolm Campbell reached 330 m.p.h. on the beach at Daytona in his aircraft-engined Bluebird special.
In Germany, the first diesel-engined passenger car, the Mercedes-Benz 260D, went on sale in 1936, and a trio of new prototype vehicles from a company called Volkswagen were undergoing 30,000-mile road tests. In the United States, on-board mechanics disappeared from the Indy 500, windshield defrosters were the hot new option, and Nash, recently merged with the Kelvinator refrigerator company, became the first auto manufacturer to offer a bed in a car.
A fresh wind was blowing through America in 1937. Although there were labor troubles in Detroit, the end of the Depression was in sight, and the first drive-through bank opened in California. Studebaker introduced the first windshield-washer system, and the Cord/Auburn/Duesenberg company, mortally wounded by the Depression, produced its last cars.
Styling tricks such as moving the spare tire into the trunk and fairing headlights into the front fenders, used only occasionally in previous years, were trends gaining widespread auto-industry acceptance by 1938. The Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow models were discontinued, the Cadillac 60 Special was a styling trend setter, and Nash offered a system that offered “conditioned air for winter driving.”
John Steinbeck captured the new automotive reality in his 1939 book “The Grapes of Wrath,” writing that, to the migrant-worker class spawned by the automobile, “The highway became their home and movement, their form of expression.” Buick addressed the new reality with a less dramatic but equally telling statement by offering “blinker” turn signals as an option.
As one decade closed and another opened, a pair of major technological marvels that were conceived and developed during the late ‘30s confirmed beyond any doubt that the automobile was indeed on the road to a new world.
The first modern automatic transmission--called Hydramatic Drive--was introduced in the fall of 1939 when it appeared in the 1940 Oldsmobiles. And the first truly modern highway in America, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, was completed one year later.
Seemingly unrelated, these two developments combined to remove the last barriers to the autombile-ization of America. The highway opened the United States up to the automobile, and the automatic transmission took cars out of the “for able-bodied men only” category, making women equal partners in the automotive adventure that was changing the face of not only the United States, but the world.
The automobiles of that period combined hardware and art into a new reality, and they are now subject to the madly spiraling prices today’s wealthy investor/enthusiasts will pay for anything old and historic.
“Almost any 1930s car with a V-12 or V-16 engine, or a custom body by a recognized coach builder, is a better investment than fine art,” says Thomas W. Barrett III, co-partner in the prestigious Barrett-Jackson Car Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., and one of the world’s acknowledged authorities on the value of classic cars. “Eight years ago I sold a special one-off Duesenberg to a collector for $300,000. That car cost $20,000 new, and today it may be worth $10 million. Not all ‘30s cars are major classics of course, but those that are command prices between $1 million and $20 million, especially if they have an interesting history.”
In good condition, original or restored, almost any 1930s car is worth between 10 and 100 times what it cost new. Barrett claims, based on the documented price rise in recent years, that cars of the 1930s are one of the safest, fastest-growing investments available.
Not everyone thinks of ‘30s cars purely in terms of money, however. To some, they are the machinery of memories, traveling the mind’s highways into a past only sometimes made rosier by time.