The 1930s created the "big three" auto manufacturers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, and spawned mechanical and design auto innovation, still relevant today.
As the 1930s began, it would have been hard to imagine the decade’s dramatic impact on the future of automotive design. In the throes of the Great Depression, Americans struggled to afford basic necessities, and owning transportation was often out of reach. However, that didn’t stop automobile manufacturers from creating some of the industry’s most significant new designs and features during this time. In fact, the cars of the 1930s marked a turning point in automotive innovation and luxury.
It was the decade that gave birth to the “big three” auto manufacturers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. It also spawned widespread mechanical innovation, much of which is still used in cars today. The era ushered in new engines, including the ever-popular V8, the V12, and the V16, safer windshields, and the all-important — yet previously overlooked — windshield wiper. Trunks were built into cars along with hydraulic brakes and transmissions that shifted smoothly, making both driving and riding even more enjoyable.
Better by Design
It wasn’t just technical and mechanical expertise that blossomed during the 1930s. Car designs also began to change and improve. Most of the cars produced at the beginning of the decade were squared and had a basic utilitarian appeal, but designers began experimenting with a more rounded teardrop shape during the mid-1930s. By the end of the decade, the look of automobiles had evolved to smoother, sleeker designs.
Much of the credit for this new approach rests squarely on the shoulders of Harley J. Earl, an innovative car stylist who became the first designer to truly emphasize form as well as function. His designs changed the approach to auto design and led his employer, General Motors, to create a design studio just for that purpose.
With more emphasis on the body styles of cars, the industry went through some dramatic changes. The early cars of the 1930s included some memorable and beloved classics, such as the celebrated 1932 Ford and the ultra-sophisticated 1930 Cadillac with its hard-working V16 engine, but by the middle of the decade, the designs were more streamlined, and mechanical innovations created a smoother, more luxurious ride.
Earl’s 1936 Chevrolet Coupe, with its rounded roofline and fenders, waterfall grille, and running boards, sparked a surge in sales that allowed Chevy to replace Ford as the leading domestic automaker. However, Ford’s 1936 Coupe also found a place in the hearts of American drivers, and both companies continued to modernize their look each year as the decade continued.
Driving Toward the Future
Earl became the first to create a “concept car,” and his 1938 Buick Y-Job was a futuristic model that whetted America’s appetite for things to come. This one-off design, which Earl used as his own personal car, was a two-seat sports model with forward-looking features like electric windows, hidden headlights, and flush door handles.
The model helped automakers envision what was possible, prompting them to turn their attention to a strategy of constant improvement in performance and design. No longer limited by what could happen “now,” auto makers embraced the concept of innovation for the future.
By the end of the 1930s, the modern car was as much an artistic design statement as a means of transportation. The decade ended with the introduction of striking designs that have gone down in history as classics. Cars like the 1939 Lincoln Zephyr, the 1939 Ford Model A (a dramatic departure from the look of the 1930 Model A), and the 1939 Graham Model 97 all clearly demonstrated that a new era for automobiles had begun.
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