Friday, January 25, 2013

Really Small American Cars, 1935-1955

During the early years of the American automobile industry, the size, mechanical configuration, type of power and general shape of cars was something being sorted out. That era was largely over by 1915 or thereabouts. And by 1930, most American cars fell into size ranges that were generally proportional to price classes. This became the norm until about 1960, when brands began sprouting "standard size," "compact," and "intermediate" models.

But even in that era of stable stratification there were exceptions in the form of cars built smaller than entry-level Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths.

The 1938 American Bantam shown above was one of a little more than 4,000 built during the years leading up to World War 2. Other versions were produced in the early 1930s under the aegis of the American Austin Company.

The Crosley car was part of Powell Crosley's manufacturing and broadcasting empire. Cars were built from the late 1930s into the early 1950s with a wartime hiatus. The top image in this group shows a 1939 model. The middle image is of a 1947 sedan, about 14,000 of which were sold thanks to the postwar seller's market. The lower photo is of the Hotshot sports car from 1950-52. A roadster version with doors was manufactured 1949-52 and sold slightly better. Total postwar Crosley production was a little more than 75,000.

And then there was the King Midget, a tiny car built from 1946 until the late 1960s. Estimated production is 5,000. I have never been able to understand why anybody would buy one, but a few people did.


dearieme said...

The bantam is stylish.

mike shupp said...

You mean these things were smaller than the Nash Metropolitan and VW Bug?

G'lord! I can recall when both were .... not exactly
"trendy" ... but more like "something one can buy." But, oh my god, that was ober 50 years ago. How time flies!

Sad, in a way. I have to think a lot of history would have gone differently if fuel-efficient micro-sized cars had become the standard form of transportation. We'd likely have more auto manufacturing companies, we'd likely have more choice of fuels at gas stations, we'd likely have rather smaller "superhighways" (not in terms of miles built, but in numbers of lanes and size of lanes). The need for imported petroleum would have been diminished -- here and elsewhere in the world -- but considerable consequence.

But. Was it really mandated safety requirements that killed off pint-sized flivvers and ceap imports like the Morgan sports car and Austin Minis? Or consumer repugnance for Studebakers and Hudsons and other small domestic cars? Or government scheming to protect the profits of The Big 3 auto manufacturers?

Disgruntled driving minds wish to know!

Anonymous said...

My father bought a King Midget in the late '50s. He was a teacher that taught music in almost all of the schools in our town (about 5 at the time) and had to travel to each school. He wasn't paid a lot of money in those days so he needed cheep transportation. As I recall, the King Midget had a two cylinder air cooled engine mounted behind the driver. It had chain drive to the one rear wheel behind the driver. Not very good in the ice and snow of Michigan's winters. Cold too as there was no effective heater either. The King Midget was the first car I ever "drove". I was about 5 years old and sitting on my Dad's lap while steering. His students had a lot of fun by picking up his car and putting it in between trees so he couldn't move it. They even brought it into one of the schools and put it on the auditorium stage.