The Automobile Industry Eighty-Five Years Ago

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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The 1929 Straight-Eight Roosevelt made by Marmon Motor Car Co. of Indianapolis, Indiana, and advertised at $995.00. (June 8th, 1929 issue of Automobile Topics in the author’s collection.)

In 1929 the “Roaring ‘20s” were in full swing and there seemed no limit to what America could accomplish. This was especially true of the automobile industry, with new models being introduced by several manufacturers, and new dealers being signed up all over the country. A copy of Automobile Topics, a trade paper published weekly in New York, gives us a glimpse of the optimism during that heady spring, just a few months before the bubble burst.

New car registrations for March were 46.9% above March 1928, and the trend was continuing with April registrations 27% over March, and 63% more than the previous April. Nash claimed that sales of the Nash “400” for the first four months of ‘29 were up 59.3% over the same period of 1928.

The new Roosevelt Eight, billed as “the world’s first straight-eight to sell below $1000,”and “Smart Transportation for the Thrifty,” had just been introduced by the Marmon Motor Car Co. of Indianapolis. A two-page ad told of the thousands of people who visited Marmon showrooms to see the new car. One big New York dealer reported: “Roosevelt introduction was a record breaker. Closed yesterday with 269 orders. Sitting on top of the world.” A Cleveland Marmon dealer claimed 6000 people and more than 300 orders in the first two days.

Meanwhile, Buick was gearing up to build the new Marquette; “…to answer a country-wide demand for a product of Buick craftsmanship at a moderate price.” To go on sale June 1st, the Marquette was said to be: “The most complete car in America priced under $1000.” It had a 6-cylinder engine (L-head instead of Buick’s famous valve-in-head) that could accelerate from 10 to 60 MPH in under 31 seconds, deliver 68 to 70 MPH, and climb any 12% grade in high gear. (Today’s drivers, used to automatic transmissions, don’t remember the days when a car that could climb a certain steep hill in high gear was endlessly bragged about by its owner; in my case, it was Steffen Hill leading up out of Beaver Falls, PA, although I don’t think I ever had a car that could do it.)

General Motors, Chrysler, Stutz, Stearns-Knight, Packard, Auburn, Jordan, Willys-Overland, Graham-Paige, Studebaker, and Hudson all reported banner sales, and the Reo Motor Car Company. signed 32 new dealers during April of 1929

There were a few nagging worries; the agricultural outlook was shaky due to falling grain prices, and the money market was tightening in some areas. The biggest worry on the minds of dealers, however, was the glut of used cars on the market. What to do about the trade-in problem is a recurring theme in the automotive publications of the day. The dealers complained of customers holding out for a high trade-in allowance and then giving their business to the dealer who was willing to meet their demands. The used car problem was especially acute for a dealer selling new cars in the over $1000 price range. A customer who bought one of his cars and then wanted to trade it in on a new model in two or three years, would naturally expect to receive a trade in allowance of at least half his original purchase price. The dealer then tried to sell the trade-in for the $500 he had in it, but Mr. Five Hundred Dollar Car-Buyer could go to his Ford, Chevy or Plymouth dealer and get a brand new machine for the same money. There was a feeling among the car-buying public that owning a used car was somehow beneath them. Much was made of the example set by ex-President Calvin Coolidge who considered buying a used car for himself (it doesn’t say if he ever did). Used car ads argued that if the former chief executive of the nation wasn’t too proud to drive a used car, certainly the general public shouldn’t be.

The proliferation of used cars became such a problem that dealers tried extreme measures to solve the problem. The Chicago Automobile Trade Ass’n. gathered up 150 cars that “qualified in or close to the ‘jalloppi’(sic) class.” Billing the event as “Chicago’s Biggest Fire Since 1871,” the cars were piled up along Lake Michigan and set ablaze. The public was invited and fireworks and a “Bombing Aeroplane” were part of the show which kicked off “Used Car Thrift Week,” a week-long sale of good, reliable used cars, as opposed to the supposedly unsafe cars that had been burned.  A reported 50,000 people watched the show and, although no sales figures are given, the Association announced the campaign was a great success.

One dealer even proposed that the various State Legislatures should pass laws that when any car reached five years of age, its owner not be granted a license to operate it on the public highways. Another dealer complained: “…while it is contrary to all common sense (the public) don’t care what they’re paying for their new car provided they’re getting a high enough price for their old car. Much to my astonishment, even if you point out that they’re the ones paying for excessive used car allowances, that the other dealer has inflated the delivered price, they never-the-less go and buy that car because they’re getting more for their trade-in.”

Anyway, in just six short months the auto industry had a lot more to worry about than jacked-up trade-in allowances. The popular new Roosevelt lasted until February or March of 1930 (Marmon itself went broke in 1933), while Buick’s Marquette was off the show room floors by the end of 1930. The Great Depression had begun.

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