Tale of American Cars

Pradeep Gooptu

American cars, manufactured primarily by three global giants Ford, General Motors and Chrysler as well as those of some smaller makes, helped to establish motoring because of their reliability, styling, safety features and the space they offered in their vehicles.

You are what you drive
The very first motor cars were regarded either as the plaything of the very rich or eccentricity of a crazy bunch willing to put up with the unreliability and huge maintenance burden of cars.

On the contrary, American cars were designed for buyers who lived quite far off in the vast country with very limited access to service centres for repair and maintenance. Therefore, manufacturers focussed on developing standardised, stylish, easy to maintain, safe cars which were sure to last for many years and quite suitable for home maintenance. In addition, American cars offered four wheel brakes, safety glass, steel pressed bodies and easy servicing.

Everyone with a decent salary should own one
One of the greatest marketing slogans (credited to Henry Ford), this pushed car sales for decades. It was used by companies to tempt buyers away from the cheapest English cars to slightly pricier but stylishly designed and safer American small cars. The deal they offered included low cost of ownership and good resale value thanks to standardised mass production and user friendly engineering. The pioneer was Henry Ford, who sold his Model T only in black but in a huge range of body styles. As one photograph shows, it was sold as a closed sedan suitable for use even by a lady driver. Actually, American cars were usually cheaper than their English counterparts but transportation cost from USA often pushed up prices. To beat this, Ford and General Motors had set up assembly plants in India. This brought down the price of the Ford T to around Rs 800 for a new car and it could be sold and resold many times to be refitted with bodywork as required. A sedan became a tourer after 10 years and then a mini goods carrier after 30-odd years and was still running!

Ford T faced tough competition from Chevrolet Six which was priced a little higher but offered 4 wheel brakes along with proper electrical lights and closed body. Its slogan about being easy to drive relied on its superior power and ability to tackle bad roads and steep slopes on way to hill stations, a favourite destination of car owners of that time.

A car for every purse & purpose
The world’s greatest company in the first half of the 20th century, General Motors had ‘A car for every purse and purpose’ as its slogan. This represented the other side of the coin. While Ford focused on one or two models, GM had a huge range, offering six or eight cylinder engines with 4-wheel brakes etc. The most popular entry car was Chevrolet for 40 odd years as the world’s largest selling brand. The leading mid range car was the Buick which moved on to a straight-8 engine and robust suspension.

Zemindars loved them because GM cars with the long travel supple suspension were ideal for hunting in the countryside and easy to repair and maintain. GM offered stylish bodywork as it was the first automobile company in the world to set up a design department. GM also offered overhead valve engines which could be used for many hours at a stretch without overheating. Fords and English cars with side valve engines were notorious for this shortcoming.

The price range was amazing: the entry level cars were a little more expensive than the Ford followed by the Buick starting at a few hundred rupees more and then by the upper end La Salle cars at around twice the cost of a Chevrolet. At the top of the pyramid was the Cadillac, an incredibly designed well engineered car that could stand up to the best in the world, priced at around the cost of four Chevrolet cars. Its competitors were few and far between. Ford was forced to abandon its philosophy of economy and launched its Lincoln line to compete at the top end. Packard, another great US company, tried its best along with Studebaker’s Chancellor/Imperial models to compete. Out of these only Lincoln achieved some success.  These cars were usually priced at two times that of the entry level GM car.

Engineer’s cars
Chrysler occupies a special place in this story because it offered superior engineering and aerodynamic design. The Chrysler RedHead engine models were priced alongside GM’s Chevrolet and Buicks with a wide range of variants. Its advanced engine, brakes and suspension were good enough to achieve success in motor sports events worldwide, something that the others could not do. GM cars were famously featured in the Satyajit Ray movie, Abhijaan and Ritwick Ghatak’s Ajantrik. By introducing reliability, performance and style across all price points, American cars achieved worldwide success including Bengal where their value proposition and luxury endeared them to buyers.

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