When we think of the 1930s, the images of the Great Depression leave the impression that nothing good happened because the entire country was focused simply on survival. But in the area of automobile development, car designs of the 1930s developed some of the most significant new features for automobiles despite economic hard times.
As is demonstrated by the popularity of vintage 1930s cars, some of the automobile designs of this period in history were exceptionally artistic and sophisticated. It is phenomenal that such forward movement in the 1930s car industry occurred in light of how few in this era were privileged enough to be able to buy any kind of transportation at all, much less a new model that had ground breaking design innovation as part of its feature package.
Nonetheless, automobile manufacturers saw a refinement of the manufacturing process and the invention of some important features that would become standard in cars across the industry in the near future. Such developments like automatic transmissions and the diversity of power in engines including the V-8, the V-12 and the V-16 laid the groundwork for future design developments in the future that improved on these important breakthroughs in 1930s car design.
Like many other areas of culture, the 1920s car manufacturers put more emphasis on style and looks because that is what the customer demanded. And while 1930s cars had an elegant design look to them, the emphasis was on quality mechanical qualities. This may also reflect that the 1930s were a time when people were more pragmatic in light of the tough economic times all around them.
The outcome of this renewed interest in mechanical innovation in 1930s cars was that the decade experienced a leap forward in automotive design and technical sophistication that would benefit the car industry forever. It was 1930s cars that saw the introduction of automatic chocks, gearshifts on the sheering column, smoothly shifting transmissions, trunks that were built into the car and hydraulic brakes. It is hard to imagine a car without these features in modern cars. So that makes it even more impressive that so many important design features came out of the 1930s car industry.
The 1930s car industry saw the rise of what came to be known as the “big 3 auto makers”. Those big three 1930s car manufacturers were GM, Ford and Chrysler. It took some smart design and marketing to sell cars in the 1930s. The economy was in shambles due to the Great Depression so not only was there great competition in technical design development, cars also had to look great to catch the attention of the few buyers there were to buy a car.
The result was that 1930s cars not only saw a leap forward in technical design but the styles that were created for this era of car manufacturing were distinctive and imaginative. At the beginning of the 1930s cars almost universally were made to a four square design that was nothing if not boring. But as the decade unfolded, some unique designs that we still identify with classic 1930s cars began to become popular.
Among those designs was the tear drop shape that defined car design for many decades to come. By the end of the 1930s, cars looked so much differently and were so much better made that they were almost unrecognizable as the same machines that cars were before the arrival of the 1930s. This was a decade when American automotive innovation dominated the markets around the world. It is to be hoped that such design innovation can return American car manufacturers to that same position of dominance for decades to come.