No, the car shown above is not mine. No member of my family has ever owned a car quite that elaborate. This 1925 Packard Phaeton, probably worth over a million dollars today, sits in a small museum near Independence, Iowa. But during the 1950s and early 1960s, my brothers and I owned a series of at least a dozen huge old luxury cars from the 1930s and 1940s. I briefly owned a 1933 Chrysler Town Car, my eldest brother owned a 1935 Chrysler Air Flow Sedan and later two immaculate ’39 Packards, and my other brother owned a 1941 Buick limousine. And I owned a couple of beautiful ’47 Packards. Were we wealthy? No—quite the opposite. All of these cars were owned while we were students in high school or college, working low-wage part time jobs, and living on very little money. We simply lived in a time period when anyone could afford a used car. Even high school kids with part time jobs could afford cars—though perhaps only infrequently affording the fuel to drive them.
During the 1920s, an age of excess, the newly rich flaunted their wealth by driving elaborate luxury cars. When the depression hit at the beginning of the 1930s, the moderately affluent scaled back their pretensions and bought Fords and Chevys, both to save money on the original purchase price, and also to save on fuel expense. Most of the old “land yachts” got only 6-8 miles per gallon, whereas a Ford or a Chevy could yield 16-18. And with 25% unemployment, most working people bought no new cars at all throughout the 1930s. But the very rich--the investors who were not wiped out by the crash of ’29, along with movie stars and gangsters--continued to buy large cars. So the wide range of car sizes of the ‘20s persisted through the ‘30s.
And then came the war--and gasoline rationing. In the ‘30s, the owners of Fords had envied the owners of Packards, but by 1942 it was the other way around. When most people were allowed a maximum of 4 gallons per week, a Ford owner, if he drove at the legal wartime speed limit of 35 mph, could make his 4 gallons last almost 75 miles. But the owner of a luxury car with a big straight-eight engine was lucky if he got 30. Imagine a banker, with his car sitting at home with an empty gas tank, walking to work--and then having his poorer neighbor splash mud on him as he roared past in his Ford. Some luxury car owners, doctors for instance, had critical jobs and were allowed more gas. But others might bitterly regret the day they ever purchased those behemoths.
In early 1942, all production of American automobiles stopped and did not resume till 1946. And though cars were produced in large numbers in ’47 and ’48 (They were just re-issues of the same models that had been produced before the war) there was still a shortage and a long waiting list. The 1949 models, which were a brand new design, were supposed to allow supply to catch up with demand and end the shortage. But the Korean War broke out in 1950 and caused another steel shortage, so the shortage did not really end till the Korean War was over. In fact, Henry J. Kaiser, who owned his own steel company, got into the car business and sold new cars, mostly from ’49 thru ’51. He offered a very plain though serviceable car that claimed little advantage other than availability. The sales slogan was, “Buy a Kaiser or a Frasier--you can drive it right away!”
But after the Korean War, the shortage ended and new cars were available. And most people who could afford a car at all could afford a new one. During the war they had all worked overtime, but with nothing to buy, they had saved their money. And now they could finally spend that fruit jar full of greenbacks and realize the dream of owning a new car. So existing cars, all of which had been kept in perfect condition during the years when cars were unavailable, were dumped on the market at once. They dumped not only the pre-war cars but eventually the ’46 thru ’48 models that looked like pre-war cars, even though some of them were not very old and in perfect condition. In 1958, I bought a ’48 Dodge that had 40,000 miles on it and was in immaculate condition, and I paid $40.00. But we don’t value highly what we obtain cheaply. I drove it like a race car and ruined it in less than a year. But then I sold it to a salvage yard for $20.00 and bought another car for about $40.00. For several years, the economic penalty for ruining a perfectly good car was about a day’s wages. It was surreal!
As the glut of used cars hit the market, none were scraped as long as they were drivable. The car industry had discovered a new market—children. By children, I mean high school kids. At that time, you could get a driver’s permit at age 14. The law did not require you to carry any insurance, and few people did. So from 3:30 PM every day until midnight, American streets were filled with teenagers driving up and down Main Street, squealing tires and shouting lewd suggestions to the young ladies.
But while buying a car on a newsboy’s income was easy, buying gasoline was not. Usually, each car was stuffed with 6 to 8 kids, who would pool their resources to buy gas. And, in those days, a lot of gas was stolen. Few teenagers did not know the taste of that mouthful of gas you accidently get when trying to siphon gas in the dark.
But not all old cars lost their value. Fords and Chevys always sold for a price that bore some relationship to their original cost---Cadillacs did not. Most teenagers, myself included, had wise parents who advised them that heavy cars were to be avoided no matter how cheaply they could be had. Even if gas rationing did not return, just the cost of buying gas for the monster would soon equal several times its price. But my brothers and I were not the kind to accept the advice of a parent. I did not have a car till I graduated from high school—my parents forbade it. By then they had calculated that my elder brothers had earned enough money in high school to have paid their way through Harvard—had the money gone to the bank instead of the gas tank.All of these beautiful, heavy old cars we owned would be museum pieces today, worth tens of thousands of dollars each. If instead of driving them to an early grave, we had just stored them in a barn, we might be millionaires today. Yet when fuel becomes rationed, or just becomes very expensive, a 5000 lb luxury car becomes 5000 lbs of scrap iron more quickly than you could ever believe. So before you buy that huge 4-wheel SUV, ask yourself what it will be worth if gas sells for 8 or 9 dollars a gallon (which it already does in Europe). People who buy them today may well be trading them for rusted out VWs or Chevy Metros while they still owe $30,000 on them.