Following on from his popular The 1930s – a decade of extremes blog, AROnline‘s very own Wolseley Man, Martyn Kelham, moves forward a decade to tell us all about motoring in the 1940s.
There have been endless arguments in bars for over 50 years about who announced the first new car after peace broke out in 1945. Referring to historical print does not help, simply because the author of ‘The History of the XYZ Car‘ will usually find compelling evidence to suggest ‘his manufacturer’ was indeed the first. This piece is a very short and broad-brush approach to that period.
Leonard Lord, of course, had continued to produce the ‘10’ throughout hostilities and it has been recorded that Humber continued with ‘staff cars’ as well. In general, the mid-1940s British car was the 1939 model ‘warmed over’ but there were, of course, exceptions.
Let’s have a look at what type of car was around first and then look at some individual makers – that way we can get a picture of what was on offer to the car buying public in 1945-1949. Very broadly, the family car fell into two distinct types. The price-conscious lower end and the middle-to-upper sector. There was also the Rolls and its few contemporaries but I’m more interested in the bread and butter stuff here.
Austin, Hillman, Ford, Morris and Standard featured largely in the ‘affordable category’ whilst Alvis, Armstrong Siddeley, Humber, Lea-Francis, Jaguar and Rover epitomized the higher echelons of manufacturers.
When I was 11 years old, my dad bought me a 1939 Vauxhall 12. It had a rotten body but a beautifully quiet and powerful little motor. At that time, he drove a 1946 Vauxhall 10HP four-door saloon. These two cars were almost identical in body but did have minor styling differences. They were both ‘fourlights’ whilst the earlier 12 and bigger 14 were ‘sixlights’.
We weren’t farmers (Dad was the Final Inspector on the BARB – Triumph 2000 – at Pressed Steel in Swindon) but we did live on a farm so I had the privilege of careering around the fields in my own car. Of course, I got to know that car very, very well! As a fanatically keen youngster I reckon I got to know Dad’s car pretty well, too.
What would the 2013 driver make of those Vauxhalls today?
Stylistically, the Vauxhall was pleasant and inoffensive without being ‘cutting edge’. It was a pre-war design but heavily US-influenced and, as such, it was certainly up there with the best. It did have the accolade of being one of the first post-war truly monocoque construction cars – bringing that GM technology from its German sister, Opel. The spare wheel was housed within a cover on the bootlid on the ’46 models but mine had a flat rear boot panel.
Both cars had brown leather upholstery with lots of brown vinyl trim. I remember the seats being supremely soft and comfortable. Carpets were beige and quite deep pile with detailed piping around the edges. The 1946 model had a roller blind on the back window operated by a ‘finger pull’ and cord from the driver’s seat.
Compared with modern machines, one tended to sit a lot lower in older designs and the Vauxhall was no exception. The steering wheel had three spokes of a hard composite material and had a fixed arm protruding beneath it to the left – carrying the indicator switch. Instrumentation was quite comprehensive with speedo, fuel, water temperature and ammeter. Dad fitted an oil pressure gauge – as did many enthusiasts of the day,
The ‘10’ engine was not so quiet as my 12, or even as quiet as it should have been. However, the ride and progress were always extremely smooth. There was some tyre noise as the car was of monocoque construction – a lot more audible than, for instance, in a ‘chassis-ed’ Austin. To counter this though, the Vauxhall did have the superb ‘Dubonnet’ independent front suspension (above) giving a far superior ride to some leaf sprung competition.
Performance was quite lively for the period and, even into the 1960s, the 10 would keep up with current models – Anglias, 1100s, Beetles etc. A very commendable three-speed gearbox was operated from a long wand – but felt sure and ‘mechanical’. Performance-wise we are talking about 60-65 mph and around 35 to 40 mpg.
Around 1960 we took the 10 down to meet up with family in the New Forest. Leaving the restaurant at Picket Post very late on a dark and very wet night we headed off for home. We had not gone more than a hundred feet when there was an almighty bang and as our relative’s lights disappeared in the mirror – we ground to a halt.
A rod had come through the side of the block and we had to be towed by an AA van to a railway station. At this point Dad discovered something about the Vauxhall 10 that even he had not thought of. The windscreen wiper was driven off the engine – it was a filthy rainy dark night and the engine was not running! My dear father was still recalling the nightmare of that journey years later!
I can’t remember quite why, but we spent the night in the station car park, parked about 20ft from two massive Diesel engines that were being alternately revved to death all night. In the morning a friend came and towed us all the way home on a 10ft rope. It has to be said that was probably 2ft longer than the AA man’s.
You’re ahead of me now aren’t you? Yes, of course, my beautiful 12 engine (which was not an original fitting in that Four-Light body until later) had to be donated to Dad’s car but, (bless his cotton socks) he did get me another albeit very tired engine – and my fun continued. Of course, in those days we had no garage – all these engine swaps and rebuilds were undertaken outside in the dark (mostly) – and by torchlight. Those were the days!
Getting back to the 1940s: victory in 1945 was followed by a lot of disappointment for a lot of people – and a lot of new ideas and exciting projects for many others. Colonel Paul Tibbets Junior dropped the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT in the first A bomb on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered to the allied forces; many prisoners of war found their way home; Bogart and Bacall starred in The Big Sleep and the Black Market continued to thrive as rationing and shortages of food lingered on. Rock ‘n’ Roll was yet to arrive and most homes did not have a TV, refrigerator or a washing machine.
The world’s first electronic computer device was invented, although no one quite knew what it could be used for. Radar, ballistic missiles and jet aircraft were all developed while the Jeep had arrived; commercial television and the idea for the Microwave oven. Velcro, Tupperware and the Frisbee were in development but not yet available.
For the literary set, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway appeared at the beginning of the decade and George Orwell’s classic 1984 at the end. So what was our Vauxhall competing with in those days?
Austin, of course, was a real rival with its very successful range of 7s, 8s, 10s, 12s and 16s. All good sound designs though many would argue not quite as cutting edge in terms of chassis, suspension or engine design as the GM car. Ford was there too with the upright Pops – amazing to think they soldiered on in some form until the mid-1950s, alongside the manufacturer’s own ‘flat’ models.
Hillman produced a good car too with the Minx – arguably more stylish than some opposition and bearing some resemblance to big brothers ‘stateside’ while Morris had the ‘E’ in various forms. For those with a few pounds more Jowett, MG, Rover, Triumph and Wolseley were there to tempt. Engine type was not as stable as today and the side valve versus overhead valve war raged on.
Years later, of course, the scrapyards that abounded our countryside and the back streets of our towns were full of these cars. Like many reading this, I was a young lad in the 1950s and into the 1960s. Sunday afternoons were often spent at the local scrapyard looking for anything from a headlamp to a gearbox and from a speedo to a back seat. Money was tight and, up until the introduction of the MoT, many owners kept their cars on the road with 90 per cent enthusiasm, a little knowledge and a lot of secondhand bits. We certainly all knew more about the workings of our cars than we do today.
Those around at the time will remember that very upright cars with separate headlamps, running boards and easy-clean wheels were still very popular in the early-1960s, but sadly disappeared very quickly following the arrival of the MoT test.
We had several other 1940s cars, including a very competent Austin 16, with a plethora of beautiful Bakelite within the dash and door cappings. For its time, this car was quite a flyer and was simply a joy to drive – everything in the right place and feeling just so right.
Its successor in our family was a Jaguar One and a Half Litre, a car that lacked many of the Austin’s attributes, including braking efficiency, pedal arrangement, speed and acceleration and steering accuracy. Mind you, the Jaguar redeemed itself with its beautiful wooden dash and trim, superbly trimmed leather – and that wonderful view out of the windscreen – the big flat radiator cap clearly in view.
Pre-war, of course, the Jaguar was called an SS (Swallow Sidecars) but the term ‘SS’ had certain connotations best avoided post-1945.
The individuality of the 1930s was continued into the 1940s and cars – despite their mass-produced ‘tin-box’ image – still had significant character traits. Admittedly, though, they were probably not as striking as those of the 1960s – the years of really individual styling!
The 1940s, though, bred cars with cable brakes; mechanical brakes; hydro-mechanical brakes; hydraulic brakes; and… no brakes. Cars had three- or four-speed boxes, leaf springs or independent suspension, chassis or no-chassis designs, side valve or overhead valve engines, bench seats or individual seats – all fundamental to the cars’ design that in most cases had a significant effect on the car’s character and performance.
In essence, of course, the cars of the 1940s only covered five years of that decade, so huge technological or styling changes were not to be expected. The following decade saw considerable changes in styling and body construction, with the monocoque design becoming the ‘norm’. Engine design would remain less exciting for bread and butter cars and hugely exciting for sports and luxury cars – but that’s another story!
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.