Design Notes: 1940 Oldsmobile
“Most modern car in the world… bar none!”
The end of the 1930s was an uneasy time and 1940 would turn out to be even more tumultuous. But even as the ever-louder thunderings of a distant war reverberated through a financially-beleaguered America, her automotive industry was merely getting warmed up.
In terms of design, the industry had well figured out that Henry Ford’s supply-based formula (which produced uninspired but affordable–any color as long as it’s black–utility for all) had run its course. Consumers were craving distinctive styling and more convenience. For 1940 Oldsmobile delivered on both counts and set a high-water mark for the brand and industry.
Believe it or not, even back in the late 1930s when the 1940 Oldsmobile’s design work started, stylists used clay to dream up new shapes for tomorrow’s cars. Thanks to the intercessory parlance of my friend at GM, the folks at GM Design have provided me with some old photos of the car’s history to share.
The sequence of events leading up to this particular post are different than for others. Over time, I have received some very encouraging and highly appreciated compliments in the comments section on here. But behind the scenes there are others, including one who has requested anonymity, that have engaged me in conversation and, whether by email or in person, shared materials they’d like to be conveyed through the site. In any event, I am grateful for all of the support from readers, commenters and contributors.
There is one reader, however, who comments under the name JohnnyD that has been exceptionally helpful. A couple months ago I tried to think of something I could offer him as a show of gratitude. Then, it came to me.
I asked him if he’d like to pick the topic for a future Design Notes post. He enthusiastically replied with a top three list (in case options one and possibly two weren’t available). Pretty wise to think of backups, particularly considering his selections. They were:
- 1940 Oldsmobile
- 1960 Chevrolet Corvair
- 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora
I figured the first on the list was a long shot because of how far back it goes, but sure enough my buddy at GM wowed me yet again. He talked the Design Center into sharing some of their historic pictures of Oldsmobile’s work designing the 1940 models. In the set there’s one clay that’s pretty-wild (especially for the time), while the others mostly depict trim variations.
Knowing my connection at GM is of the naturally generous variety I genuinely tried to word this request to be clear that it was for one car–with two backup choices. Nevertheless, the overachiever sent me a set of selection sheets (which indicate the available imagery) for the 1960 Corvair as well. That set has 86 pictures in it and after asking for a reasonable selection limit (my inclination is to request the lot for posterity and sharing) they generously said I could choose up to 50 to use! Though this set focuses more on the Corvair’s engineering development than styling, I see some neat stuff in there… even a Porsche-bodied test mule (above right). Now that’s going to be an arduous process selecting which won’t make the cut.
But my friend wasn’t done yet. A few days later I received selection sheets for item number three, the Aurora. That includes 32 shots which are mostly of a concept that must have made its rounds right before the production car’s introduction. I say that because it is the spitting image of what went on sale as a 1995 model, even though it is labeled a concept. That set does include a few really cool styling sketches too (above left) that I am assuming were a part of the production car’s design process. GM is currently checking to see if there is any press information on the concept so I can do a write-up on it.
Anyway, let’s get back to item number one, the 1940 Oldsmobile.
Setting the stage
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that today’s design process is vastly different than it was in the years leading up to World War II. But despite modern machinery and electronic gizmos there are certain components that will always be core to the process, such as human ingenuity and creativity. Some of that talent is on display in the following photos, particularly those of one rather avant garde proposal for a 1940 Oldsmobile front end, dated 1938 much less. (The image to the right is a close-up of some unidentified models I noticed in the background of one of the pictures.)
For 1940, Oldsmobile had various body styles available in three models: the 60 Series (116-inch wheelbase), 70 Series (120-inch wheelbase) and 90 Series (124-inch wheelbase). The 90 Series was new having replaced the prior year’s 80 Series. Apart from size differences, the models appeared similar. However, the 90 did not have the center-opening (a.k.a. suicide) doors found on the 60 and 70. Further, the 60 and 70 had six side windows, whereas the 90 had four. The reduced visibility was offset by increased privacy and a more formal appearance. (A 90 Series is featured in the ad to the left, click to enlarge.)
Continue to page 2, below.