Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Bobby Boy’s motor pool, part two

We get ideas for OCS issues from many sources.  The other day, one of my musical buddies, Mike Schnee posted a page from a Los Angeles Times classified ad section from the early 1930s.  It contained ads for numerous automobiles, including many makes (or “marques” if you’re an auto snob) that are now rarely, if ever seen on our streets.  Last month we covered part of the list, here’s the second section:

Chrysler: Walter P. Chrysler worked for many years as a railroad machinist, moving up the ranks into supervision until he was hired to manage the Buick company. After a few years at Buick, he moved to other makes, and was very well paid for his acumen.  Finally, in 1925 after acquiring Maxwell Motors, he formed the Chrysler Corporation.  

Maxwell is nearly forgotten today, but those of us who grew up in the days of network radio shows remember Jack Benny and his cranky old Maxwell car, with sound effects most likely provided by Mel Blanc.  The new company bought the Dodge Brothers business, and introduced the low priced Plymouth and the more upscale DeSoto, following the lead of General Motors in having a range of makes with a fairly wide price range. 

 Back in the days of black and white TV, DeSoto sponsored “You Bet Your Life,” a comedy quiz show hosted by Groucho Marx, which ran from 1950 to 1961, the last year coinciding with the end of the DeSoto marquee.  My experience with Chrysler products started in 1962, when a co-worker sold me his 1950 Plymouth convertible.  Like many of the cars I had in the 1960s, Duarte Northern 102 wound up going from my driveway to the junkyard. It had the 6-cylinder Chrysler flathead engine that had been in use since the 1930s and lasted into the 1950s.  Even after this design had vanished from automotive production lines, it was still sold for industrial uses; I did a double-take when I saw one of these mills in a machine at Orange Empire.  By the time I bought the Plymouth, it was worn out.  I had to add a can of STP to the engine oil at regular intervals to have any oil pressure, and toward the summer of 1964, the top started to self destruct. 

One day I was over at my parents’ house in Monrovia, tinkering with the old banger, when one of my brother’s friends came over and said, “If it was a horse, I’d shoot it.”  Indeed, not much later it went to the automotive equivalent of the glue factory.

The next Chrysler entry in the roster was the 1971 Plymouth Duster that my older daughter bought from her dancing instructor in 1977.  It had the slant-6 engine that was one of the best mills that Chrysler ever made.  After about 220,000 miles everything was worn out and she sent it to the boneyard.

It was over 25 years later that I bought my second (and probably last) Chrysler product.  In 1989, my 1975 Chevy was no longer reliable enough for trips much further than the Railway Museum; road trips would send me to a rental car agency.  But in 1990, my significant other inherited her mother’s 1988 Dodge Aries.  The only catch is that the car was in Newton, Mass. But she had a college reunion in the Boston area, and I had three weeks of vacation, so it was time for a toad trip! 

After academic adventures, we picked up the car and visited with some of her kinfolk.  I drove the Aries (my Zodiac sign—how cool is that?)  to Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine, we did some more visiting and headed west.  Our cross-country trip will be the subject of a future Old Curiosity Shop; we made it home OK and the car was my daily driver for the next ten years. 

It was about this time that a Chrysler executive, introducing a new line of vehicles, declared, “We aren’t the K-car company anymore.”  This amused me, because I have never been an auto snob, and it didn’t bother me a bit to drive an “appliance car.”  I’d go by the Santa Clara County yard in San Jose and various other governmental and public utility lots and see Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliants, and know that my car would not draw attention.  Some people may want head-turning styling, but I have no interest in impressing people I don’t even know.  But after about ten years, and the third air conditioning compressor, I figured it was time to replace it, so, reversing the scenario of the 1960s and early '70s, I sold it to a colleague.

Duesenberg: One of the legendary brand of the Classic Car era was the Duesenberg.  I was rather surprised to see one in the classified ads, but by 1933 the Depression was really starting to bite, and someone who had been flying high in the late 1920s had crashed and burned and was desperate to dump the Duesenberg. 

I looked up the brand on the internet and found that many of the later models were bought by Hollywood movie stars and others in the entertainment industry.  The engines were straight-eights with overhead camshafts, something few cars had in those days.  They were heavy cars with no power steering, power brakes or synchromesh transmissions, so driving one must have been like driving a small truck, but showing up at an event behind the wheel of one definitely made an impression.  Etymological note: Contrary to popular belief, the old slang phrase, “It’s a doozie” originated long before Duesenberg cars were marketed.

Durant:  Back in the 1970s, there was a family in Duarte who would cruise around in car that looked like something out of an old Warner Bros. gangster movie (or the Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action).  Apparently, they got tired of answering questions about their vintage vehicle, so someone painted “Not a ‘What?’  It’s a 1930 Durant.”  

The company that built it was the creation of William C. Durant, who in 1907 founded General Motors.  But around 1912, his free-wheeling style of acquiring more companies than GM could support led to his ouster from management.  But he started back by founding the Chevrolet company, and by 1916, was running GM again.  Once again, things went out of control, and once again the banking interests forced him out in 1920, bringing in Alfred P. Sloan to “right the ship.” 

GM had a corporate near death experience, with the “Copper Cooled Chevrolet” fiasco not helping matters any.  Meanwhile the indefatigable Mr. Durant started a third company, Durant Motors, which had some success in the 1920s, but fell victim to the Depression and closed in 1933.

Essex:  There’s an old joke about the upscale hotel called the Essex House, where the manager placed a hasty call for an electrician when the first two letters of their big sign went dark.  In motordom, the Essex was the low-priced model from the Hudson company.  Its claim to fame was that it was one of the first low-priced cars to have an all-steel (except for the roof) body. But it also had a rather gutless engine, and when an Essex that had thrown a rod came into the wrecking yard where my dad worked, he removed the body and mounted it on the chassis of a 1929 Chevy that had sustained damage to its wood-framed body.  But the engine did not go to waste-- he stripped out everything but the crankshaft, set it upside down in a big block of concrete, and used it as an arbor for a cordwood saw.  He also salvaged the front axle to make a home-built trailer. 

By 1933, the Hudson company realized that the Essex had had its day, and morphed the brand into the Essex-Terraplane, soon dropping the Essex.  For our old-time music fans, we can get out our Robert Johnson CDs and crank up the Terraplane Blues.

Hudson:  The Hudson marque dates back to 1909, when the company was formed with much of the financing coming from department store magnate J. L. Hudson.  Today’s Target store chain is a descendant of Hudson’s department stores.  It survived into the 1950s, but when auto sales finally calmed down after the industry caught up with the demand built up during World War II, it wound up merging with Nash Kelvinator to become American Motors.

LaSalle:  My dad referred to the LaSalle as a “cheap Cadillac.”  It was part of General Motors’ strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose” enunciated by Alfred P. Sloan, who was brought into GM upper management to bring order and accountability after the second coming of William C. Durant.  The present day news about Elon Musk brings Mr. Durant to mind. 

After being out of production for about 30 years, the LaSalle received some popular culture recognition in the hit TV show of the 1970s, All in the Family.   In the series theme song “The Good Old Days” Archie Bunker’s wife Edith sings “Gee our old LaSalle ran great…”

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