20s cars continued to flourish under the sure hand of Alfred Sloan.
Sloan joined GM in 1916 when his company, Hyatt Roller Bearing, was acquired by GM. He made a lot of money in the purchase, and then found himself in management. By 1923, he was running GM - at that time, the largest industrial corporation in the world. His thoughtful management resulted in innovation heretofore unknown in corporate America. Fiscal restraint, thoughtful, detailed research, and teamwork were the hallmarks in running the once stodgy company.
Styling became a fundamental way to build cars. This progressive thinking was based upon GM management's observation that when before, 20s cars were purchased as a "once-in-a-lifetime" thing, American consumers were "trading up." They were more willing to buy fancier cars, stepping up from a Model T.
Starting with a Ford, then a Chevrolet would lead a buyer to another car, a Buick or an Olds, or ultimately a Cadillac. Sloan was receptive to the demands of the market, aware that 1920's cars were sold to the tune of almost 20 million units.
Sloan thought that if subtle changes in design and technology were introduced each year, and were supported by a shrewd and advertising campaign, the average car owner would almost certainly grow dissatisfied with his current model. Once lured in the showroom, he would, through salesmanship compelled to buy another desirable car.
The concept, known as "planned obsolescence," became a cornerstone not only of the car industry, but of the American consumer society, affecting the whole gamut of products - from lawnmowers to washing machines - were made, marketed, and sold in America.
Advertising was a critical component of planned obsolescence. Many 20s cars were sold that way, mainly by the headway copywriters made in their advertising. They stressed style and design and power; the slightest change in appearance was heralded as nothing short of revolutionary.
Then, as now, the motorist was bombarded by advertisements intended to compel him to buy and step up to a fancier car, as if not doing so will not make him a complete person. The deep, irrational attachment to the car had been nurtured by auto companies. This adherence to the "car culture" had resulted in cars of the 1920's spreading to the masses, hence millions and millions of cars that poured so much cash to the Big Three.
An example of a slick Ford car advertisement
Ford had lost its position as industry leader in 1927. Harley Earl entered GM's management armed with boldness and vision, who considered automobile design to be an art form. He started work at GM as a consulting engineer. His first car for General Motors was the 1927 La Salle, intended to fill a gap between the moderately priced Buick 6 and the high-end Cadillac. These 20s cars were warmly received by both automotive critics and the buying public, allured by the cars' soft, elegant lines.
Henry Ford, meanwhile clung to Model T. In 1926, despite being offered in a choice of colors, the public spurned it. Perhaps it was time for Ford to listen to his son, Edsel, along with his senior managers.
Eventually, he relented. With sales of Model T plunging 30 percent, Ford came to the realization that Model T's time had passed. On May 25, 1927, the company was planning to unveil a new car to replace the Model T. Six days later the last Tin Lizzie rolled off the assembly line.
Production at Ford's massive River Rouge plant stopped as the company went about the laborious process of retooling for a new model. There was just one problem: no one had any idea what the new car would look like - including Henry Ford. Henry Ford had to do the unthinkable, stopping production of the Model T without having a replacement waiting in the wings.
For the next six months the Ford Motor Company did not produce a single car. In the meantime, GM's sales skyrocket, coming closer to Alfred Sloan's goal of crushing the Ford Motor Company.
Henry Ford was a survivor but a shrewd one. He held car buyers in suspense, not letting the press know what's up his sleeve. He imposed a "news blackout" that fueled speculation what his new car will be. Although many car buyers were going to Chevrolet showrooms, many others were waiting in the wings, not intent in buying any 20s cars in those showrooms. Speculation in the press fueled even greater interest, and soon rumors were rampant.
When the new car - dubbed the the Model A - was introduced in late 1927, it was the most significant launch in the history of the automobile industry. Never before had a car generated such excitement. Ford himself began the campaign with a series of five full-page advertisements in every daily newspaper in the country.
When the car was finally put on display, public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. People waited in line for hours to get a glimpse of the new Model A. The 1928 Ford Model A sported Lincoln-like styling and prices starting a $460. It boasts an engine with 200.5 cubic-inch with 40 hp. 400,000 orders of these 20's cars were placed in the first two weeks alone.
The Model A was one of the biggest news stories of the 1920s. It was comparable to Linderbergh's flight across the Atlantic or the Dempsey-Tunney fight. it was one of the biggest industrial stories of the 20th century. It was the best-selling car in America in 1928.
The Ford Model A
The Model A was a success. In both style and substance, it was superior to Model T but it was hardly a groundbreaking vehicle; rather, it was an inexpensive, modernized version of its drab but reliable cousin.
Chevrolet's introduction of a new six-cylinder model in 1929 allowed GM to quickly recover. Within a few years, GM was producing 50 percent of all cars sold in America. In 1929, more than five million cars were sold, a record that stood for two decades. The auto was at the top of the shopping list. 20s cars were no longer a luxury; owning one was a necessity.
Not everyone could afford to pay for a new car in cash. 20s cars became more affordable to the public when dealers encouraged purchasing on the installment plan. The concept of buying on credit was started by Isaac Singer 75 years before. By 1925, 75 percent of all new cars were purchased on the installment plan. Henry Ford was opposed to selling cars on credit but Alfred Sloan didn't and in so doing redefined the American consumer society.
By 1929, on the ever of the Great Depression, nearly half of the nation's consumer installment debt of $2.9 billion was attributable to automobile purchases. It was common for people to mortgage their homes in order to buy cars.
Detroit was rocked by the Depression. New car sales fell 75 percent. Smaller companies went under. One quarter of America was out of work. In the dust bowl, the 20s cars became a home, the sole possession of many families. It was the wagon train of the great migration to the promised land of California.
Above, hungry people in a soup line during the Great Depression
Above, the Dust Bowl captured by camera