The Birth of Popular Motoring
Many people do not understand the reason why 1930's cars differed so completely from their "vintage" predecessors of the 1920's. The cars of the 1930's were developed in response to a change in economic conditions, and a change in expectations. In 1930, just one million cars were in use in Britain, but eight years later the two million mark had been passed. In less than a decade, therefore, the entire motoring scene had been transformed. Many more people, and a different type of people at that, had started to motor. Truly, in almost every possible way, the 1930's witnessed The Birth of Popular Motoring.
In 1930, many motorists were relatively well off, ran mainly hand-built and often rather large-engined cars, and were a class-conscious lot. Many of their cars had coachbuilt bodies, and they treated their annual visit to the Olympia Motor Show as something of a social occasion. The world was diving into Depression, prices were falling, unemployment was rising rapidly, and the motor industry was struggling hard to cut its costs and broaden its appeal. Cars were beginning to get more complex, and building them by hand made less and less business sense.
By 1939, much of this had changed. There were twice as many motorists as there had been in 1930, many with much smaller incomes than would ever have been possible to justify running a car in 1930. Most of the "new motorists" ran tiny, cheap-to-buy, cars, built right down to a price by mechanised factories. Pressed steel body shells were now normal, and even unit-construction body/chassis units had arrived. The Earls Court Motor Show (not held in 1939) was a big selling jamboree for British auto manufacturers. Most of Europe was bracing itself against the onset of another World War, prices were edging up again, unemployment was trending downwards, and great tracts of the country were enjoying unparalleled prosperity. The motor industry had been modernised, sales and production had doubled in the UK alone to 379,000 in 1937, and exports were up by three times (again, quoting UK figures, to 78,000 in 1937).
The Australian motoring scene was one of imports, or locally assembled imports. Outside the USA it was a decade which began with Austin
dominating sales - between them, they sold nearly three in every five new cars - with the rest trailing well behind. The Austin Seven
, the Morris Minor
, the Austin 12s and Morris Cowleys, the Austin 16s and the Morris Oxfords
were the most popular of all new cars. There were still lots of independent concerns, but not many were selling cars in quantity. Prices were falling, fast, but not many cheapies had any sporting pretensions. In that respect, at least, Cecil Kimber's
MG M-Type Midget was a real trend-setter.
By the end of the 1930s the motoring scene was very different. Austin
had merely stood still - or, in many ways, actually slipped back. In the meantime, four concerns had expanded mightily, and the Big Six had established itself. Ford had moved to Dagenham and introduced the immortal Y-Type 8hp model, Vauxhall
, under General Motors
, had become mass producers, with unit-construction cars like the 10s, 12s and 14s of 1938-1939, John Black had revitalised Standard
, and inspired the distinctive "Flying" models, while the Rootes
family had welded Hillman
into the Rootes Group
It was a decade in which some famous names disappeared, and in which very few new ones were founded. The only major new marque to appear in the United Kingdom was Jaguar
, born out of SS
in 1935, a company which had itself only been born in 1931. Sunbeam-Talbot, theoretically, was a new marque, but in Rootes' hands such cars were really only tarted up Hillmans and Humbers; puritans, and traditionalists, wept at the thought. Allard and Jensen, of course, were new in the 1930's, and lived for many more years, but never built cars in large numbers, while little companies like Railton and Lagonda
, not to mention Aston Martin
, never truly survived the war in the same form.
The depression of 1931 swept away Bentley
(taken over by Rolls-Royce
(absorbed by BSA-Daimler), and killed off Swift
(which died completely). It nearly accounted for Rover
, who achieved an astonishing recovery before 1939, it damaged Singer
so badly that they never recovered, and as a sequel it probably made the demise of Sunbeam
(as parts of the STD combine) fairly certain. Lea-Francis
spent time in the hands of the Receiver, and out of the showrooms. Riley
went bankrupt in 1938, and were bought up by Lord Nuffield, while Triumph followed them in 1939, and came back in 1946 purely as a name.
Another brief flash of statistics sums it up - there were 44 marques at Olympia in 1930 (among them, names like GWK
, Rhode, Whitlock
), but there would only have been 36 at the 1939 Earls Court Show which was cancelled due to Hitler's interference. In the nine years which intervened, only 27 marques showed the continuity to be present at both occasions. Traditionalists, epitomised by the "Vintage" enthusiasts, averred that no good cars were built after the end of 1930, which was the sort of plonking statement of which a Gamesman/Lifeman like Stephen Potter would have been proud. What they really meant is that hand-built cars of the sort they liked, preferably with tourer bodies, mostly lacking almost every creature comfort, often requiring considerable skill to be driven, and mostly costing hundreds of pounds more than the "new" motorists wanted to pay, were rapidly disappearing. That this was so because they could no longer be sold was not admitted to, or thought significant.
In 1930, more cars with 15hp engines or over were being sold than cars with engines in the 8hp, 9hp and 10hp bracket - 40% against 36%. In 1939, on the other hand, there had been something of a social revolution: 63% of all new cars were in the 8hp to 10hp sector, while 15s and over accounted for only 13%. It all came about because the manufacturers recognised the social changes taking place, spotted the new "middle class" as their battleground when the Depression let up, and made sure that the new cars suited them. Every firm with any sense, and a modicum of financial backing, went in for mechanisation. If they couldn't afford to build their own new-fangled pressed steel body shells, they rushed to specialists like Pressed Steel who would willingly supply their needs. All, without exception, recognised that they needed a car for all pockets, and - by juggling with engines, bores and strokes - could cover most eventualities.
The price of the true quantity-production cars didn't change much throughout the period - an Austin 10
sold in 1932 sold for £155 whereas the 1939 equivalent cost £175 - but those of middle-class and sporting models fell considerably, which brought them within the range of many more buyers. People like William Lyons upset everyone by offering such staggering value for money with the SS and SS-Jaguar models of the period but it was Rootes, Vauxhall
and Standard who played the low-price "permutations game" so ruthlessly and so well. In 1939, for instance, a 3-litre Sunbeam Talbot was listed at £415, while the equivalent 1930 Talbot "75" cost £585, and that was a great deal of difference in 1930's currency, when the average industrial wage was £3 a week, and a middle-manager would be happy to be earning little more than £10 a week.
In spite of the fact that the average price of all British cars came down sharply until the mid 1930's, then began to creep up again once more, and in spite of the fact that the Europeans usually made faster and more excitingly engineered models, the pace of technical change was considerable. A car of 1930 had very square lines, and often used a composite-construction coachbuilt body shell without a boot; during the period, lines became more rounded, active attempts at "styling" were made, luggage boots were incorporated, widths increased, and all-steel shells became the norm. The true unit-construction pioneered in the United States travelled across the Atlantic later in the decade - Vauxhall
took it up first, but Morris and Rootes were not far behind.
took on overhead valves
, but were always hampered by the RAC's "horsepower rating" which effectively condemned them to be of long-stroke type. Four speed gearboxes, with synchromesh
, were de rigeur by 1939. In 1930, synchromesh had not even arrived in Europe (Vauxhall
, once again, would be first), many cars only had three speeds, and most ratios were not even in constant mesh. Even in suspension
, the area in which we lagged so badly behind the Europeans, there were advances. Almost any car of 1930 had half-elliptic springs and a beam front axle, but by 1939 a good many had independent front suspension. Not that this effete tendency got through to many sports cars sold at a competitive price. Even at the end of the 1930's, no MG Midget, HRG, Riley orTriumph had independent front suspension
On the other hand, splendid flagships like the 4i-litre Bentleys ("The Silent Sports Car", as advertised), the vee-12 Lagondas, and the six-cylinder Alvis sporting cars, had taken to the modern equipment. Cars at both ends of the social spectrum were joining in - from the extremes of the Standard Flying Eight, to the Rolls-Royce Phantom III. Not many of these fine cars, incidentally, were all that fast. In any year, it was something of a miracle if The Autocar or The Motor road tested a car with a genuine 10Omph maximum, and most middle-sized, middle-class touring machines were hard-put to exceed 75 to 80mph. The sports cars, of course, usually led the way - an M-Type Midget struggled to 60mph, while a TB Midget costing only £40 more could nudge 80mph on a good day.
Their ride, incidentally, is often a great disappointment to today's classic car enthusiasts. The fact was, of course, that British roads were in excellent condition in the 1930's (probably better, in terms of maintenance and contour, than they are today), which made hard suspension acceptable, and it was also a fact that standards had advanced quite a way from the 1920's. It was only the occasional continental car which managed to prove that soft suspension
could also result in good handling, but our engineers took years to catch up. It was the marketing men, however, as much as the engineers, who were so conventional Some firms were at pains never to be seen to have advanced ideas (It was not until the mid-1930's, for instance, that the first sloping-windscreen Austin was ever built), while others moved forward cautiously (Riley offered a modern "waterfall" grille, or the option of a traditional honeycomb, on their Sprite sports car, for instance); radical changes were often delayed for years while the tycoons in charge agonised over the implications.
Dr Porsche's VW Beetle
, for instance, would never have been accepted in Britain, in the 1930's, while in Europe a staid and old-fashioned car like the Armstrong-Siddeley
would have died off years earlier than it did. You only have to look at the overall policy governing cars like British Daimler, and German Daimler-Benz
(which had started from the same root, many years earlier), to see our problem. Nevertheless, cars built in Britain in the 1930's were aimed squarely at the British market, for British tastes, and on the evidence of their sale, they were successful enough. In the next four issues, I will be analysing one particular market group in more detail.
1930 saw the introduction of the Hillman Wizard aimed at world markets. Although not an outstanding success the Rootes brothers persevered and 1932 saw the introduction of the Hillman Minx which was to be produced in various marks over four decades. More companies were acquired - Karrier Motors were in receivership in 1934 and were soon snapped up, while the next year STD Motors, which comprised of Sunbeam and Clement-Talbot was added. Rootes were keen to keep the marque identities going and "badge engineering
" was adopted on some of the products. All the various builders were still going in some form at the take over by Chrysler. Humber was associated with the luxury market, Sunbeam; sports cars, and Hillman long-lasting quality.
British Car Production for 1930
During the 1930 model year, ending in September, the British motor industry produced 236,528 motor vehicles, of which 169,669 were private cars and taxis. By September, the total number of cars in use was 1,177,872 including 102,791 which were registered as 'hackneys' (a hackney cariage is a vehicle which stands or plies for hire in the street, eg: a Taxi-Cab). During the 1930 calendar year 155,707 new cars were registered in just under 40 (horse power rating) classes. The highest number was the 8 HP class, namely 40,272. Next were 12 HP with 24,805, 15 HP with 22,282, 16 HP with 17,701 and 10 HP with 11,190. All the others contained well under ten thousand. A total of just under 30,000 vehicles were exported, namely 23,209 cars and 6,770 commercial vehicles. Their combined value was about £6.7 million. Car imports numbered 9,751, valued at just over £1.5 million.