A Brief History of the Automobile - Between The Wars

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A Brief History of the Automobile

Prior to World War 1, most people in automotive circles talked of "the shape of things to come", but after the War that shape became anyones guess. The time was right for the manufacture of a cheap affordable car, that could also be a good car. Designers worked hard at their drawing boards and, by the early 1920's, two of them succeeded.

W.R. Morris, Henry Ford and Ettore Bugatti

Englishman W.R. Morris built the Morris Cowley with its famous bullnosed front and the American, Henry Ford, showed his genius by producing a cheap car with a streamlined hood, large radiator and electric lighting and starting.

The shape of the luxury car also became more streamlined, with emphasis on long, sleek body' work. Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Sunbeam and others followed this elegant pattern. But, more important, the luxury car became faster. A French design, the Bugatti Type 46, was a regal car in every way and yet it was capable of a blstering 90 mph.

Bugatti himself studied sculpture as a young man. He was also devoted to horses. Perhaps this was why his carriages looked like architectural masterpieces and their radiators assumed the unmistakable image of the horseshoe. In these important years the "vintage" car, as we know it today, emerged - neither essentially fast nor luxurious - but always distinctive. Strangely enough, the aeroplane played a part in the development of the motor car.

Morris Cowley
The Morris Cowley, famous for its bullnosed front

Hispano-Suiza Boulogne
The Hispano-Suiza Boulogne was years ahead of its time...
During World War 1 designers had concentrated on making "flying machines" which could go faster and stay in the air longer. What they learnt about aeroplane engines they used in improving car engines.


The Hispano-Suiza was a remarkable car, its advanced engine being based on one built for an aeroplane during the war. Their 1925 Boulogne model was the outstanding car of the middle twenties. A superb six cylinder engine with a capacity of eight litres gave it a top speed of 110 mph. It was years ahead of its time.

When the 'twenties closed, the motor car had a variety of shapes. The designers of the period had been true artists in engineering and creating perhaps for the first time in history machines that had personality. But more people and less wealthy people wanted cars. A change had to come, and the new techniques of the early 'thirties made it possible.

It was, in essence, a change from skilled crafts' manship to mass production, and at first it was not a happy one. Car designers forgot about personality and concentrated on solving the problems of the production line. It was little wonder that their products looked like tin boxes on wheels.

Cars With Character

However, men have never seemed satisfied with mere utility in their cars. As the technical problems of production were mastered, the mid,'thirties saw a return of cars with character. Long hoods, large hubcaps, wide tapered windshields and sloping backs were all new features, and people liked them. Mass produced cars began to look respectable and, occasionally, even beautiful. Speeds of 60 mph were commonplace. By the time the Second World War broke out, it looked as though the practical production engineer and the stylist could work as one. Quantity production could, almost, go hand-in-hand with beauty.

The war put a stop to much car design work. Perhaps the only really distinctive shape to emerge was the Jeep, a square and utilitarian vehicle that could ride over the roughest terrain. When the war ended, many car manufacturers based their first post-war models on pre-war designs. The changes came little by little. Running boards disappeared, fenders blended smoothly into the bodywork, lines became lower. In style and engineering refinements we were beginning a new decade.

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