Decades of War: 1943-1967

By Mary Anne Shreve

Dealers' service business took a hit when the army asked NADA to help recruit mechanics in 1942-1943 in socalled NADA Battalions overseas. The 950 officers and 26,000 enlisted men saw action in Tunisia, Italy, and Germany, and in the DDay landing on the Normandy beachhead. Their mechanical skills were credited with keeping the wheels of war rolling, and NADA was honored for its part in recruitment.

But with dealership service departments experiencing a crippling personnel drain, dealers turned to women. One NADA dealer reported that 45 women responded to his newspaper ad for one service technician. "They ranged from high school girls to grayhaired grandmothers. They came in fur coats and in sweaters and slacks. Some even came with infants in arms," he wrote. Adding a new word to the English language, a dealer reported in NADA Magazine that one of his female recruits had become "an excellent lubricatress."

Because of the shortage of mechanics and spare parts, the government regulated which repairs could be performed on civilian vehicles. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) advised civilians to put off unnecessary repairs such as bent fenders and crumpled radiators and encouraged them to keep cars longer. NADA Magazine published Washington's monthly rationing regulations for tires, batteries, spare parts, tire chains, and gas. A "swap column" also appeared: "The McNutt Motor Co., Maryville, Tenn., wants a radiator grille in good condition for 1941 Chrysler Royal . . . The Mid City Sales Co. of Baltimore, Md., has for sale 3 station wagon seats like new that will fit Plymouth or Chrysler."

It took increasing resourcefulness to stay in business. One Indiana dealer bought radios, refrigerators, freezers, and furnaces to sell in his showroom, and then sold toys at Christmas. Amazingly, a postwar NADA survey showed that 85 percent of dealers managed to stay afloat.

By 1944, civilians had to apply to the federal government to buy one of the nation's remaining 60,000 new cars. Washington announced that no new cars could be built until Japan or Germany was defeated, and automakers warned the public not to expect fancy new models when production did resume.

Washington regulators turned their attention to used cars. NADA lobbied vigorously against rationing and price ceilings for used vehicles, warning that they were creating a black market and destroying dealers' one remaining source of business. Guide adapted its format to include both "average prices and OPA ceiling prices." With used vehicles assuming more importance during and immediately after the war, Guide's subscriptions leaped from 28,000 in 1945 to 50,000 one year later.

NADA membership also skyrocketed, thanks to a massive membership drive. Its first goal was 10,000 members by 1944; dues were set according to number of units sold, with fees ranging from $12 per year to $100. By 1949, membership was 35,000.

The 1943 convention was cancelled because of a government ban on assemblies larger than 50 people. A scaledback convention was held in 1944, but because of wartime "congestion" in Detroit, dealers had to share hotel rooms. Henry Ford II addressed conventioneers that year, the first Ford family member to do so. And war or no, Universal C.I.T. Credit Corp. hosted its annual "Oyster and Beer Party." The fun was shortlived, though; for the next two years, there was no convention.

Meanwhile, NADA hailed President Roosevelt's proposed $15 billion highway project as "the biggest roadbuilding job since gas buggies replaced the horse." The new super highways would permit "speeds of 75 mph for passenger cars and 60 mph for trucks in flat country," NADA Magazine enthused. For the next two decades, the association actively supported the federal highway program and numerous safety campaigns to combat rising highway deaths.

They're back!

A 1946 Studebaker ad in NADA Magazine trumpeted "First by far with a postwar car!" But retooling Detroit's factories proved slow; waiting lists of two years were not uncommon. Dealers were given allotments based on prewar sales. Automaker costs inevitably rose, and NADA expanded its public relations staff to help counter the public perception that dealers were getting rich off the shortage. NADA urged its members to be responsible and not show favoritism in doling out the new cars.

The scramble for new vehicles led to abuses and inequities that created public ill will toward dealers. The image problem became so acute that NADA distributed a pamphlet entitled "The Truth About the Current Automobile Situation." The association acknowledged that "amateur shysters and hardened criminals" were causing problems but that most NADA members were responsible and lawabiding. The Washington Star and Washington Post praised NADA for its efforts to clean house. As backlogged purchase orders subsided, so did the problems.

The first postwar convention in 1947 was also NADA's 30th, and a record 6,500 attendees traveled to Atlantic City. Membership continued to increase, tallying 32,000.

The resumption of local auto shows in 1949 signaled that life was back to normal. A fourday auto show in Silver Spring, Md., featured fashion shows and an opening appearance by TV broadcaster Ed Sullivan.

After the war, television hit the auto industry. NADA Magazine predicted that, based on initial experiments with dealer and factory TV ads, the medium would become "a permanent sales tool of the automotive industry." Radio also became increasingly important during this decade. NADA provided dealers with free, fiveminute public interest scripts for local radio broadcasts.

1950s and the Korean War

As the nation remobilized for the Korean War, dealers braced for another halt in car production. Price controls were again slapped on the auto industry. NADA Magazine charged the 1950 presidential candidates with "explaining why we are on the brink of a third World War."

To help pay for rearmament, Congress imposed a 7 percent excise tax on new cars that NADA criticized for pushing the average price of a car to $2,200. Although the association fought for its repeal after the war, the tax was never lifted and was later raised to 10 percent. As it had done in 1917, NADA countered with a public relations campaign stressing the "essentiality" of the car to the American way of life and the inconsistency of taxing cars but not luxury items such as yachts.

Washington also restricted automakers' steel supply; they were forced to close plants and lay off workers. When the feds set 1952 production levels for individual automakers, there were still 11 players in the field—GM, Chrysler, Ford, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, Packard, KaiserFrazer, Willys, Crosley, and Checker. Steel workers struck in 1952, and many dealers received no new cars in July.

Meanwhile, NADA started a campaign urging dealers to adopt a code of ethics. An NADA survey showed the public didn't trust dealers, thought their profits were too high, and took their cars elsewhere for service. NADA countered with studies showing that dealers made less profit than plumbers and bakers.

After the Korean War, employment in the United States was at an alltime high, Detroit set production records, and for the first time dealers worried about too much of a good thing. One NADA official called the specter of overcapacity "an automotive hydrogen bomb that hangs poised over all dealerships." In a prophetic statement, 1953 NADA president J. Saxton Lloyd said it was unfair to dealers "to be forced to absorb or dispose of so many more cars than the public will buy that we will have to give them away at practically no profit or perhaps at a loss."

NADA lobbied for changes in dealerautomaker relations, repeal of the 10 percent excise tax on new cars, and reinstatement of depreciation and capital gains tax treatment of company vehicles. (The last had been disallowed by the IRS in 1948.) NADA formalized ties with local and state dealer associations, built an eightfloor building in the nation's capital, and started a nationwide workshop program, a truck advisory committee, and a retirement plan for dealers and their families. NADA was also active in various public service programs, including a national nonpartisan getoutthevote campaign, highway safety programs, and the loaning of cars to high schools' newly created driver education classes.

1960s and the European invasion

At the end of the 1950s, there were six carproducing countries in the world: the United States, England, France, Germany, Sweden, and Italy. The top 10 import lines were VW, Renault, Opel, English Ford, Fiat, Triumph, Simca, Austin Healey, Mercedes, and Volvo. By 1964, a relative newcomer—Japan—had entered the competition and swiftly grown to the fifth largest auto producer in the world. At the same time, U.S. companies were folding, including Studebaker in 1963.

The first federal bills to set limits on vehicle emissions were introduced in 1965. Although it first seemed like just a West Coast problem, federal air pollution hearings were held and the word "smog" entered the American vocabulary. California was the first locality to require "antismog equipment" on cars, and the nation eventually followed suit.

Originally published in NADA's AutoExec magazine, May 1992.