1940s: NADA and WWII

1940s: NADA and WWII

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1940-1949 Timeline of Events (click to enlarge)

In 1941, NADA moved from Detroit to Washington, D.C., to work more closely with government agencies and keep tabs on legislative events. NADA also worked with automakers to obtain many changes in factory policy favorable to dealers.


In those early war years, NADA bulletins urged members to be more profit-conscious, to work on improving gross profit, and to adopt “saner selling methods” to prepare for higher taxes and higher costs of doing business. And through prepared newspaper articles, NADA tried to show the public the importance of cars to the economy.


The 1942 convention marked NADA’s 25th anniversary, and 2,300 dealers attended. With American’s entry into WWII, the talk was of survival, the threat of gas rationing and the government freeze on vehicle delivery. A March 1942 Census Bureau report of 23 common types of businesses showed that dealers were by far the hardest hit by the war program. NADA lobbied Congress to minimize the effects of rationing and other war-related restrictions.


Orders grind to a halt

It was a tough year for dealers. The public wasn’t buying used cars for fear that the government would appropriate them; dealers were reluctant to acquire used cars because of rumors that their inventories would be frozen. Uncle Sam had already prohibited the sale and delivery of new cars and trucks; only customers who had placed orders before Jan. 1, 1942, could take delivery of new cars. Business was further eroded by nationwide gas rationing.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought relief to struggling dealers, signing into law a measure allowing them to sell to the government new cars and trucks that had been subject to rationing.

NADA’s January 1942 newsletter warned that “the war with Japan may eliminate the American automobile forever from that country.” The article noted that business had been on the “downgrade” for several years and that the last foreign manufacturer was considering moving its plant out when the war broke out. And, it said prophetically, Japan already produces beyond its own “small” requirements.


Dealer service business took a hit when the Army asked NADA to help recruit mechanics in 1942-1943 in so-called NADA Battalions overseas. The 950 officers and 26,000 enlisted men saw action in Tunisia, Italy and Germany, and in the D-Day 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.


Women fill the gaps

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 gray-haired grandmothers. They came in fur coats and in sweaters and slacks. Some even came with infants in arms,” he wrote.


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. And it took increasing resourcefulness for dealers 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.


The 1943 convention was canceled because of a government ban on assemblies larger than 50 people. A scaled-back 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. As the war continued, the next two conventions were canceled.


Highway funds to the rescue

But Roosevelt’s proposed $15 billion highway project provided impetus for NADA, which actively supported the measure, along with numerous safety campaigns to combat rising highway deaths over the next two decades.


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 the war was over and turned its 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. The Guide adapted its format to include both average prices and OPA ceilings. With used vehicles assuming more importance during and immediately after the war, Guide subscriptions leaped from 28,000 in 1945 to 50,000 one year later.


NADA membership, which had taken a big hit during the war, also skyrocketed, thanks to a massive membership drive. By 1949, membership would be 35,000.


After the war, automobile production resumed. But waiting lists of two years for a new car were not uncommon, 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, distributing a pamphlet, The Truth About the Current Automobile Situation, to diffuse public ill will.


The first postwar convention in 1947 was also NADA’s 30th, and a record 6,500 attendees traveled to Atlantic City, N.J. The resumption of local auto shows in 1949 signaled that life was back to normal.