New Cars for 1940!

“Hitler sure made a mistake fighting us. Every kid from age 14 on knows how to drive a car or a truck. We are a nation on wheels!” (line in a movie from a US tank driver somewhere in France in 1944.)

As a kid I think I watched every World War 2 movie ever made (mostly produced in the 1950’s). Most were of the “B film” variety and had lame dialogue like the lines above that I vaguely remember.  The movies also conveyed the overall message that the USA pretty much won the war all by itself.

This of course was nonsense since Britain and the Commonwealth countries had been fighting against Germany and Italy since 1939-40 and the US didn’t get into the war until late 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

American automotive productive production not only put own armies on wheels but also the Soviet Union in the Lend-Lease program. Consider these production figures:

During WW2 the US produced 108,410 tanks and 2,382,311 other motor vehicles. The Soviet Union produced 106,025 tanks and 197,100 other motor vehicles.

Russia today downplays the Allied contribution to their war effort but the facts below speak for themselves (and these facts say nothing about the enormous number of tanks and motor vehicles supplied to Soviet Russia by Britain and Canada.)

The US sent to the Soviet Union during WW2 44,000 jeeps, 375, 883 trucks, 8,071 tractors and 12,700 tanks. (lend lease to the Soviet Union)

All of it came from the US automotive industry.

In 1940 the US was still at peace and the ads and stories in Life Magazine reflected the calm before the storm to come. On October 23, 1939 Life Magazine ran a huge story on the City of Detroit-headline and first page pictured below. Detroit in 1940 and for many years after was the US powerhouse for the manufacture of cars and trucks. This went virtually unchallenged until the 1970’s when Japanese imports began to make their appearance in American markets.

Nevertheless, in 1940 Detroit was the king city of the automobile industry and the ads below reflect perhaps the last opportunity Americans would have to purchase a new car (until 1946 when domestic production resumed). The ads are all from the October 23, 1939 issue of Life Magazine.

Detroit 1939

The caption reads, “The big men of Detroit” and lists who they are. One is the the CEO of Chrysler and another the CEO of General Motors. 

Plymouth 1940

The line on the bottom reads, “The Low-Priced Brand with the Luxury Ride.” A top of the line Plymouth in 1940 went for about $1,000.00.  According the National Archives the average yearly wage in 1940 was $1368.00.

Ford 1940

A top of the line Ford also went for around $1000.00 and on the low end you could get a Ford for a little under $700.00


According to American Cars.com a 1940 DeSoto went for between $850.00 and $1000.00. DeSoto was a division of Chrysler and the brand disappeared by 1961. 

Studebaker 1940

Seeing Studebaker advertise a new car for $660.00 prompted me to try and find out what the others on this page went for. It seems that Studebaker was targeting the economy class with their two page ad that ran in October, 1939. My dad worked as an auto mechanic after he got out the Army in 1946. He loved the Studebakers and bought one in the early 1950’s. He was always sorry he sold it. 


2 comments on “New Cars for 1940!

  1. According to what I’ve always read, and been told by older family members who served during the War years, new automobiles for domestic sales were still being made only up until January 1, 1942. There had been only three weeks left to the end of the year when America was attacked by the Empire of Japan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. No cars, commercial trucks, or auto parts were made from February 22, 1942 to October 1945.

    We were still seriously unprepared to wage a full scale war with anyone, much less a two-ocean front, in spite of Defense Production, which helped begin to eliminate mass unemployment which had been a major portion of the Depression, and the Lend-Lease program, which not only filled – or helped to fill, anyway – the amories of the other Allies, who were involved directly, or just getting underway, like we were. It also helped to boost the amounts in Depression-era bank and saving and loan accounts (and pants pockets!) Our own supplies were entirely too small to even begin to train, house, and put in uniform all the young men who applied for military service in the days and weeks after Pearl Harbor until well into 1942. Continual changes and “upgrades” in materiél during the War kept supplies of the most currently approved items almost eternally short.

    Domestic auto production ceased entirely by February 22, 1942. Prior to that point, all sales of cars, as well as the delivery of cars to customers who had previously contracted for them before January 1, 1942** and up to that point were immediately frozen by the government’s Office of Production Management. The unsold units were added to a huge stockpile, making a total of 520,000 new cars and light trucks. These would be available during the duration of the war for rationed sales by auto dealers to purchasers deemed “essential drivers.”
    **(As a temporary measure, local rationing boards could issue permits allowing persons who had already ordered and contracted for – *and PAID FOR* – cars before January 1, 1942 to secure their delivery.)**

    Then President Roosevelt established the War Production Board on January 16, 1942. It superseded the Office of Production Management. The WPB regulated the industrial production and allocation of war materiel and fuel. That included coordinating heavy manufacturing, and the rationing of vital materials, such as metals, rubber, and oil. It also established wage and price controls.

    Representatives from the auto industry formed the Automotive Council for War Production in April 1942, to facilitate the sharing of resources, expertise, and manpower in defense production contracting.

    By April 1944, only 30,000 new cars out of the initial stockpile were left. Almost all were 1942 models and customers required a permit to make the purchase. The Office of Price Administration set the price. The government contemplated rationing used car sales as well, but that was finally deemed unnecessary. The government estimated that about a million cars had been taken off the road by their owners, to reserve for their own use after the war.

    During the war, the automobile and oil companies continued to advertise heavily to insure that the public did not forget their brand names. Companies also were proud to proclaim their patriotic role in war production, and their advertisements displayed the trucks, aircraft, and munitions that they were making to do their part in combat.

    In addition, auto advertisements encouraged the public to patronize local auto dealers’ service departments so that car repairs could help extend the lives of the cars their customers had bought before the war. In the last couple of years of the war, the auto companies also used their advertisements to heighten public anticipation of the end of the war and the resumption of car and truck manufacturing, with advertising copy such as Ford’s “There’s a Ford in Your Future.”


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