On the other side of the pond, Britain’s Armstrong Siddeley Motors became one of the first manufacturers to launch all-new postwar models, announced in May 1945, immediately after V-E Day. The new models would be big, luxurious, six-cylinder cars, in the 16 HP (RAC taxable horsepower) bracket. For maximum publicity value, each would carry the name of a famous wartime military aircraft made by the Hawker Siddeley Group (which included aviation companies Hawker Siddeley, A.V. Roe, and Gloster), of which the automaker had been a division since 1935. The first of these was a two-door, four-passenger drophead coupe called Hurricane, which went into production in mid-November 1945. It was followed in February 1946 by a four-door sedan, the Lancaster.
Both the Hurricane and the Lancaster sold well considering their high prices, but by the early summer of 1946, orders for the saloon outpaced those of the drophead by a significant margin. The problem was that Mulliner, which supplied bodies for the Lancaster, was unable to increase its output in any economically viable manner. As a stopgap, Armstrong Siddeley’s experimental engineering department in Coventry decided to create a fixed-head coupe version of the Hurricane, trading its three-position folding top for a simple pillarless metal roof. Dubbed Typhoon Sports Saloon, the new hardtop went into regular production later that year. Despite its cost — £1,214 with purchase tax, some £63 more than the already-pricey Lancaster (and equivalent to nearly $5,000 at the contemporary exchange rate) — it was reasonably successful. More than 1,700 were produced before production ended in November 1949.
Since Armstrong Siddeley had no U.S. sales organization, no more than a handful of its 16/18 HP models was ever sold in the States and few Americans ever even saw a Typhoon unless they attended the Earls Court shows or subscribed to British journals like The Autocar and The Motor. The first postwar hardtop sold in America would come from a U.S. independent.
FROM CHRYSLER TO KAISER-FRAZER
By 1947, Buzz Grisinger and his colleague Herb Weissinger, both of whom had worked on the postwar Town & Countries, had departed Chrysler for Kaiser-Frazer, where their former boss, Bob Cadwallader (Chrysler’s exterior design chief from 1940 to 1944), was now chief stylist.
One of their early tasks was to create new image leaders for the Kaiser and Frazer lines. Joe Frazer and Edgar Kaiser favored a convertible, but the company’s limited capital meant that it had to be based on the existing four-door sedan. (Since it had never been intended as a convertible, K-F eventually spent around $5 million beefing up the sedan’s frame and body structure, which in retrospect was probably more than they would have spent on tooling a new two-door body.) Along with the four-door convertible, Cadwallader, Grisinger, and Weissinger also developed a four-door hardtop, the Virginian, by simply adding a permanent steel roof to the convertible. With a standard nylon roof covering, the hardtop was hard to distinguish from the convertible at a glance.
The convertible and hardtop made their press debut in January 1949 and went on sale shortly thereafter. Although the convertible was offered in both Kaiser and Frazer versions, the hardtop was for some reason offered only as a Kaiser, with a base price of just under $3,000. That was Cadillac money for a six-cylinder car (like all big Kaisers, the Virginian’s sole engine was the flathead Continental six) of limited prestige, so buyers were scarce. Fewer than 1,000 Virginians were built and sales were so slow that many 1949 cars were re-serialed and marketed as 1950 models. Even then, Kaiser ended the model year with more than 150 unsold cars — a commercial rout. Kaiser-Frazer may have been first, but the first successful postwar American hardtops would be GM’s.
GM’S POSTWAR DESIGNS AND THE BELATED ALL-NEW BUICK
Before we talk about the Roadmaster Riviera and the other GM hardtops, we should say a little about the origins of the 1949 Buick and how GM’s first postwar designs came about.
While some rivals, including Kaiser-Frazer and Studebaker, had introduced new cars for 1947, it was not until the middle of the 1948 model year that GM followed suit. Some modern historians have suggested that the delay was part of some grand strategy, allowing GM’s all-new 1948 and 1949 models to steal a match on their rivals just as the postwar boom ended, but the truth appears to have been more prosaic. Like other automakers, GM had lost many of its stylists and design engineers to the armed forces during the war and those who remained were obliged to devote the majority of their time to military work. After the war ended, GM was beset by raw materials shortages and labor issues, most prominently a UAW strike that began in November 1945 and lasted nearly four months.
As we’ve previously discussed, the all-new 1948 Cadillac was designed at stylist Frank Hershey’s farm during the UAW lockout and was heavily influenced by Hershey’s earlier “Cadillac C.O.” prototype and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which some of the designers had viewed before the war. Originally, the resultant design was to become the basis of the new corporate B-body shell, used for the smaller Cadillac Series 61, Oldsmobile Series 70, and Buick Special; a separate but stylistically similar C-body was to be developed afterward for the larger models. However, the protracted strike and other complications meant that getting even one all-new body ready in time for 1948 was going to be a tall order. The design therefore became the new C-body, which would be introduced by Cadillac and the senior Buick and Oldsmobile models. Oldsmobile and Buick’s B-body cars would retain the existing body shell for at least another model year.