Whacky eccentric European and Asian autos were the precursor to today’s import mania.
The 1949 year, lodged near half way into the more-or-less 110 year history of our automotive industry, brought two occurrences, one heralding great upheaval and one of considerably less significance. (As for the 110 years, The Horseless Age, the direct parent of this magazine, was first published in November 1895, listing several manufacturers.) The seminal 1949 occurrence was the first-wave influx of imports that were later to become a seachange of massive proportions. (Yes, Rolls Royce, Austin and others were earlier in and out, but they were low volume and transitory.) The second, far less influential activity was my entry into the automotive field.
In the ancient days following World War II, specifically in 1948. Americans were then flush with money and short of wheels following the product vacuum of the 1942-1945 wartime years. Concurrently, in 1948, Europe was struggling with war debts, high taxes and low personal incomes. The solution to this synergic international business climate was obvious — ship cars to the rich and new-car-deprived Americans. In 1948, the plans to export from Europe was hatched and honed. In 1949, the flood began with 30 import brands finding our shores in that year, with many more to follow. Thirty brands, 18 from the United Kingdom, were listed in the 1949 registration and that U.K. crowd dominated the sales volumes. Ford’s U.K. models, followed by Austin and Renault, led the stampede. Offered to the Americans were a mind-boggling array of good, bad, cheap, large, useless, small, expensive and/or downright eccentric vehicles. Take your pick, and we Americans did, but rejected most. Of the 30 import brands listed in 1949, only Jaguar and Volkswagen are today earning any significant volume here in the United States.
In the 1950-1954 years, 24 additional European brands attempted the U.S. Market but with no new entries in 1955, as the Europeans had run out of brands. Today, only five of those 24 remain. But the gates had been opened wide for the 1958 arrival of the Asians. We Americans opened the gates, not realizing what we had done nor what was to come.
The list of 54 brands imported into the United States in the six-year, 1949-1954 period, has been whittled down to nine that continue to seriously extract American dollars.
Volkswagen, Mercedes, Porsche, Rolls, Bently and Ferrari plus Aston Martin, Jaguar and Volvo, now under the Blue Oval, remain on our shores.
The lesser 1949 event, my entry into the automotive world, ultimately allowed me to move from alley-garage owner through corporate mid-management to semi-retired automotive gadfly, with the ensuing 56 years allowing familiarity with many of the imports, both early and late.
Of the 54 brands imported prior to 1955, there were those that deserved their fame or infamy. If your heart desired a true sports car brimming with eccentricity, your salvation was the HRG. For underpowered, there was a wide choice.
Peugeots were noted for quality, Renaults were not. Rolls Royces were expensive, Austins were not. Sporty and true sports come in a wonderful variety of shapes and prices. Some Jaguar XK 129s could do 120 miles per hour, MGs could barely hit 30 between stoplights. The DKW, to me a miserable little beast I was required to evaluate, became a part of Auto Union that became Audi. It would shame an Audi to admit a DKW as a distant relative. Skodas are remembered as solid as a Sherman tank but a bit ugly. Any discussion of Renault Dauphin quality should be banished from polite society. Whacking a Ford-powered Allard around a test track, keeping it below the front-wheel-tilt-under speed on corners was a hoot, as was pushing an XJ 120 around a highspeed track.
I don’t remember ever even seeing a Lea Francis and although the term had yet to be invented, early Volkswagen owners were tree-huggers. The Russian KIM, seen only in pictures, looked like a rather ancient Packard. The British Jowett had a lovely boxer-four engine, a precursor to the Subaru. Early Mercedes were very solid, but there was very little buyer interest in the Midwest where we were pushing them as a sideline to Studebaker. Even a 132 mph speeding ticket when demonstrating a 300SL to a prospective dealer was good fun. The AC of then is not the AC of today. Taunus was a German Ford. Simca was at one time a French Ford and at another time a French Chrysler. Dorettis were so small they could probably be shipped in refrigerator boxes. Morgans were old-technology and eccentric then and thankfully remain so now. Borgwards were a smidgen better than DKWs. Gogomobiles sounded like lovesick chainsaws. The variety was mind boggling. They came ashore beginning 1949, many were seen and some conquered, many more fell by the roadside, but the shores were open and the U.S. automotive industry never again rested in peaceful isolation. We who helped open the shores never thought — what have we done?
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