The Car Industry Post WW II
By Geoff Wheatley

The Car Industry Post WW II
By Geoff Wheatley, 2012 ©

Geoff Wheatley

After the First World War the international car industry, especially in Europe, virtually collapsed. The market was flooded with cars made under contract for various governments like Britain, France and Italy. Much the same applied in North America including Canada and the USA. Large companies like Ford in America and Morris in England simply drew in their horns and produced fewer cars. What they could not sell through the retail outlets they sold off as war surplus for little more than cost. In 1914, the start of the war, a standard production vehicle sold for around $2,400 (1914 dollars). In 1920 that same size car with a few extra trinkets sold for $1500 and if you paid cash they would throw in a free set of tires. In reality quite the reverse of the situation in 1945 when would be buyers went on waiting lists to get a new automobile.

In some cases you could wait three months or longer and then not get the color you wanted. The difference between to two situations was simple to understand. In 1918 when the war ended almost overnight with Germany simply collapsing, the Allied War industry was still in full swing with orders for war items including vehicles through to the end of 1919 when it was predicted that Germany and its allies would sue for peace. It was a realistic forecast except that Germany did not have either the economic ability or the willingness to continue and when its major companion powers of Austria and Turkey simply threw in the towel that was the end of the conflict. A conflict that I would cost the lives of an estimated 38 million,(Note the term estimated as no one is sure what price the Russians paid and no official figures were ever released.) So the world was almost swimming in war surplus from tanks to guns to vehicles boats etc. In the fullness of time most were sold off either as items or as scrape.

In 1945 the situation was totally different. Most of Europe's production capacity had been destroyed, factories in ruins, roads and services in need of extensive repair and with only three nations with the ability to produce anything ..The USA...Britain and Russia. The latter had never developed a consumer market for such things as automobiles simply because there had been little demand from the prewar Russian public, in addition virtually ever factory in the country had been turned over to war production which of course included some rather impressive aircraft, an industry that continued to develop in the post war years,

So in reality it was the USA and the UK who had the vehicle market and in reality whatever they made the world purchased, good bad or whatever. If you take a look at the style and range of car production from 1946 through to the early fifties you will see that very little had changed from the cars featured in the show rooms in the late 1930's. Certainly a touch more chrome trim and a extensive color choice but as far as the mechanical ability was concerned they were much the same except that the price had increased and you waited longer for the new toy. This is why such cars as the British Jaguar XK 120 presented in 1949 was such a success and was sold and paid for, before it was produced. That of course was almost a unique situation for if you take a serious look at what other models the Brits were offering there was not much to excite the inner man...or woman.

By 1953 Italy had started to produce a couple of interesting export cars but of course their production capacity was still limited due to war damage. Much the same could be said for Germany who being split into two governments in the East and the West had serious problems with unified production. A good example of this is the BMW factories then located in East Germany with no real ability to return to the international status that BMW enjoyed before the war. VW was in the Weston zone but strange to say no one seemed to want the company. In 1946 the British were offered VW as compensation for war costs but after inspection they turned it down...One has to ask how stupid can governments be?

The Americans had a much broader view of the future and decided to take the German metallic tape industry that had been developed during the war by the German communication service. I guess in the old days we would say this was the Spoils of War going to the victors! No one in the 1950's could have ever forecast the success and development of the Japanese car industry, but that another story for another time.
© 2015 Geoff Wheatley Contributing Reporter/Writer