1929 Chevrolet Landau. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
During much of the first third of the twentieth century the car industry was dominated by Ford Motor Company. Ford was formed in 1903 and had some success with early models, but when Henry Ford Introduced the Model T in 1908 it quickly surpassed all others. The T was inexpensive to buy and maintain, and proved so tough and durable that more than 15 million would be built over 19 years. Also in 1908 Flint, Michigan-based carriage millionaire William Durant had formed General Motors, and although he proceeded to offer a wide variety of models, GM could not displace Ford.
The tide would finally start to turn with the introduction of the 1929 Chevrolet. Chevrolet had tried earlier to compete with Ford’s Model T by introducing the low-priced 1915 Chevrolet 490 model (for its $490 price) but had failed. Unfortunately, management within GM had also been somewhat chaotic under high flying, stock-plunging Durant, whom the bankers ousted from GM in 1910. He regained control using Chevrolet in 1915, but was out again for good in 1920. It wasn’t until the appointment of an engineer named Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. as president in 1923 that GM’s potential began to unfold.
After the disastrous air-cooled “Copper-Cooled” 1923 Chevrolets, all of which had to be recalled, Sloan set about to reorganize GM’s management structure. He rationalized its car divisions down to a manageable, non-competing five, formalized car styling and inaugurated the annual model change.
He also set out to overtake Ford, and in this he had a critical new asset: William. S. Knudsen. Knudsen had been Ford’s production chief but finally became tired of old Henry’s mercurial management and defected to GM in 1922. Sloan made him general manager of Chevrolet where the big Swede galvanized his new charges by vowing to go “vun for vun” with Ford.
In the meantime Ford continued to lead, but all was not well. Because old Henry believed the Model T was the perfect car, he refused to modernize it. The result was that by the late 1920s Ford was vulnerable. Although Henry finally agreed to introduce the more modern, good-performing four-cylinder Model A Ford for 1928, he delayed its development for many months. This allowed Chevrolet’s improving model to have its first million-car year, and Chevrolet had already plotted its blockbuster move: a six-cylinder engine.