1939 Graham Sharknose
1939 Graham ‘Sharknose’. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Graham-Paige Motors called the styling of its new 1938 car line the “Spirit of Motion.” But the public took one look at the protuberant beak and immediately dubbed it the “Sharknose.”

Apart from the lovely but short-lived Cord-bodied Graham Hollywood, it would be Graham’s last gasp at building cars, except for a brief association with Kaiser-Frazer after the Second World War.

The Graham name went back to the end of the First World War when brothers Joseph, Robert and Ray Graham began building trucks in Evansville, Indiana. They became associated with Dodge, who would ultimately buy their truck business in 1926.

The Grahams still wanted to build motor vehicles, however, so with their truck company proceeds they bought the faltering Paige-Detroit Motor Car Co. of Detroit. They changed the name of the car to Graham-Paige.

Graham-Paige introduced its new six and eight cylinder models at the New York Automobile Show in January 1928. The first year proved very prosperous with more than 73,000 sales. But the 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression dealt Graham-Paige and the whole motor industry a heavy blow. By 1930, the firm’s sales were down to 33,560.

The name of the cars was changed from Graham-Paige to Graham for 1931. By offering some stylish cars, albeit some with Reo bodies, both six and eight cylinder engines, and the first moderately priced supercharging, the company was able to struggle through the worst of the Depression. The 1932 “Blue Streak” Graham set a new styling direction with its valanced front fenders, slanted grille, and nicely integrated lines. It was largely the work of famed stylist Amos Northrup.

As the 1930s progressed Graham-Paige continued losing money. Sales had dropped to less than 11,000 in 1933, and president Joseph Graham knew that the company needed another breakthrough design like the Blue Streak. Supercharging added some excitement in 1934, and the eight cylinder models were dropped in 1935 to save money.

Model changes were minor over the next few years. The 1936s were carried over for 1937 while work began on the new 1938 Spirit of Motion, which was also mostly Northrup’s design, although he would die in an accident before it was completed.

When the ’38 Graham appeared, it was both different and controversial. It was dominated by a prominent hood that swept forward and a grille that slanted down and back. Its Sharknose nickname came naturally. The grille was set off by four horizontal chrome strips, the top one continuing to the rear of the car, and incorporating the door handles. The trunk was smoothly combined into the body lines.

Once past the unusual prow, the Sharknose was quite an attractive car. The body lines were nicely rounded, and square headlamps were faired into the fenders. The rear fenders were fully skirted, with the tail-lamps were mounted just below the corners of the rear windows.

The daringly styled Sharknose was greeted more enthusiastically in Europe, particularly France, than it was at home, and it won several styling awards in major French cities.

All 1938 Grahams were four-door sedans. There was one engine, a side-valve, six cylinder, 3.6 litre (218 cu in.) from Continental that came in normally aspirated 90 horsepower form, or with an optional centrifugal supercharger and 116 horsepower.

In spite of its new styling, 1938 was a dismal year for Graham; most customers just didn’t accept the new styling, and only 4,139 were sold. Short of cash, Graham-Paige had no choice but to carry on into 1939 with the Sharknose, little changed except for removal of the running boards. Two-door sedan and coupe models were added, but only about 3,600 of the ’39s went out the door.

A 1940 model of the Sharknose was offered, now called the Graham Senior, but after sales of only about 1,000, the company discontinued it. The Sharknose, while mechanically sound, had turned out to be a spectacular failure like the 1934-37 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflows before it.

Graham Paige’s last gasp was the beautiful Cord-bodied Hollywood model, which carried the company on for a few more months before it finally gave up on the car business late in 1940 and went into military work. It had survived in the automobile business longer than many marques, but the financial wounds inflicted by the Depression were just too much.

In 1944, Joseph Frazer, who had been president of Willys-Overland, gained control of Graham-Paige. After the Second World War, Frazer teamed up with ship and construction magnate Henry Kaiser to form a new car company called the Kaiser-Frazer Corp. The auto building assets of Graham-Paige became part of that enterprise.

The non-automotive part of Graham-Paige Motors soon dropped the “motors” part of its name and became a holding company. Among its assets were Madison Square Garden, and such professional sports teams as the New York Rangers.

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