1948 Playboy
1948 Playboy. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Edward “Ned” Jordan’s Jordan Motor Car Company of Cleveland, Ohio, is credited with originating what we would now term lifestyle advertising, the most famous of which was the “Somewhere West of Laramie” print advertisement in 1923.

It promoted his Jordan Playboy model, and was so successful that when the name Playboy comes up in connection with cars, Jordan is the make that usually comes to mind. There was, however, a more recent but less well known Playboy car. It was built in Buffalo, New York from 1947 to 1951 by the Playboy Motor Car Corporation.

Although it struggled valiantly, this latter day Playboy enjoyed nowhere near the sales success of the Jordan Playboy, although the Jordan company did ultimately succumb to the Depression in 1931.

Early in 1942 North American automobile production ceased as the car companies turned their efforts to the military needs of the Second World War. When they resumed building cars in 1945 after a 3-1/2 year hiatus there was a huge pent-up demand for new cars.

Established motor manufacturers returned as quickly as possible to building slightly revised versions of their ’42 models until they could design new ones. Not surprisingly, this seller’s market attracted many upstart car companies, the most successful of which was Kaiser-Frazer, which lasted in North America until 1955.

The makers of other vehicles, such as the Tucker, the Bobbi-Kar, which became the Keller, and the three-wheeled Davis, also tried to get into the automobile business, without lasting success. Also among this group was the Playboy.

The Playboy was a sporty, three-passenger convertible (a wagon was also planned, although not built). Its most interesting feature was a fold-down steel top. This was hinged in the middle, the seam being sealed with a rubber gasket that company engineers swore wouldn’t leak. It was manually operated, and could be raised and lowered from the driver’s seat.

When folded, the top formed part of the rear deck. In this endeavour, Playboy joined a few others such as Peugeot in the 1930s, Ford’s retractable Skyliner of the ’50s, and currently the Mercedes-Benz SLK and others, that marketed true hard-top convertibles.

Apart from the folding steel top, the rest of the Playboy was pretty conventional. Its 40 horsepower, Continental four-cylinder, side-valve engine drove the rear wheels through a three-speed transmission.

The Playboy was quite small, with a 2,286 mm (90 in. wheelbase and an over-all length of just 3,962 mm (156 in.). It had 6.00 by 12-inch tires, and weighed 862 kg (1900 lb). The body and frame were welded together in a kind of unit construction.

The Playboy was an “assembled” car. That is, its major components, such as the engine and transmission, came from outside sources. The company tried to capitalize on this by advertising that “all standard automotive parts are used, thus facilitating servicing.” Suspension was conventional independent A-arms and coil springs in front and a solid axle and leaf springs at the rear.

Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated magazine’s car tester, put a Playboy through its paces for the February, 1948, issue of MI (when the magazine sold for, believe it or not, just 15 cents). Tom reported that the Playboy’s 40 horsepower engine gave it “the snap of a rubber band,” (a typical McCahillism). In numbers, this snap translated into a zero to 48 km/h (30 mph) time of six seconds, and zero to 80 (50) of 17 seconds.

Although company engineers stated that it had a top speed of 121 km/h (75 mph), Tom could only get 114 (71), but he did opine that when fully broken in it may have reached the claimed speed.

Fuel economy was good, but again McCahill’s numbers were less favourable than the company’s: the manufacturer claimed 35 miles per gallon; Tom reported 30.

Regarding handling, McCahill’s opinion was mixed: “As long as the road is reasonably smooth, it hugs it like a leech. Naturally when bumps or ruts occur this light, short, 90-inch wheelbase job will not sit as well or give you the feeling of security you get in a larger, heavier car.”

The dream in those days, which few achieved, was to offer a sub-$1,000 car. Playboy reached this goal by pricing the Playboy at $995, f.o.b. Buffalo, meaning that buyers paid the freight.

The Playboy, like other domestic postwar upstarts, didn’t make it. The usual under-capitalization precluded proper development and marketing. In the meantime, established car manufacturers were preparing their appealing new models. As well, the seller’s market was quickly turning around.

The company struggled for four years during which an estimated 97 Playboy cars were built. Bankruptcy came in 1951, and with it the close of another interesting, brief, and ill-fated chapter in automotive history.

Connect with Autos.ca