Historiography: The Decade That Roared

A century ago, it was presumed that we were living in a decadent society with abundant cash flow and a booming economy.

Actually, the "Roaring Twenties" did not materialize until after the dawn of the new decade. We came out of World War I trying to regroup from victory in a war that divided the USA. Yet, the 1920s would end on a down note. You probably heard of the Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Great Depression.

The automotive industry mirrored the trajectory of the 1920s. As the USA experienced an economic boom and a societal change because of it, the industry emerged out of World War I with a wide choice of brands of cars for consumers to choose from. They also ranged from the cars for the common person – the Ford Model T, for example – to the finest automobiles that newly acquired fortunes can buy – Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, and Marmon, to name a few.

The decade did not start out roaring. The year 1920 saw Prohibition take place in the USA. The Constitution was amended to stop the sale of alcoholic drinks in the country as a path towards a moral nation. If you know some of the legends of the decade, you probably know that the Constitutional amendment spurned on some illegal activity, as Americans still wanted to party and drink.

The start of the decade also signaled a wave of new technology for the era, based on some early ideas stemming from World War I. Commercial radio broadcasts began in 1920. That would change the way the world would consume news and entertainment. The first broadcast was centered on the Presidential election of 1920, where Warren G. Harding won. It would also be the first General Election in the USA where women cast their first votes ever.

Those two elements – radio and women suffrage – would spark the social revolution that would eventually filter onto the automotive industry. It would be more than a decade before radio would become a common available feature in an automobile, but the women’s vote would increase the economic and social power of both genders. Women started flooding car dealerships towards making their own consumer decisions on what they want to drive and how they would express themselves with the automobile.

From that point, the automotive industry simply took off. As the country’s economy grew, the demand for automobiles increased. Some manufacturers stood their ground for the early part of the decade. Ford introduced the Model T in 1908. It went through a few minor tweaks over time, but the basic car never changed. If you’re building a car for the world, would you change anything? Maybe a few things, but the Model T was not broke to even considered getting fixed through the mid-1920s.

Still, the Model T was reliable and affordable. That is why Ford kept on building them until 1927. It was the car that put people behind the wheel. It was also a symbol of the everyperson – a family that works hard and puts food on the table would sometimes go out on a Sunday drive to celebrate the freedom of car ownership.  

Meanwhile, the rest of the automotive industry was discovering what people wanted in a car in the 1920s. Chevrolet, Dodge Brothers, Overland, Hudson – to name a few – found that cars did not have to be one color, as in the Ford Model T. Color was what people wanted! As the decade evolved, so did paint choices. Suddenly, you saw cream colored Chevrolets, driving alongside blue Buicks, and green Dodges.

Automotive paint was not a new idea in the 1920s. It was the domain of the wealthy that demanded something more superior than anyone else on the road. The 1920s gave upper income consumers to be more creative about their cars.

It did not stop at the paint job. Custom bodies became more in vogue in the 1920s. The more custom their cars became, the more flash they can show off to the world. One did not buy just a mere Duesenberg Straight Eight. They wanted a body from a custom coachbuilder, such as Derham or Briggs.

The 1920s would also introduce us to some of our most enduring American nameplates. While it started as an independent automaker in 1917, Lincoln would become part of the Ford Motor Company in 1922. Though the purveyor of mass produced, inexpensive automobiles, Ford acquired Lincoln to rescue it from receivership. I wondered if Henry was a bit hesitant to do something with the new luxury automaker he just acquired.

Under Ford, Lincoln would be positioned to compete against General Motors’ Cadillac division and Packard. This level of luxury automobile was growing with the booming economy. New wealth meant fancier automobiles, and Ford was obliged through the new Lincoln division to deliver.

Meanwhile, Maxwell-Chalmers was just surviving with failing finances along when Walter P. Chrysler arrived at their doorstep in 1923. Chrysler came up with a rescue plan. First, to eliminate the Chalmers brand. Then, he would apply his own name to a new type of Maxwell with a six-cylinder engine that was technologically advanced available at an affordable price. By 1925, the Maxwell brand was superseded by the Chrysler one. That was when the Chrysler Corporation was born.

The success of Chrysler propelled the resurrected company to grow through new acquisitions. The Dodge Brothers were acquired in 1928 adding a strategy to position certain brands and models to specific price points and their intended customers. That same year, Chrysler added the Plymouth brand to compete against Ford and Chevrolet, as well as the new De Soto brand for medium-price customers looking at Oldsmobile.

By the mid-1920s, the automobile was a common sight in American society. It is one thing to meet the demand for cars for customers of all income brackets. They needed more. The horse-and-buggy gave way to cars that were less odorous. Electricity propelled streetcars and interurban railways, yet they also had to share space with the automobile in the city.

To support the automobile, the 1920s saw the rise of service businesses. Gas stations were popping up all of the place. Repair shops, as well. Car dealerships became destinations for both consumers and enthusiasts. You also had parking lots and garages spring up to accommodate the arrival of many automobiles into the city center.

To ensure the future of the automobile, the roads had to be improved. Dirt paths that once took covered wagons westward and wooden roads that tried to make things easier to the early automobile were not going to cut it for the evolving machine. State and Federal funding were put into place for a new network of roads that would follow the early pathways across the USA.

The Phipps Act of 1921 was the first major drive by the Federal government to develop a national network of roads that would accommodate the modern automobile. General John J. Pershing was commissioned to map out this network. The plan proposed some 78,000 miles of roadways that would include the eventual interstate highway system we know of today. Part of this was for use of the Armed Forces to mobilize armaments across the country in defense against its enemies.

By 1926, a national highway system was approved by Congress. Main arterial roads would have a numbered system of paved highways that traversed the nation. The Lincoln Highway became U.S. Highway 30 that stretched from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Astoria, Oregon.

These roads became a sensation for Sunday drivers in their new automobiles. With a booming economy, people found ways to relax away from work. National roads connected to state-funded roads to get to smaller communities away from the city. Usually, a drive would be maybe 15 miles or more from home – which is not a lot compared to today’s standards. In most metropolitan areas, 15 miles out would put you in the countryside dotted with farms and rural towns.

In the 1920s, my birthplace of Reseda was considered a farming community inside of the San Fernando Valley. People who lived in Hollywood or the older Westside neighborhoods of Los Angeles would have to climb either the Cahuenga or Sepulveda Pass to get to Reseda. The Cahuenga Pass was traversed by U.S Highway 101 – as it is today. Instead of a multi-lane freeway, the old highway was a two-lane road that bumbled up and down the pass beyond Hollywood and across the southern part of the Valley along what is now Ventura Boulevard. The good news was that it was all paved – great for Sunday drive in a Model T or a Packard.

In 1927, Ford introduced the successor of the Model T in the new Model A. The design was modernized with a rounded grille/radiator, an improved engine and gearbox, and a few modern touches. The Model A remained true to the ancestor’s mission – a reliable car at an affordable price. Except, you can have your Model A in a selection of paint colors.

A few manufacturers went out of business during the 1920s. It was tough in the first half of the decade as the economic boom would take hold by mid-decade. As soon as everyone thought the good times would roll – jazz music, flappers, speakeasies, fortunes rolled into stocks, radio programming, and so forth – it would all come to a near standstill.

As American farms grew more than they could feed, the effects of this agricultural overproduction would start to affect the rest of the economy.  It would be the over-speculation inside the New York Stock Exchange and across Wall Street that would cause the two-day slide starting from October 28, 1929.

One automotive figure would come into play as the wealthiest Americans and the most prominent banks tried to stem the slide on the stock markets. William C. Durant was building cars with his own companies, years removed from General Motors. He, along with the Rockefeller family, tried to buy a huge amount of stocks to reverse the steep drop in the market. After a one day bump on October 30, it was all downhill from there. Durant’s risk turned to a massive personal financial pitfall.

The ripple effect from the last week of October of 1929 would soon be played out towards the end of 1929 into the new decade. The Great Depression would be the result of the good times that were had in the 1920s. With many fortunes lost in the last quarter of 1929, the entire economy came to a halt. All growth became loss after New Years Day in 1930.

The automotive industry went into November of 1929 as the effects of the stock market’s drop began to be seen on the assembly line and in the front office. Job losses started to occur when businesses could not recover lost capital from the stock market’s crash.

The party was over. All that remained was the hangover that loomed over the country. From failing farms stuck with bushels of overproduced wheat to speculators whose fortunes were gone in a day or two, the Roaring Twenties lost its roar.

What the party left behind was a leap in not just the automobile, but of the culture. Abundant times gave us the infrastructure to enjoy the car – better more organized roads, a fueling network, and a service industry ensuring that the automobile remains on the road. The decade also gave us the opportunity to individualize our automobiles as a way to express ourselves and the way we live.

These are things that remain today a century later.

The 1920s were a moment in social history that catapulted a then-new technology further. The foundation was set towards the next 100 years of progress and acceptance of the fine machinery we celebrate today.

All photos by Randy Stern

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