Knowing my penchant for old maps, a friend of a friend sent me a large envelope full of midwest road maps from the 1930s that had been stashed away at the home of a relative. Nestled amongst the Illinois and Indiana maps were materials someone had picked up on a visit to Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, including two gems: Car shopping guides published by General Motors.
The Century of Progress was a celebration of scientific discovery and technological innovation. Despite the upheavals caused by the Great Depression,, science and technology were delivering products to consumers at a rapid pace in the 1930s, from electricity to household appliances to automobiles. Automobiles had benefited tremendously from scientific research and were better in almost every way than cars produced just ten years earlier.
The Automobile Buyer’s Guide from General Motors not only served to brag about all the advances the company had brought to its products but also encouraged potential buyers to apply the same empirical methods to the shopping experience. The 80-page book celebrates the “era of careful buying” and explains that “next to the home and the insurance policy, the automobile is probably the most important purchase that the average person makes in a life-time.” In the introduction the company admits that “we naturally hope that it may help General Motors to sell more automobiles” but notes that no specific GM products are named except on the last page. GM also suggests that “perhaps some of you may be good enough to write us a little note giving us the benefit of your reactions after you have read this book” as “we may make its publication an annual affair . . . .”
In the pages that follow, GM explains in great detail the many strides that the industry had made in dependability, operating economy, safety, comfort, ease of control, speed and “pick-up” and much more. Under each heading is an extensive check list of pertinent attributes and the reader is asked to mark off those items that he or she finds most important.
The book goes on to explain in great detail how an automobile works from the engine to the transmission to the suspension to the ventilation system, a relatively new feature on automobiles in the early 1930s. A two-page spread of illustrations shows how pistons work and compares their operation to that of a cannon and in a piece that follows explains that “your automobile engine is a chemical factory” mixing 1200 cubic feet of air with each gallon of gasoline to produce 1300 cubic feet of exhaust consisting of water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. “From a chemical standpoint one might say that power is produced as a by-product.” (On this same page the writer apologizes for using the word “explosion” earlier when comparing an engine to a cannon and notes that gasoline “doesn’t really explode in a cylinder – it burns. An explosion is instantaneous while the burning process is a trifle slower.”)
In its concluding remarks, the book explains that its intent is not to tell the reader which car to buy “but rather to bring before you some facts that might aid you in arriving at a sound decision.” Furthermore, “after all is said and done, the easiest way to become a shrewd automobile buyer is to choose, not so much the car itself, but the manufacturer back of the product – in other words, select the institution which you feel is best fitted to serve you and then “UNDERWRITE” YOUR INDIVIDUAL TRANSPORTATION PROBLEMS TO THAT INSTITUTION.” (Emphasis theirs.)
“Your Car As You Would Build It” is a companion booklet to the Buyer’s Guide and offers 20 pages of check lists which the potential buyer might wish to use in evaluating his or her needs and desires.
Which body style might the buyer wish to consider? The booklet suggest six choices: roadster, phaeton, convertible, coupe, coach or sedan.
“Most people identify cars by their front end. Thus the radiator is a very important item of appearance.” Again, six different grille styles are suggested.
Four different styles of hood ventilators (louvers) are shown: vertical, horizontal, louver doors and streamline louvers.
Of the fender skirt or valance, the booklet asks: Like it? Dislike it? or Don’t Care?
How about an adjustable front seat? Does your present car have it and would you want it on your next car?
What type of engine might one wish to consider: 4 cyl., 6 cyl., “V” 8, Straight 8, 12 cyl., or 16 cyl.?
What about a starterator? (Starter button combined with foot accelerator.) “Engine is started by merely pressing accelerator. If the engine stalls it is automatically restarted by merely pressing down on the accelerator pedal.” Does your present car have this feature and would you want your next car to have it?
When the potential buyer completed the check lists he or she was encouraged to return it to General Motors – “even though you answered only a few questions” – to help the company gauge consumer preferences for each of the listed features. As the back cover of the booklet eloquently notes. “The motor car industry has never stood still – each year has brought marked mechanical improvements, better values and more artistic offerings. Your cooperation in recording your reactions on this questionnaire will contribute to a continuation of such progress.”