[Editor’s Note: We’ve been following Robert Cunningham’s Orphan Babies series since he started it several years ago and have been (im)patiently awaiting volume three for what seems like forever. Robert has had a slight change in plans, however, and decided to break up volume three into a few different books, beginning with a book entirely about the Buffalo-based Playboy company, scheduled to be released later this year. In advance of this year’s one-time Playboy reunion, he sent us this excerpt from the upcoming book.]
When America’s favorite automotive journalist tested “one of the snappiest little cars on the road” in Buffalo, New York, he was mobbed at every stop. “The sheered off planes of the one piece body give it a sleek, race car look,” Tom McCahill wrote on the pages of the February 1948 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. He marveled at its easy-to-raise-or-lower counterbalanced steel top. However, he also noted that its short 90-inch wheelbase couldn’t deliver the smooth ride secure feeling of larger and heavier cars. “If you are interested in buying one for your family of seven, then you should have your head examined,” he quipped. But with a retail price of under $1,000, the new Playboy was exactly what a post-World War II motoring public demanded.
Or so it seemed.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy. The following month, the sale and delivery of civilian cars was frozen by the Office of Production Management. As the need for war materiel increased, the War Production Board briefly considered a plan that would have required five smaller American automobile producers to lump their passenger car output. For the duration of the war, all manufacturing would have taken place in one plant, thereby freeing the other four firms to concentrate solely on military output. Under the plan, name plates from Hudson, Nash, Packard, Studebaker and Willys would have been attached to one small Victory model in equal numbers. Captain Richard C. Fitch of the 2nd Regiment Mechanized Cavalry Reserve in Los Angeles quickly developed a Victory prototype using a Renault station wagon body and chassis, plus other scavenged parts. Plans called for U.S. made bodies, rebuilt engines and a projected price of $600, but the idea gained little support. Instead, General Bill Knudsen, the former head of General Motors, ordered a temporary end to civilian automobile production in order to supply Allied troops.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and tinkerers across the nation stepped up to build small cars of their own designs as soon as the war ended. Scrap metal was nearly as scarce as quality used cars, so parts were scavenged from whatever could be found. Bicycles became donors of wheels and tires; gasoline-powered washing machines gave up their motors; scooters and motorcycles were sourced when more horsepower was required; old beds were disassembled for frame rails. Most of the backyard buggies and junkmobiles were crude and boxy, but those constructed by knowledgeable tradesmen—body men, mechanics and the like—sometimes rivaled the look of sophisticated and sleek production cars that had flowed from Detroit.
Under normal circumstances, raising start-up funds from private sources for a fledgling automobile manufacturer would have seemed unreasonable. But the times were anything but normal. The public had been primed throughout the war and their purses were open. By 1945, it had become evident that Allied forces would exhaust the Axis march across Europe and the Pacific. It was no longer a question of if war would end, but when. Filled with a sense of optimism for the first time in fifteen years torn by economic depression and war, Americans optimistically looked to the future. Spending increased. Newspapers and magazines made predictions about postwar life. Across the mortar-pocked globe, weary soldiers ached for the tedious boredoms of yesterday. Since 1941 their expectations had been slowly and artificially raised by a growing army of industrial futurists. Technology, the futurists said, would transform the mundane into the marvelous, the toilsome into the convenient, and the simple into the sophisticated. The world would be rebuilt of aluminum and plastic.
Such premature promises inspired the tired. However, when arms were finally put down, industry was ill prepared to make good on those promises. Depression-lean corporations had grown fat on the fruit of remarkably short military product development and production life cycles, but retooling for the civilian market would take months—maybe years. Material was scarce and true product evolution was in the far distance. Nevertheless, a few inventive entrepreneurs refused to wait.
By August 1946, a series of optimistic conversations with Charles Thomas and Norman Richardson had convinced Louis Horwitz that the trio could manufacture their own baby cars. Horwitz would provide financing, Richardson would contribute inventions and ideas, and Thomas would design. With pen in hand, Horwitz carefully wordsmithed his appeal to potential investors in a cursive style that only he could read. Once satisfied, he carefully typed his proposal on Lou Horwitz Motor Sales letterhead:
I wish I could sit down with you in person and tell you in detail of the great opportunity you are about to read because you are one of the few men in the country who are capable of understanding this very confidential and very unusual letter and acting upon it, knowing it is possibly one of the most important letters that you have ever read, and is certainly one of the most important I’ve ever written. I am seeking the financial aid of a limited group of men who are pioneers in a 20th Century America. Men who have the courage and faith to support new ideas and have the determination and fighting spirit that has made this country possible. As you know, it was individuals of this type who have built the great auto industry to its present position in the world. Their vision and foresight has made it possible to earn unlimited millions yearly consistently from the humble beginning…this same opportunity exists today. I have the special unbridled enthusiasm and determination that has made this country great. And the free enterprise that keeps it great. Are you a 20th Century pioneer? Are you interested in becoming one of the limited group?
Nine months later, a well-proportioned three-passenger convertible emerged from Richardson’s modest garage. Its jet black finish glistened in stark contrast to its top of white sail cloth with a narrow, wrap-around Lucite rear window. The little car shared many similarities with the contemporary Bobbi-Kar sport roadster convertible prototype, including slab-sided styling, rear engine placement, and general proportions. However, Thomas’s superior design skill was evident. He recognized the aesthetic importance of a front-mounted grille, even though it was unnecessary for a rear-engine car, so two horizontal chrome strips spanned the distance between two sealed beam headlights mounted just above the sturdy front bumper. The 4-cylinder, 26-horsepower Continental engine powered the rear wheels through an automatic planetary transmission. The Midget chassis also featured independent suspension on all four 12-inch wheels.
Lou Horwitz had predicted Playboy production would commence by May 1947, but delays were necessary. As production plans solidified, Charles Thomas completely redesigned the car. The rear-engine prototype proved far too complex to manufacture economically, so Thomas engineered a new front-engine, rear-wheel-drive chassis to carry a 4-cylinder, 48-horsepower Continental Model F-4124 engine. A unique front suspension system incorporated a knee-action coil spring design that provided an unusually stable ride; springs and shocks turned with the wheels. The grille now featured three horizontal chrome bars over an open ventilation area, and three chrome strips spanned the dashboard in the place where higher-priced cars carried a glove box.
Thomas even went a step further to devise a safer, fully retractable, all-steel hardtop. The turret was divided in the center where it folded and disappeared into a storage area behind the seat. In the down position, the front portion of the roof doubled as a tonneau cover.
Some columnists said Thomas may have lifted not only the steel convertible top idea, but the entire Playboy design, from Chrysler’s three sexy Thunderbolt concept cars of 1942, which had been designed by Alex Tremulis after he completed his work with American Bantam Car Company. The Thunderbolt’s one-piece aluminum top also tucked away behind the seat. In many ways, the new Playboy did resemble a miniature Thunderbolt.
In fact, the disappearing steel top idea had been around since 1920 when B. B. Ellerbeck created a crank-down hard top and installed it on a Hudson Super Six. In France, Peugeot had incorporated a one-piece retractable top similar to the Thunderbolt on its 1934 model 401 Eclipse convertible coupe. Thomas’ explanation for why he replaced the Playboy’s folding cloth top with a steel retractable version was more pragmatic than the writers’ suppositions: “I was more skilled in metal shaping than in sewing canvas to top bows,” he said. “So I made steel tops.”
From Playboy Motor Car Corporation’s white collar offices on the first floor of a brick residence within the old Brunn Body Company at 988 Ellicott Street, Louis Horwitz approved the first retractable hardtop on August 17, 1947. Construction of several more pilot cars began in a garage space of less than 10,000 square feet. A second car was finished in September and two more followed in October. Norm Richardson stamped out body panels and assembled them over a temporary support framework fashioned from scraps of angle iron. Welders Fred Zefers and Leon Samuels permanently attached each panel to the next in an early version of unibody construction. Irving Albee and Wendel Fearby fit the door panels, hoods, and deck lids to the bodies while Ray Hesslinger, Albert Eichler and Richard Diamond stamped out the gasoline tanks, dashboards and other small parts. Wilbert Richardson spray painted each outer body, and then applied a heavy undercoat to deaden sound and hide weld seams.
From the very start, citizens of Buffalo had been united in their enthusiasm for their homegrown celebrity, confident of Playboy’s success. A Playboy convertible had been featured front-and-center in a downtown Buffalo department store window display, wherein a dozen happy mannequins were dressed in the store’s finest winter apparel and strolling down the snow-covered sidewalk in front of the most popular place in town, the National Bank. However, the recent allegations of stock fraud leveled against Tucker Motors prompted the Buffalo Better Business Bureau to issue a stern warning to anyone who might be inclined to invest in Playboy—this after the company contracted with stock promoter Walter Tellier to raise $8.5 million.
Having made an example of Tucker, the Securities and Exchange Commission turned its full attention toward Playboy. Production had totaled only 94 cars before completion of its 1948 pilot program, and during that time, no more than two cars per week were ever completed. Yet, Lou Horwitz appeared to be living quite comfortably, a fact that troubled the investigators.
“Yes, we always had the best of everything,” daughter Tootie recalled. “He built a home in the most prestigious area in Buffalo and he was admired by everyone. The family had a wonderful life together and I had everything you could ask for. Life in the making of the Playboy was very exciting for all of us. Daddy traveled all over the country meeting people and introducing the car. He had his own special car; it was a beauty.”
Granted, Horwitz’s $25,000 annual salary would have been tenfold higher than the salaries earned by most American laborers at the time. But it was peanuts compared to other car company presidents. And it was unlikely that he ever drew on that salary, as he had sufficient income from his local Lou Horwitz Motors used car lots and Kaiser-Frazer dealership. According to his family, Horwitz was never more than a simple, hard-working man.
It had been on the word of respected automotive journalists and industrial designers that the postwar baby car had boomed. And it was at the hands of a discerning public that the boom was going bust. Bobbi-Kar’s ousted leader, John Leifeld, had attempted a comeback with his little Towne Shopper, but his efforts went nowhere fast.
Although Keller Motors had sold enough stock to gain a strong financial foundation, the suspicious Securities and Exchange Commission tightened its watch. Gary Davis introduced an innovative three-wheeler, but the SEC had him in their sights, too. Even Crosley’s impressive sales were about to peak and tumble. Only a miraculous infusion of cash and creativity could keep Playboy afloat.
“PLAYBOY: America’s First Retractable Hardtop Convertible” tells the story of a car-starved, post-World War II marketplace and three ordinary guys from Buffalo, New York, whose combination of skill, self-confidence and sheer determination produced a truly innovative solution. Author Robert D. Cunningham thoroughly chronicles the rise and fall of the Playboy Motor Car Corporation and describes how competitive activities from Bobbi-Kar, Keller, Crosley, Kaiser-Frazer and other upstarts influenced the fledgling company. The book also includes the previously unpublished “Playboy General Service Manual” (which had been typed and illustrated in 1948 but never published) and complete factory production records listing completion dates, body and engine numbers, paint colors, and other details for each Playboy built.
For more details on the book, write to Robert at Cunningham Studio, P.O. Box 513, Johnston, Iowa 50131-0513, or email me at OrphanBabies@mchsi.com.