Blackout Cars

By Roderick Sergiades

There was a time when automobiles were considered rolling works of art. Packards, Duesenbergs and McLaughlin-Buicks were dressed to the nines in chrome, nickel, stainless steel and even ‘skirts’.

Almost every car worth its salt found its bonnet draped with sensuous flying goddesses or aerodynamic ‘rockets’ masquerading as hood ornaments. The Edwardian era and into the early days of The Great War was known as ‘The Brass Era’ because of the liberal amounts of that alloy splashed over those nascent automobiles, regardless of price.

By the late 1980s, chrome was largely confined to the bumpers on Grandpa’s car and the local vintage car cruise. With few exceptions, only Jaguar and Rolls Royce still adorned their chariots with hood ornaments. A silver lining was all that remained of the golden age of the automobile. So you may be mistaken in believing such unadorned cars is a recent phenomenon. And, for the most part, you would be right, but with two notable exceptions.

In the very early ’50s, when the Korean war was raging, sorry, ‘police action’, chrome began disappearing from cars due to war-time material shortages. The best example of this is seen on the 1951 Studebaker, whose ‘bullet nose’ only sported half the chrome found on the previous year’s edition.

Yet, much more dramatically, are the little known and now extremely rare 1942 calendar year cars many in the vintage car hobby have never known 75 years later. By September 1941, Canada had been at war for two years and during that time the nation had begun to wind down civilian automobile manufacturing so her factories could concentrate on war production. And while the Americans remained officially neutral, their factories had also begun to reduce domestic automobile production in favour of the war effort. With the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor that year, 1942 model year production would end very differently from previous years.

Beginning New Year’s Day 1942, both the Canadian and American federal governments mandated the automobile industry greatly restrict the amount of chromium alloy (partially made from copper and nickel), aluminum and rubber used in cars, so these vital materials could be diverted to the war effort. (Furthermore, according to author Charles Hyde, in spring 1941 and long before the Hawaiian attack, The Big Three had even run U.S. announcements there would be no 1943 models.)

Due to these restrictions, the auto industry was forced to build automobiles sans brightwork, including most exterior trim. The resulting cars were called ‘blackouts’, whose most prominent feature were their large, painted grilles. Also painted were their headlight rims, door and trunk handles, stainless steel window trim and all exterior side mouldings. Some interior trim was painted too. The only notable exceptions to this edict were chrome bumpers, door and trunk locks, wiper arms and the radio aerial.

In the U.S., cutbacks were even more severe, as only bumpers, bumper guards and wiper arms could be chromed. There was even one rumour that Chevrolet had been reduced to building cars with wooden bumpers. The remaining trim was to be painted even if finished chrome and stainless steel stock was available.

This latter requirement was enforced to ensure no one automaker had any unfair competitive advantage. Although 1941 model year Chevrolet production had exceeded 930,000 vehicles south of the border, they only built 45,472 vehicles for 1942 of which a paltry 2,350 were ‘blackout specials’ or ‘Victory Cars’ as Americans sometimes called them.

In Canada, it was a similar story. The 1941 McLaughlin-Buick saw 3,098 examples built, but ’42 production plunged to approximately 1,000, with 211 built as blackouts in that truncated year. Canadian civilian car production came to an end on February 9 that year, the U.S. followed suit just one day later.

Peace-time car production would not resume for over three and a half years when the first ’46s rolled off the assembly line as essentially warmed over ’42s for most manufacturers. The McLaughlin name would be dropped when Buick finally came back to domestic production with the 1951 models. As a result of these and other home-front shortages, bald tires became common, inner tubes were repeatedly patched and gas was rationed – and stolen through siphoning from parked vehicles. Cars were even placed on blocks by some owners for the duration of the war as many more people took to riding streetcars or walked to work.

Today, blackouts are extremely rare for all makes. In the United States, there are only two known such Studebakers in existence and one Buick. North of the border, just a single McLaughlin-Buick blackout is known to have escaped the crusher. That particular car, a four-door Special model, belongs to Wes and Lois Ebbs of Scarborough, who have owned it for over 42 years. A typical blackout, it features a painted hood ornament and tail-light trim and went one step further in having no beltline moulding. It does have the standard clock and also came with the optional under-seat heater and radio.

Powered by the small Buick 248-cubic-inch straight-8 OHV motor (produced from 1937 to 1950), it had only 68,000 miles when Wes saw it advertised in an American vintage car magazine in good running condition. Only the second guardian, if you discount the dealership’s brief ownership, Wes bought it from the same Yorkton, Saskatchewan, outlet that sold this car brand new. Now sporting just 80,000 miles, this Special has been driven to and from Calgary and twice to Michigan by the long-time McLaughlin-Buick Club of Canada member. In more recent years, Wes has acquired a rare ’75 Buick LeSabre four-door hardtop to ease the ’42s workload.

Although the blackouts have more in common with today’s cars than their contemporaries, they still carry a style no modern automobile could hope to emulate.

Photos by Richard Spiegelman

1 – 1942 Canadian Dodge blackout car

2 – 1942 Chevrolet Special Deluxe Fleetline Aero blackout sedan

3 – Rare 1942 Chrysler Town & Country blackout four-door sedan with real wood trim

4 – The McLaughlin-Buick speaker surround on the dash is painted, not plated