1939 Nash Ambassador

A die-hard salesman, Nash Motors president George Mason believed new products were the best way to spark sales in a tough economy, so he insisted on fresh styling for 1939.

To get it, he decided to go outside, as Nash had sometimes done before. The assignment here went to independent designer George Walker (the future Ford Motor Company styling vice president), who hired former General Motors and Chrysler stylist Don Mortrude to draw up the new 1939 Nash Ambassador.

The result was partly evolutionary in that the shapes of doors, windows, and fenders were like those of the handsome 1938 Nashes. But the 1939s were much lower and sleeker. Large wheel openings showcased big 16-inch wheels wearing low-pressure tires; whitewall tires and stylish rear fender shields were available at extra cost.

The 1939 Nash Ambassador
The 1939 Nash Ambassador

The front end was especially elegant, with small "waterfall" grilles flanking a prowlike nose wearing a stack of bright, curved bars. Jewellike square headlamps nestled in "suitcase" front fenders rather than attaching to the hood sides -- very trendy. Simple bumpers had rounded ends and integrated guards. A thin bright molding ran back from the nose to the rear quarters just below the beltline.

Reprised from 1938 was a four-series lineup covering two distinct markets. Competing just above the traditional "Low-Priced Three" was the 117-inch-wheelbase Lafayette, offered in rock- bottom Special and more-popular Deluxe models. Lafayette had been the "volume" Nash since 1937, a basic auto priced to sell in high numbers.

The premium Nash also reprised two series for 1939: Ambassador Six, priced in the $925 to $1,050 range, and the Ambassador Eight at $1,175 to $1,295. Both offered a "trunkback" four-door sedan, a four-door Slipstream fastback, two-door Slipstream Victoria sedan, three-passenger business coupe, five-passenger All-Purpose coupe, and a gorgeous convertible coupe.

Trunks were "concealed" on all but the trunkback sedan, which had what Nash called a "built-in trunk." This visually recalled the add-on trunks of the 1920s, but it was fully integrated with the body. The more-traditional style sold slightly better than the sleeker Slipstream four-door, but both were popular with families.

Coupes appealed for sporty style, workmanlike utility, or both. Convertibles were more glamorous than ever with Nash's rakish 1939 styling, but these also offered a practical standard touch in fold-down "opera seats" for two rear passengers (shared with All-Purpose coupes).

Interiors continued the Nash tradition of quiet elegance. Advertising touted Ambassador's "Soft, billowy seats ... more comfortable than your favorite armchair" and "Upholstery so sumptuous you can sense its costly, long-wearing quality at a touch."

Instrument panels were fashionably adorned with chrome accents and woodgrain Tenite. Gauges with indirect night lighting were grouped ahead of the driver. Most knobs and switches were in the lower center of the dash, which had a convenient ashtray at each end. Drivers looked out a windshield that was 3.5 inches wider than before.

Nash proclaimed its 1939 Ambassador the "Most Modern Car in the World." Famed radio commentator Boake Carter said, "It bores through space like a silver bullet." Despite such hyperbole, there was much that was familiar. Wheelbases, for example, were unchanged at 121 inches for Ambassador Sixes, 125 for the more-luxurious Eights.

Also retained were splendid "Twin Ignition" inline engines with overhead valves and sturdy seven-main-bearing crankshafts. Twin Ignition signified two spark plugs per cylinder, which ensured more complete combustion.

The six again checked in at 234.8 cubic inches and 105 bhp, the eight at 260.8 cid and 115 bhp. Both were buttermilk smooth and able to run flat out all day without strain. Although not often appreciated then -- or now -- the Nash straight eight was among the best such engines of its day.

Three-speed manual transmission remained standard, but a column-mounted gearshift, a hot new idea in 1939, was available at slight extra cost. Also optional was overdrive, which Nash termed "Cruising Gear" or "Fourth Speed Forward."

A boon for highway travel and overall fuel economy, it lowered engine speed by 30 percent, saving up to 25 percent in gasoline costs and reducing both engine wear and oil consumption.

Another returning extra was Nash's "No-Rol," which "prevents the car from slipping backwards yet requires no foot for braking." Continued from 1938 was Nash's unique starting system that required pushing the clutch pedal to activate the starter, thus eliminating accidental lurching from the transmission being engaged.

Also reprised were rigid X-braced girder-type chassis with a front sway bar -- "ride stabilizer" as Nash termed it -- plus double-action shock absorbers claimed to be "40 percent larger than average ... probably the largest shock absorbers ever used in a car."

Appropriately for uplevel models, the 1939 Nash Ambassadors were well-equipped. Among the standard features were dual windshield wipers and sun visors; locks for steering, ignition, and glovebox; twin taillamps; dual horns; front-door armrests; robe cord; and passenger assist straps.

Eights added "trumpet" horns, wheel trim rings, front-floor carpet, an electric clock, glovebox light, and a flexible-spoke steering wheel with horn ring. Sedans included dual rear ashtrays and cigar lighters. Naturally, Nash dealers offered various accessories such as fog lamps, exhaust-pipe extension, a "master" bumper bar, and a DeLuxe radio with fingertip tuning and cowl antenna.

Nash continued to emphasize "travel features" for 1939, especially its advanced heating/ventilation system. Introduced the previous year as "Conditioned Air," this now added a thermostatic control to become the Weather-Eye Conditioning System. "A Twist of a Dial Turns January into June," Nash boasted.

Weather-Eye all but banished drafts, steamed-up windows, and stale interior odors by continually drawing in outside air through the heater. This also allowed the air to be warmed to a desired temperature and even partly dehumidifed en route to the cabin. The system even slightly pressurized the passenger compartment to keep out drafts.

Besides its enhanced climate system and excellent highway mileage, the Nash Ambassador encouraged four-wheel wanderlust with improved in-car sleeping accommodations: a "big, soft Convertible Bed -- ready for you in five minutes." One ad bragged that the 1939 Nash was so all-day comfortable "It'll Lead You Astray." Another predicted "You're Going to Take a Journey."

Because parents with teenagers were appalled at the idea of a rolling "hotel room," Nash tactfully portrayed its Convertible Bed as promoting thrifty family togetherness. Ads and brochures illustrated how the car could be made into a sort of camper -- although not in the way most people know now, where the front seatback drops down to mate with the rear cushion. That wasn't used until 1949.

Here, the rear seatback was folded up and a cushion put down so that mom, pop, and a couple of children could lay with their legs stretched into the trunk. This worked well enough, but was somewhat less convenient than the later arrangement. Interestingly, Nash also offered a $28 package for converting four-door sedans into a single-litter "ambulance" in less than five minutes. This was promoted as ideal for "Police ... Doctors ... Industries."

The economy rebounded smartly in 1939, and Nash benefited from a general auto-industry upturn. Revenue was $72,534,000 for the fiscal year that ended September 30. Car sales, including Lafayettes and some 1940 models, improved to 60,348 units from 41,151 in fiscal 1938.

Model-year car production climbed to 49,312, but just 11,999 were Ambassadors. Senior convertibles were especially rare: only 100 Sixes, and a mere 34 Eights. And despite the rosier economy, Nash-Kelvinator lost nearly $1.6 million in 1939, although that was certainly better than the previous year's $7.6 million shortfall.

See what 1940 had in store for the Nash Ambassador on the next page.

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