1937-1939 Chevrolet

The development of the 1937 Chevrolet had its roots in the models of the decade before. The background story offers some insight on Chevrolet's evolution.

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A larger, lighter, more powerful six-cylinder engine was at the heart of the 1937 Chevrolets.
A larger, lighter, more powerful six-cylinder engine was at the
 heart of the 1937 Chevrolets. See more pictures of Chevys.

When Chevrolet introduced its 1929 line in December 1928, it advertised "a Six in the price range of the Four." Which, in fact, it was. At $595, the top-selling coach -- as two-door sedans were called then -- cost only $10 more than 1928's four-cylinder Chevy in the same body type.

The public may have wondered how it was done, but there is little doubt that engineers throughout the industry knew the answer to that riddle: The first-generation Chevrolet Six, though a very attractive and generally serviceable automobile, was in some respects no better than it had to be. (By the way, we know it's not exactly fair to think of the 1929 as the first Chevrolet Six. Chevrolet had built two lines of six-cylinder cars between 1912 and 1915, but so few of them were sold that they remain of little significance, except, perhaps, to automotive historians specializing in that era.)

In order to produce a good looking, decently finished six-cylinder car with adequate performance for so low a price, some corners had to be cut. For instance, the aluminum pistons employed by the four-cylinder 1928 Chevrolets were replaced by cast iron buckets in the new six. Hence the sobriquet, "The Cast Iron Wonder," by which Chevrolets were known for more than 20 years.

As a further economy measure, three main bearings were employed where four would have contributed substantially to the engine's longevity. Poured babbitt was used in lieu of inserts for the connecting rod bearings, and lubrication was by the primitive "splash" system.

Buyers willing to forego a few amenities could have a new 1937 Chevrolet for as little as $618.
Buyers willing to forego a few amenities could
have a new 1937 Chevrolet for as little as $618.

The head bolts looked like something that might have come from grandma's kitchen range, hence, another widely used nickname, "The Stovebolt Six." Underneath, axles were notoriously weak and subject to breakage when put under too much strain.

As fitted to the 1929 models, the new six had a displacement of 194 cubic inches and was rated at 46 bhp, six more than its principal rival, the four-cylinder Ford Model A. By 1935, the axle had been strengthened. Displacement had grown to 206.8 cubes and, thanks to differences in the carburetor and compression ratio, horsepower had risen to 80 (though it was backed off to 79 for the 1936 models).

But the Chevrolet faced vigorous competition from both Ford and Plymouth. By the mid-1930s, it had become obvious that a new, stronger engine was needed if Chevrolet was to maintain its preeminent position in the low-priced field.

For more on Chevrolet's new engine, see the next page.

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1937 Chevrolet Engine

Accordingly, engineer Edward H. Kelley, working under the direction of Chief Engineer James M. Crawford, undertook to develop a revised version of the "Cast Iron Wonder" for the 1937 Chevrolet engine.

Business coupes, like this 1937 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe, had a top-hinged decklid.
Business coupes, like this 1937 Chevrolet Master
DeLuxe, had a top-hinged decklid.

The company, doubtless anxious to avoid casting any aspersions on the earlier engine, didn't make a big deal of the improvements in its advertising. But as it appeared in the 1937 models, the Chevrolet six was improved in so many respects that it might be regarded as a virtually brand-new engine.

  • While displacement was increased only slightly, to 216.5 cubic inches, the stroke-to-bore ratio was shortened from 1.21:1 to 1.07:1. This made possible the use of shorter, stronger rods.
  • A new, stronger, 68-pound crankshaft was cradled in four main bearings, instead of the previous three, while bearing surface was increased by 10 percent.
  • A 1937 sales brochure described the improved oiling system thusly: "Positive pressure feed to crankshaft, camshaft and valve rocker arms. Connecting rod bearings lubricated by dippers at low speeds, and at higher speeds by pressure jets of oil directed against the dippers."
  • Pistons, though still made of cast iron, were now domed and designed with "slipper" skirts. Thus, their efficiency was increased while their weight was substantially reduced.
  • The new powerplant was slightly shorter and 52 pounds lighter than its predecessor, and its compression ratio was advanced from 6.0:1 to 6.25:1. This not only increased horsepower to 85 (matching the advertised figure of Ford's V-8), but -- just as importantly -- it raised the torque output from 156 to 160 pound-feet.

Nor were improvements confined to the engine. A new transmission was shorter and lighter than the previous unit, and the synchromesh was reworked for smoother operation and greater durability. The result was a transmission that was simply delightful to use. (Until, that is, a vacuum-assist was added for 1939. But we'll come to that part of the story presently.)

Thanks to hypoid gearing, the floor was nearly two inches flatter than before. A torque tube replaced the former Hotchkiss drive.

For four years, there had been two distinctly different Chevrolet series. The junior range used a 107-inch wheelbase from 1933 through 1935, stretching it to 109 inches for 1936. The senior models started with a 110-inch wheelbase for 1933, stretching it to 112 the following year, and extending it again to 113 inches for 1935-1936.

But for 1937, in an abrupt change of direction, all Chevrolet passenger cars were the same size, employing a 112.3-inch chassis. A new box-girder frame, based on that of the 1936 low-line Standard series, was said to be 30 percent stronger, yet one-third lighter than the unit employed for the 1935-1936 Master DeLuxe models.

Bodies were now made entirely of steel, a sharp departure from Chevrolet's traditional "composite" construction. Once again, two series were offered, known as Master and Master DeLuxe.

At first glance, there wasn't a lot to distinguish Master DeLuxe models from Masters, but if the prospective buyer looked closely, there were a number of differences that more than justified the approximately $70 difference in their prices.

For instance, upholstery in the Master DeLuxe was far superior to that of the cheaper series. Dual taillights and twin wipers were furnished on the Master DeLuxe, and on its dash panel was an engine temperature indicator, a valuable instrument missing from the less-expensive line.

Steering in the Master models was of the worm-and-straddle-mounted sector design, using a ratio of 16.0:1. The Master DeLuxe, on the other hand, employed the worm-and-roller sector mechanism, with a slightly slower ratio of 17.5:1.

Axle ratios differed as well, with the Master models employing 3.73:1 gearing, while the Master DeLuxe was fitted with 4.22:1 cogs, which of course provided faster performance off the line, though at some sacrifice in economy. (We've noted, by the way, that many restorers of Chevrolets of this era -- both Master and Master DeLuxe -- are opting for the taller gears, in the interest of quieter operation at modern highway speeds.)

For more on the 1937 Chevrolet, continue to the next page.

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1937 Chevrolet

But the biggest difference between the two 1937 Chevrolet lines was "Knee Action," a tricky term for independent front suspension. The device, unavailable on Master models, was standard on the Master DeLuxe cars, providing them with a remarkably comfortable ride, unusual in a low-priced car.

This 1937 Chevrolet, built for export to Norway, wears rare accessory side-mounted spare tires.
This 1937 Chevrolet, built for export to Norway,
wears rare accessory side-mounted spare tires.

­Perhaps we should explain at this point that during 1934, all of the General Motors cars, except the Chevrolet Standard series, featured some form of independent front suspension.

The larger marques employed a "link parallelogram," or "A-bracket" system developed by Cadillac's Maurice Olley, while Chevrolet (and Pontiac, initially) used a mechanism developed by Andre Dubonnet, a well-known race driver and heir to a French wine fortune. Dubonnet's system was based on coil-spring trailing arms and integral double-acting shock absorbers.

Both its systems had the advantage of reducing unsprung weight, thus largely eliminating the problem of shimmy that had bedeviled automakers ever since the twin advents of four-wheel brakes and balloon tires. And both systems led to a noticeably smoother ride, but Maurice Olley's design proved by far to be the more durable of the two.

Pontiac would adopt it for 1937, with Chevrolet following two years later. One might ask why General Motors didn't adopt the Olley mechanism across the board to begin with. Two explanations have been offered. The first is that the Dubonnet setup could be preassembled and shipped to Chevrolet assembly plants all over the world, ready for quick installation on the car.

The second explanation, at least equally plausible, holds that in 1934, there simply weren't enough centerless grinding machines to prepare the wire for as many coil springs as Chevrolet would require, had it adopted the A-bracket system then. The Dubonnet setup used a smaller type of coil spring that was easy to manufacture in large numbers.

Cars fitted with the early Dubonnet "Knee-Action" units had a disconcerting tendency to tuck under on very hard cornering. So, for 1937, Leon A. Chaminade, a suspension expert recruited from Studebaker, completely redesigned them for better handling and greater durability. The system still required more meticulous maintenance than most American drivers were accustomed to giving their cars, however, so the Dubonnet system was never as satisfactory as the "A-Bracket" design.

Chevrolet's styling for 1937 was the work of Jules Agramonte, who had made his reputation as designer of the strikingly beautiful 1934 LaSalle. He was assisted by Lewis Simon, who did much of the detail work.

It was a crisp design, one that has clearly stood the test of time better than those of its principal rivals. A distinguishing feature of the 1937 Chevy (and the 1938 as well) was a crease in the body, starting in the valley between the front fender and engine compartment, then flowing at a sinking angle back across the cowl and onto the front door. In profile, the effect of this crease presaged the extended fenders that would appear on the 1942 models. It was a simple touch, but an effective one. Harley Earl, General Motors's styling chief, called it the "diamond crown speedline."

Bodies were considerably more spacious than before. This was accomplished in a number of ways. First, thanks to the new frame, it was possible to move the engine forward by a little more than three inches. Front and rear seats were shifted ahead by 2.5 inches and 4.25 inches, respectively. Body width was greater by four inches, floors were two inches lower, and rear doors were four inches longer on sedans.

Yet despite the additional roominess, the 1937 model was a lighter car than its predecessor. The Master DeLuxe two-door town sedan, for instance, weighed about 95 pounds less than its 1936 counterpart.

Explore the 1937 Chevrolet lineup on the next page.

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1937 Chevrolet Lineup

All told, the 1937 Chevrolet lineup offered a total of 12 distinct models, six each in the Master and Master DeLuxe lines. Offered in both series were the business coupe, coach, town sedan (coach with built-in trunk), four-door sedan, and sport sedan (the four-door with trunk).

Four passenger models, such as the 1937 Chevrolet convertible, used a rumble seat.
Four-passenger models, such as the 1937
Chevrolet convertible, used a rumble seat.

Exclusive to the Master DeLuxe line was the sport coupe with rumble seat, while the cabriolet -- surprisingly -- appeared only as a Master model. Once again, as it had been during 1936, the town sedan was by far the best seller in both series.

The economy was in better shape during 1937 than it had been in some time. Evidently, it was on this account that prices began to rise throughout the automobile industry. The 1937 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe town sedan, for instance, sold for $620 when it was introduced in November 1936. By spring, however, that figure had risen to $690, an increase of just over 11 percent.

By 1937, Chevrolet was already making deep inroads into the commercial vehicle market. It was hardly a newcomer to the field at that time, for a commercial chassis based on the Chevrolet 490 car line had been offered as early as 1918. But in the early days, production of the Chevy commercials had not reached high volume.

With the introduction of the Series V Superior in 1926, Chevrolet offered a smart little roadster pickup for a few years that featured a small pickup bed fitted in place of the roadster's customary "turtleback." Then, beginning in 1928, there was a handsome sedan delivery, styled to resemble the Chevrolet passenger cars.

Nineteen thirty-six saw the debut of another car-based commercial, variously known as the coupe-express, or coupe-pickup. Rooted in that year's Standard series, it was a dual-purpose vehicle derived from the business coupe, but supplied with a cargo box that could be easily substituted in a few moments' time for the rear decklid, thus converting the car into a handy little pickup truck, all for $535.

This model resurfaced as a member of the Master series for 1937, remaining in the line through the abbreviated 1942 model year. The 1936 was equipped with a fender-mounted spare tire, but for 1937, the spare was stowed on its side in a bin under the 66-inch-long pickup bed. (The bed was 38 inches wide and offered foot-high sides.)

The business end of the coupe-pickup continued virtually unchanged through 1939 while adopting sheetmetal and engineering changes common to Chevy passenger cars.

Surprisingly, it was never a hot ticket on the sales floor. After selling 3,183 units in 1936, the tally was down to just 1,264 three years later. (Fewer than 600 of the 1940s would roll off the line.)

The sedan delivery was also based on the straight-axle Master. It received a new body for 1937 with a cargo area 68 inches long, 54 inches wide, and 41 inches high. This body remained untouched until 1939, when a straighter rear panel was employed.

This change reduced load length by two inches, however. Demand for the $595 1937 model came to 9,404 units, but slumped to 5,742 in recessionary 1938, before rebounding to 8,090 in 1939, when prices were cut by $21 to $673.

Though the coupe-pickup and sedan delivery were built on Chevrolet's passenger-car chassis and styled accordingly, they were marketed among the division's truck models. So, too, were the wood-bodied station wagons, which debuted in 1939. In fact, the 1939 Master 85 wagon came in a choice of conventional two-piece tailgate or side-hinged doors.

To continue the story with the 1938 Chevrolet, go to the next page.

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1938 Chevrolet

Chevrolet spent some $26 million -- big money, for those times -- tooling up for the 1937 models, so it comes as no surprise that the 1938 Chevrolet line was little changed. A restyled grille and enlarged hood louvers were the most obvious external signs of change in the 1938 Chevrolets.

A triangular badge identified the 1938 Chevrolet sedans from the rear.
A triangular badge identified the 1938 Chevrolet
sedans from the rear.

The smart new diecast grille, featuring horizontal bars in place of vertical ones, was the work of Frank Hershey, who had come to General Motors a few years earlier to design the handsome 1933 Pontiac. But in most respects, Agramonte's beautiful 1937 design was left intact.

Mechanical changes for 1938 were minor, yet significant. Heavier valve springs were fitted to the engine; the water pump was improved; a voltage regulator was added; a sturdier, yet smoother, clutch was adopted; the worm-and-roller steering, formerly confined to the Master DeLuxe models, was extended throughout the line; and thanks to a new axle, the rear tread was widened from 579/16 to 59 inches.

Chevrolet prices were increased slightly for 1938. The volume-leading Master DeLuxe Town Sedan, for instance, sold for $750, compared to 1937's $720, a difference of about four percent. The increase was poorly timed, however, for 1938 proved to be a recession year and Chevrolet's volume (calculated on a calendar-year basis) fell by 43.5 percent. Most other manufacturers did even worse. At Ford, for instance, volume was down by 51.7 percent, while Dodge lost just over 63 percent of its 1937 market.

The two-passenger 1938 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe vastly outsold its rumble-seated running mate.
The two-passenger 1938 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe
vastly outsold its rumble-seated running mate.

As had been the case with 1937 Chevrolets, all 1938s rode a 112.3-inch wheelbase. The two-door town sedan remained the most popular model in the entry-level Master series; with 95,050 produced, it outsold its trunkless companion model by almost 29-to-1.

For an additional $61, a Chevy shopper could have the Master DeLuxe version of the town sedan, which included such standard niceties as dual windshield wipers and taillights. The faired-in trunk compartment used external hinges.

An economic recession wreaked havoc on the auto market of 1938. Chevrolet wasn't immune to the sharp dip in sales, but for some reason, demand for its relatively costly Master convertible actually increased by more than 1,000 cars.

The nation experienced a partial economic recovery during 1939, and Chevrolet was ready for it with an unusually attractive new model. "Only Chevrolet Gives So Much for So Little," proclaimed the sales brochures.

The 1937-1938 body was so thoroughly reworked as to effectively disguise its origins. A new, prowlike grille was clearly inspired by that of the contemporary Cadillac, as were the "suitcase" fenders. Overall length was increased by five inches, adding to the new model's impressive appearance.

For more on the 1939 Chevrolet, continue to the next page.

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1939 Chevrolet

Perhaps the most interesting new feature of the 1939 Chevrolet was the "vacuum gear-shift," a $10 option that appears to have been fitted to most of the 1939s. A short lever was mounted behind the steering wheel, leaving the floor free from the then-familiar obstruction of the shift lever.

A new grille with Cadillac overtones graced the 1939 Chevrolet.
A new grille with Cadillac overtones graced
the 1939 Chevrolet.

Chevrolet claimed that "80 percent of the effort required for shifting is provided by a vacuum cylinder." Light pressure of the fingertips was all that it took to change gears. Chevrolet retained this feature through the 1948 season, supplying it as standard equipment commencing in 1940.

However, quite a few owners complained that in time the vacuum mechanism ceased to function and shifting gears became stiff and cumbersome.

There were again two series for 1939, known this time as Master 85 and Master DeLuxe. For the first time, car-like station wagons were officially rostered, their wooden bodies supplied by several constructors. The wagons were available in both series, though technically they were classified as commercial vehicles, a fairly common practice in the early years of station wagons.

Oddly enough, however, Chevrolet did not offer a cabriolet for 1939. Perhaps this omission should come as no surprise, since only 2,787 of the ragtops had been sold during the 1938 season, but it could hardly have pleased the dealers, who often liked to keep a convertible on the floor as a showroom attraction.

With more than 220,000 produced, the 1939 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe town sedan continued as the customer favorite.
With over 220,000 produced, the 1939 Chevrolet
Master DeLuxe town sedan was the customer favorite.

The most heavily revised of the 1939 Chevrolets was the Master DeLuxe sport coupe. This time, in place of the drafty, awkward rumble seat, Chevrolet provided a pair of "jump seats" for the extra passengers. Tucked away behind the front seat, they offered somewhat cramped accommodations, but at least they provided their occupants with protection from the weather.

These seats could be readily folded up out of the way, supplying additional cargo space. This type of seating arrangement was not originated by Chevrolet. Incidentally Nash, among others, had offered it at least two years earlier. And it didn't remain a Chevrolet feature for very long: When the 1940 models appeared, sport coupes were provided with a full-width rear seat.

Prices were reduced somewhat for 1939, and although volume still fell short of 1937's record, Chevrolet sales forged ahead by nearly 25 percent, somewhat widening its lead over Ford. The nation's economy was on the upswing by then, and better times were yet to come. But the phenomenal success of the 1940-1948 Chevrolet is a story for another time.

For models, prices, and production numbers of the 1937-1939 Chevrolet, continue to the next page.

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1937-1939 Chevrolet Models, Prices, Production

Eight years after Chevrolet entered the low-priced six-cylinder field with its "Cast Iron Wonder," it was time for the division to make some upgrades. An improved engine and smooth, contemporary styling combined to make Chevrolet a better value in the late 1930s. Here are the specifications for the 1937-1939 Chevrolet:

Most four-door sedan purchaser gravitated toward the $766 Master DeLuxe sport sedan.
Most four-door sedan purchasers gravitated toward
the $766 Master DeLuxe sport sedan.

1937 Chevrolet Master Models, Prices, Production

Master (wheelbase 112.3)
coupe, 2-passenger
convertible coupe, 2/4-passenger
2-door sedan1
2-door Town sedan2
4-door sedan3
4-door Sport sedan2
2,885716 43,240
Total 1937 Chevrolet Master


1937 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe Models, Prices, Production

Master DeLuxe (wheelbase 112.3)
coupe, 2-passenger
coupe, 2/4-passenger
2-door sedan1
2-door Town sedan2
4-door sedan3
4-door Sport sedan2
2,960788 144,110
Total 1937 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe

Total 1937 Chevrolet


1938 Chevrolet Master Models, Prices, Production

Master (wheelbase 112.3)
coupe, 2-passenger
convertible coupe, 2/4-passenger
2-door sedan1
2-door Town sedan2
4-door sedan3
4-door Sport sedan2
2,845750 20,952
Total 1938 Chevrolet Master


1938 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe Models, Prices, Production

Master DeLuxe (wheelbase 112.3)
coupe, 2-passenger
coupe, 2/4-passenger
2-door sedan1
2-door Town sedan2
4-door sedan3
4-door Sport sedan2
Total 1938 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe

Total 1938 Chevrolet


1939 Chevrolet Master 85 Models, Prices, Production

Master 85 (wheelbase 112.3)
coupe, 2-passenger
2-door sedan1
2-door Town sedan2
4-door sedan3
4-door Sport sedan2
2,845710 22,623
4-door station wagon
Total 1939 Chevrolet Master 85


1939 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe Models, Prices, Production

Master DeLuxe (wheelbase 112.3)
coupe, 2-passenger
coupe, 2/4-passenger
2-door sedan1
2-door Town sedan2
4-door sedan3
4-door Sport sedan2
4-door station wagon
Total 1938 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe

Total 1938 Chevrolet


1Trunkless model also known as the "coach."
2With integral trunk.
3Trunkless model.
4Does not include chassis units or export models. Some sources cite the following model-year totals: 825,220 (1937), 470,776 (1938), and 587,177 (1939).
5Includes 229 built with folding end gates and 201 built with rear door.

Sources: Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Publications International, Ltd., 1996; 75 Years of Chevrolet, by George H. Dammann, Crestine Publishing Company, 1986.

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