Throughout most of its history, Chevrolet has made the right moves at the right time. To follow the Stovebolt, division general manager William "Big Bill" Knudsen and GM design director Harley Earl cooked up an elegant line of Cadillac-style cars for 1929-32. The 1930-31 line comprised a single series offering roadsters for two or four passengers, a phaeton, three coupes, and two sedans. Prices were attractively low: $495-$685.
The 1930-33 Chevys carried a different series name each year: in order, Universal, Independence, Confederate, then Eagle (deluxe) and Mercury (standard). This practice was ended for 1934, when models were grouped into Master and Standard lines. Master tacked on the "DeLuxe" handle for '35, and Standards became Masters for 1937-39.
Chevy styling in these years evolved along the lines of costlier GM cars. The '33s, with their skirted fenders and graceful lines, were perhaps the most-attractive Chevrolets of the decade. Body styles proliferated, and by 1932 included such exotics as a $625 landau phaeton.
The 1933 Eagles offered many features designed to win buyers from Ford: a Fisher body with "No-Draft Ventilation" front-door ventwing windows, airplane-type instruments, Cadillac-style hood doors, a cowl vent, synchromesh transmission, selective free-wheeling, safety plate glass, adjustable driver's seat, even an octane selector.
Many of these also appeared on the standard Mercury models. Wheelbases gradually lengthened, going from 1930's 107 inches to 109 for 1931-32, then to 107/110 for the '33 Mercury/Eagle; the '34 Master/Standard split 112/107.
Chevy fared well in this period despite the prevailing Depression. Production outpaced Ford's each year in 1931-33, bottoming to 313,000 units for '32, but recovering to 486,000 for '33. Volume then soared to nearly a million by 1936, though Ford was nearer.
Along with more-streamlined styling, 1934 brought new "Knee-Action" independent front suspension (IFS) to Master models, Bill Knudsen's last major decision before leaving Chevy in October 1933. According to writer Karl Ludvigsen, engineer Maurice Olley tried to discourage Knudsen from using it, saying there weren't enough centerless grinding machines in America to produce all the coil springs.
Knudsen replied this was just what the machine-tool industry needed to get back on its feet. Still, he limited the new suspension to the one line. Knee-Action wasn't universally liked, so Standard/Master retained solid front axles through 1940, after which all Chevys had IFS.
The 1935s were the last Chevys with any styling kinship to the "classic" era. Master DeLuxe added an inch of wheelbase to suit sleeker new bodies with Vee'd windshield, streamlined fenders, and a raked-back radiator with cap concealed beneath the hood, then an innovation. Also new was the corporate all-steel "Turret Top" construction without the traditional fabric roof insert.
Modernization continued for 1936 as Chevrolet adopted still-rounder styling of the streamlined school, highlighted by die-cast "waterfall" grilles, steel-spoke wheels (wires remained optional), and sleeker fenders. As ever, Chevy relied on extra features to win sales from Ford.
A big plus for '36 was hydraulic brakes, which Ford wouldn't offer until 1939 (thanks mainly to old Henry's stubbornness). Chevy was also quicker than Ford to drop body styles without roll-up windows, abandoning both roadsters and phaetons for 1936. The two series became more alike, as both used the 80-bhp 206.8-cid Stovebolt.
The redesigned 85-bhp engine of 1937 made Chevrolet particularly well equipped for the sales battle. However, styling became rather dull, as it did for other GM cars, with skinny, uninteresting grilles and high, bulky bodies that looked clumsy next to the increasingly streamlined Fords. Despite that, Chevy regained production supremacy for model-year '38, and until the '90s, at least, rarely surrendered it to Dearborn.
For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:
- Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices