How Graham Cars Work


With skirted wheel shields and a swept back hood and windshield, t Graham Blue Streak was as innovative as it was stunning,

Brothers Joseph, Robert, and Ray Graham were "Indiana sharpies," to quote auto historian Jeffrey Godshall -- farm boys with "dreams beyond the bucolic life." Sharp they were. After starting a glassmaking business that grew to become Libbey-Owens-Ford in 1930, the brothers built trucks for Dodge.

They did so well that by 1926 they were running Dodge's entire truck organization. Then, suddenly, they left and bought the declining Paige Motor Company in 1927 to build their own cars. The first appeared the following year under the Graham-Paige banner, which continued through 1930. The name was then changed to simply Graham, though Paige remained in the company name and on its commercial ­vehicles.

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The Grahams prospered with cars as quickly as they had with trucks, volume soaring to more than 77,000 in calendar 1929. By that time they'd set up a vast new factory in Dear­born, Michigan, plus facilities in Indiana and Florida. How­ever, 1929 would be the firm's production peak.

Graham's 1930 line was expansive, comprising Standard and Special Sixes on a 115-inch wheelbase and Standard, Special, and Custom Eights on spans of 122, 134, 127, and 137 inches. Engines were conventional L-heads: 207- and 224-cubic-inch inline-sixes with 66/76 horsepower as well as 298.6- and 322-cid straight-eights with 100/120 bhp. Among numerous body styles were beautiful long-wheelbase Custom Eight town cars and limousines by the LeBaron studios at Briggs Manufacturing Company. All models featured Graham-Paige's famous four-speed transmission.

This basic lineup continued through early 1932, joined in the spring of 1931 by the hopefully named "Prosperity Six," a cheap four-model series priced as low as $785. But the Depression was on, and Graham-Paige failed to prosper. Model-year 1930 car production sank to about 24,000, then slid to 20,000 for 1931.

Undaunted, the Grahams came back for 1932 with the Blue Streak Eight. This mounted a generous 123-inch wheelbase that perfectly suited magnificent new styling by Amos Northup of the Murray Corporation. Northup had just created the 1931 Reo Royale and was also responsible for the earlier Hupp Century. The Blue Streak was no less stunning. Smooth, ultraclean bodies hid unsightly chassis components, windshields tilted jauntily back, a radiator with tapered vertical bars and no cap fit flush with the hood, and fenders were artfully drawn down to hug the wheels -- the "skirted" treatment was a first for a production car.

The Blue Streak bowed with only a coupe, four-door sedan, and convertible coupe. All carried a 90-bhp 245.4-cid eight with an aluminum head and pistons. Beneath the trend-­setting bodies was an equally advanced chassis with straight side rails, outboard rear springs, and "banjo" rear-axle mounting. The result was exceptional handling stability combined with great ride comfort, abetted by adjustable shock absorbers and, a bit later, low-pressure tires. Standard and Deluxe trim was offered at attractively low prices ranging from $1095 to $1270.

In good times, the Blue Streak would have sold well. But 1932 wasn't a good year for anyone in Detroit, and Graham's calendar-year volume slid to 12,967. Most were Blue Streaks and conventionally styled Sixes.

The Blue Streak was renamed Custom Eight for 1933, when its little-changed basic design spread to all "second-series" Grahams. Competitors' styling began mimicking the Blue Streak, so Graham proclaimed itself "the most imitated car on the road." With almost every 1933 American car wearing ­fender skirts, they were right. Below the Custom were a new 113-inch-wheelbase Standard Six and 119-inch Standard Eight. All models rode stronger frames with front K-brace and sported gracefully vee'd front bumpers. Yet for all this quality and appeal, Graham-Paige production sank again, hitting 11,000 for the ­calendar year, though the firm somehow eked out a tiny $67,000 profit.

Still hoping for better times, Graham sprang a surprise for 1934: the Supercharged Custom Eight. Tagged as low as $1295, it was America's first moderate-cost supercharged car. Boosting its newly bored 265.4-cid engine was a Graham-built centrifugal blower that helped deliver 135 bhp -- good for ­lively midrange urge and 90 mph all-out. Daredevil driver "Cannonball" Baker drove a Supercharged Custom cross-country in 53 hours, 30 minutes; a solo record that would stand until 1975. Baker's feat also testified to the utter reliability of the Graham blower. Over the next six years, Graham would build more supercharged cars than any company ever had before.

The 1935 Graham Standard Six was virtually unchanged from previous models.

Other Grahams saw little change through the "first-series" 1935 models, though the lineup was juggled several times and built-in trunks were a notable new option for sedans (at $35). With calender 1934 output rising to 15,745 cars, things seemed to be looking up.

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Graham Cars in the 1930s

The Graham 1937 Business Coupe, with was an example of typical design in the 1930s.

Offerings shuffled again for 1935's "second series." Coupes and convertibles looked much as before, but sedans began backing away from Blue Streak styling, which was becoming a bit dated anyway. A smaller new Standard Six arrived with a 60-bhp, 169.6-cid engine and Blue Streak styling on a trim 111-inch wheelbase. It lacked some big-Graham technical features, but sold well. A good thing, as eight-cylinder sales declined sharply. So even though model-year volume went up to near 18,500, Graham was now feeling a severe financial pinch.

Accordingly, the firm abandoned Eights for 1936 but offered America's first supercharged six: a 217.8-cid unit that would be Graham's mainstay engine right to the end. It arrived in 115-inch-wheelbase Supercharged and unblown Cavalier series sharing Hayes-built coupe, sedan, and convertible bodies with Reo's 1935-36 Flying Cloud, an arrangement worked out during 1935. The two companies never "married," but Graham used Reo bodies through 1937, which resulted in some very ordinary looking cars. Graham's price-leading 1936-37 Crusader used 1935 tooling, which was later sold to Nissan of Japan to bring in needed cash. And Graham needed that, losing $1 million in 1936 despite higher calendar-year sales of over 16,400.

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Hoping for a miracle, Graham unleashed the radical "Spirit of Motion" for 1938, a blown and unblown four-door sedan with a sharply undercut front that soon earned the dubious nickname "sharknose." It was Northup's last design before his untimely death in 1936. (Ray Graham had passed away in 1932; he was only 45.)

Graham was trying to be the style leader it had been with the Blue Streak, but the public didn't buy it -- literally, as model-year production ended at 5020. A "sharknose" two-door sedan and "Combination" club coupe arrived for 1939, when running boards were eliminated. Horsepower remained 116 supercharged, 90 unblown, and all models offered Deluxe and better Custom trim. Despite impressive supercharged performance (10.9 seconds 0-50) and fuel economy of up to 25 mpg, the "sharknose" remained a poor seller. It thus departed after 1940, seeing little further change save slight horsepower gains (to 120 and 93). Respective 1939-40 model-year production was 5392 and an estimated 1000.

The 1939 Graham "sharknose" sedan performed well but was poorly received. It remained virtually unchanged until its departure after 1940.

By now, company president Joseph Graham had spent a half-million dollars of his own money to keep his firm going. He needed something new, but how to pay for it? The answer came in 1939 with Norman De Vaux, who'd failed with automobiles marketed under his own name. De Vaux had bought up the tooling for the late 1936-37 Cord 810/812 Westchester sedan, and had talked equally struggling Hupp Motors into building a modified version with rear-wheel drive instead of front drive. Joe Graham proposed building the bodies, provided his company could sell its own version of the car with Graham power. Aside from that and minor trim differences, the resulting Graham Hollywood and Hupp Skylark were identical. The Skylark was announced first, in April 1939 at the New York World's Fair, though that proved premature. Gearing up for production took longer than expected, so neither model was built in significant numbers until May 1940.

Like Hupp, Graham planned to offer a sedan and convertible, but only one Hupp convertible was ever built and maybe up to five Grahams. Production Hollywoods carried Graham's own 120-bhp supercharged six, and thus cost a bit more than Hupp's unblown Skylark: initially $1250 versus $1145. Both models rode a 115-inch wheelbase, 10 inches shorter than the parent Cord's. To fit their tall engine beneath the Cord's lower hoodline, Graham engineers offset both carburetor and air cleaner. Both versions wore a handsomely reworked face (by the renowned John Tjaarda) with a double grille (fully chromed on Hollywoods), exposed bullet headlamps, and nicely shaped front fenders.

Unfortunately, the old tooling was simply unsuitable for volume production -- the same thing that had tripped up the Cord. The roof alone comprised seven separate panels. Joe Graham hoped to simplify matters, but was distracted when he agreed to take over Skylark production, which necessitated a complete overhaul of Graham's assembly line and added further cost and delay.

Though Hupp called it quits in the summer of 1940, Graham pressed on for '41, adding an unblown Hollywood priced at just $968 and cutting the price of the supercharged model to $1065. Horse­power was upped slightly on both engines. But it was all to no avail, and Graham finally gave up the auto business, too, in September 1940.

The 1941 Graham Hollywood was the last gasp for the failing company. Even with a powerful engine and low price, it was simply too late.

Ironically, departing the car business proved quite timely, as Graham prospered through World War II on $20 million of government defense contracts. Joseph W. Frazer then bought the firm in 1944. His namesake Frazer car was built as a "Graham-Paige" product in 1946-47, though at Kaiser's Willow Run factory rather than G-P's old Dearborn plant. In early 1947, Graham-Paige sold its remaining automotive interests to Kaiser-Frazer, and in 1952 quit farm equipment as well. G-P then dropped "Motors" from its name and became a closed investment corporation. It later operated Madison Square Garden and owned several professional New York athletic teams. All these endeavors proved far more profitable than carmaking had ever been.

For more on defunct American cars, see: