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SNAPSHOT 147: 1939 Hupmobile Skylark

This car was a triumph of desperate optimism over realism – but that didn’t stop the publicists vaunting its qualities in the automotive press late in 1938.

The publicity photograph, with obligatory smiling ladies and gentleman, appeared in a British automotive magazine in October 1938. It was shown as an example of the latest in American cars.  Indeed, the headline was “What’s New in America” – and the copy beneath told us that “these are some of the new car features which Americans are considering already, although the New York Show does not open until November 11th.” There was particular mention of “a general new style of frontal design.”

In fact, the style was nothing new: if you think it looks very like a Cord 810/812, you would be right.  The Cord caused a sensation at its launch at the November New York Show – but this was three years earlier, in 1935.  By the time of our picture the Cord had been dead for at least a year, killed by reliability problems caused by rushed development of its advanced front-wheel-drive chassis and semi-automatic transmission with vacuum-servo preselector control.

So Hupmobile, by this time having its own struggles with sales and profit, paid US$900,000 for the Cord body dies.  It hoped that using the still ultra-modern Cord body design in a lower-priced car with conventional rear drive, the Hupmobile Skylark, would revive its declining fortunes.

At first, the signs were good: thousands of orders flowed in, but production delays had a disastrous effect.  Cancellations followed, and only 319 cars were sold over a production period of a few months.

In late 1939, Hupmobile made a last desperate throw of the dice: they entered into a joint venture with Graham-Paige, itself in serious trouble.  Graham-Paige agreed to build the Hupmobile, and a very similar version of its own, the Hollywood.  This lasted hardly longer than the Hupmobile.

Although Hupmobile ceased all production late in 1939, Graham-Paige limped on until September 1940.  It suspended production – only to reopen its plant soon after for military production.

With hindsight, it was thus not the best choice made by the British magazine to use this smart-looking but underneath rather unremarkable car as an example of the very latest in American design. But in October 1938, optimism was still in the air – and everyone in the picture was still smiling broadly.

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