Grahamtastic Timing

Everybody knows that success is often the result of being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. The Graham brothers of Evansville, Indiana, are a perfect example. Read on to learn more about how their ingenuity at the dawn of the automotive revolution led to the creation of icon and the latest vehicle to be documented and added to the National Historic Vehicle Register.  

Sometimes, timing is everything. For the Graham brothers—Joseph, Robert and Ray—their turn-of-the-century shift from bottle makers to truck builders came at a time when it seemed nearly every city in the country had at least one auto manufacturer to call their own.

Starting out simply in 1916 in Evansville, Indiana, the brothers built truck bodies and component sets that could be used to convert existing cars into light trucks. Three years later, they moved from simply providing the shell for trucks to manufacturing complete trucks. With most auto companies focusing on passenger cars, the truck market was really anyone’s game.

Four years later, in 1920, the Dodge Brothers Corporation took note of the Graham brothers successful line of trucks and approached them to see about adding trucks as a product option to the company’s existing line of passenger cars. It was a partnership that proved quite fortuitous.

Using Dodge engines and transmissions, Graham trucks were sold only through Dodge dealers—a pairing that helped elevate the status and public awareness the Graham brothers. By 1926, the brothers had three factories (in Detroit, Stockton, California, and Toronto) and were producing some 37,000 trucks annually. Cashing in on their collective success, the Graham brothers sold out to Dodge, leaving the truck market behind and venturing into the passenger car market. But first they had to establish a corporation of their own to pursue their newfound interest in the burgeoning automotive field.

Another “Paige” In History

In 1927—90 years ago last month—the Graham Brothers Corporation purchased the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Co. Once again, it proved to be a savvy move. The Paige-Detroit Motor Car Co. had been in existence for nearly 20 years and had already found modest success with their Paige Daytona (a 6-cylinder, three-seat roadster billed as “the most beautiful car in America”).

As the Roaring Twenties barreled forward with a carefree air of perpetual prosperity, the newly-christened Graham-Paige Motors Corporation continued the winning streak they’d established with Dodge, selling a total of 73,195 cars in 1928 and 80,000 in 1929. The company proved so successful that they were forced to open several other factories in order to keep up with the public demand for their Graham-Paige.

As anyone with even the slightest knowledge of American history knows, financial storm clouds were gathering on the horizon in 1929. It marked the best year for Graham-Paige until just as suddenly the Great Depression hit in October.

With the American public’s priorities shifting from opulent frivolity to extreme frugality, auto manufacturers were one of the first to be hit hard by the economic downturn. It was during this time that Graham—their name having been shortened in 1931—began exploring a broader range of price points for their cars and producing their least expensive model: the Prosperity Six. Their luck with timing having largely run out, the Graham brothers scrambled to remain relevant and afloat during the nation’s worst economic disaster.

Enter Amos Northup and the Graham Blue Streak

Looking to freshen up the style of the Graham to compete in the deflated market, Graham hired the top designer they could. Before it was common practice to have a chief stylist Graham did just that in order to hopefully edge out the competition. 

Born in 1889 in Bellevue, Ohio, Amos Northup started out as a cabinet maker before shifting gears and entering the booming automotive industry. With a keen eye for design, Northup quickly worked his way up, signing on with Murray Corporation of America in 1924, taking the lead on regular production body designs. His first major impact on the automotive world came in 1928 with the Hupmobile Century Eight. That same year, Northup was appointed Art Director and Chief Designer for Willys-Overland. It was here that, as the leading automotive stylist of that time, Northup firmly put his mark on automotive history with his designs for the 1929 Whippet and Willys-Knight lines.

Three years later working for Graham, with many counting on him, he unveiled the most revolutionary, forward-thinking design of his career: the Blue Streak.

Despite its rather inauspicious beginnings in the worst year of the Great Depression, the 1932 Graham Blue Streak helped set a new standard for what a car could and should be, as well as how it should look. With its low profile, sleek styling lines and immediately identifiable stance, the Graham Blue Streak quickly became the envy of the industry as other manufacturers frantically scrambled to come up with a design of their own (though most were simply copies of the Graham Blue Streak).

Indeed, following its introduction in December 1931 for the 1932 model line, a large majority of the look and feel of the automobile could be traced to the Blue Streak until the post-war years. With its more enclosed fenders and backwards sloping grille, it quickly became the de facto look of the automobile.  This was so true that Amos’s last design before his unfortunate accidental death, the Sharknose Graham with a forward sloping grille and fenders was virtually detested.   Coupled with this was the conscious effort to create an automobile that appeared as a unified shape rather than merely an assembly of parts.

Streak of Genius – Not just Skin Deep

It wasn’t just the inspiring design of the car’s body panels that make this 30s icon so memorable. Complimenting the styling and most notably, the Graham featured a “Banjo frame” and outboard leaf springs that allowed the car to sit lower than most of its contemporaries and certainly handle better. Combined with a potent eight cylinder engine with an aluminum head, the car featured performance to match its striking aesthetics.

All Great Things Come To An End

Styling and technical innovation could not compete with the depression and sales of the Blue Streak were next to nothing with just under 13,000 cars sold during their first year of production. During the series’ 1932-1935 production run, the Blue Streak underwent a handful of stylistic and mechanical shifts, but none quite matched the original look and feel of Northup’s design. With others having adopted and surpassed many of the Blue Streak’s iconic features, the car that started it all began to lose its appeal. By the end of the decade, Graham would essentially be little more than a historical footnote in the ever-shrinking world of auto manufacturers.

Nevertheless, the Graham Blue Streak remains a style icon and one of the most important American cars produced during the Great Depression. For this reason and more, the HVA is including one of the best-restored and most authentic examples of the Graham Blue Streak as the next vehicle to be added to the National Historic Vehicle Register, making it the 19th vehicle to receive such a distinction. This and several other Northrup-designed cars were part of a special display at this year’s Concours d’Elegance of America.

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