The year 1920 was extraordinary in many ways, yet we don’t seem to remember many things about it today. Ford production increased significantly from the prior year, but most automakers had results exactly the opposite of Ford. Many auto manufacturers went out of business. The depression of 1920 – 21 is hardly; if ever; mentioned today; but it was severe and profound for those who lived through the time. Much of the economic trouble was caused by the end of World War I (simply known as The Great War at that time). Returning soldiers came back to find there were no jobs available, exports to Europe fell due to strife and hardship in that part of the world. Meanwhile the Volstead Act went into effect on January 16, 1920 ushering in a shadow economy of smuggling, speakeasies, and liquor trade that was not taxed yet cost the government lots of money while trying to enforce the unpopular new law. President Wilson had been incapacitated since a major stroke October of 1919, never to recover. A flu epidemic had been sweeping the world since 1918. By December 1920 it had killed about four to five percent of the world’s population, as many as 100 million people. It was the worst epidemic in recorded human history.
Ford built about 941,000 cars and trucks in 1920 model year, easily holding first place in the industry. Model T body styles continued from the previous year, with the touring being easily the most popular body style, available either in the basic hand cranked version with magneto powered headlamps and kerosene tail and cowl lamps, or in the fancier and more expensive version with starter, battery, 6 volt headlamps and tail lamp, and demountable wheels including a spare rim (a spare tire was optional at extra cost). Prices for the Model T touring started at $575 for the basic crank started version, or $675 for the fancy Model T equipped with electrical starter. Ford continued to supply its cars with the two speed planetary transmission controlled by foot pedals. The rest of the industry sold cars with 3 or more speed manual transmissions. The Model T engine continued as before, with 20 advertised horsepower from four cylinders and 176 cubic inches.
Chevrolet came in second with production of 146,000 cars and trucks. Most of these were the venerable Model 490, Chevrolet’s low cost competitor to the Model T. The 490 had 26 horsepower emitting from its overhead valve four cylinder engine, which displaced 171 cubic inches. All Chevrolets for 1920 were equipped with a three speed sliding gear transmission, electric starter and lighting with 6 volt battery, with touring prices starting at $795. Tires were the same size as Model T, 30 X 3 1/2″ on all four.
The Chevrolet 490 engine had overhead valves which needed to be oiled regularly using the oil can provided. Notice the exposed flywheel and starter ring gear.
About 25,000 of the cars built by Chevrolet in 1920 were the bigger, more costly Model FB, which was the latest version of the earlier Royal Mail (roadster) / Baby Grand (touring) with 37 horsepower from its 224 cubic inch OHV four cylinder engine. The Model FB touring started at $1295, a lot of money in those days. Tires were 33 X 5, appropriate for a medium sized car such as this.
Dodge was right behind Chevrolet at 141,000 vehicles. It was a tough year for the Dodge family, with both John and Horace Dodge dead by the end of 1920 from the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the world.
Dodge advertising boasted of the company not having model years. The 1920 Dodge Brothers car was a good example of this, looking much as a 1915 Dodge had looked. These were very well designed and well built cars. Unlike much of the competition, Dodge used Budd bodies built with very little wood structure. This made the Dodge easy to construct, light for its size, and long lasting compared to more traditional steel nailed to wood bodies being used by Ford and Chevrolet at the time. Dodge used a 12 volt charging system in 1920 which was revolutionary. Horsepower from the 212 cubic inch engine was rated at 24; actual horsepower was likely near 30. Like the rest of the industry Dodge used a three speed sliding gear transmission. This car sports non – original spot lamp, wind wings, and driving lamp.
Buick was at 115,176 cars sold. There were two sizes of Buick in 1920, either four cylinder or the big K45 six cylinder. A four cylinder roadster sold for $900, the big six cylinder sedans started at $1650. All Buicks had overhead valves, electric starting and lighting, and three speed manual sliding gear transmissions.
Willys Overland was responsible for selling 105,000 cars in 1920. Two main lines of cars were built, the low priced four cylinder Overland, and the high priced sleeve valve 4 cylinder Willys Knight car. All cars were equipped with electric starter and lighting equipment. Wire wheels were a popular option, with wood wheels being standard. All cars were equipped with three speed sliding gear manual transmissions.
Studebaker was well behind the leaders, selling just about 49,000 cars and trucks in 1920. By 1920 all Studebakers were powered by six cylinder engines. The $1450 Light Six touring powered by a 288 cubic inch engine was rated at 40 horsepower, the Special Six touring at 50 horsepower cost $1675, and the Big Six, with 354 cubic inches had a whopping 60 horsepower and cost $2352. The Big Six was only available as a touring.
Hudson was nearly the same as Studebaker with 46,000 cars produced. Hudson for 1920 had two basic products, the four cylinder Essex and the Super Six Hudson. The Essex could be considered a medium priced car, while the Hudson was in near luxury class.
Maxwell Chalmers, in eighth place in the industry that year, built 36,000 cars in 1920. Remarkably they were unable to sell 26,000 of them! Maxwell was still building the Model 25 which had been introduced in 1913 as a 1914 model. Maxwell was known for its notoriously weak / fragile rear axle, and the economic downturn happened at the same time as Maxwell ramped up production. The company was placed in receivership and auctioned to the highest bidder. As a result, a group of investors became owners of the assets, including the 26,000 unsold cars. Walter Chrysler was hired at the then unheard of pay rate for the time of $100,000 per year for five years.
One of the first things that Walter Chrysler did upon taking control of the company was to have an engineering committee examine all the known faults of the design, and to recommend fixes for each fault. One of the interesting things that they found at fault was the culture of the engineering department. It seems that once a design was finalized the drawings were never revised, even though parts were not being built the way the drawings directed. This was causing tremendous chaos over time, because if a supplier changed, the new part supplier might be making parts that would not fit or work properly.
To summarize the competition of 1920, Ford held the reputation of making a very sturdy, very high quality car that could be depended on. Only Overland was competitive on both price and features. The Overland of 1920 was a very well made car, but unfortunately did not have the dealer network or manufacturing capacity to equal Ford. If this author had been a new car potential buyer in 1920, and the choice was offered, it would be the Overland going home to my garage.