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The Emperor’s Pierce-Arrow

June 2024
3min read

When American cars ruled the world

THE CURRENT VOGUE FOR PUSHING TO SELL AMERICAN AUTOMOBILES ABROAD can certainly be called overdue. No one has seriously tried such a thing in generations. To make inroads on the number of Volkswagens in Mexico or of Austin Minis in France or on the sea of Japanese automobiles in Japan might seem unprecedented. But actually it’s just an attempt to recapture former markets.


People have always known about particular individual American automobiles sold outside the United States, like the Duke of Windsor’s Buicks and a Middle Eastern potentate’s Cadillac, but almost no one remembers that American cars were the rule rather than the exception overseas between the two world wars. This was true in every price range: Ford was the best-selling car just about everywhere and Packard the leading luxury automobile, with a cachet similar to that of Mercedes-Benz today. Scores of other makes—whether from major corporations such as General Motors or cottage-industry firms like Cunningham—were sought throughout the world for their engineering, finish, and design.


WORLD WAR I SERVED AS A MASS PUBLIC demonstration of American cars. After the war many military vehicles sat in “Motor Reception Parks” (a government euphemism for storage lots) waiting to be sold to new owners in Europe and North Africa. When they went, they triggered a demand for more. The boom of the 1920s provided an apogee; prosperity and a relative lack of trade barriers encouraged foreign sales. Then the Depression set in. The devaluation of the British pound in 1931 upset exchange rates, and the price of American-built cars shot up overseas. Tariffs and quotas tightened. By the early 1930s sales in many countries had fallen to 10 or 20 percent of their 1929 levels. Still, American cars retained their appeal and status wherever they could get in.

In 1920s Australia—one of the biggest markets, American cars accounted for two-thirds of the fifty thousand or so automobiles registered annually. Packard sales in the state of New South Wales (which includes Sydney) in 1927 roughly equaled Packard sales in Colorado. The full range of American cars went on display each year at the Sydney and Melbourne automobile shows. But the collapse of wool prices at the beginning of 1929 brought the Depression to Australia early. In some months of 1932 not a single Packard was bought in New South Wales, but by the mid-1930s the economy had revived, as it did in the United States, and Packard, with a new, lower-price model, again sold cars in New South Wales at a mid-1920s pace.


Japan imported all its automobiles in the 1920s; in fact, it did not even begin to make its own passenger cars until the early 1930s. The country absorbed approximately eighteen thousand cars a year, about as many as Tennessee or what is now Indonesia. Some 90 percent of them were American-built, and they found more use as commercial vehicles such as taxis than in private hands. The emperor was reported to have a Cadillac town car in the late 1920s; in the early 1930s, a Pierce-Arrow. After World War II started, the Pierce-Arrow factory inventory was sold for scrap to make munitions. Knowing about the car, a Buffalo newspaper ran the headline PIERCE INVENTORY SOLD FOR MUNITIONS; HIROHITO TO GET PARTS BY AIR .


The Philippines, a United States possession, was a captive market. American luxury cars abounded in and around Manila. Much of the country was a series of plantations, and many cars never left them. In the 1920s automobile registrations made news: One Manila newspaper published new owners’ names, license plate numbers, and addresses. Despite the Depression, American military expenditures kept the nation’s small 1930s automobile market buoyant. In 1936, 755 Fords, 82 Chryslers, 6 Fierce-Arrows, and 1 Duesenberg came into the Philippines. With such makes as Graham, Chrysler, Reo, Auburn, and Cadillac also mixed in with older Elcars, Velies, and Gardners, the country was a living museum of the American automobile industry until World War II.


FRANCE WAS THE TARGET OF MANY AUTO makers’ greatest foreign marketing efforts. Through the twenties and thirties a quarter of the exhibitors at the annual Paris automobile show, Le Salon de l’Automobile, were American. But tariffs and quotas minimized sales to the French public, to about ten thousand cars in 1930, for instance, of which three-quarters were Fords. In April 1930, when tariffs were raised even higher than ever before, American dealers liquidated their inventories, briefly raising their sales. By 1932, however, no one wanted luxury cars. To stay in the market, Ford bought a French manufacturer, Mathis, creating Matford. But not everything changed; the last pre-war salon, in October 1938, still had exhibits of Graham, Chrysler, Lincoln, Nash, Hudson, Studebaker, and Packard.

Despite British rule, about half of Egypt’s automobiles were American. The country avoided the worst of the Depression with help from relatively stable cotton prices, and independent and luxury names sold well. At the other end of the continent, the Union of South Africa had an automobile market many times the size of Egypt’s, and half the cars sold were American, although luxury cars were virtually nonexistent.

Brazil was another important market for American cars. Studebaker, said to have the most attractive showroom in Rio de Janeiro, had the highest total registrations in the city until Chrysler and Buick began to take its customers away in the late 1920s, just as they were doing in the United States. Auburn, Graham, Willys, Marmon, and Hupmobile all sold hundreds of cars per year in Brazil. The collapse of coffee prices in mid-1929 and a revolution in 1930 destroyed the market; total 1930 sales were not 5 percent of the 29,399 of 1929.

By the mid-1930s the Brazilian automobile market came back, and so did the markets in most other countries. But many of the cars did not: The Depression had forced their manufacturers out of business. And the idea of American cars being a truly international product is still just barely recovering.


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