by James Mays • Chapter 1 of A Car and a Refrigerator Go to War: Nash-Kelvinator in World War II
Why is this at Allpar? Nash joined with Hudson in 1954 to form American Motors (AMC); Chrysler purchased a majority share of AMC in 1987.
Also see: Series Contents, Nash Car Club of America
It looked as if 1937 was starting out right: America’s first corporate baby of the New Year, Nash-Kelvinator, Inc., came into existence on January 2, 1937.
Around Kenosha, few noticed.
On the front page of the Kenosha Evening News, world news jockeyed for space with local stories. “Germany Holds Spanish Freight Ship, Threatens More Seizures” vied with the news that Governor Philip LaFollete had been sworn in for his third term in office and “Hen House Explodes, No One Injured.” The paper carried more international stories than many other small city dailies, to appeal to the high percentage of foreign-born readers.
Topel-Oldsmobile on 56th Street offered a 1931 Nash four-door sedan carried a sticker price of $295, and a 1930 Nash sedan with a heater could be bought for $195. A six-room, upstairs flat, with heat included, rented for $25 a month at 5703 22nd Avenue. A new five-room bungalow with a two-car garage on the far west side of the city rented for $20 a month. These great deals meant little or nothing to Nash workers, who were still working under their first contract, signed two years before. Men were paid 50 cents per hour on a piecework rate; women earned 44 cents for the same tasks.1
As long as the line was running, men could get by, but the lines were shut down often; the minute they were idled, they went off the clock. The workweek was erratic enough that few workers could afford to purchase anything. The young union struggled to supply food and clothing and emergency cash to the workers.
The employees’ situation was in sharp contrast to that of the company. Charles Nash addressed the 1,300 Kelvinator distributors and sales representatives at the swank Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit on the 8th of January. He told the crowd that the new Nash-Kelvinator Corporation had no debt and more than $50 million in cash assets. “With the rising tide of prosperity, I don’t see anything that can stop us. We are going to grow and you men are going to grow with us,” Nash told the assembly. In looking to the future, the chairman of the board remarked, “In Mr. Mason, our new president, I am sure that we have found the answer to management.”
Nash Motors had been formally listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average as one of the nation’s leading economic indicators since October 1, 1928. Deleted in 1930, it came back to stay for a long run on May 26, 1932. Only thirty such companies in the United States were so distinguished. On the day that Charles Nash addressed the Kelvinator convention, the Dow Jones acknowledged the merger by re-listing Nash Motors as Nash-Kelvinator, Inc.
Hascall Bliss, Director of Sales at Nash Motors, announced that the company was stepping up production. The new goal was to turn out 2,150 Nash and Lafayette cars for the current week. Employees had worked 3.5 days last week and assembled 1,450 units in Kenosha and Racine. Bliss told the press that shipments of new Nash cars during the last four months of 1936 were up 100% from the same time in 1935. “Demand for the 1937 series of cars has continued unabated since the first announcement last fall and the bank of orders already in the factory offices here assure continued peak production schedules far into the spring.”
George Mason finally made a belated appearance in Kenosha on February 3rd. To mark the occasion of his first official visit, he was the guest of honor at a banquet given by the Kenosha Chamber of Commerce. The dinner was sold out. Mason’s speech to the crowd of 300 was very much like the one given to Kelvinator people.
At Kelvinator, 112 of the 2,500 employees declared a sit-down strike on February 5. The demand was for a raise in hourly wages: 65 cents for women and 75 cents for men. A hundred picketers marched up and down Plymouth Road in front of the head office. The strike was resolved eleven days later. The Mechanics Educational Society of America got pretty much what it wanted; men would receive 75 cents an hour and women 60 cents or 65 cents, depending upon their skills. The strike at Kelvinator did not affect workers at Nash Motors in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee.
Of more interest locally, was the strike at the J.I. Case tractor plant in Racine. That labor dispute dragged on for 106 days. When it was settled, management recognized the C.I.O. as the workers’ sole bargaining agent.
On Saturday, March 6, the officers of the new Nash-Kelvinator Corporation were formally announced at a meeting in New York City. George W. Mason was named president. Satisfied stockholders ratified the deal on May 1.
The Kenosha Labor Forum for 1937 held a conference that spring in which union principles and aims were taught. In an effort to make sure that everyone understood, meetings were held in Italian and Polish as well as English. Collective thinking and bargaining “to protect workers against the evils of the machine age” was the theme. Members were introduced to the basic principles of union brotherhood, which included caring for their unemployed brethren by donating money for the latter’s food, clothing and shelter. 2
At the end of March, Hascall Bliss announced that production and registrations of new Nash cars had hit 10,000 units and doubled those of the previous March. “Not since 1929 have we had any month in which as many Nash-built cars have been delivered by our dealers as this one.” Bliss also told reporters that the most popular destinations for the streamlined beauties were Cincinnati, Boston, Denver, Des Moines, Detroit, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland, Rockford in Illinois, Toledo, Youngstown and Kenosha. 3
Sales of Nash and LaFayette cars were spurred even higher with the announcement that time payments were only $25 a month. For only $2 more each month, one could escape from the sameness of the “all three” class and drive something out of the ordinary.
President Roosevelt’s New Deal was working. The national economy began to slowly rebound from the awful abyss of economic depression; while 9,773,000 men were still on relief jobs or unemployed, it was a full three million fewer than in 1933. A workingman with a family of four earned $1,180 a year and spent $363 on food.4
$2 million was appropriated for the WPA to improve the roads in Kenosha County, with one priority being the completion of the 2.5-mile stretch of US 41 that would extend northward from State Highway 43 to the Racine County line. Hascall Bliss returned to Kenosha from a trip to the west coast, and waxed forth enthusiastically to reporters that expanding roads was the key to rising automobile sales. He cited the recent opening of the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco as being an important stimulus for soaring automobile sales in California.
Nash registrations were up sharply in the first five months of 1937, totaling 34,080 units, an increase from 18,306 the previous year. The 86% increase was even more satisfying when compared to the competition. Nash could boast eight times more registrations than its direct competitors.5 The nameplate was doing quite well. Shipments for the 1937 model year were 69,816 units to date, a full 72 percent ahead of the 1936 output. 6
Projections were solid enough that on May 13, a half-million dollar expansion of the plant in Kenosha was announced by Robert Elliot, Nash Motors’ Vice President of Production. The expansion was intended to allow a 30% increase in production for the 1938 models. Another $500,000 was announced for upgrading the body plant in Milwaukee and modernizing the plant in Racine. On the 29th, George Mason announced in Detroit that the initial projections had been a little too conservative; the figure was now being upped to $1.7 million.
Elliot told the press that Nash-Kelvinator was seeking new product lines but had decided against entering the house trailers business. He let it be known that officials were actively looking into re-entering the truck market. Nash had dropped its truck line in 1930.
On a personal level, Charles Nash lost a case in the United States Supreme Court. He had been refunded $81,346 when the Wisconsin state tax had been declared unconstitutional. Money collected by the state on his wife’s declared income was returned to him in 1932 and carried $20,420 in interest. Nash’s lawyers recognized that the interest was taxable but claimed that the tax on the initial amount was invalid because of the statute of limitations. The Supreme Court justices disagreed. 7
Workers in key departments in the Racine, Kenosha plants and the Seaman Body Corporation in Milwaukee conducted a half-day sit-down strike on June 14. It spread throughout the entire plants after lunch. Employees were working seven hours a day, five days a week, but Nash wanted eight hours a day on a four-day workweek. The grievance was added to the negotiation list and the men went back to work the following day.
On July 10, the US Census Bureau released statistics that people in Kenosha County were better fed and better dressed than many other Americans. They made it into the top ten percentile nationwide. 65% of residents in Kenosha County owned their own homes while the national average was only 54%. If the Depression had brought hard times to Kenosha, they were harder elsewhere.
Edward Grieb, a real estate agent, appeared before the Milwaukee Land Commission on August 5. He advised the commissioners that Nash was about to reopen the South Side plant and build an addition to the building there, for manufacturing light-duty trucks. Acting on behalf of Nash Motors, he requested that the city provide a new road easement into the factory, located on East Euclid Avenue. It was good news but the commissioners were skeptical. Grieb assured the committee members that this information was official; it had been given to him by H.G. Mellum, Nash-Kelvinator’s Corporate Secretary.
The conversion of the existing facility to a truck plant was estimated at a cost of $700,000. When finished, it would employ 1,000 men. Officials at Nash were reluctant to discuss it, but when pressed, they did allow that no trucks would be produced before twelve months went by. The company was serious about its intention, a spokesman admitting, “Trucks now are being turned out in small quantities at the Kenosha plant.”
In August, George Mason announced the appointment of Ray DeVlieg as General Works Manager of the Nash Motors Division. The highly capable engineer had held similar positions at Reo and Chrysler before joining Kelvinator in August of 1936. During the press conference, George Mason revealed that the company had upped its investment in the three Wisconsin plants to $2 million.
DeVlieg wasted no time in streamlining operations in the three Nash factories, increasing production from 30% to 100% without new buildings. He told the press on September 25, “We want the 10,000 Nash employees to feel secure in their jobs, to keep abreast of the industry and a little ahead so that our share of the automobile business will be constantly be increased.”
The 1938 models started rolling off the lines on September 15 and quickly reached 460 units a day. The new capacity was 600 units a day. DeVlieg emphasized research and was a great believer in the study of engineering problems as the best way to keep “in the front rank in the battle for the nation’s acceptance.”
The sensational new cars with their groundbreaking thermo-dynamic heaters were unveiled to some 1,200 distributors and dealers in Chicago on October 4. 8 Many of the men made the trip up to Kenosha, Racine and Wisconsin for tours of the factory. Those who did not make it to the big show were treated to one of nine regional gala unveilings around the nation that kicked off on October 25th. The meetings were jam-packed with useful seminars on sales strategies, merchandising and advertising plans for the new season. 9 Those advertising plans included corporate sponsorship of Professor Quiz on Columbia (CBS).
Nash was a big hit at the New York Auto Show. Chairman of the board, Charles Nash, charmed reporters. He told them, “Americans are discriminating when it comes to automobiles, more so than any other nationality in the world. For 1938, they want cars that will out-perform any that have ever been built before, cars that are economical to operate, cars that are safe to ride in and trouble-free mechanically, cars that are comfortable and cars that are simple but beautiful and modern design.”
Nash bragged just a little. “Such are the cars that are available for 1938. In all my twenty-two years as an independent manufacturer of automobiles, I have never seen cars that have so closely met the requirements of the American public as those that are being introduced at the present time. The 1938 automobile is as far ahead of the 1928 motor car as that car was ahead of the horse-drawn carriage.”
The show opened to the public the next day and the chairman of the board was right on the money. The public was enamored with the natty Nash. 10
Works Manager DeVlieg bent reporters’ ears, too. He recounted that improvements to the factories included the new half-million-dollar smoke removal apparatus in the foundry and another $250,000 had been spent to upgrade the paint section in the Seaman plant. The latter building was now air conditioned as “an important health consideration for the men.” The press wrote down every word, impressed that Nash was a company on the move.
The competition trotted out its latest models, too. Plymouth boldly took out huge advertisements in the local papers, announcing that its new four-door sedan could be delivered in Kenosha for only $750. Oldsmobile, Willys, Packard and Studebaker also advertised but more discretely; Kenosha was Nash City by a large margin.
Nash-Kelvinator announced on Armistice Day that it was transferring the Nash Motors sales, statistics and advertising departments to the head office in Detroit. It was already such a lean operation that “only ten or twelve jobs would be taken from the Kenosha office,” according to Hascall Bliss. To quell rumors that production would be moved to Detroit, it was pointed out that there were still some 300 executives in Kenosha.
On December 3, Nash stocks had earned 83 cents a share. Production had slowed, mirroring the downward trend in the industry. Nash was still following schedules that were “more brisk” than those of competitors, primarily because exports were up sharply.
Executives of Local 72 were negotiating with management for an arrangement whereby mass lay-offs could be avoided. The union preferred shorter workweeks to lay-offs. In Racine, executives of the union local were busy putting into writing the many gains that had been afforded the union through an ongoing series of handshakes and gentleman’s agreements since 1933.
More than 250 service managers from the United States and Canada descended on Kenosha on December 7 for a three-day service and parts convention held in the ballroom of the Masonic Temple. The boys were brought up to speed on the latest in service methods and procedures. They were involved in discussions by a representative from Pittsburgh Plate Glass and the Seaman Body Corporation. Workshops included how to deal with customer complaints, how cars are assembled, how to protect the Nash LaVax finish, how to sell accessories, dealer policies and more. The Service Department staged a play for the guests, “Jake Goes to Town.” There was a banquet of at the Kenosha Youth Center but the big thrill was the unforgettable nationwide drive-away of new Nash and Lafayette cars that wrapped the convention.
The final assembly line at Nash mysteriously shut down on Tuesday, December 21st, affecting 250 workers. It didn’t start up on Wednesday either, forcing the other 2,400 workers to reduce production schedules and the hours worked. Both management and union officials were agreed that there was no labor dispute. Everything got back to normal on Thursday but neither union nor management ever did say why the work stoppage occurred in the first place. Both sides were quick to assure the press that production would be finished out for the week with no loss of units produced.
As 1937 drew to a close, the future looked good for Nash, its employees, and Kenosha.
Thanks to the Nash Car Club of America for the use of their images. Also see: Series Contents.
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