by James Mays • Prologue of A Car and a Refrigerator Go to War: Nash-Kelvinator in World War II
Also see: Series Contents, Nash Motors, Nash engines, Nash Metropolitan, Jeffery, AMC, the Nash Car Club of America
Dedication: To all the home front workers who never wore uniforms or carried rifles but fought evil and tyranny day after day with the weapons they knew best: the lunch box and the time card...and to Vincent Ruffalo, who has kept the wartime stories from being forgotten.
Tucked away neatly between Chicago and Milwaukee, on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, Kenosha was first settled by Americans from the eastern states; Germans, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians followed. First called Southport, the burgeoning town was incorporated as the City of Kenosha in the Territory of Wisconsin in 1835.
With a hardy and enterprising population, it was natural that industry would come with them, starting with tanning, boxing, bedding, furniture, and wagon making were early examples. Enough people came that the territory qualified for statehood, and Wisconsin was admitted to Union as the 30th State in 1848.
Kenosha grew, and so did its industries. Automobile manufacture arrived in 1902, when Thomas Jeffery began building the highly popular Rambler. Local car parts makers quickly sprang up to supply the factory.
Charles Nash stepped down as president of General Motors on June 1, 1916. His retirement was national news; reporters jammed his press conference. When asked what he would do next, the 52-year old captain of industry told the press he was going fishing. Nash reeled in a four-wheeled fish. At the end of his line was the Thomas B. Jeffery Company, makers of the Jeffery car, formerly called the Rambler, and a pioneer in four wheel drive. The Jeffery name was quickly laid to rest as Nash began building cars and trucks under his own name. During the Great War, Nash held the distinction of being the largest truck manufacturer in the world.
Nash Motors was in good shape at the end of the decade. It had no debt and a healthy cash reserve, much of it in government bonds. In 1924 workers were turning out 250 vehicles a day, every one of them a firm order.
Charles Nash was famous for pinching pennies. The area around the final assembly and car wash building was dirt. One snowy, slushy day when a car got stuck in the mud, Nash grumbled, “Why don’t you concrete this in?” He went to New York the next day on business. When he got back, the area was concreted in. Nash was highly displeased with the $14,000 bill but did remember giving the order to have the work done. He was calmed only when shown that concrete saved $4,000 a year in rewashing cars before shipment.(1)
Workers at Nash suffered greatly during the depression that swept the world after the stock market collapsed in October of 1929. They earned up to 35 cents an hour, but only when the lines were running. The company practiced a strict policy of building cars only when there was a firm order in hand. With orders being far and few between, there was plenty of idle time in the plants. The men who worked at Nash Motors were unable to feed, house or clothe their families.
RM Auctions sold this twin-ignition straight-eight Nash sold for $63,250 in 2012.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected as the 32nd President of the United States. He had campaigned on promises of a New Deal for the beleaguered citizenry. Once in office he promptly put into action the National Industrial Recovery Act, a plan designed to allow workers to unionize and receive better wages.
Nash, like other captains of industry, was dubious about this president and his left-leaning program. They ignored the president. When auto manufacturers did not move, Roosevelt offered his own guidelines for the industry. Horrified that it might become law, automakers quickly banded together with a plan of their own to counter what they saw as direct interference in business from Washington. Negotiations with Nash Motors to organize a union went nowhere.
On November 9, 1933 workers in the final assembly area sat down in the plant and refused to work until their demands were met. It wasn’t long before everyone joined.(2) An outraged Charles Nash informed the press that he would lock the factory gates and throw the keys into Lake Michigan before dealing with these Communists. The gates stayed closed for eleven long days.
Many say that it was the influence of his wife that finally persuaded him to reconsider. Senator Robert Wagner of New York, now chairman of the all powerful National Recovery Agency, had a private meeting with Charles Nash, appealing to him to keep up with the changing times, lead out in bringing the economy back to health, and accept the union. Being pressured on all sides, he reluctantly agreed.
Nash personally headed the negotiating team for management; a union was recognized. It was not to his liking but it was a law abiding, well-run, and well-disciplined organization.
In Kenosha County, the economy hit rock bottom in 1934. Only 35% of the work force had jobs. Still, there was good news. Nash Motors marked the building of its 1,000,000th car on April 27; the milestone car rolled off the line decked in roses. The occasion was marked at “The Motors” and by the city fathers when they proclaimed “Nash Day” throughout Kenosha. It was a holiday to be remembered.
Charles Nash paid homage to his workers in a heart-felt speech: “I am not unmindful that twenty years have passed. Neither, that I had but a small part in the success of Nash Motors Company. What I mean is that the man who carries the dinner pail is the man that never receives credit for the great part he plays in this game.”
In 1935, AFL Local 19008 became a charter member of the UAW and changed its name to Local 72. The work force at Nash Motors was 3,000 members strong.(3)
The immigrant population in Kenosha was just shy of 40% in 1935. They came from the four corners of the earth for a better life in Kenosha: The British Isles, the Dominion of Canada, Italy, Scandinavian countries, Mexico, and the nations that emerged from the ashes of the former Austrian Empire. When the offspring of immigrants were added into those figures, the tally rose to nearly 60%. It made for a strong and vital work force.
The state’s economy continued to improve. The Wisconsin Employment Service placed 134,696 citizens into jobs in 1936, a three percent increase over 1935. The increase in the manufacturing sector was up 46% statewide over the previous year. In Kenosha County, the economy had rebounded, too. Figures showed that employment of able-bodied men had jumped to 69% by year’s end. (4)
Charles Nash now focused on securing his automotive empire. He sat down to lunch with the Seaman brothers and offered to buy the final 50% interest of the Seaman Body Corporation that he didn’t already own. The deal was signed on July 16, 1936. The Milwaukee concern had supplied car bodies to Nash and other automakers for years; now, it would build exclusively for Nash Motors.
RM Auctions sold this twin-ignition straight-eight Nash sold for $63,250 in 2012.
Eager to build a small, light car that would compete in the low-priced Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth price range, Charles Nash personally called on the offices of Budd. He wanted the latest technology could offer, a small but strong car built of monocoque construction, like aircraft. Satisfied that Budd could do the job, Nash inked a deal with the body builder. It would be one of his final acts as day-to-day president of the company.
At the age of 73, Charles Nash had no sons to run his company in his stead and no heir apparent in the wings, and had already departed from Kenosha in 1933 for a new home in southern California. Wall Street moguls advised him to find some younger blood, or they would be obliged to downgrade the company stock. Nash discussed the situation with his old friend Walter Chrysler, who suggested one George Mason.
Mason was an automobile man with experience at Studebaker, Dodge Brothers, and Chrysler. Since 1927, though, he had served as president of Kelvinator, one of the nation’s leading refrigerator manufacturers.
Nash paid a visit to Kelvinator in Detroit. The historic conversation took place in Mason’s mahogany paneled office. The King of Kelvinator was cool to the automaker’s proposition; Mason was, after all, a captain of industry in his own right who had earned more than $193,000 in 1936.
Charles Nash knew he had found his man and was not about take “No” for an answer. Nash purchased Kelvinator and let it be known that it was primarily for the considerable talents of its president. The largest merger in American business history, the story made newspaper headlines for weeks. The press speculated on the wisdom of what it viewed as an illogical tie-up, ignoring the fact that General Motors owned Frigidaire, one of Kelvinator’s main competitors. Jokes abounded throughout the land that as a result of the merger, the owners of new Nash and Lafayette cars would find ice trays in their glove boxes and Kelvinators would now be equipped with four-wheeled brakes. The humor was priceless, unintentionally bringing publicity that the most brilliant public relations coup could never buy.
Standing at the factory gate, flanked by two armed guards and backed up by a sharpshooter stationed in a nearby tower, Charles Nash handed out $85,000 of cash bonuses to 7,500 workers at Christmas. That made national news. The press noted that no other automaker had done so since 1929.
On December 23, 1936, the merger with Kelvinator was approved, and shares were traded for the new company. Nash Motors entered the new Nash-Kelvinator combine with net earnings of $1,020,707. The company had total assets of $38 million and its ratio of assets to liabilities was eight to one. (5)
Charles Nash could now retire to California with an easy mind. He had personally set the stage for one of the most durable and fascinating companies in American history. Little could he know how his creation would fare in the turbulent decades to come.
1. Heinrich, Arthur. Top Sergeant of Industry: 1957
2. Kastman, John. Personal Interview. April 29, 20043. Drew, John, UAW Local 72, The First 50 Years, Newsletter: 1985.4. Kenosha Evening News, February 24, 1937 5. Fortune, April 1937, p. 96
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