Essex led the auto industry by introducing low-priced closed coachwork a century ago

Closed cars were the automotive industry’s great quest of the early 1920s. They were warranted by popular demand, as illustrated in this passage from Babbitt, the novel by Sinclair Lewis that is observing its centennial this year. George Babbitt leads off here, with his wife and children chiming in:

“Sort o’ thinking about buying a new car. Don’t believe we’ll get one till next year, but still, we might.”

Verona, the older daughter, cried, “Oh, Dad, if you do, why don’t you get a sedan? That would be perfectly slick! A closed car is so much more comfy than an open one.”

“Well now, I don’t know about that. I kind of like an open car. You get more fresh air that way.”

“Oh, shoot, that’s just because you never tried a sedan. Let’s get one. It’s got a lot more class,” said Ted.

“A closed car does keep the clothes nicer,” from Mrs. Babbitt; “You don’t get your hair blown all to pieces,” from Verona; “It’s a lot sportier,” from Ted; and from Tinka, the youngest, “Oh, let’s have a sedan! Mary Ellen’s father has got one.” Ted wound up, “Oh, everybody’s got a closed car now, except us!”

Cadillac and other high-price brands had sedans by then, but it was Essex that introduced affordable closed coachwork. Essex Motor Co. was created in 1919 by Hudson Motor Car Co., of Detroit, to compete in the low-price field. At $1,495, the 1922 Essex sedan was the lowest-priced closed car in America. Detractors called it a “packing crate,” but it sold well. Essex shipped 36,222 cars during calendar-year 1922, including the touring and cabriolet models. More important, the Essex coach had a wide influence throughout the industry–especially as Essex, which had now been absorbed into the Hudson company, dropped the price of the two-door coach to $975 in 1924.

The next year, it plunged to $895. “Nothing like that had ever been seen before in the automobile industry, and the Essex coach had a considerable vogue,” Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. wrote. “This suggested that the closed cars, priced on a volume basis, could in the future dominate even the low-price field.”

Pontiac, Chevrolet, and Ford took note. We see evidence in a Ford Closed Cars ad from the March 1924 issue of The Delineator (“A Journal of Fashion, Culture and Fine Arts”):

Not even a chilly all-day rain need upset the plans of the woman who has a Ford closed car at her disposal. Knowing it to be reliable and comfortable in all weathers, she goes out whenever inclination suggests or duty dictates.

The car is so easy to drive that it constantly suggests thoughtful services to her friends. She can call for them without effort and share pleasantly their companionship.

All remark upon the graceful outward appearance of her car, its convenient and attractive interior, and its cosy (sic) comfort. And she prides herself upon having obtained so desirable a car for so low a price.

The Ford Tudor sedan was advertised at $590. It may have had a roof and windows, but it was still a flivver.

The Tudor gives us a good example of Ford’s capabilities. In its first year, nearly a quarter-million examples were produced.

Electronically tinted panoramic roofs were still ages away, but it was a strong start for closed cars.

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