Petersen Archive: Powell’s Holy Grail
The Holy Grail, Atlantis, Blackbeard’s treasure. For years adventurers and explorers have searched for these elusive treasures. The same is true for car manufacturers. In the 1950’s, however, these manufacturers looked for something more practical that would serve every day Americans. The Holy Grail for these manufacturers was the $1000 car. “Everybody’s talking about a $1000 car,” proclaimed a Crosley advertisement in the June 5, 1950 issue of Life Magazine “—but only Crosley is building it!” Indeed, with their 1950 Station Wagon, listed for $984, Crosley seemed to have found the evasive treasure. Crosley, however, was not the only manufacturer that undertook the quest for the mythical $1000 car. Four years after Crosley introduced their Station Wagon, Channing and Hayward Powell in Compton, California were “building what they advertised, as ‘America’s 1st car produced to sell below $1000.’”
It was a challenge to make a new car which would sell for under $1000. As Walt Woron observed, for most manufacturers who sought to do so, “costs mounted upward like a mushroom pushing its way thru the cracking earth.” The Powell Sport Wagon, however, was not exactly a new car. It was, as Woron described, “at best a rebuilt one.”
To make the Sport Wagon’s chassis, workers at the Powell manufacturing plant in Compton, California, first disassembled a 1941 Plymouth chassis. They then replaced any worn out parts and re-aligned the points on the chassis.
The Wagon’s engine was also from used Plymouths. Plymouth 6 engines from 1940 to 1950, powered the Sport Wagon. Powell workers selected these engines based on their condition. As Woron noted, the company had “strict limits on amount of allowable bore wear, etc.” Workers rebuilt the Plymouth engines for the Sport Wagon. As they were recycled, the Plymouth engines reduced the cost of the Sport Wagon which brought it closer to Powell’s $1000 goal.
Channing and Hayward Powell designed the Powell’s body panels to cut costs. As Woron wrote, the panels on the Sport Wagon did not feature “compound curves that require costly dies.” These panels also borrowed design elements and manufacturing techniques from airplanes. Workers formed the panels from heavy gauge steel. The front of the truck was fiberglass.
To build the Sport Wagon, workers welded these body panels together on jigs. They then coated the panels in white, yellow, red, or green enamel. Finally, workers test drove the car “to make sure that it doesn’t have any faults peculiar to it alone.”
Walt Woron test drove a Sport Wagon in 1956. In the February 1956 article “Driving Around” in Motor Trend Magazine, he commended the car’s “easy steering,” “adequate acceleration,” and “ease of operation.” A native of Southern California, however the “fair-weather” Sport Wagon, had problems in inclement weather. Woron lamented that the truck’s windshield wipers “leave quite a wide blind spot in the center.” Nonetheless, he proclaimed that the Sport Wagon had “most of the advantages of a pickup truck without many of the disadvantages.”
Channing and Hayward Powell set out to find the Holy Grail, a car that would sell for under $1000. In part they succeeded. In 1956, the standard version of the Powell Sport Wagon sold for $1095. The Deluxe Version, which featured chrome accents, diamond-plate metal, and two-toned upholstery sold for $1198. Powell projected that increased production would lower the cost of the Wagon. With the Sport Wagon, Woron mused, “maybe we’ll actually see the return of the elusive $1000 car.”
By: Kristin Feay