It’s As Easy As ABC
— By Lynn Newport
Like most car buffs, when growing up I read any magazine I could get
my hands on to learn about those new and exciting future cars Detroit
had in the pipeline. Popular Mechanics had a particularly good name
for their monthly ‘Spy’ report called the Detroit Listening Post,
Popular Science named it The Detroit Report. These articles where
nothing more than a crystal ball prediction of what new cars were
coming down the line.
In these magazines’ pieces, it was often stated a GM car was going to
use an A-B-C or D body design. Back then, such nomenclature was at
best confusing. I never was really able to understand its meaning. It
wasn’t until many years later I was able to clear up this alphabet soup
to understand what the General really meant.
The birth of the ABC styling system, according to some accounts,
starts in 1931 with an engineer by the name of Kap Kuptur. While
serving as the liaison between Harley Earl’s famous GM Art and
Colour (A & C) design studio and the Fisher Body fabrication unit,
Kuptur made an interesting observation. He noticed that the door
dimensions for Chevy, Pontiac and the small Olds were all within less
than a half an inch of one another. Likewise, those for the big Olds,
Buick and small Cadillac were also very close.
To prove his observation, he made paper tracings of each type of door.
He showed them to Mr. Earl, who immediately became very excited.
There was a simple reason. Like those of the other auto manufacturers,
GM’s sales had fallen through the floor - the real effects of the Great
Depression had taken hold. Tremendous pressure was being put on Earl
to reduce vehicle costs. He was searching for ways to come up with
more economical designs. Remember, up to then each of the General’s
five major car lines was quite distinct, totally independent from the
design standards and methods practiced by the others.
Harley Earl realized immediately that at least in theory the introduction
of an A-B-C-D shared body system could save the corporation
hundreds of millions of dollars every year. On the other hand, in order
to pull this off, the Art & Colour group would have to figure out a way
to disguise each car line to give the illusion of totally unique styling. In
the end, they did such a good job of it that Ford did not fully grasp the
concept until around 1950! It must be noted that early on Chrysler did
use some shared bodies for economic reasons, but Chrysler was never
able to disguise them as skillfully as had General Motors.
Some people referred to this as product rationalization. It began to take
roots in the mid-1930s, but it was a full-grown phenomenon by 1949 or
’50. For the sake of simplicity, this sophisticated program could be
described as follows: All Chevrolets, Pontiacs and small Oldsmobiles
would use the ‘A’ body, hood, doors, fenders and the like. The large
Olds, the Buick and the small Cadillacs shared the same basic, but
larger ‘C’ body. The ‘D’ bodies were reserved for the limos from
Buick and Cadillac.
By wisely investing some of the savings back into the exterior designs,
GM A & C was able to afford many visual tricks to maximize the
unique appearance among marques. They started with the paint and
chrome schemes, and fleshed those out with the grille and bumper
treatments. For some models, such as the 1950 Cadillac, the Series 62
rode on a C body, while the Series 75 modified the C body by
lengthening the rear doors and stretching a C body roof. Sometimes
stampings were slightly modified during production to add things such
as the Cadillac P-38 fin effect. Underneath, we often discover many of
the body parts are interchangeable with other GM sister makes. What’s
truly amazing to see what a wonderful job Art & Colour pulled off to
maintain this distinct brand identity. The differences are dramatic.
Did you see the photos at the top of this article showing the
1951 Cadillac 60 Special and an Oldsmobile 98?
Can you find the resemblances?
As time went on the A & C designers became extremely skilled in the
art of illusion. In order to better cost-justify the vast re-tooling
expenses needed for the all-new 1959 models, the A-B-C-D body plan
was scrapped and one basic ‘C’ platform was adopted. This universal
platform could be lengthened or shortened, but the windshield,
cowling, width, front doors, as well as longer or shorter fenders
remained the same. Fins and wings could be added, trunks modified,
but underneath was the C body.
By understanding the basics of the A-B-C and D design concept, when
looking at many of the GM 50’s era cars, one can easily see the family
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