Photos from the Vault

1942’s plastic ‘car of the future’ looked like something George Jetson would drive

The beetle-like shape of George W. Walker’s post-war prototype “car of the future” makes it difficult to tell fore from aft, but the license-plate end, right, is the front of the car. The motor is mounted in the rear. Like most of these models, this one has a transparent plastic top, with the body panels made of other plastics. The sketch was published in 1942.
The beetle-like shape of George W. Walker’s post-war prototype “car of the future” makes it difficult to tell fore from aft, but the license-plate end, right, is the front of the car. The motor is mounted in the rear. Like most of these models, this one has a transparent plastic top, with the body panels made of other plastics. The sketch was published in 1942. Telegram-Tribune

Newspapers are good at writing Year in Review stories, but not as good at predicting the future.

The weakness is not limited to newspapers. “Didn’t see that coming” is a trope for everyone.

But people don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

The futuristic car shown here looks like classic 1950s Atomic Age design, but it came off the drawing board eight years earlier during World War II when gasoline was rationed and auto production was frozen so that production lines could be converted to building airplanes and tanks.

This prototype presaged the first all-fiberglass-bodied Chevrolet Corvette in 1953 and the rear-engined Volkswagen bugs that would invade America after the war.

George Jetson would have been at home in one of these fishbowlmobiles.

The small plastic car would not become popular in the ’50s. Conspicuous consumption, chrome and Detroit iron would.

However, some of the design concepts are taking hold today in the subcompact market.

The auto designer, George W. Walker, would later be involved in the launch of the iconic Ford Thunderbird in 1955.

Here is the Telegram-Tribune story by the Newspaper Enterprise Association news service published Aug. 2, 1942:

Motorist! Take a peek at the car of the future!

DETROIT — Brother, are you a Sunday driver emeritus?

Have you got those “no-auto blues”? Then maybe it will ease them to contemplate motoring’s bright and shiny (postwar) future — as visualized by George W. Walker, noted automotive designer. He has sketched out many models of the “car of the future” but the crystal-topped, beetleish-looking buggy shown here is typical.

It is Walker’s opinion that, when peacetime car production resumes, your present model will be as outmoded as great-grandpa’s high wheeled-bicycle.

If the war isn’t too seriously disrupted, Walker says, the auto industry will probably swing into production of the 1942 models, dies and tools for which have been retained. But if the conflict is drawn out and Americans’ pocketbooks flattened as a result, Walker predicts a new lighter, cheaper vehicle to fit a lighter purse. And he not only predicts it, he is designing it.

Here are some of the postwar car’s revolutionary features:

A small light, compact engine using 100-octane gasoline and housed in the rear of the chassis.

A plastic-paneled body mounted on a tubular steel frame. The top, incidentally, can be made of transparent, crystal-clear plastic material such as is now used in the noses of Army bombers.

The wheel base of 105 inches —15 to 20 inches shorter than current models.

Wheels 13 inches in diameter rather than 16, to help conserve the synthetic rubber supply.

An overall weight of about 1,200 pounds — which is 1,500 to 2,000 pounds lighter than present-day autos.

A price tag of $300 to $400. Walker is a pioneer in the use of plastic material for automobile manufacture and is enthusiastic about its possibilities. For one thing, he says, tests have proved that plastic body panels have an impact strength 10 times that of steel. Plastic materials are much lighter than steel, hence will make a car cheaper to operate. It insulates against noise better than steel, hence quieter running. It also has heat-insulating properties which keep heat either in our out of a car’s interior.

For inveterate fender-scratchers, Walker brings the encouraging word that colors may be molded right into plastic material, eliminating the need of painting, and the danger of fading or chipping. As for the transparent top on the car of the future, Walker says that you will have all the advantages of a convertible, without the danger of being rained on. Not only that but plastic domes will make for a healthier nation. Here’s how:

Certain clear plastics admit the vitamin-packed ultraviolet rays of sunlight and at the same time exclude the scorching infrared. So what do you get? A fine, healthy tan with no sunburn.

Peace — it’s going to be wonderful.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

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