Ed Wallace

The Good Old Days?

By Ed Wallace

The emails continue to flood in, many infuriated at what they perceive America has become. Too often, though, they reveal a real lack of any historical understanding that it took many generations of Americans to build this country; we Boomers have done little more than redecorate, all too often while complaining about the cost.

In the 1960s driveway of my grandparents’ home in Burbank, Calif., sat two sedans, both sporting the airstream fastback design that became popular for a short time after the Second World War ended. One car bore the nameplate “Nash” on the back. It was in that vehicle that my grandfather used to take me for trips around Southern California, from the Farmers Market in L.A. to the Danish village of Solvang.

When we moved to Alaska, Harold drove his Nash all the way there to visit, and the same held true four years later, when we lived on the East Coast. That was a little odd; Harold started his career with the Dodge Brothers in Hamtramck at Dodge Main and was listed as plant supervisor on his enlistment forms for the Great War and again in the 1920 census. There had to be a reason he chose to purchase that Nash as opposed to other automotive makes decades later.

But the car is not the story here. It’s the automaker’s life.

Not Even on a Doorstep

Charles Nash had been born in 1864 in Cortland, Ill., to a family living on the edge of the financial precipice trying to eke a living out of the soil. In 1870 his parents separated and literally abandoned their children in the process. That’s how hard life was in those days: In 1896, as Ford was building his first car in Detroit, it was estimated that some 10,000 children roamed the city’s streets, having also been abandoned by their parents. Yes, there were adults who were so miserable and so desperate to survive that they left young children to their own devices.

That being true, it was not unusual in this era for these kids to be adjudicated out to other families by local courts — not as adoptive parents, but as a continuation of the system of indentured servitude under a more compassionate name. This was the fate of 6-year-old Nash, ordered by the court into the care of a Michigan farm family, and ordered to remain there until the day he turned 21. He was allowed only three months a year of schooling. So resentful was he of his treatment by that family that he ran away six years later. Now just 12, he became a farmhand for another family for $8 a month. Then he found work for $12, and at age 20 finally met and married a young woman in poor health.

Her illness is why Nash moved her into Flint, Mich., to have access to better medical care. In 1890 he found work at the Flint Carriage Company as an upholstery maker for a mere $1 per day. Remember, this was a kid who understood hard work, having done farm work since he was 6 years old; six months later, Charles Nash was superintendent of the carriage factory. By the turn of the century he was vice president and general manager of the renamed Durant Dort Carriage Company. And the man who originally hired him, Billy Durant, was about to buy Buick from its original owner and would soon create General Motors.

Of course, as the automobile started making inroads onto the American scene, sales of high-end carriages suffered proportionately, and by 1910 Durant Dort was in the business of creating automobile bodies for the Buick division of General Motors. It was uniquely capable of doing so, because Nash had created a motorized straight-line conveyor assembly line at Durant Dort; it wasn’t quite the full moving assembly line that Ford would take credit for years later, but it was the start of that manufacturing process.

His success is why Bill Durant moved him over to General Motors to oversee all automobile production for Buick; and to that end GM’s bankers — led by James J. Storrow — made Nash Vice President of Buick in late 1910. The bankers made him President of General Motors when they threw out Billy Durant not long after. It would be Charles Nash who hired Walter Chrysler into the automobile industry from American Locomotive, while consolidating as many of Durant’s former impulse purchases as he could into fewer but more profitable GM divisions. He started GM purchase of outside vendors, to bring parts production inhouse to lower costs.

Well, within a few years Billy Durant began retaking control of GM through stock manipulation of his newest car company, Chevrolet. So, if there was one fault Nash had, it’s that he and the bankers had cleared up the financial mess Durant left behind and paid off GM’s indebtedness — but, in the process, had shorted shareholders on their dividends. That’s how Durant convinced those same shareholders to merge the companies and make him again in charge of GM.

But no hard feelings: Durant begged Charles Nash to remain and run GM, going so far as to offer $1 million a year as his base salary. Keep in mind that this was a man who just two decades earlier had been earning $300 a year stuffing carriage seats and a decade before that just $100 on the farm. But Nash told Durant no man was worth that kind of money and quit.

Inventor, Inspirer

At first Nash, Storrow, and Chrysler tried to purchase the Packard Motor Company, but their offer was rebuffed. Then word came that the Thomas B. Jeffery Motor Company in Wisconsin was for sale; Jeffery’s heirs wanted to retire and spend their fortunes. In August of 1916 Nash bought the company, writing his own check for a half million as the down payment. One of his first investors was Alfred Sloan of General Motors.

To quote Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Nash’s takeover of Thomas B. Jeffery came on the eve of the Great War and, by the time that conflict ended, his new company, renamed Nash, had become one of America’s largest producers of trucks. Boosted by that government financial windfall, Nash went on to manufacture fine upper-middle-class vehicles for decades.

It would be Nash who invented the flow-through ventilation system in automobiles, cooling to some degree, but using what was the first modern heater in cars, still in use today. In 1941 on the eve of the Second World War, he gave us the mass-produced unibody design in the Nash 600. This was its first major use in America, though Citroen had used that system of automotive body construction in Europe a decade earlier.

But more important than anything else, it was Nash who saw the wisdom in building smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles in America. They had long been the norm in Europe and Asia due to the high cost of fuel — which would never be available in the quantities needed if Europeans drove large and less fuel-efficient vehicles overseas in that era. It was actually Nash’s vision for smaller cars which individuals later running what had been his company would take credit.

Charles Nash retired from the presidency of his company in 1932, but remained board chairman. After a long life in the frozen North, he and his wife moved to Beverly Hills, where he passed away in 1947 at 84 years of age. Fifteen years later I toured California with my grandfather in one of his company’s vehicles.

But before Nash left, he hand-picked his successor, George Mason. Problem was, Mason ran Kelvinator, a manufacturer of high-end refrigerators and kitchen appliances. So, in order to hire Mason, he had to buy all of Kelvinator. Through other acquisitions, Nash would morph into American Motors and be known for its Rambler line of vehicles. Rambler had been the name of Thomas B. Jeffery’s best line of vehicles before Nash purchased the firm.

Nash’s successor, George Mason, would later hire the head of the National Automobile Manufacturers Association, Detroit’s lobbying arm, to be his second in command. Later, on Mason’s unexpected death, that man would run American Motors. His name was George Romney.

So, what Charles Nash, the 6-year-old boy put into indentured servitude by an Illinois court because his parents abandoned him, would accomplish included the straight-line motorized conveyor system, saving General Motors, finding Walter Chrysler, designing the first modern heat and ventilating system in cars, jumping on unibody construction, and pushing for smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

One wonders whether an abandoned 6-year-old today, allowed only three months of schooling a year and knowing little more than farm life, could accomplish anything close to what Charles Nash did in his lifetime. I would guess that would be doubtful. Because what Nash, among others of his time, put into place created modern America and allowed future generations to move off life’s starting line primarily from the middle class and not from extreme poverty.

For us, we are not the creators of this largess living in the world’s largest economy; we are the beneficiaries of it. And, unless I’m misreading the reports, we’ve been slipping on its upkeep for some time.

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com