Feb 15

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Those Unglamorous But Rare ‘Blackouts’

Article originally printed in the June 1980 Cars & Parts

by Jerry Heasley

Chevrolet Aerosedan WWII Blackout

Although lacking the glitter and gleam of polished chrome and bright side moldings and hardware, the blackout World War II Chevy Aerosedan acquired by Harry West, Canyon, Tex. in 1975 in Oklahoma is extremely rare and one of only a handful in existence.

Chevrolet Aerosedan WWII Blackout from rear

The ‘blackout’ look was not especially popular in post-war America, but the special war editions were still in demand in the late ’40s as the supply of both new and used autos fell far short of demand.

There it was, sitting on the back row of a used car lot in Thomas, Okla. — one of the rarest vintage Chevrolets in existence. Harry West, an old car collector, was driving a truck for a pipeline company when he spotted the car among the other “clunkers.” That was back in 1975. The car was a “blackout” Aerosedan Chevrolet, tagged and waiting for a new owner.

Harry’s excitement grew as he parked his truck along the highway, walked over to the unusual ’42 model, inspected the trim, and suspicioned it was one of those rare blackout Chevrolets. The car dealer bounded from his office, eager to make a sale, and the quoted price was cheap enough. It was too good to be true.

After work, back home in Weatherford, Harry checked George Dammann’s excellent reference, Sixty Years of Chevrolet, and read that one blackout Chevrolet was known to exist. That one car was a restored coupe owned by Bob Wingate, the former president of the Vintage Chevrolet Club of America, and now a prominent vintage Chevrolet dealer based in California.

Harry phoned Wingate, who is a leading expert on blackouts. After Dammann’s book was published, Wingate explained, six more blackouts turned up. Of these, three were parts cars and the other three were not running, but restorable. From Harry’s description, Wingate verified that the western Oklahoma sedan was indeed a blackout Chevrolet. It looked like Harry had stumbled across what could have been the one running, original blackout Chevy in the country at the time.

When Harry first acquired his ’42 Chevy, he detected a definite “miss”and discovered the problem when he pulled the head off the stovebolt six. The top of the number one piston was gone. It was later retrieved from the bottom of the pan. The car had evidently been driven for sometime as a five-banger.

Harry wrote a check for the ’42 model the next evening and asked the dealer to drive the car 15 miles south to Weatherford. Five gallons of fresh regular, a teacup of primer gas in the carb, a battery jump, a turn of the key and a firm press on the starter button, and the stovebolt cranked to life. The 216-cid six was obviously missing on one cylinder, but it ran well enough for daily transportation around town. And, it made the 15-mile trip south with no trouble.

Later, when Harry took off the head, the top of the number one piston was gone. He found it in the bottom of the pan. The skirt and connecting rod had been moving up and down the cylinder wall without the piston top, probably for years.

Since 1975, Harry has learned more about blackouts. Let’s look at Harry’s car and review some general facts and figures relating to these very interesting automobiles.

First, as everyone knows, the 1942 model year was shortened by World War II. By the summer of 1941, it was clear that war for the U.S. was around the bend, only months away. War production had begun and the automobile plants would soon be totally involved. On the first of January, 1942, Washington ordered the assembly plants to build for another month, to February 1st, or thereabouts. They might as well use up the stockpiled engines, sheetmetal and other parts, the government decided. But nickel, stainless, copper, chrome, etc., were restricted, in fact had been restricted for weeks, and the blackout was born. Those were dark days for the auto industry, and the world.

Bright chrome trim were added to this Aerosedan

Although a few bright chrome pieces have been transplanted onto West’s Aerosedan over the years, the car still retains its basic blackout trim. The Oklahoma inspection sticker is dated 1970.

There is a fascinating story, however, in how the hard-pressed auto makers changed over from the usual brightwork to other materials. With new engineering crews, hired on hours notice and working shifts through the night, they eliminated the high priority metals from the last of the 1942 models. And then, in a matter of weeks, production ended, and America would have to drive without new cars for the “duration.”

Enameled Fleetline script

The enameled Fleetline script on the trunk lid forms part of the special war trim package.

So, these blackouts were the last pre-war cars built. Except for the bumpers and front bumper guards, these cars were supposed to have no “brightwork.” Unofficially, they started converting about two days before Christmas in 1941. Wingate’s blackout coupe was half blackout trim and half painted over chrome. It was built on Dec. 30, 1941. By January 1st, the industry was really clearing out the old stock and by January 15th, everything was baked enamel (over steel). Ford, however, had flat quit by the first of January, and was completely involved in the war effort. We have yet to see a blackout Ford, Mercury, or Lincoln, although there might have been a few blackout Fords built in December. Can you imagine a blackout Lincoln Continental?

1942 Aerosedan interior painted metal

The interior of the ’42 Aerosedan clearly reveals the car’s origin as a war model. Items that were normally finished in brightwork, such as door handles, moldings and the horn button, are painted metal on the blackout models.

Of course, any blackout is fascinating. Detroit had to eliminate the high priority metals and paint over what old stock bright trim they did use. So, where you use to see sparkling chromed grille speaker bars, for example, you instead see woodgraining. And other usually bright, items, such as the horn button, door handles, moldings, etc., are painted, enameled metal.
'Balsckout' treatment of the door panels.

A special pattern graced the top of the door panels on blackout Chevy’s. Woodgraining was also used to cover the brightwork on radio speaker grills.

The blackout turned into a hated car after the war. In the early to mid fifties, they were the first junked if they needed much repair. And many post-war owners updated the dull-looking trim with bright chrome. They disappeared quickly. Of the 25,000 or so blackout Chevrolets produced, about 20 or 25 are now known to exist.

Harry’s ’42 was sold to a rental car outfit. Stenciled on the floor of the trunk is the sign: If Abandoned or Stolen, Telegraph U-Drive-It-Co., 29 W. State Street, Columbus, Ohio — Owner.

It is suspected that rental companies were high priority buyers back during the war. When production halted in February of 1942, the mass of cars was frozen until 18 months later, and then rationed. Bob Wingate’s coupe was sold in June of 1943 as a new Chevrolet, and went to a pharmaceutical man who hauled supplies from one hospital to another.

This writer called the “U-Drive-It-Co.” in Columbus, Ohio, and talked with a man who had been with the business since 1937. He explained that they bought the cars right after the war. They were still in hot demand in 1945 and 1946 and for a few years after that. He said that they had trouble with people renting these “new” cars, driving them to a distant state, getting another title, and selling the car for as much as $1,000 over market value. In fact, back in the forties, they had tracked down and retrieved about four vehicles from as far away as Texas, he explained.

Harry’s Aerosedan has baked enamel side trim, grille, Special Deluxe and Fleetline emblems, door handles, moldings, etc. The dash is also minus fancy brightwork, but it has two options — the three-spoked banjo steering wheel and a clock.

Part of the exterior trim is chrome, including the rocker panel molding along the side, below the driver’s door, but that trim was added after the war. Also, somebody had re-painted the fenders black with a paint brush. But most of Harry’s blackout is there, even if it does need a total restoration. It is an extremely interesting piece of history, viewed with the proper facts. This is where the old car hobby can really get exciting.

A longtime collector like West, who now lives in Canyon, Tex., wants to restore this car to full blackout. He found that the Oklahoma car dealer bought the car in an estate sale in Watonga, Okla. The last owner acquired the car in 1949 and apparently drove it clear into the 1970s, probably running the last few years on the dead cylinder. Fortunately, the last owner left the blackout trim intact. Even the door panels were specially trimmed. There’s no practical way to counterfeit one of these rare cars.

If a collector discovers any 1942 Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Studebaker, Packard, etc., he should check out the trim. It just might be a blackout. And, there’s also the chance of spotting a Ford, Mercury, or maybe even a Lincoln with special war trim.

A collector lucky enough to uncover a ’42 blackout should remember that after the car is restored and entered in a car show, that the spare should be removed from the trunk for the sake of authenticity. These cars originally came without the spare tire, another war conservation measure.

Permanent link to this article: http://antiquechevyclubofqueens.org/2018/02/those-unglamorous-but-rare-blackouts/