Kimberly V. Althage – July 4, 2022
Dedicated and knowledgeable automotive historians are familiar with Graham-Paige Motors, but few others. The flamboyant yet unrenowned company was an American automobile manufacturer of cars and trucks before WWII. Founded by three enterprising brothers Joseph, Robert, and Ray, the company would go on to manufacture some of the more stylish automobiles of the early 1930s.
The trio of brothers were successful industrialists with a knack for commercial enterprise. These serial entrepreneurs would be called venture capitalists today. Their business ventures were many, ranging from agriculture, glass, truck manufacturing, and they briefly managed the giant Dodge Brothers organization for the investment bank Dillion, Read & Company.
The first to achieve industrial success was the eldest, Joseph. In 1907, the family purchased the company, initially renaming it the Southern Indiana Glass Works. Joseph’s first innovation, the Graham Automatic Bottle-Making Machine, was developed that same year. The machine vastly improved production being almost fully automatic. Its “turnover” design that blew the bottle in the finish-down position was somewhat unique. Joseph improved his creation and by 1912 the machine was fully automatic making them a major producer of soda bottles, especially for Coca-Cola.
The company grew into multiple locations with Joseph at the helm as President, Robert as VP and Sales Manager, and Ray as Secretary and Treasurer. During this time, the youngest brother, Ray started fabricating a unique rear axle like those he developed while managing the family farm. Ford Motor Co. was Ray Graham’s first customer, because his axle and frame design easily converted a Ford passenger car into a one-ton truck when mounted underneath. The brothers quickly earned an impressive reputation for creating well-engineered trucks, which caught the attention of the Dodge Brothers Company machine shop.
Dodge President, Frederick J. Haynes quickly recognized the opportunity to diversify into the truck business without sacrificing passenger-car production and he struck a deal with the Grahams in April 1921. The exclusive partnership meant Graham trucks were built with Dodge powertrains and sold through Dodge’s dealer network. By 1926 the Grahams and Dodge were so interconnected, the brothers were running Dodge’s entire truck organization. Yet for reasons forever lost to history, the brothers suddenly resigned in April 1926 and sold out to Dodge Brothers, who were acquired by the Chrysler Corporation two years later.
Under the new moniker the Graham-Paige vehicles were introduced. They came with side-valve six- and eight-cylinder engines and were fitted with hydraulic brakes, a great advancement for the time. The vehicles were lavishly launched at the New York Automobile Show in January 1928. The same event when the Ford Model A made its Grand Central Palace debut.
Although Graham-Paige made most of their own bodies and engines their earliest cars were not truly innovative and generally did not stand out from the crowd. Recognizing the value of endurance and speed records, the brothers took an eight-cylinder to the Montlhery Speedway near Paris late 1928, where it broke several international records in its class as it covered over 2K miles. The Graham-Paige’s durability was proven as well completing 24 hours at an average speed of 86.35 m.p.h. This earned its reputation and greatly helped with sales.
The Graham brothers background in glass manufacturing opened another innovative opportunity for the company. Graham-Paige Motors Corporation conducted studies in 1929, finding 70% to 75% of all injuries caused by automobile accidents were due to broken glass. Thus 1930 magazine ads promoted “now standard shatterproof plate glass,” as this very model in our Nashville Showroom exemplifies.
Still, Graham-Paige produced less than half the number made in the previous year. As a result, Graham-Paige returned to making trucks. They were quickly reminded by Chrysler (who acquired Dodge in 1928) that their sale to Dodge Brothers included a non-competition agreement, refraining them from making trucks for five years. Thus, Graham-Paige truck production ended in 1932.
Undaunted, the Graham-Paige Motors Corp. continued to fight through economic hardships by introducing a new 90-horsepower 8-cylinder engine called the “Blue Streak.” The name was quickly adopted for the cars themselves by the press and public. In addition to the ground-breaking 90-bhp 245.4-cid eight was an equally advanced chassis, “banjo” rear-axle mounting, and adjustable shock absorbers. Beyond performance and handling, the Blue Streak Eight featured a groundbreaking body design by Amos Northup.
Despite innovative style and mechanics, Graham-Paige continued to lose money, yet they refused to call it quits after all they endured. The eldest, Joe spent half a million of his own dollars to keep their company alive. They needed something new and different, and in that mindset, they gambled big on a radical and newly styled “Spirit of Motion” sedan in 1938. The company advertising described the models as “Daring new designs,” which the public sadly rejected. It proved too different and controversial for them. Dominated by a prominent hood that swept forward, with a grille that sloped inward giving it a protruding beak it quickly was dubbed “Sharknose.” The daring style was well received in in Europe, particularly France, where it won several styling awards. Most customers did not accept the new styling and due to the dismal year, the company was short of cash and had no choice but to carry the Sharknose into 1939 model year.
Graham Paige’s last-ditch effort was the Hollywood model introduced in 1940. While the Hollywood was a beautiful design, it only carried the company for a few more months but could not save it. Graham-Paige Motors Corp. built its last car that year, afterward concentrating on military production for WWII. Then in 1944 the company was under the control of Joseph Frazer, then finally becoming part of Kaiser-Frazer in 1947.
The Graham-Paige Motors Corp. survived the automobile business longer than many others. Still the Great Depression caused even the big auto companies to suffered major losses and all proved to be too much for the smaller rival. Their survival timeline was a direct result of offering futuristic innovation within the most stylish, yet moderately-priced cars of the era. This strikingly beautiful 1930 Graham 46 has been through incredible restorative lengths, and should be in a museum behind a velvet rope for all to admire. It comes with the original owner’s manual and Michael Keller’s book entitled, The Graham Legacy.
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