1931 Chevrolet Independence Series AE Sport Coupe
Cast Iron Wonder
Chevrolet’s stylish Depression-era five window coupe
By David Traver Adolphus
Photography by Don Spiro
It may not look like it, but this is the birth of the modern automobile.
Its styling doesn’t presage the modern age, and there’s nothing revolutionary about the engineering (although elements of its engine design extended into the 1950s). But this line of Chevrolets includes a mixture of ideas and that changed the way people looked at best selling low-priced cars. The design was from the famed Harley J. Earl, who joined General Motors in 1927, even as a seminal new engine was being engineered. It bowed in 1929 on the eve of catastrophe, and proved almost prophetic in its combination of thrift and appeal. It created a mold different from that of the preceding people’s cars from Chevrolet, Ford and others. In it can be found the seeds of a revolution, which elevated the car from transportation to icon.
Those first mass market cars were built with one idea in mind: To get as many cars into as many hands as possible. Designed for everyone and anyone to a lowest common denominator, they were stark and plain. They were the first automotive revolution, the one that brought transportation to many, but they were no more than appliances. Luxury appointments were reserved for more expensive models, and were even looked on as inappropriate for a lower-priced car. After all, if the manufacturer was making enough profit to produce those comfortable touches, surely they were charging too much for the car. Cheap was supposed to be utilitarian. It took a dramatic change in the fortunes of the consumers to alter that perception, and that hour was nigh.
The Great Depression was a dark time, but it was also a whirling maelstrom of competition that forced manufacturers to adapt, or die. Throughout the Twenties, smaller and weaker marques, at both ends of the market, fell daily by the wayside. Some survived by consolidating or acquiring weaker brands, some survived by virtue of their size, and a few not only survived, but thrived, if they had the means and the foresight to persevere.
Maybe Chevrolet didn’t have a sense of the impending crash when it introduced a cast-iron six in 1929, a durable, low cost engine at a time when aluminum was increasingly regarded as a wonder material. The six itself made sense, a logical progression up the ladder of power, and after all, Chevrolets started out with big sixes in the early Teens, and Oakland and Pontiac had sixes in the Twenties. But it was ultimately dropped (as was an early V-8), in favor of light, inexpensive fours. Ford’s Model T dominated much of that low-priced field, and it’s impossible to mention Chevrolet in the 1930s without referring to Ford. Not only were the two locked in a sales struggle (one that Chevrolet consistently won), but also the products of the one drove the development of new features in the other.
It may seem as though the Depression would not have been good to a larger, more powerful engine, but it was. Demand was indeed falling across the board, but if Chevrolet wasn’t able to grow, they at least held nearly level, an Olympian feat for the time. The Independence, with sleek, modern styling and high-quality interior fitments, was able to grab sales from high-end models that rapidly became out of reach for many formerly aspirational consumers. These buyers brought with them ideas about quality and style that hadn’t previously been applied to this segment of the market.
Certainly, an Independence can’t be called luxurious; in many ways it’s simple, almost austere. But the Sport Coupe, especially, is jaunty and anything but dowdy. The bright exterior, with its stainless steel cowl strip, speaks for itself. The interior is subtler. A painted dash holds a traditional instrument pod, with each dial outlined with a nickel trim ring. Seats are elegant and tufted, matching the doors, and the rest of the cabin is upholstered in contrasting brown. The signature roll-down rear window serves the dual purpose of allowing communication with those ensconced in the rumble seat, and creating a terrific sense of openness and space in an otherwise close-coupled cabin.
From the bottom end of the market, the new six became a vehicle up to which owners of lesser fours could move. For the first time, drivers from all ends of society were looking at a vehicle that reflected not the lowest common denominator, but something that recognized that there were values in common for both rich and poor, and “inexpensive” didn’t have to mean you were being penalized.
“Lesser” fours included the Model A. Ford took some time to come up with a retort to the Chevrolet six, but they brought out the double-ought in ‘32 with their V-8. It made a big noise and is still sought-after today, but during the Depression people weren’t necessarily looking for a big engine, and Chevrolet still lead in sales for most of the Thirties.
This back-and-forth typifies the Chevy-Ford relationship of the time. The Model A had been introduced in 1928, and Chevrolet quickly devised a response. Luckily, Ford didn’t seem to be able to meet its orders for the A, so Chevrolet was able to gain some ground with that year’s National Series AB. The second year of their new naming convention that began with 1927s Capitol Series AA, the AB was a larger car, which in a two-door sedan (or coach) configuration was 1928s bestseller. In the engineering labs, a six was already brewing, and the stretch from the Capitol to the National came mostly in the hood section, in preparation for the larger engine. Oldsmobile and Oakland already had new sixes, but they were unrelated to the upcoming Chevrolet engine.
Work on a straight-six had begun in November, 1925, under the direction of Chevrolet’s Ormond E. Hunt, who would became a GM corporate vice-president for engineering and sales in ’29. Hunt had been exposed to L-head designs at Pontiac, and because of his influence, development work focused on side-valve designs up through 1928.
At the same time, there were proponents of overhead-valve designs in two very different areas of the company. One of the selling points of the four had been its OHV design, and sales chief Richard Grant had been touting this, expensively, for years, with slogans like “Valve-in-head, ahead in value.” He had also made hay from Ford for using side-valve engines, and went looking for allies. He found one in assistant chief engineer James M. Crawford, who had also been lobbying hard for an OHV engine. The argument made its way up to Chevrolet division head William S. Knudsen, who left the decision solely in the hands of Hunt. Hunt ultimately signed off on an OHV design on January 30, 1928, eight months before it was scheduled for introduction.
The 194-cu.in., 46hp engine, borrowing many elements from the abandoned side-valve designs, debuted in the 1929 lineup of commercial vehicles, and was found in the International Series AC passenger cars later that same year. The cast-iron design led to initial ridicule, and it was called a “cast iron wonder,” and “stovebolt six” by its detractors, terms of scorn that later turned to affection as its virtues became apparent. There was some truth to them, though, as because of the tight initial schedule, as well as to keep manufacturing costs close to that of the four, it was not built as robustly as it should have been.
The Fisher composite-bodied Universal Series AD cars became still sleeker for 1930, although a close family resemblance was still easily apparent, an obvious effect of a new Depression-era conservative way of thinking. Impressively, additional investments into the quality of the engine were made, which helped to address some of the problems caused by the rushed production of the year before. The bottom end was strengthened through the use of larger crankshaft bearings and webs, and valve diameters were adjusted, helping output rise to 50hp. The rear axle was beefed up, and four wheel Delco-Lovejoy hydraulic shocks and “weatherproof” mechanical brakes were a real improvement. All these improvements carried over to ’31.
We might look at the 1931 Independence Series AE cars as a further evolution of the Universal design, at least as compared to ‘32s, but key differences make it stand out to an observant eye. Wheelbases went out almost two inches, to 108 9/16ths, and head- and taillamps became fully chromed (interior fittings were nickel), with an elegantly arched bar supporting them in front. Standard wire wheels replaced signature, still optional steel discs and hood louvers almost doubled in area. Unseen improvements were made throughout the drivetrain, resulting in stronger, smoother operation. New worm-and-sector steering was also adopted. It was all capped off with the addition of new Cabriolet, Landau Phaeton and five-passenger Coupe bodies. Most distinctively, a bright, arched radiator surround set off a crosshatched radiator screen, in bright chrome on all DeLuxe models, a styling fillip from famed designer Harley Earl.
The Sport Coupe was a slightly transitional model, fitting in between highly optioned Deluxe models and the rest of the Standard trim. If this car looks a little spare to modern eyes, a little lacking in options, it’s because technically, there weren’t any for 1931 or 1932. Sure, sidemounts (midyear), trunk racks, trunks and so forth were available from Chevrolet, but they were all accessories sold and installed by the dealers, not the factory. Feature car owner Dale Dixon’s Sport Coupe did come standard with stone screen, cowl lamps and the rumble seat, but even the two-bar bumper that identifies it as being from sometime in the early part of ’31 (a single-bar bumper appeared partway through the year, and the two were probably offered side-by-side until stocks of the two-bar were exhausted) wasn’t there when it left the factory. It does have the eagle radiator cap, which “typifies the speed and strength of the Great American Value.” Nineteen-inch wire wheels were standard for ’31, but Dixon got it with 18s, almost certainly from a ’32.
Production was over 600,000, but at last count, the Vintage Chevrolet Club of America had only 668 in their roster. Dixon found his in his local Tucson, Arizona, classifieds, and bought it for “recreational use.” It had been nicely restored by the previous owner, but some engine work was needed to get it into the condition that now allows him to use it on most weekends. Twelve-volt ignition, a common conversion from the stock six-volt, is a common concession to modern driving—and batteries.
WHAT TO PAY
Low Average High
Vintage Chevrolet Club of America
PO Box 5387
Orange, California 92863-5387
Dues: $30/year; Membership: 8,000
PROS & CONS
One of the all-time great engines
Spiffy five-window styling
No luggage space
Fords get the attention
Hard to find style and parts
1931 Chevrolet Independence Series AE Sport Coupe
Base Price $575
Options on dR car Double bar bumpers, $20; eagle radiator cap, $3.50
Type Valve-in-head six-cylinder
Displacement 194 cubic inches
Bore X stroke 3.3125 X 3.75 inches
Compression ratio 5.02:1
Horsepower @ rpm 50 @ 2,600
Torque @ rpm 122 @ 800
Valvetrain OHV, mechanical lifters
Main bearings 3
Fuel system Carter 150-S single-barrel updraft carburetor
Ignition system Delco-Remy coil, distributor and electrolock
Lubrication system Gravity, pressure to center main bearing, vane-type oil pump
Electrical system 12-volt, negative ground
Exhaust system Single cast-iron manifold, steel exhaust pipe, muffler and tailpipe
Type 3-speed selective
Ratios: 1st 3.32:1
Type Spiral bevel, banjo-type semi-floating rear axle
Type Worm-and sector
Turns, lock-to-lock XX
Turning circle 20 feet (right)
Type Four wheel mechanical, internal expanding pressed steel
Front 11.5 inches
Rear 11.5 inches
CHASSIS & BODY
Construction Composite, steel over wood framing, channel-section frame, 4 crossmembers
Body style Two door, four-passenger rumble-seat coupe
Layout Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Front I-beam axle, Delco-Lovejoy hydraulic shocks, semi-elliptic springs
Rear Solid axle, Delco-Lovejoy hydraulic shocks, semi-elliptic springs
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels Steel wire
Front/rear 19 inches
Tires Garfield bias
Front/rear 5.25/5.50 x 18 inches
WEIGHTS & MEASURES
Wheelbase 109 inches
Overall length 165.5 inches
Overall width 67.25 inches
Overall height 70.875 inches
Front track 56 inches
Rear track 56 inches
Shipping weight 2,565 pounds
Crankcase 5 quarts
Cooling system 12 quarts
Fuel tank 11 gallons
Transmission 2 pints
Rear axle 1 quart
Bhp per c.i.d. 0.26
Weight per bhp 51.3 pounds
Weight per c.i.d. 13.22 pounds
Top speed 61 mph
Fuel mileage 22.5 mpg at 25 mph
1931 Chevrolet Independence Series AE Sport Coupe