Powell Sportwagon, The Discount SUV
Posted on 17 July 2015
The 1950's are often considered the golden age of American car design. Big car makers were experimenting with radical new designs, Studebaker with its wild bullet nose and Cadillac's jutting "Dagmar" bumpers, named after a busty television personality of the era. But the big makers weren't the only ones coming up with adventurous new designs and concepts - a number of very small manufacturers were getting experimental too. One of my favorite micro-manufacturers of the '50s is Powell Manufacturing.
Hayward and Channing Powell were two industrious brothers who started out making radios in the '20s. They began with large, clunky, and expensive radio sets that sold poorly. During this first foray into radio manufacturing one of the brothers became quite ill. The radio manufacturing business was put on hold while they took a bite of the recovery sandwich by going on an epic cross country journey. I have been able to find little detail about the trip, aside from my assumption that it was epic - the journey took place in 1926, before the interstate system, a network of paved roads, or cars that traveled safely over 30mph. Once the brothers returned from the trip, they focused on making smaller affordable radios. This new venture proved more successful.
By the time the 1930's rolled around, the brothers had set up Powell Manufacturing in Compton CA, and their focus had shifted from radios to motor scooters. Their scooter production was halted during WW2 while Powell Mfg. switched over to war manufacturing. Once the war was over, production of civilian goods ramped back up. By the early '50s Powell was churning out thousands of scooters and small motorcycles, many were used on Hollywood studio lots. The brothers decided it was time to try their hand at larger motor vehicles.
Being that their specialty was small scooters, they were not entirely equipped to make cars and trucks from the ground up. Nonetheless, the brothers forged ahead, deciding to manufacture a pickup truck and a station wagon. Both were dubbed the Sport Wagon, and used a majority of the same body panels. The rather eccentric workaround for sourcing the major components they were unable to make was to pick the bones of 1941 and 1942 Plymouth cars, snatching their frames and engines from local scrapyards and fully reconditioning them. The body of the Sport Wagon was fairly primitive, designed with no compound curves to avoid the need for complicated or expensive stamping. The most complex body part was the front panel that held the grill and headlights, which was made from fiberglass by a local boat shop. All glass, including the windshield, was flat. Chrome trim was generously provided by Ford, by which I mean that the Powells pried it off of Fords found in junkyards. Perhaps the most unique feature was a long slide out drawer concealed within the rear panel of the Sport Wagon, good for carrying fishing poles or guns. All of their cost cutting techniques resulted in a fairly sturdy vehicle for the pretty astonishing price tag of $1,000 to $1,200 depending on the year.
Motor Trend Magazine reviewed the Sport Wagon in the winter of 1956. The reaction was fairly positive, and the reviewer suggested that the vehicle made for a good second car or sporting vehicle. With remarks such as "Its handling features are adequate, without having any particularly notable features" and "the fit of the serviceable vinyl upholstery is about par," the reviewer seems to focus more on the charming simplicity, fantastically low price, and decent ride. In the end of his review he mentions that the Powells were hoping to ramp up production. Unfortunately manufacturing of the Sport Wagon would end less than a year later. There was still demand for the truck, it was just that the Powell's had exhausted the local supply of Plymouth chassis.
It's actually quite astonishing that in their roughly three year production run from 1954 to 1956 they managed to make nearly 1500 vehicles. This means that they had managed to scrounge up that many 1941 Plymouth frames - quite a feat in itself! The Sport Wagon is also notable in that it is the first American Coupe Utility: a pickup truck built with a one piece body on a car's chassis. Although Australians had been making this body style for decades, the big American companies wouldn't start making a style similar to the Sport Wagon until Ford made the Ranchero in 1957. It is also suggested that the Powell Station Wagon is one of, if not the first modern SUV. Chevy was making the Suburban and Willys the Willys Wagon, but these were bulky, heavy duty vehicles less ideal for passenger travel than for work. The Powell had room for a whole family, drove like a 1941 Plymouth sedan, and was rugged enough to be used as an outdoorsman's vehicle.
It's hard to say if the Powell brothers' innovations were noticed by the larger car companies, but it is interesting that many of their ideas showed up later in other, much higher production American cars. Even if the Powells hadn't run out of usable materials, ever tightening safety standards would have likely put them under anyway. One has to wonder if such an operation would be conceivable now. New "small" car makers are again popping up, but their startup price tags must be astronomical (see Tesla and Via Motors). Would it be worth a manufacturer investing in making a super simple, plane jane utility vehicle? To sell something as simple and cheap as a Powell Sport Wagon would be a volume game. Would we be happy with a looks-fine, lasts a long time vehicle? Perhaps. I know if the Powell 2.0 were to come out, I would certainly take it for a test drive.