This one’s for you, Max!
UPDATE: Several months ago, I got an e-mail from “Max,” who is a regular reader and who has on occasion supplied “fodder” for my blog posts, that he had bought a ’39 Nash LaFayette. More recently he sent a message suggesting I do a story on the Nash LaFayettes. I should have put two and two together and asked him for photos and details of his LaFayette, but I didn’t. Little did I know when I put this post together, the burgundy LaFayette pictured below is Max’s car! Revised text and added photos.
1939 Nash LaFayette “Bed-in-Car” Sedan
The story of Nash, LaFayette and other marques built by Nash and its successors began in the 19th century when Thomas Jeffery left England and settled in Chicago at the age of 17. Mechanically adept, he built telescopes, patent models and then created a new type of bicycle with an inexpensive but strong frame of brazed tubing. He called the bike “the Rambler.” The Rambler quickly became the second best-selling bicycle in the U.S.
In 1882 Jeffery invented the “Clincher” tire and sold the rights to Dunlop. This design became the basis for all modern tires.
Jeffery sold his bicycle business in 1897, bought an empty building in Kenosha, Wisconsin with the proceeds of the sale and built his first car, powered by a single cylinder engine, in his newly-acquired facility. He re-used the Rambler name for his new car. Kenosha became the home for the Jeffery’s car business and remained the home for the succeeding businesses until the late 1980s.
Jeffery was the second man, after Ransom Olds, to use an assembly line (1898) for building cars. (Henry Ford came later.) Rambler cars quickly gained a reputation as being solid cars. By 1902, Rambler was the second largest automaker in the United States. In 1904, Jeffery launched a two-cylinder car followed in 1906 with a four cylinder car.
Thomas Jeffery died in 1910, and his son, also named Thomas, took over. In 1916 the company was sold to Charles Nash for around $10 million.
Nash had become president of General Motors after William Durant was ousted, but when Durant returned to GM, Nash left.
With fellow GM veterans James Storrow and Walter Chrysler, Nash then tried to take over Packard, but Packard’s directors resisted, and Nash ended up buying the Thomas B. Jeffery Company and renaming the cars “Nash.”
Former GM engineer Nils Erik Wahlberg came with Nash to the newly-acquired Jeffery and went right to work, creating new cars for the 1918 model year. Aimed at the middle of the market, they used an overhead-valve straight-six engine, marketed as the “valve in head” engine. The bodies used flow-through ventilation to keep the air fresh inside. This early ventilation advance set the stage for Nash’s later advancements in managing the climate in a car’s interior, including the famous “Weather Eye” system.
In 1919, Nash launched a new and expensive luxury car for the 1920 model year, the LaFayette. The LaFayette was named after the Marquis de LaFayette and his likeness was used as a cameo in the marque’s logo. It was the LaFayette car that was the first to use an electric clock.
The LaFayette faltered and was discontinued at the end of 1924. Nash used its former LaFayette factory to build a new low price car, the Ajax, which was introduced in 1925. The Ajax didn’t sell as well as hoped and the Ajax became the Nash Light Six, which sold well. Nash sold an aftermarket “conversion kit” including hubcaps, a new radiator badge, and other logo-and-name components that turned an Ajax into a Nash, helping its resale value and preventing it from becoming an “orphan.”
In 1934, Nash re-introduced the LaFayette name, this time for a line of smaller, less expensive autos. In 1935, Nash introduced a series known as the “Nash 400” to fill the perceived price gap between the LaFayette and the Nash. By 1937, it was determined that this perceived gap wasn’t so important after all, and that Nash Motors was marketing too many models.
A unique feature of this generation of Nashes and LaFayettes was the ability to convert the back seat and trunk into a bed. Original advertising for the “Bed in Car” described the feature:
“When not in use as a bed, the car interior bears no trace of its dual function. The car appears to be a standard, conventionally equipped automobile. The convertible (bed) car is expected to be popular with fisherman, hunters, campers, and tourists who want sleeping comfort without the expense of hotel accommodations of the inconvenience of transporting bulky tents and camping equipment. The car also provides the means of visiting and staying in distant regions that have no hotel or tourist accommodations…Cushions have been designed so that that they can be moved forward and laid like Pullman sleeping-car sets to form a foundation for bedding. The foot of the improvised bed extends into the rear luggage compartment, baggage being transferred to the front seat for the night.”
This photo of Max’s LaFayette shows how the rear seat back lifts up allowing access to the trunk. When sleeping in the car, the sleepers’ legs were in the trunk. This feature was likely used more than once at (ahem) the drive-in movies …
Taking the flow-through ventilation system introduced in 1918 a little further, the ’39 Nashes used a thermostatically-controlled heating and ventilation system called the “Car Comfort Control” system.
“Car Comfort Control” – the first thermostatically-controlled heater in cars.
The LaFayette and the Nash 400 were combined into a single model called the Nash LaFayette 400 for 1937, and the LaFayette ceased to be regarded as a separate make of car. For 1938, this became simply the Nash LaFayette, and the LaFayette series continued as Nash’s lowest-priced offering through 1940. For 1941, the LaFayette was replaced by the all-new unibody Nash 600.
Above: 1937 Nash LaFayette; Below: Max’s 1939 Nash Lafayette
Below: more photos of Max’s LaFayette
Below: LaFayette series badge below the front door.