Founded in Buffalo, New York, by Louis Horwitz, Charles Thomas, and Norman Richardson, Playboy was built on the idea that at war’s end, family budgets would be tight and gasoline would continue to be scarce and expensive. Sensing the opportunity to build and sell a compact car that, like the Ford Model T, would be both inexpensive to purchase and affordable to own, the trio pooled $50,000 of their own money and created a single prototype automobile, a rear-engine convertible with a folding cloth top.
As the January-February 1975 issue of Special Interest Autos explained, the reaction to the Playboy prototype, shown at Buffalo’s Hotel Statler in the fall of 1946, didn’t help to temper the group’s expectations. Instead, public support of the concept convinced them that such a vehicle would be a commercial success, and Thomas went back to the drafting table to design a vehicle with a conventional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout that could easily be mass produced. Understanding the group’s manufacturing limitations, Thomas sought to develop a car that could be assembled primarily from off-the-shelf parts, and his final design favored function over form. Thomas was no stylist, and the Playboy that entered limited production was, by most standards of the day, an oddly shaped automobile.
Power came from a variety of third-party sourced engines, including four-cylinder models from Continental, Hercules, and later Willys. Both the Continental and Hercules engines were initially designed for stationary use under constant loads, so adaptation to an automotive environment proved problematic. Overheating was common, and components such as pistons, piston rings and carburetors failed prematurely. The Willys engine, which reportedly cost just $3 more per unit, solved these issues, but didn’t enter into consideration until late in the Playboy’s production.
To some degree, Horwitz’s plan worked, at least in the beginning. The group had little trouble signing on franchisees, as astute dealers recognized the need for an affordable compact car, particularly one as versatile as the Playboy appeared to be. To further create buzz about the car, Horwitz hired Shores-Reyes, a Hollywood promotion agency, to write exciting advertising copy (that may have overstated the car’s capabilities). Even without proof of performance or a tour of the Playboy factory, dealers signed on, and the money raised selling franchises went to build additional Playboy dealer demonstrator models. The group was so confident in its plan to begin mass production that the tooling needed for automation was ordered shortly before 17 million shares of common stock (priced at $1 each) were offered to the public.
Had Playboy been better funded, some believe the product was innovative enough that it could have been a success. Before the plant was shuttered, Playboy even produced a pair of station wagons that raised a considerable amount of interest among dealers, but would have required even firmer financial footing to produce. Critics insist that the proposed $985 selling price wasn’t realistic, and that a profitable selling price would have put the cost of the Playboy within $100 of a base Ford model. The Playboy had its faults, as well: The roof reportedly leaked at the seams, raising or lowering it required two people, and the generous amount of undercoating used was more to hide crude welds between frame and body (and to provide a degree of sound deadening) than it was to prevent rust. In time, all of these issues could have been worked out, but time was something that Playboy simply didn’t have on its side.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.