At the conclusion of the Second World War, Americans were hungry for affordable and reliable transportation. While major automakers quickly realized that compact cars had massive potential, they simply weren’t profitable, and a potentially large section of the automotive market was left open for smaller, more entrepreneurial manufacturers. One of these companies, Playboy, promised to deliver affordable, economical and fun transportation to the masses, and had it swung for a base hit instead of an out-of-the-park home run, it may have succeeded.
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.
That experience alone should have convinced the group that automobile manufacturing was a far more complex endeavor than they were equipped to undertake. Of the three, only Thomas had prior automotive engineering experience; Horwitz was a Packard dealer, while Richardson was the operator of a service station. Though both Horwitz and Richardson had business experience, neither had the ability to comprehend how difficult it would be to proceed from building a prototype to building an automotive empire.
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.
It was, however, innovative, featuring slab-sided styling with low-mounted headlamps and taillamps that would become mainstream with the introduction of the 1949 Ford lineup. The Playboy, advertised at just $985, also featured a unique folding steel top that promised to deliver the open-air enjoyment of a convertible with the practicality and security of a coupe, making it “an ideal car for motoring in all weather and all climates.” Even the car’s front suspension was unlike anything else on the market at the time, using a single upper control arm; a horizontally mounted coil spring (which served as a lower control arm); and a vertical tubular shock that attached to the subframe and to spring hangers welded to the upper control arm. Playboy described this as an “independent suspension” with “rigid axles,” while the rear suspension of all Playboys built (except for the initial prototype) used a live axle. Early cars used a coil spring rear suspension, but later production switched to semi-elliptical leaf springs.
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.
Production, in this case, is a relative term, as only 97 dealer demonstrators were ever built, each one assembled by hand in a cramped North Tonawanda factory once used by coachbuilder Brunn & Company. Based on public reaction, Horwitz, Thomas, and Richardson believed they could produce 1,000 Playboys during 1947, ramping this up to 100,000 in the company’s second year. Doing so would require far more capital than the trio had access to, so Horwitz devised a plan to raise money that would ultimately prove to be the firm’s undoing. Instead of approaching banks for loans, Horwitz believed that selling dealer franchises, at a cost of $1,000 per 20,000 resident of the sales area, would allow the company to establish itself before a public stock offering could be floated to raise the rest of the $20 million that Thomas estimated was needed.
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.
On June 18, 1948, Wall Street broker Walter Tellier went public with the company’s stock offering, but shortly afterward, news of Preston Tucker’s investigation by the SEC broke, causing potential Playboy backers to get cold feet. Looking to salvage something out of his involvement with the company, Tellier tried to broker a deal for the sale of Playboy to Kaiser-Frazer, which insisted that its own dealers get distribution of the Playboy. Angered at the prospect of abandoning its own dealer network and dismayed by the amount offered by Kaiser-Frazer, Horwitz rejected the offer. Wealthy dealers pledged financial support, but the funding was too little, too late, and two weeks after the stock hit the market, Horwitz filed for bankruptcy. Less than two years later, the courts auctioned off Playboy’s assets, still held at the North Tonawanda plant, and the company was no more.
Though it would take decades for most domestic manufacturers to produce a profitable-yet-affordable compact car, the Playboy, perhaps, foretold the arrival of brands like Volkswagen, Toyota, Datsun, and Honda on these shores. Its strategy of outsourcing major components is now widely embraced by automakers the world over, few of which have the resources and expertise to develop every major component on their own. Even the folding hardtop (which, to be clear, the Playboy did not pioneer) later saw use on cars like the Ford Skyliner, the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder and the Mazda Miata.
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.