You'd probably never expect this pretty green 1936 Chevy to have a horn that sounds like that of a diesel train locomotive. Tap the button at the center of the steering wheel, however, and the thundering noise startles just about everyone within earshot. When the double-hinged, passenger-side hood panels are raised, the source of the sound becomes obvious: two huge trumpetlike horns hang prominently above the six-cylinder engine, which isn't much longer than the horns themselves.
Chevrolet was justified in building cars with such swagger in 1936. America had begun to recover from the worst of the crippling Great Depression, and the automaker would sell 930,250 cars that year, besting its previous top performance, in 1929, by more than 150,000 units and marking the seventh time in ten years that the bow-tie brand outsold the once-untouchable Ford.
Despite all the cars that were sold in that very good year, it's difficult today to find a 1936 Chevy -- or any domestic car from the 1930s, for that matter -- that hasn't been heavily hot-rodded. That's why Johnny Capps's '36 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe coupe stood out among dozens of prewar automobiles at a recent car show in Clinton, Michigan. Its clean lines, green and yellow paint combo, and great condition didn't hurt, either.
When Capps bought this car in 1997, it had already been restored to the original condition that you see here. The "five-window" body style (with small side windows behind the doors) and the willow green color are what initially attracted Capps, since most of the older cars he saw while growing up in western Virginia in the late 1940s and '50s were black or maroon. Capps has owned numerous vintage cars, and his fleet currently includes a '37 Chevy and a '39 Oldsmobile, also five-window coupes. Why own multiple General Motors coupes that were built several years before he was born? "My dad always drove cars that were ten or fifteen years old -- mostly Chevys -- so that's what I rode in," Capps shrugs. He hasn't done much to the '36 since he bought it, other than adding some 15,000 miles to its odometer. That distance equates to a lot of time, since Capps has never driven it faster than about 50 mph. "Back then, the roads wouldn't really allow you to go that fast, anyway," he notes.
When we took our turn at the controls of the Master DeLuxe, we got it up to maybe 45 mph. You don't pay too much attention to the speedometer when the huge steering wheel has a few inches of slop before affecting the car's direction of travel and when the manual drum brakes are so inferior to the binders on modern cars. Chevy fitted its vehicles with hydraulic brakes for the first time in 1936, though, so we're thankful for that.
Capps's green coupe also features GM's Knee-Action independent front suspension, a leading-arm Dubonnet setup that debuted on Chevrolet and Pontiac models in 1934 and required less maintenance than the control-arm systems on Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile products. The brochure for the 1936 Chevrolet lineup claimed that "Knee-Action is the most important single factor employed to give Chevrolet its gentle, gliding ride," which is actually a pretty accurate description of our experience over imperfect back roads. Still, Capps notes that Knee-Action -- an expensive $20 option -- was very unreliable. "They didn't last more than six months when they were new," he says.
The cabin heats up quickly on this warm morning, so Capps opens the cowl vent and the vent windows, creating a pleasant driving atmosphere. The five-window design offers good visibility. The wool upholstery is a bit scratchy, and the seat cushions are springy. From inside, the long, winged hood ornament looks like a bayonet on top of the slender upper portion of the hood. Red jewels on top of the headlight lids tell you if the lights are on and whether the low or high beams are shining. Other unexpectedly modern features include a dome light, door locks, an electric starter (albeit activated by a button at the bottom of the accelerator pedal's travel), and a radio -- AM only, of course. The first radios specially built for cars appeared in 1929, but the one in Capps's Chevy is just for looks. "I disconnected it because I was afraid it'd start a fire," he says.
Although not as silent as the inoperative radio, the 207-cubic-inch straight six sounds quiet, if somewhat agricultural. It produces only 79 hp yet is torquey and responsive. It's mated to a three-speed manual transmission actuated by a two-foot-long lever. First gear is only to start the Master Deluxe coupe's 3000 pounds moving, and the vague shift action is rewarding when you find your gear. Second and third are synchronized, so gear grinding isn't much of a concern, as it is in many prewar cars. Still, the lack of seatbelts and turn signals constantly reminds you that you're driving a seventy-six-year-old car that's pretty slow compared with today's traffic.
It's easy to see why so many people have decided to modify and drastically improve the performance of cars such as this '36 Chevy, but it's incredibly refreshing to drive an example that remains true to its original specifications. It gives an idea of how satisfying it must have been to own a new car in the years of Depression-era austerity. It must have been pretty amusing to scare the hell out of unsuspecting pedestrians, too.
3.4L OHV I-6, 79-80 hp, 155-156 lb-ft
3-speed manual drive
Leading arm, coil springs or rigid axle, leaf springs
Live axle, leaf springs
$560 (five-window coupe)
$15,000-$35,000 (three-window "sport coupes" are worth the most, two-door "coach" sedans the least)
Unmodified cars from the 1930s are amazing timepieces that are drivable on modern roads. 1935 Master DeLuxe models were the first Chevys to sport a two-piece, V-shaped windshield and the streamlined "Turret Top" roof panel. The base-level Standard models received these advancements in 1936 and were basically the same as '36 Masters except that they lacked decorative chrome and a second taillight, had a four-inch-shorter wheelbase, and offered a rumble-seat cabriolet model instead of a three-window coupe (the only Master with a rumble seat). 1935 Masters had suicide doors; '36s switched back to front-hinged doors. A full range of body styles includes two- and four-door sedans with or without enclosed trunks as well as coupes with or without rear-three-quarter windows.