Last revised: 26-1-2009

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Car of the Month - February 2007

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Graham Model 97 Supercharged - convertible coupe body - model year 1939

Graham was a short-lived car manufacturer in the USA. It started in 1927 with the three Graham brothers taking over the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Company and effectively ended in 1940 with the unsuccessful production of a Cord 810 based car. In the years in between Graham produced some remarkable cars which have left their mark in automotive history. One of these models was the so-called sharknose Graham, which was made from 1937 till 1939.
The sharknose Graham was the last true Graham and meant to save the company. It was based on the engine and frame of the top-of-the-line model from the year before, but what made it special was the design of the bodywork. Stylist Amos Northup of the independent Murray coachbuilding corporation had been working on this design since 1935. Northup had made a name with original and acclaimed designs for makes like Pierce-Arrow, Willys-Overland and Hupmobile and seemed to be the right person to create a stunning new line that would amaze and attract new customers.. His creation for Graham was named the "Spirit of Motion" and expressed dynamic movement by long-flowing shapes originating from a streamlined front end which seemed to jump forward.
Unfortunately Northup died before he could finish his design. After his death in 1937 the chief body designer of Graham, William Nealy, combined the key features of Northup's drawings with existing Graham designs and added striking square headlights in the front fenders of the body. The result was a remarkable looking car which was introduced for the 1938 model year as a 4-door sedan in two model lines. It looked different from anything else on the US market but it failed to impress potential customers. Because of its unique looks it was dubbed "shark-nose" by the public which obscured the whole Spirit of Motion concept.
Remarkably in Europe it enjoyed a much more favorable reception. The design was victorious in several concourses with a Grand Prize in the Paris Concours d'Elegance as its most important achievement. Europeans may have been impressed, but the general car buyer in the US wasn't. In its first year the sharknose Graham sold barely 4000 times, and the years after that, with added coupe and 2-door sedan models, figures didn't improve much. It failed to be the saviour Graham needed and in 1939 production was completely halted only to be started again in 1940 in a last desperate attempt to sell a car with an updated body derived the famous Cord 810: the Graham Hollywood.

Though Graham has only produced closed models with the sharknose design, a prototype convertible model was tested in 1938. It was an attractive car but Graham decided against taking it in production. Never the less it was displayed at shows and versions have been made to order by several coachbuilders which looked very alike the Graham prototype. Interestingly most of these convertible bodies were made by European coachbuilders like Vesters & Neirinck and Saoutchik and sold locally. The convertible shown here (with a 3,5-litre 6-cylinder engine with supercharger producing 116 hp) was made in Paris.
However unsuccessful the Graham sharknose didn't fade away into oblivion. Its low streamlined design and unique front continued to intrigue and repeatedly appeared in drawings, publications and model cars long after Graham had stopped producing cars and until this day. And though it was never part of the regular model line, the sharknose convertible coupe proved to be the most popular shape. The sharknose design is often described as a nail in the coffin of Graham, but this is unjust. In other circumstances it could very well have been a popular car, but it came at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Now it's a great example of creative car design of the past which still impresses.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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