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The Carchive: The 1948 Playboy Convertible

Chris Haining September 9, 2016 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 11 Comments

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It’s time to open the battered, rusting filing cabinet of time, rummage through the brittle, disorganised hanging files of motoring history and see what obscure moth-eaten gems lie in the bottom of the drawers. It’s been a long day, so lets relax with a short visit to The Carchive.

And obscurity we have in abundance, today. From across the Atlantic – and much of North America fluttered an envelope from Seattle or thereabouts. Sent for care by The Carchive by the inimitable mharrell of this parish (salutations, Mike!) is this brief but absorbing brochure for the 1948 Playboy.

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“There has long been a need in the American automotive field for a car which is junior in size, but senior in performance”

Not long after the end of the second world war, one Louis Horwitz and another Charles D. Thomas joined forces to found the Playboy Motor Car Corporation with a view to making their vision real.

It would become “the nation’s new car sensation”, or at least that’s the ambition that the brochure conveys.

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“…a car that is not designed to be a substitute for a larger automobile… but is designed primarily to be a companion or second car”

With uncanny perception, our heroes had created a car to suit “the ever-changing car needs of an ever-changing America”. Pretty clever thinking, really. The Big Three weren’t terribly interested in the idea of marketing a car much smaller than the old recipes that were hastily reheated when the war ended and domestic-market car production restarted. The market for tiddly autos was left wide open for determined independents to have a go at, and not a great many succeeded.

Priced at just $985, the Playboy was endowed with a 40 hp four-cylinder sidevalve engine by Continental, with a three-speed manual gearbox and, unsurprisingly, rear-wheel drive. Playboy proudly boasted its potential of “65mph or over” and U.S city fuel consumption of 25mpg.

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Despite a brilliant retractable hard-top of simple design that makes that of the Ford Skyliner look like a Rube Goldberg construct, and all the publicity of a coast-to-coast drive that came close to equalling the time of a train, only 97 Playboys ever made it onto American driveways.

Alas, without the financial means to continue to fight the good fight, Playboy Motor Car Corporation went the way of all flesh in 1951, leaving American families a hugely reduced choice of three-seat, hard-top convertibles with 12-inch wheels.  And the world was just that little bit duller – for those who noticed.

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It should be celebrated for a number of reasons. Firstly, it made retractable roof motoring accessible, secondly, it gave curious homeowners a means of affordably filling excess driveway space.

Thirdly, its existence legitimises the word Playboy appearing in our browser search histories.

(All images are of original manufacturer publicity material, photographed by me. Copyright is owned by persons unknown. Since I know no better, I’ll put it in the hands of Mike Harrell, who may be reassured to know I’m still waiting to acquire a pair of trousers deserving of the KV Mini sew-on patch)

  • Alff

    That this should come from the perfesser surprises me not at all. You know he held back the good stuff. To whit, I want to see scans of original promotional materials for both Davis (three abreast, giggity) and the real original American Mustang. Chris, if you wish to go further down the rabbit hole of this odd proclivity, I recommend the collected works of Tad Burness.

    • I can neither confirm nor deny that I have a brochure for the Davis Divan.

      Mostly because I haven’t seen it since the move.

  • Batshitbox

    Now I want to go cruising in my Playboy while listening to The Playmates

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2skGMkxB6Ng

  • Oh, that’s where that brochure went.

  • Rover 1

    Fortunatrly,(or not?), someone else saw the marketing potential of the name for use in publishing.
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/a/a8/PlayboyLogo.svg/225px-PlayboyLogo.svg.png

    • desmo

      A very detailed article in german Wikipedia states that “allegedly in 1953 Hugh Hefner was brought to use the name Playboy by a former employee of the Playboy Motor Car Corporation.”
      (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playboy_Motor)

      But however, I think this tiny car shows once more that the american car culture must not have inevitably lead to 500cui Cadillacs or crappy Dodge Polaras. I could have been very different. With Europe/Japanese left behind.

  • Van_Sarockin

    Fascinating article. I doted on every word. Were there any pictures?

    Oh, hi Honey, you’re home early!

  • Growing up in Buffalo, I had heard about the Playboy often enough that I am now shocked to learn that only 97 were built. The local notoriety after the fact was much greater than the reality.

  • Wayward David

    Given the diminutive overall dimensions of the car, how tiny was the woman pictured in the driver’s seat on the cover of the brochure?

    • It’s not actually that tiny. 155 inches is about Fiesta length today. With 12″ wheels, though, the proportions of this are a little peculiar, and would certainly emphasise any diminutiveness of the driver.

    • jeepjeff

      My Jeep Wrangler is 155″ long and has a 93″ wheelbase. The Jeep is nearly a foot wider, though. Another similar sized vehicle is a 3rd gen Civic hatchback.