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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 20 2011

Man from North Dakota introduced first successful small car in US

The man who introduced the first successful small car in the United States was born and raised in North Dakota.

George Mason, from Valley City, was president of Nash-Kelvinator in 1950 when the company brought out the Nash Rambler. In 1954, he merged his company with the Hudson Motor Car Co., forming the American Motor Corp., the fourth-largest automaker in the U.S.

Mason oversaw the growth of Kelvinator tenfold during the decade he served as president. He had it on a path for even greater growth through the introduction of more appliances when Charles Nash persuaded him to also run his automobile company.

On Jan. 4, 1937, Mason coordinated the merger of the Nash Motor Co. with the Kelvinator Corp., the country’s second largest refrigerator manufacturer.

Even though Nash remained as chairman of the board until his death in 1948, he “essentially withdrew from company business in early 1937. The Nash Motor Co. had lost a lot of money through most of the Depression. Mason continued to oversee Kelvinator, and its large profits “dominated the enterprise” and helped the combined company make a profit for 1937.

In order to make certain Nash automobiles would also be profitable, Mason focused on less-expensive cars that would fit into “the price range of 93 percent of the market.” He committed $7 million to design and engineer the new car model, and expand plants and retool machines to manufacture these automobiles.

In October 1940, Nash-Kelvinator introduced the Ambassador 600. Its six-cylinder engine allowed drivers to get between 25 and 30 miles per gallon. With a starting price of a little over $700, the 600 was competitive with the smaller cars of the major car companies.

Profits ending on Sept. 30, 1941, for Nash-Kelvinator stood at over $4.5 million. It was reported by Fortune magazine that Kelvinator generated two-thirds of those profits. Just when it appeared Mason’s company was about to start to challenge the three major automobile companies in total production, America found itself at war, and Nash-Kelvinator devoted its facilities and all of its labor to the war effort. From early 1942 to late 1945, Nash-Kelvinator did not produce any automobiles.

In 1946, Mason was elected president of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, a position he held until his death in 1954. The managing director of the AMA was George Romney, and the two men developed a close business relationship. Nash, chairman of the board for the company, died in 1948, and Mason assumed that role to go along with being president. He offered Romney an executive position with Nash-Kelvinator, and Romney accepted.

At first, Romney was his roving assistant and then was named vice president. In 1949, Mason introduced the Airflyte to his Nash fleet. The Airflyte featured the most aerodynamic-styled automobile at the time, and sales in 1950 totaled 160,000 cars, propelling the company as one of the nation’s top 10 automakers.

Mason was convinced his company’s future was in manufacturing inexpensive “compact” cars. “In 1950, he presided over the introduction of the Nash Rambler.” Later that year, he came out with the Nash-Healey, “the first American sports car after the Great Depression.”

The Rambler enabled Mason’s company to remain profitable, but he was convinced the days of independent car companies were limited. As early as 1948, he approached executives of the Packard and Hudson automobile companies with offers to merge, but both turned him down. In 1953, Henry Ford II was determined to regain automotive supremacy over General Motors and began dumping tens of thousands of vehicles at discount prices. This started a price war between the two large automakers. The independent car companies suffered.

On May 1, 1954, Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson merged to form the American Motors Corp. As president and CEO of AMC, Mason moved quickly to cut costs. He consolidated manufacturing of the cars at his Kenosha, Wis., plant, ordered the same body to be used by both Nash and Hudson automobiles, and convinced Hudson to abandon its “unsuccessful Jet car.”

Mason was in the process of attempting to negotiate a merger of AMC with the Studebaker-Packard Corp. when he died on Oct. 9, 1954, after becoming ill with pneumonia. His vice president, Romney, took over as head of AMC, and talks with Studebaker-Packard were discontinued.

Romney became wealthy with the success of the Rambler during the 1950s. He retired from AMC and ran for governor of Michigan in 1961. Romney’s youngest son, Mitt, got later developed his own political aspirations. I am curious what the Republican primary political landscape for U.S. president might look like if it had not been for George Walter Mason.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.