Classic Car Corner: 1942 ‘Blackout’

  • Written by Tom Berg, Windermere

With my goal in mind of having fewer cars at the end of this year than the beginning, I recently sold my 1947 Studebaker M-5 pickup.

I really liked that truck due to its uniqueness and rarity, but it was hot-rodded up and I prefer original condition classics, so I let it go with the idea that maybe I’d find another one someday.

421942 “Blackout.” (Photo by Tom Berg)

I really didn’t think I would since they are so rare but soon after I accidentally discovered a 1942 M-5 pickup in original condition in Los Angeles. As a bonus it was a “blackout” vehicle which means it has no chrome or stainless trim on it, which might not seem cool but from a historical perspective it’s amazing.

Automakers begin next year’s production around September so they can have enough supply to meet the expected demand.

On Dec. 7, 1941 we went to war with Japan and a few days later with Germany so car makers were told to make fewer cars and eliminate the chrome, stainless and nickel on them as of Jan. 1, 1942 since they would be needed in the war effort.

These cars would be known as “blackout” cars. That term was first used in England as they were trying to hide their homes and businesses from German night bombers. We weren’t trying to hide these cars, just save the precious metals that went into them.

Car production was totally halted at the end of January 1942 so American car makers only made “blackout” cars for a month. They then turned to the  manufacture of planes, ships, tanks, bombs and other implements of war.

The two sources for production numbers of the M-5 pickups I came up with claimed a total of 173 for one and “less than 315” for the other. This included all of the 1942 M-5 pickups made so certainly the January “blackout” number would have been much less than 100. I assume that some of them had their brightwork added on much later after the war and many were just used up since they were trucks so I would assume that less than 10 exist today.

As I said, I accidentally found this truck. I researched the “blackout” aspect and thought it would be cool to have such a rare original vehicle with less than 50,000 miles on it. I also learned that this truck had been rented to be used in the movies — I even have a pass for Universal Studios. Even cooler, this truck had been owned by Tommy Sparks, a pioneer hot rod builder in Southern California. I looked him up and saw that he built race cars, dragsters, salt flat cars, hot rods and even concourse-winning cars.

Fortunately, some of his cars he left as is, so this one is untouched and original. It does have a re-paint from a few decades ago in its original Malibu Beige color with some nice original chrome hubcaps. With all this information on hand (with cars we call that provenance) I figured I needed to go to L.A. to check it out since I have a rule about not buying cars sight unseen.

After checking into what it would take to put together a quick trip I decided rules were meant to be broken and just bought it sight unseen. I couldn’t help it.

I arranged for shipping with a company I thought was OK but the auto shipping industry is poorly regulated and most shippers have no trucks and sub-contract to anyone with a truck and trailer to haul your precious cargo.

In my case my new truck arrived several days late at 11 p.m. in the 7-11 parking lot next to my office sitting on the upper level of an open car trailer pulled by a light duty truck rather than a semi. It was all we could do to get it started and when we began to back it downhill off the ramps I luckily insisted they attach a winch and cable to it since I wasn’t sure about the efficacy of the brakes.

I was afraid it might just jet off the back of the steep ramp into something. Good thing I did so since I found that the brakes were very bad and are being re-built as we speak. Generally speaking the truck is in close to the condition that I expected so it appears that I got away without seeing this one before I bought it.

I have recently asked myself why I keep buying cars. I always thought that I appreciated their mechanical aspects and they can be fun to drive but this purchase has taught me that what I really enjoy is the history attached to my classic vehicles.

Just thinking about the whole world putting everything aside and gearing up to blast each other out of existence is amazing to me, and my new Studebaker M-5 pickup will continue to remind me and hopefully others of how good we have it for now.  

Last minute update: I just sold my ’64 Hawk so I have four sales and three purchases this year. If I can make it til the end of December I will actually meet my goal of reducing my car collection this year.

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