1948 Chevrolet Cadet: Was Chevy’s first compact too much, too soon?

Chevy Cadet illustration

While Chevy’s controversial Corvair is well known as their first small car, few are aware that the division came close to introducing a compact ten years earlier. After spending the war years on defense work, postwar automotive engineers were anxious to show what they could do. As one of General Motors' best and brightest, Earle MacPherson was named development chief for Chevy’s proposed all-new compact in 1947.

Starting with a clean sheet to rethink what a small car could be, MacPherson invented a novel suspension system consisting of a shock absorber centered inside a spring. It was brilliant, inexpensive, effective, and space saving. Now called the MacPherson Strut, his elegantly simple setup eventually became nearly universal in small cars. During the Cadet’s development, he proposed an independent rear suspension and innovative transmission as well. GM Engineering Vice President James Crawford thought it was all too much, criticizing the Cadet’s as a “little jewel of a car,” like that was a bad thing. Those who drove Cadet prototypes said they handled better than any GM car of its day, including the Cadillac.

Chevrolet Cadet illustration

Though tiny-on-the-outside, the Cadet offered interior capacity comparable to a full-sized 1935 Chevrolet. Designed to seat four, it was projected to weigh just a little over one ton. A sixty-five horse power six-cylinder engine with an innovative transmission tucked under the front seat would have provided ample power to scoot the little Cadet around town on its tiny, space saving twelve-inch wheels--a trick later adopted by Austin’s legendary Mini.

Chevrolet Cadet

The Cadet was a “blue sky” engineer’s dream of a car, designed during America’s postwar boom when anything seemed possible. But, this was one dream that came painfully close to being true. Five prototypes were built and exhaustively tested. Chevrolet Division had even constructed two factories to build it, projecting a workforce of 10,000. Unfortunately, the Cadet’s innovative engineering made it impossible to keep its price down to a mandated $1000 target. Eventually, GM management agreed with CEO Alfred Sloan that they'd be able to sell all the full-sized cars they could bolt together, so there was no need to introduce a compact to compete with their own products. Citing a post war “materials shortage,” General Motors issued a press release declaring the Cadet a dead duck in 1948.

America’s auto history might have been significantly altered had the Cadet proven successful. But GM was probably wise to cancel the project. Kaiser’s Henry J and Hudson’s Jet compacts soon appeared and flopped miserably in the marketplace. Optimistic consumers were busy kicking off the country’s biggest economic boom ever. They showed little interest in driving money-saving little biscuit tins. They preferred to roar down the country’s new interstate highways in massive, finned road rockets, at least until Germany’s humble little Volkswagen showed up to demonstrate the advantages of smaller, simpler cars.

General Motors never looked back, destroying the sole remaining Cadet prototype in 1968 and effectively erasing all memory of a little car that was truly too much, too soon.

Written by Jim Cherry