Collector Car Corner – Earle MacPherson: the strut suspension and his Chevy Cadet prototype

Collector Car Corner - Earle MacPherson: the strut suspension and his Chevy Cadet prototypeThe Chevy Cadet was a compact car prototype created by Earle S. MacPherson, who headed up General Motors (GM) small car projects at the time. Sadly, it was cancelled at the 11th hour for reasons that today are questionable. It could have been a major success and featured many important improvements. (Compliments Chevrolet)

Q: Hello Greg, and I am a classic car lover with roots back to my granddad’s Henry J back in 1952! Can you tell me about the Chevy Cadet he told me about that never came to market?

I loved that old Henry J by the way, even though as I got older I realized it was far from an Olds Rocket 88. Thanks for your weekly columns as I look forward to them every week. Al B., Daytona Beach, Fla. 

A: Al, there’s quite a story tied to that Chevy Cadet your grandfather told you about, especially the person who designed it as his suspension invention is still used as standard equipment in millions of cars that are produced today. 

Collector Car Corner - Earle MacPherson: the strut suspension and his Chevy Cadet prototype
Earle S. MacPherson stands next to his 1947 Chevrolet Cadet, which never made it to market. The Cadet featured the first ever MacPherson strut coil over shock suspension. (Compliments Chevrolet) 

Before I get into the specifics, I, too, loved those Henry J compact cars and also the limited edition run Sears Allstate, available at Sears & Roebuck stores in certain areas of the country and produced just two years in 1952 to 1953. The Allstate was actually a Henry J with Allstate badges and hood ornament and a Sears battery and tires. Sadly, the Henry J didn’t fare any better than the offshoot Sears Allstate, as Kaiser introduced the car in September of 1950 as a ‘51 but by 1954, it was discontinued due to poor sales.

On to the Chevrolet Cadet and the person who designed the car, namely Earle S. MacPherson. Born in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1891, MacPherson graduated from the University of Illinois and served in WWI and earned the rank of Captain. Before his stint at GM, he worked for the Chalmers Motor Company and Liberty Motor Car Company in the early 1920s, and prior to joining Hupmobile in 1923. In 1934, he joined General Motors, becoming chief design engineer for Chevrolet in 1935.

In charge of small car development at GM, MacPherson designed a fully independent, four wheel “MacPherson Strut” suspension for the Cadet that is still utilized today as the standard of front suspension excellence on millions of cars built today. Every time you read a Test Drive and see the words “MacPherson strut front suspension,” that’s Earle S.  MacPherson, the guy who designed the Chevrolet Cadet that never came to market. 

Collector Car Corner - Earle MacPherson: the strut suspension and his Chevy Cadet prototype
This diagram of the Chevrolet Cadet shows some interesting mechanical advancements, including the MacPherson strut suspension and a 3-speed transmission under the front seat. Two driveshaft style torque tubes connected the transmission. (Compliments Chevrolet)

MacPherson’s Cadet was to be Chevy’s all-new compact car, much like the Henry J was to the Kaiser line of automobiles. Most important is that MacPherson’s effort took place in 1945, when the car and truck manufacturers all got the green light to start producing vehicles for consumers following the WWII government mandate starting in ’42 that found them building war machinery instead of cars. 

So, while the war was coming to an end in ‘45 and the boys were coming home, MacPherson knew America was ready for all-new cars. And, considering automobile production in 1941 totaled a record 3.5-million vehicles sold, it was clear from a production standpoint that any and all new cars would be gobbled up by very happy, WWII victorious, American families. It took manufacturers several years to release all-new cars, but considering the necessary re-tooling from military machinery back to cars and trucks, it took only until 1949 to exceed the record 1941 sales number. Yes, the new cars were finally showing up in droves on showroom floors and they were gobbled up quickly. 

So, in late 1946 Chevy was ready to mass-produce the Cadet. It would ride on a 108-inch wheelbase, weigh just 2,200-pounds and seat four adults comfortably. Under the hood sat a 133 cubic-inch inline-6 cylinder that developed 65-horses hooked to a 3-speed manual transmission. The Cadet would run on very small 12-inch tires, necessary for good steering response and allowing the use of fender skirts front and rear on the nicely styled car. 

Collector Car Corner - Earle MacPherson: the strut suspension and his Chevy Cadet prototype
Earle S. MacPherson was an Illinois native and worked for several major car companies. He passed away in 1960 after a celebrated and respected career at Ford as its chief engineer. (Compliments Ford)

Novel was the original MacPherson coil spring over shock absorber strut that sat in a tower (lust like today’s) and the fact that the 3-speed transmission sat under the front seat and utilized two driveshaft torque tubes to send the power from the engine to the tranny, and then again to the rear end gears. (See original diagram layout attached).  

With an expected retail of somewhere around $1,000, returning veterans and families were prime prospective consumers, they being the same demographic that bought hundreds of homes at the soon to come Levittown housing village booms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was clear they could easily park a new Cadet in their driveway, but trouble was brewing at GM headquarters. 

In early 1947, with everything ready to go, GM decided to cancel the Cadet due to what they called too much of an initial investment and perhaps not meeting the $1,000 retail price expectation. Unhappy with the decision to cancel the Cadet, MacPherson left GM in September of 1947 and immediately accepted a position with Ford. By 1952, he was Ford’s chief engineer, a position he retained until his retirement in May of 1958. Sadly, Macpherson passed away in his sleep in 1960 at age 69. 

To this day, many feel the Chevy Cadet would have been a huge success, especially with its novel advanced suspension system, roomy interior, low price and overall great handling. Three prototypes were built utilizing the four-wheel strut suspension. A fourth Cadet was built with a solid rear axle, against MacPherson’s wishes. It was just one of the many internal disagreements that resulted in the car not coming to market and MacPherson, not surprisingly, leaving GM for Ford.

Earle MacPherson left quite the legacy in automotive engineering and the world of automobiles is all the better for it. 

Thanks Al for your very kind words and to Hemmings Motor News for needed specs on the Cadet for this article.

(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto feature writer who welcomes reader questions and comments on auto nostalgia, collector cars and motorsports at or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840.)

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