Historiography: The American Compact Car

Back To The 50s 2015
Ford Falcon – All Photos by Randy Stern

By the Fall of 1959, the North American automotive industry came to their senses. The rise of Volkswagen ushered in a period where the domestic automotive industry had to respond to a swath of smaller imported automobiles penetrating sales. Not to mention the loss of several nameplates in the process after World War II.

When the Big Three introduced their compact cars for 1960, it was in response to several greater challenges to Postwar America. A recession in 1958 reset the national economy and culled the domestic automakers to tone their vehicles for a new decade. The Eisenhower era was about to close with the coming elections in 1960. The rest of the industrialized world has been catching up to the USA, years after the Marshall Plan. That included Japan.

The introduction of the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair, Chrysler Valiant and Ford Falcon was a pivotal event for the automotive industry. But, we often forget that the idea of building a domestic compact car was not a new thing in America. It is just that we simply ignored our own efforts to provide a new class of car for a growing economy.

After World War II, returning members of the armed forces took up new lives, they went back to school, bought homes, started families – all thanks to the G.I. Bill. Jobs were coming on line, too. The economy was about to boom and the USA was ready to help the rest of the word out.

Some of these returning soldiers, sailors and Marines recalled a genre of automobile that floated around their former battlefields of Europe. They were smaller and appeared to be more efficient. When they came home and walked into their local car dealers, they found that nothing has changed since they left for war.

Even when the “postwar” models came out, they were very handsome and more modern. They were also “full-sized.” Not to mention, they were also very inexpensive to build for the most part.

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Hudson Jet

Smaller cars had been offered in this country before by domestic automakers. They were small enough to do so, yet these enterprises were small because of their inability to compete with The Big Three – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. However, there were a few stalwarts even before World War II.

Two companies came to mind: American Bantam and Crosley. The former was formed in the wake of American Austin’s fall in this market. They continued to offer cars derived from the Austin Seven and stayed true to their small car roots through to the original awarding of the Jeep contract. The company reviewed the contract that required a production number they were unable to fulfill by themselves. Taht contract was transferred to Willys-Overland, with help from Ford. American Bantam would fold in the wake of this decision.

Crosley was a bolder company. They were based in Cincinnati, in which the company also made radios, owned radio stations and the Cincinnati Reds. It also helped to have their name on the city’s ballpark. In 1939, they began to build cars – very small ones. They build cars after the war with plenty of design innovations. Postwar sales were solid, but began to wane in 1949 when the postwar models came out from their competitors. By 1952, Crosley left the car business.

As part of the postwar wave, two companies dove into the compact car world in 1950. Nash developed a smaller car based on the Airflyte design strategy – the Rambler. This groundbreaking car showed that a car can be developed on a smaller scale without being cheap or inferior. They offered a wide variety of models, including wagons and a convertible with a fold/slide fabric roof, while retaining the side frames of the body. Yet, American consumers already had fixed in their minds that bigger will always be better. The Rambler soldiered on in the face of the Price Wars between General Motors and Ford until 1956.

The Rambler spawned a collaboration between Nash and Austin with the subcompact Metropolitan. From an Austin platform, a Airflyte-style body was affixed offering high style and class in both a two-door sedan and a convertible. In fact, the design was so contemporary and timeless than it continued into production after the merger forming American Motors in 1954 – well into the 1960s.

Back To The 50s 2015
Henry J

Kaiser-Frazier jumped in with a swoopy two-door compact – the Henry J. The two-door coupe was seen as a car that went a bit further design-wise. There were a few hits and misses during its lifespan. Earlier models had no trunk lid, making cargo access a bit difficult. On a positive note, Sears sold the car as the Allstate for a few years. The compact Kaiser spent five model years in the marketplace before ending its run in 1954.

Flushed with money made from the civilian Jeep, Willys returned to car production with the compact Aero in 1952. This compact kept Willys in the game, but it would only have a short lifespan. The Aero was conservatively style, but offered Willys’ strong lineup of engines to keep it going. They were known for having great performance, buoyed by the best power-to-weight ratio of its era. By 1955, Willys was in fiscal trouble and had to sell their automotive assets to other companies. As Jeep went to Kaiser, they transferred the Aero to their Brazilian operations after a five year gap.

Hudson seemed to have arrived a bit too late for their Jet compact car. For 1953, it was offered with more contemporary, but conservative styling – a continued departure from their groundbreaking models from 1949. The Hudson Jet was simply too late to keep the company independent, as it would eventually fold in with Nash to create American Motors in 1954. The Nash Rambler would become the standard for compacts within the newly merged company going forward.

While the smaller domestic automakers were trying hard to sell compact cars in the face of the Price Wars, momentum was up at Volkswagen and all other imports from Europe rose to the challenge. World War II helped open up the US market to a new generation of European models, such as the Renault Dauphine, Morris Minor – among many others. Though their volumes were miniscule next to the domestics, they helped shape future events that would send the Big Three back to the drawing board to create a domestically produced compact car. As American Motors and Studebaker unwrapped their compact efforts, Ford, GM and Chrysler were just about to roll their weapons out.

By 1960, all five remaining domestic automakers had their compacts for sale – to mixed results. First, there was the Studebaker Lark, introduced for the 1959 model year. This was a response to American Motors and the Rambler. Studebaker just eliminated the Packard nameplate – once a very prestigious name in American automobiles – and had room to introduce a compact. Instead of building three car lines: Hawk coupes, standard sedans and a compact – they eliminated the standard sedan. The thought was that the Hawk would compete against the enlarged Thunderbird, so the compact would serve as the volume product. For a company that once built wagons going westward for the pioneering set, they gambled on the Lark. It kept Studebaker sustained through 1966, though they were no longer called Larks two years prior. Because of its taller stature, they were quickly swept up by a new design philosophy used elsewhere in North America: Longer, Lower and Wider. Even the Avanti couldn’t save this car – let alone Studebaker.

Back To The 50s 2015
Rambler American

At the same time, American Motors came up with a new generation of compact cars. George W, Romney (Mitt’s dad) ran AMC at the time and figured that a recession would be a perfect time to roll out a small car. In 1958, the Rambler American arrived. The line grew gradually, but AMC always had an inferiority complex against Ford, GM and Chrysler. Still, the American found buyers as AMC’s entry model. In all, it was a well-built car and proved its worth by staying in the lineup until 1969. For the 1970 model year, the AMC Hornet – and the Gremlin – would replace the American.

Over in Highland Park, Chrysler would be ready to introduce their compact car. By 1960, Chrysler operated five different brands, including DeSoto and Imperial. It made sense that the uniquely styled Valiant would fit better as a Chrysler model than a Plymouth, DeSoto or Dodge because it had an air of premium design and details to it. It also became the premier product for the then-new Slant-6 motor – perhaps one of the greatest engines Chrysler ever made. As with Chrysler, engineering took precedence over quality – and that almost killed the Valiant in the beginning. However, they gathered up the quality end and the model continued through 1976 as a North American compact. By the 1961 model year, the Valiant were sent over to the Plymouth brand and Dodge had their own twin model, the Lancer. By 1963, these Lancers were called Darts. The rest is Mopar history.

General Motors got into the act with something completely different. Since the Volkswagen seared into the psyche of the American automotive consumer, GM thought they could make their own version of it. Instead of making a smaller, more conventional automobile, they went for it: An air-cooled six-cylinder motor mounted to the rear in a more American package. Chevrolet took the bait – the Corvair was born.

However, the Corvair had a few problems. For one, the weight of the larger six-cylinder boxer engine in the rear was not conducive for proper handling. The lack of a front stabilizer bar saw some very terrifying results. That was the biggest issue on the Corvair, among many. It prompted a consumer advocate, named Ralph Nader, to write a book about the Corvair that prompted a class-action lawsuit against GM. In short, what could have been a triumph of innovation became a sore spot for consumers and, eventually, GM.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair 1
Chevrolet Corvair

The story of the Corvair has a personal twist. My parents were one of the first owners of the Corvair – a drab green two-door that we kept until 1970. It survived in our care without any of Nader’s claims that we noticed. Maybe, we were lucky.

To make amends for the Corvair, GM knew they had to build a conventional compact. In fact, they made two. First was the semi-conventional 1961 Pontiac Tempest/Oldsmobile F-85/Buick Special. Why semi-conventional? The Pontiac had the gearbox in the rear and Buick created their own aluminum V8 that was eventually sold to Rover. They used the engine for decades in their most iconic models – the Rover P6 and the Range Rover.

However, GM built a more normal compact – the 1962 Chevy II. Though the Oldsmobile F-85 used a conventional driveline, Chevrolet developed a straightforward front engine/rear drive small car from the ground up. Eventually, the Chevy II would become the new platform for the Tempest, F-85 and Special in due time, as it offered no nonsense engineering and a platform to shoehorn the Small Block V8.

Of the “Class of 1960,” there was one real true success story. This was indeed the best compact of 1960. The Ford Falcon was styled right, had the right power and drove precisely what an American compact should. There was nothing controversial about this car. It also spawned the most models of any of its rivals – including the Ranchero pickup truck. Eventually, Ford’s V8 engine would fine their way under the Falcon’s hood, engaging enthusiasts with their small muscle car models.

Ford hit the mark with the Falcon and it became a global success – in Australia and Argentina, to name a few places. After the Falcon gave way to the Maverick in 1970, the Aussies kept on building them. Though they were a far cry from the original. Sadly, they would find their ultimate demise last year, as Ford pulled out of automotive production in Australia.

Back To The 50s 2015
Ford Falcon

The formula was right for the Falcon: A middle-of-the-road design that had a lower center of gravity and a leaner profile, a roomy interior for families of the era, a wide choice of engines and transmissions for every budget and it was easy-to-operate. Plus, the Falcon was reliable. That counts for everything in the compact class on the brink of Camelot.

If one thing was observed in the wake of the end of the Eisenhower era, it was the welcoming of a divergent lineup from domestic automakers. Consumers had a choice of size and performance. Over the 1960s, the compact became a part of the American household. That was not the only kind of automobile these same households welcomed.

While American compacts were selling at solid numbers, they did not thwart the Volkswagen and its European – and Japanese – competitors. The momentum of the 1960s added fuel for Volkswagen’s growing lineup of rear-drive, air-cooled vehicles. They also emboldened the likes of Renault, the British Motor Corporation, Fiat, Toyota, Datsun and so forth. Even the American keepers of their international operations brought in their own small cars to add traffic to their showrooms. These included such cars as the Opel Kadett, Ford Cortina and Sunbeam Alpine.

It took until the end of the 1950s for the American automakers to find a way to make small cars that consumers wanted to buy. A decade later, they would become part of the norm. Even in the face of looming competition from afar, changing regulations on emissions and safety, the American compact showed that they satisfied their owners with exactly their intent and purpose without compromise.

This story is far from over. That would require another post to read…

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