Ominous clouds were looming on the horizon for the Independent makes as the 1957 model year got underway. The merger mania of the mid-fifties had brought some consolidation, but none of the combined players were exactly strong. ’57 would be a “make or break” year, as both American Motors Corporation (Hudson, Metropolitan, Nash, Rambler) and Studebaker-Packard would show off the “synergies” resulting from their collaboration. Always the politically correct industry cheerleader, Motor Trend took a thorough look at all the new Independent offerings in the 1957 Auto Show Issue.
The Metropolitan continued as the smallest car available in the U.S. from an American brand–though in reality the car was based on the British Austin, technically making it a captive import. Nonetheless, it was styled with Nash cues in mind, such as the enclosed front wheel cutouts and plain “inverted bathtub” proportions. For such an unusually small car, the Metropolitan sold pretty well, finding 15,317 homes, which incidentally was more that Nash, Hudson and Packard combined.
At this point, within AMC’s portfolio, Nash and Hudson were suffering badly. Though American Motors tried to update the styling, their options were limited given the unibody construction that had been a Nash trademark for decades. The most recent major restyle for Nash had been introduced in 1952, so the basic body looked wildly out-of-date by 1950s standards as the ’57 model year unfolded. AMC valiantly tried to slap on flashy trim and gaudy grilles, but the effect was a bit like dressing granny in a mini-skirt–it was trying too hard to be something it was not. Unsurprisingly, Nash only sold 3,500 of its traditional cars, a decline of 76% compared to 1956.
Since 1955, Hudson had only offered slightly revised Nash products–its own designs were dumped after the 1954 merger. For 1957, AMC stylists tried to update the looks with cosmetic detailing, but if anything the results on the Hudson Hornet were even worse than on the Nash Ambassador, with sad, stubby little fins clumsily pasted on in back. Only the most ardent Hudson fans were interested, and Hornet sales plunged 88%, to a measly 3,108 units.
Rambler was the bright spot for American Motors. Though based on an older unibody platform first introduced by Nash for 1950, the Rambler had been more effectively freshened than its larger siblings, including a thorough revamping with increased dimensions in 1956. Those bodies, available only as 4-door sedan or wagon (including pillarless hardtops for both), received minor trim freshening for 1957. At a time that most American cars were getting larger and more frivolous in their appearance, the practical Rambler was a nice alternative for buyers who wanted something more sensibly sized than the offerings from the Big Three. Buyers responded, and Rambler sales rose 89% to 87,232. The relatively efficient and logical Rambler was also very well positioned as the 1958 U.S. recession took root in late 1957.
Studebaker presented something of a dichotomy to the market. On the one hand, its Hawk series offered a unique and appealing 5-passenger 2-door hardtop “sports” car, and a new Supercharged version of Studebaker’s 289 V8 was available for Golden Hawks. The result was a well-blanced, rather unique high performance coupe. Sales for the Hawk series rose 3% to 19,674.
The rest of the line-up wasn’t so lucky. Overall Studebaker brand sales dropped 10% to 74,266. Sales for the core series sedans and wagons dropped badly: Champion -30%, Commander -21%, President -38%. A late year addition, not mentioned in Motor Trend’s Car Show Issue, was the budget-oriented Scotsman. The car was very bare bones with a $1,776 starting price ($15,210 adjusted), $1,000 ($8,564 adjusted) less than the cheapest Champion. Introduced in May, the Scotsman quickly earned 9,348 sales, helping volume though likely not helping the corporation’s bottom line.
Pity poor Packard. The once proud marque was in its final death throes, hawking horribly bastardized Studebakers–little wonder that the 1957 model year would be Packard’s second-to-last (a paltry 4,809 were sold). For car enthusiasts of this earlier era, the decline and demise of what had once been one of America’s premiere luxury brands was undoubtedly sad to behold. I think many of us can empathize: watching Cadillac crumble in more recent times has certainly been painful. No matter the decade, slapping luxury car badges on a thinly disguised plebeian product will never be a recipe for success in the high-end market.
So for a final tally: of the seven brand nameplates from the Independents that entered 1957, only five would make it out. RIP Hudson and Nash. At least some great nameplates from those brands–Ambassador and Hornet–were ultimately reused. As for the rest, AMC and its Rambler brand made a go of it for many years, struggling but surviving. Metropolitan, Packard and Studebaker wouldn’t even do that well…