I’ve finally completed my spreadsheet project of car sales per year by models (eg: Chevelle) and types (eg: mid size) through 1970, which makes it much easier to chart the numbers to visualize the dramatic fragmentation of the US car market starting in the second half of the 1950s.
Of course the most biggest change is the huge drop in market share (%) of full size cars. I already used that in my post, “Who Killed The Big American Car?“, which chronicled its decline from 1950 to 1996. But I lacked the corresponding stats for those category of cars that caused that decline. No more.
Here we see the huge impacts from the compacts, starting in 1960 with the arrival of the Corvair, Falcon, Valiant and Comet to augment the already growing sales of Ramblers from 1958 and Larks from 1959. Then in 1961, another wave of GM’s “senior compacts” (Tempest, F85, Special) along with the Lancer. Compact sales peaked that year (1961) with a 31.3% market share.
But the compact surge was short-lived; the first so-called “mid sized” cars, the Ford Fairlane and Mercury Meteor arrived in 1962. Despite the arrival of the Chevy II that same year, the compact’s market share slipped to 30% and then tumbled rapidly after that.
The arrival of GM’s A-Body mid sized cars in 1964 was a big factor in that, as well as a temporary upswing in full-size cars’ market share in 1963 and 1964. With an increase in wheelbase and size of the Rambler Classic in 1963, it achieved mid-size status; the reclassification of Chrysler’s Plymouth Belvedere and Dodge Coronet as mid-size in 1965, and the move up to mid-size by the Comet in 1966, that segment was poised for further growth.
The other major blow to the compacts came from the unexpected huge success of the Mustang in 1965, augmented by the Barracuda and the Camaro and Firebird in 1967 in the pony car segment. Compacts really suffered during the peak pony car years (1965-1969).
The third factor depressing compacts were the imports. After being beaten down in 1960-1961 by the compacts, they were stuck at around 5-7% from 1961-1965, but began their relentless march upwards in 1966, to 19% in 1970.
The sudden upsurge of the compacts’ market share in 1970 is mostly due to the huge success of the 1970 Maverick, whose 580k sales over an extended 18 month model year created a big bulge that year. That subsided in 1971, but compacts’ market share stayed well higher into the seventies than it had been during their bottom in 1967-1969.
Of course the subcompacts arrived in 1971, which changed the picture further.
Next time we’ll take a closer look at the compacts by individual brands.
Always a lover of BIG American luxury vehicles, sad to see their downside over the years into non existence today 😢 💔. Thanks for this post. Alfred Sloanes hierarchy worked well until proliferation of each brand seeking to expand. Imports definitely were a factor! Sadly we are now faced with mostly SUVS and crossovers!
Of course, now we have compact SUVs, mid-size SUVs, large size SUVs, etc. Same idea, everythings just taller!
Interesting stuff. I cannot decide if making “imports” a separate category when all of the others are basically size class illuminates or obscures. Most imports were compacts or subcompacts at that time, but not all of them were. I think that by the late 60s the “import” category was less of a category than a way to take them out of the mix when examining the domestic market.
I would suspect that the subcompact class (mostly VW in this time frame, but others by the end of it) would have been growing steadily, and that foreign compact-sized cars would have boosted the compacts line. Your chart shows imports being a larger factor by 1965-66 than both compacts and pony cars (Mustang included), so it was not the little asterisk it might have been in 1956-57. Definitions can drive results, so this is interesting to contemplate.
One other note is that 1969-70 was a minor recession so it would be expected that lower priced cars (like compacts) would gain share relative to larger, more expensive cars. The Maverick was definitely a large factor, but that was also the year the Duster came out, and both of these were attractive to the young early boomers who were starting to flood into the new car market by then. There is a lot to think about here.
I was thinking the same thing re: “imports”, although in the time frame charted here U.S.-market imports were mostly sub-compact in size relative to American cars, those that were larger were mostly pricier brands like Mercedes and Jaguar which didn’t compete with same-size domestic cars. If this chart were extended to the ’70s and especially ’80s and beyond, I don’t think the “imports” classification would work at all, as they are no longer as differentiated in size or price. I don’t gather “import” or “foreign cars” have been regarded as a category for some time now; today most car shoppers considering a Jeep or Ford CUV likely cross-shop them with Toyota or Hyundai’s offerings.
If pony cars are a separate category, I’d be inclined to break out personal luxury coupes as a category too – they were gaining steam in the ’60s and became the quintessential ’70s car (if you didn’t have a customized van).
I can see several arguments when it comes to personal luxury cars.
The sixties examples generally had very limited market share. If you separate out the ones with unique body shells (Thunderbird, Riviera, Toronado, FWD Eldorado, Mark III, maybe a couple of others), you might as well group them with the Corvette as ‘specialty cars,’ to resurrect an older term of the time. I think it would be misleading to separate out the ones that were essentially specially trimmed standard cars, like the Oldsmobile Starfire. For instance, I don’t see that the intended analysis would be served by separating the Pontiac Grand Prix from the rest of the full-size Pontiac line.
For the seventies, this would require a command decision: Does it make sense to treat a car like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo or Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme as a specialty car, or just as another intermediate, albeit with flashier styling? I tend to lean toward the latter in this instance, since the popular intermediate specialty cars to a large extent represented a styling trend more than a distinct classification.
I think that after the Pinto and Vega were launched, followed by Chevette, OmniRizon etc, that size would be more meaningful than country of origin. But in this time frame most of the import volume would have been sub-compact; even a Volvo or Peugeot would have been smaller than a US compact, and Mercedes volumes were pretty low. But if you add the import and compact volumes together, it is a pretty significant number. Another interesting fact revealed by this chart is that Mustang sales numbers were amazing for a single model in 1964-65, but as a category pony cars as a whole are less than I would have thought.
Yes, simple categorizations like these still leave a lot to be desired. My ultimate goal is to find annual sales numbers for the imports, although even then it would undoubtedly be for the whole brand, but that would still be an improvement. I do have numbers for VW, so at least I could break those out, so it would be “VW” and “other imports”.
The further forward in time one goes, the more complex the market becomes, and the more blurred the distinctions of size becomes. I’m going to try to get through the ’70s, but it will be challenging, just in terms of sizes alone. For instance, the downsized GM A Bodies were essentially the same size as the RWD X-Bodies that year. And so on…
I think that might be fascinating to see VW in its own category in relation to the other imports. Kind of like seeing Tesla vs whatever the #2 in that category is, a metric that isn’t often made clear when you see a news item how the #2 or #3 increased their sales by 20% or whatever (but of some unstated small relative fraction usually).
@Paul: There are brand-specific yearly totals for the leading import brands in the Consumer Guide Cars of the [Adjective] [Decade] books. If you don’t have those, I have Cars of the Fabulous ’50s, Cars of the Sizzling ’60s, and Cars of the Sensational ’70s, and can look them up at some point. That’s probably the most accessible source.
I checked and the ’50s book does NOT have an import breakdown, but the ’60s book does. I will see if I can put those together.
This project is a bit of a monster, but I’m not aware there being anything comparable being available elsewhere.
I find it very handy to refer to.
I just sent you an email, so you should check for that.
Ah, one little problem with this. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of those “full-size” cars from the 1950s had overall lengths of ~198″ to ~208″, which would have been considered “mid-size” in the 1960s and ’70s.
If the chart were redrawn showing sales of cars within specific ranges of overall lengths and wheelbases (instead of the generic terms “full-size” and “mid-size”) I think the chart would look quite different (especially if the trend lines were continued through the ’70s).
A person trading a ’56 Chevy for a ’64 Chevelle really didn’t get a bigger car, though he changed “classifications”.
This is a really good point.
That’s a reality, and one that just has to be taken into consideration. But for what it’s worth, I don’t find the much lower seating of a ’62 Fairlane or ’64 Chevelle to be as comfortable (roomy) as the much higher seating in a ’56 Ford or Chevy.
The ’56 to ’57 Mopars illustrate this really well, the ’56s being so much more comfortable to sit in and get in and out of than the extremely low ’57s. A ’56 Chrysler looks to be shorter than a ’57 but it’s not really, visually the lowness just made the ’57 look longer. I’ve maintained that the ’56 Chevy/Ford/Plymouths were in many ways the ideal size and configuration for a full size car.
An argument can be made that the ‘64 Chevelle was the reincarnation of the ‘55 (and ‘56) “full-sized” Chevy.
If one is arguing alternative histories on how things might have gone (did I get the attention of the Packard and Studebaker folks there?), if Detroit had allowed the ‘56 sized and proportioned “full-sized” as the standard all the way through, with the ‘58 and later “full-sized” as some sort of special, premium offering, might the impact of imports and compacts have been lessened? Would there have been more product line coherence from the Detroit “compact” through what was later termed “mid-sized”, out to the “full-sized”? Look at the Chevy product line in the mid and late sixties. Nova, Chevelle, Impala/Caprice. That’s one strong and logical product line. And it sold like it.
The downsized ’77 Chevrolets also revived the ’55 Chevy/’64 Chevelle dimensions. This seemed to be a sweet spot.
Actually, the 77 full-size Chevy was almost a foot longer than the 55.
More than that, although some of the difference is the 5 mph bumpers.
1955 two-door sedan:
Length, overall: 195.6 in
Wheelbase: 115 in
Track: 58.0/58.8 in
Width: 74.0 in
Height: 62.1 in
1977 two-door coupe:
Length, overall: 212.1 in
Wheelbase: 116 in
Track: 61.8/60.8 in
Width: 75.5 in
Height: 55.4 in
It’s difficult to directly compare pre- and post-5mph bumper overall lengths, and nearly all cars sold sold in the U.S. ballooned in length from 1972-1974.
I think the way Paul has done it makes more sense when considering the evolution of consumer tastes. There’s a divide based on what buyers PERCEIVE they’re getting, which I think is more significant in this sense than strictly dimensions.
Where that falls apart is in the eighties, where you have a substantial influx of larger imports that competed with domestic cars that might be bigger in outward dimensions, but were still effectively in the same class.
Of course, “full size cars” have simply morphed into “four-door pickups”, so haven’t actually left the scene.
Yeah, and today’s full size trucks are often heavier and longer than even the biggest full size cars were.
I wouldn’t say they’ve “morphed into four-door pickups”. Pickups have just become a very popular category of their own. It’s not like the last old-timers who bought big four door sedans bought four door pickups as their last cars. It’s a new generation that grew up with SUVs and pickups in the 70s and 80s.
I might suggest recalibrating your share proportions by including light duty trucks as a category to include 1/2 ton pickups, jeeps, vans and other mostly civilian truck types – assuming those sales figures are available.
That’s very difficult, because the definitions were different prior to 1977. That’s the year light trucks were folded into the overall market, which was from then on called the light vehicle market, whereas before it had been the passenger car market. Prior to 1977, trucks had their own market, but weren’t broken down in ready categories that correspond to the later light trucks.
I’ve had to make some educated guesses about the size of the light truck market prior to 1977, based on some numbers in 1977, and some years earlier., I started that at 10% in 1956 based on some stats, and then steadily increased it to equal the number for 1977, by which time it was 22.7%.
This makes comparing market shares tricky as one gets further into the late 70s and on, as the passenger car market just keeps shrinking and the only relevant market becomes the light vehicle market.
Frankly, this spread sheet is a monster. I started it because there was no ready info for annual sales based on model types; only by all of the individual trim/body types. But the further forward I get, the more difficult it becomes. I could really use a statistician. 🙂
“morphed” because the power and heft that the “full size car” represented before Camry-sized vehicles took over that function, was resurrected in the 4-door pickup. Both represent ‘over-the-top’ American excess. Only the shapes are different.
Looking for the 1970 thru 1990 graph. The imports will take off like a rocket with the oil crisis of late 1973 and 1980.
Reagan negotiated a quota on Japanese imports that stemmed competition for several years. Eventually, the major Asian brands started North American assembly.
When I grew up in Connecticut in the 60s and 70s, I recall a smattering of assorted imports (VW excepted -they were pretty popular) until around ‘73 or so, when I saw a growing number of Toyotas and Datsuns especially. I shopped for my first new car as an adult in ‘81; I test drove dozens of (smaller) cars but it seemed to me Toyota, Honda and Datsun sold a superior product. Well built and reliable.
This chart from Popular Mechanics shows how full-size Ford sales really dropped in 1960, while demand for Gull Wing II from Chevy remained at the 1.4M mark. (In 1959, Ford & Chevy production was about equal). This partly explains why I’ve seen MANY more ’60 Chevys around than ’60 Fords.
In 1960, around 45% of Ford sales were now compact Falcons, and about the same percentage of Plymouth sales were compact Valiants. This was the big shift–yet it left full-size Chevrolet sales unscathed.
I remember reading that in the mid ’60s, Lee Iacocca stated that during the 1950s, about 1.4 million Ford cars were sold annually (selling just one model, “FORD” and a few Thunderbirds), and by 1965 there were FIVE separate kinds of “FORDS”: Galaxie, Fairlane, Falcon, Mustang, Thunderbird–all this extra complication and expense, and they’re STILL selling 1.4 million units per year! “What the hell did we prove?!” Iacocca said.
I am starting to question something that is generally agreed around here – that the reason big Ford sales dropped was because the Falcon stole its sales.
The big Chevy stayed up despite the Corvair, and when you look at Plymouth and add the Dodge Dart, big low-priced cars from Chrysler did relatively well (from a depressed baseline) despite the Valiant. I think that the 1960-62 big Ford was just not all that well received. While the effect was kind of mitigated in the car’s last two years (1963-64) I don’t think the big Ford was all that competitive during that generation.
One other data point – In 1965 the Galaxie/LTD would have a banner year at the same time the Mustang was crushing sales records – a car that was stealing sales from everyone.
Somehow the Falcon comes across as a shrunken, more practical Ford, while the Corvair and even the Valiant come across as much more distinct than their full-size brethren.
I can see people who had bought low-line Fords switching over to the Falcon. The Corvair? Not so much.
I am starting to question something that is generally agreed around here – that the reason big Ford sales dropped was because the Falcon stole its sales.
I have certainly expounded that as a theory for a substantial part of the reason, but obviously there’s no way to verify it. Geeber has already stated the obvious reason for that assumption. Yes, the 1960 Ford was poorly received, and rightfully so; it’s styling was not cohesive and did not resonate, and it also was huge, especially wide. The timing of that alone was poor.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Corvair buyers were very unlikely to have considered a full size Chevy as an alternative. But undoubtedly Falcon buyers very likely did consider it a viable alternative to an even bigger Ford. Ford buyers tended to be conservative, schooled in the Henry Ford school of thought, and the Falcon was widely heralded as a return to sanity by Ford buyers.
But undoubtedly there were others attracted to the Falcon too.
Did people find this chart as confusing back then as I do now?
I realize (now, didn’t always) that a full size Ford or Chevy was a Ford or Chevy and then had trim levels instead of model names.
Yet there are also model names as separate entries.
You had Chevrolet (nothing) and then also (Chevrolet) Corvair
Ford (nothing) and (Ford) Thunderbird and (Ford) Falcon
Rambler (nothing) and (Rambler) American.
Usually the “main” named only model sold better than the model name ones except for instance Dodge where (nothing) Dart did very well yet Dodge (nothing) did not.
I realize from a modern perspective how it might seem so. But in 1960. There was a much clearer differentiation between brand and model. Sure, the primary full-size cars were generally called just by their actual maker/brand. But that’s where it ended, typically.
Nobody called the Thunderbird a “Ford Thunderbird”. It was a brand unto itself. Studebaker had two very distinct lines; the smaller, cheaper six cylinder Champion and the longer, more upscale V8 Commander. And when the Lark came out in ’59, it was just the Lark. In fact there were dealers who just sold Larks and no other Studebakers. Their signage was “Lark”.
Nobody called the Falcon a “Ford Falcon” back then. And that explains in part why the Valiant was not even branded a Plymouth and why the Comet was not branded a Mercury for its first two years.
And that 1960 Dart was a major brand extension for Dodge, as they had been essentially a mid-priced brand, and now the Dart was a direct competitor to the full-size Plymouth, Ford and Chevy.
It was more like it is nowadays: maker brands are becoming somewhat less critical than the actual car in many cases, hence brand and sub-brand proliferation. Stellantis is a good example; Stellantis itself has essentially no brand image, say compared to Ford. But it has lots of brands that speak for themselves. As did these cars in 1960.
Interesting, thanks, I’d been slowly becoming more aware of that having been how it was back then, and the chart brought it into stark relief.
The Dart is especially interesting, I usually have always looked at the Dart as having been a smaller model (like Falcon) and even when looking at the chart figured hey the little Dart is quite popular compared to the mainstay Dodge but didn’t recall that the Dart back then was larger. (In other words assumed that the Ford, Chev, Plymouth and Dodge were the big cars and the others not named as the manufacturer were smaller or more specialty cars/models.)
The 1960 Dart was an anomaly, for more reasons than one. And it was something of a one-year wonder, as sales dropped a lot in ’61.
There was a reason for it: Plymouth was taken away from Dodge dealers. Plymouth used to be the low-price brand that could (and was) paired with any of the other three more expensive brands: Chrysler, DeSoto and Dodge. But in 1959, Chrysler announced that Plymouth would be its own brand, taken away from Dodge. To compensate for that, Dodge got to have a low-price full-size car, the Dart. And it sold unusually well in 1960, probably because its styling was less controversial than the Plymouth’s.
All this changed in 1962, with the downsized Dart and Plymouth, and then again in’63, when the Dart name was given to the actual compact.
It’s not exactly all logical.
Yes, the Dart is highly confusing there for the first half of the ’60s for those coming late to the party…
Another way the ’60 Dart was an anomaly was styling. It was certainly the most conservative of the Mopars, and another thing that struck me at the time, age 10 when they came out, was that it was just about the only full-size car that still had the headlights (now quad) left in the high front fender position, unlike Chevy, Ford,, and just about every other full-size car that now had the new lower in-grille lights or weird slanted lights like Chrysler and Lincoln, making the Dart looked more normal and traditional, and it’s round Ford-like tail-lights helped as even Ford had abandoned them for those lying down odd-ball half-moon things that looked out-of-place after years of roundies. As a kid who grew up with multiple family Fords, the ’60 Dart was the one car that year that I really liked and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
The Falcon did mark a turning point; Ford had first dipped a toe in the water of the multi-model strategy starting in 1948 with importing the Anglia and Prefect, which had those names on their grille badges (the Anglia’s in cursive on a blue oval-shaped background where you’d expect to find something else…)
They waded in further with the Thunderbird, which, again, had “Thunderbird” front and center above the grille.
Even with the two-wheelbase ’57s the bigger Fairlane had a Fairlane script up front while the Ford one was reserved for Custom/Custom 300s and station wagons on the short wheelbase.
The Falcon was the first “line-extension” car with F O R D up front, spelled out on the leading edge of the hood.
Some parts of that chart don’t make sense.
For example, the 1960 Dart is listed as being up 5.10 percent over 1959. Except that the Dart didn’t exist in 1959.
Meanwhile, the medium-price 1960 Dodge is listed as being down 2.02 percent for 1960, with 42,517 sold. All of the 1959 Dodges were in the medium-price field, and sales were much higher than one would believe, based on this chart.
For 1960, Plymouth sales are listed as down by 0.47 percent. I’m sure that the decline in Plymouth sales (which did not include the Valiant, which was a separate marque for 1960) from 1959 was much more than 0.47 percent.
There are a number of mistakes, the biggest one being Ford (full size cars) which were down a whopping 36%, not 2.32%. That’s about the amount all Ford cars were down in ’60. They’re mixing up the full size cars and the whole brand.
As to Dodge, neither of those numbers corresponds to reality. And yes, Plymouth was down 45%.
It’s “change in percentage of total industry production”. See below:
From my father’s perspective (born 1925), the idea of “bigger is better” came from the massive luxury cars he saw in the 30s as a kid. Mostly from films, but he might have seen his share in person, growing up in NYC. Packards and Deusenbergs and the like.
That idea was democratized in the 60s when a Chevy was darn near as big as a Cadillac and could be optioned almost as well. But it was also in the period around ’65 when the first baby boomers started their adult lives and the folks of “The Greatest Generation” began losing their influence on what was good and cool and popular.
Having been influenced by my father, I ascribed to “bigger is better” in my formative years, but eventually change my thinking to something more minimalist.
I see 1959 as truly an inflection point in the US car market. The previous decade was so easy for the “big three”, squeezing the “independents” and offering one basic type of car, with only evolutionary technical changes. Just restyle every year and offer a dizzying array of brands, body styles, trim levels, and prices.
I find it surprising that full-size car sales didn’t increase in 1965, when the Big Three dramatically redesigned all of their large cars except for Lincoln and Imperial. This was a banner sales year, but it must be that second-year sales of the GM A-Bodies along with the 1965 Mustang catapulted overall sales to the new record. Ford had only the frumpy Fairlane that year (the Meteor had been discontinued by the end of ’63), and I doubt the Plymouth and Dodge B-Bodies contributed all that much to the overall totals.
Full size car sales did increase in ’65, along with all other types. But this chart shows market share %, not actual sales/production numbers. I generally prefer to use market share, as the overall market fluctuated considerably back then. To see consumer preferences for different types of cars, market share is a better indicator.
Ah, you’re right of course. As my school teachers used to say, “Look at the title of the graph and the labels for the axes.”
Interesting data as it shows clearly why Studebaker was doomed with its compact model program. It really had nowhere left to go by 1964.
Actually, the Lark moved to a 113″ wb in 1962 for the 4-door, so their lineup was sort of 50-50 compact-mid size. Not that it made any difference.
This is the sort of thing that poses minor philosophical questions. Would a prospective buyer of the time have perceived the Studebaker (to the extent they perceived it at all) as an intermediate like the Fairlane or still just a compact?
The same question applies to the Comet, particularly when the Fairlane-based Meteor arrived for 1962. The Comet was fairly big (195 inches on a 114-inch wheelbase), and while the Meteor was a little bigger (203.8 inches on a 116-inch wheelbase), buyers apparently didn’t think that and the available small V-8 were worth the extra $300 or so. Meteor sales were awful, and so for 1964, the Comet just became a Fairlane derivative, so there were no longer two competing models to confuse people.
This is an issue that shows up again in the late seventies, where full-size cars were downsized till they were about about the same size as intermediates and there was a lot of haziness about the distinction between B- and C-segment cars in the U.S. market.
There isn’t really a right or wrong answer, but it’s the kind of ambiguity that any kind of data-driven analysis ends up highlighting.
Buyers of Studebakers at this time knew those cars were in a category all of their own. 🙂
It’s trying to split fine hairs, and impossible to get just right. Its arbitrary.
And in some ways, irrelevant, in as much as many buyers weren’t shopping for a specific size category. They were attracted to certain cars for various reasons. That really came into full bloom with the Mustang.