Charts and Analysis: Big Three Full Size Car Market Share, 1955-1984 – Did Quality Sink Chrysler After 1957?

It’s something of a given that Chrysler’s sales and market share tanked starting in 1958 due to poor quality in the new ’57 models. But was that the real or main reason? This morning’s CC on the ’57 Plymouth raises some doubts in that regard. That prompted me to make some charts, and see better what really happened; not in sales numbers, but by market share.

Comparing sales numbers year by year can be very misleading, as the overall market grew or shrank constantly, and quite dramatically in some years. For instance, 1958 was a nasty recession, and the market shrunk by 27%. But big cars got hit even harder. By looking at market share, we can see how any given brand or company fared against the competition, regardless of the vicissitudes of the market overall.

Please note: the market shares in these charts are of the big car (full size) segment only, not the whole market. So it’s just a relative comparison of how the Big 3 and their various brands did in that segment of the market.

And it’s also important to note that the big car market was shrinking dramatically during this time (except ’63-’64). We covered that in detail here, but these charts don’t reflect that, just their relative shares of that shrinking market.


  1. The Low Price Brands:


Let’s start with the lower-priced segment of the market. Admittedly Dodge and Pontiac were, on average, priced slightly higher, but often it was very minimal, especially after 1960 in the case of Dodge.

Plymouth clearly experienced a volatile period from 1955 to 1960, rising strongly in 1957 to a 12.5% share, and then dropping steadily to a low of 4.6% in 1962, before a slow but steady recovery, although never back to what it had before. It’s important to note that after Plymouth was spun off as a separate division in 1960, it had fewer dealers and direct competition from Dodge.

Dodge’s trajectory was rather different, with a much smaller rise in ’57, and a much milder drop in ’58 and ’59. And in 1960, Dodge had an explosive increase due to the new Dart, which was a full size sedan and priced directly against the lowest-priced three. As a result its full sized cars substantially outsold Plymouth’s, and almost equaled Pontiac. And although Dodge dropped considerably after 1960, its share stayed higher than it had been pre-1957 through 1964. Oddly, the new full-sized ’65s were a disaster for Dodge, and they never enjoyed a competitive share until 1975, when Dodge and Plymouth began a synchronized dance to the end.

Pontiac was in a considerable slump until 1959, and by 1960, their big cars outsold Plymouth for the first time. Except for a dip in ’61, Pontiac enjoyed a quite stable market share through ’68, and then things got a bit more volatile, especially after 1973. But the new downsized ’77s did quite well, until Pontiac decided to exit the full car market in ’82, only to re-enter it with the Parisienne a year later.

Ford had two great years early on, in ’57 and ’59. But the new ’60 models were a flop, and the big Fords languished for some years. It’s all too obvious that the Falcon cannibalized big Ford sales starting in 1960, and the Mustang undoubtedly did too, although to a lesser extent. But there was another issue: they were bigger and heavier than the Chevys, starting in 1960. And they looked it. Which was not where the market was, after the negative reaction to overly big cars starting in 1958. Meanwhile, the 1961-1964 Chevy was actually trimmer and lighter than the ’59-’60s. A ’63 Chevy weighed almost 400 lbs less than a ’63 Ford. That hurt performance, economy and handling.

Ford trimmed the size and weight of its all-new ’65’s, and a new styling direction in 1969 and the growing popularity of the LTD finally propelled Ford’s share up strongly. In 1970 and 1971, the big Fords actually beat Chevrolet, although that was all or in part due to a protracted UAW strike at GM. But it was short-lived, as the big Fords started losing share in 1973, when they were restyled in questionable taste. Ford’s loss of share accelerated in 1977, when GM’s new downsized cars enjoyed high acceptance.

Meanwhile, the full-sized Chevrolet enjoyed the best post-war years of its existence during the 1960s. The Corvair apparently didn’t impact big Chevy sales, and obviously the weakness at Ford and Plymouth directly benefited Chevrolet. Chevrolet wisely trimmed the size and weight of its new ’61s, very much in keeping with the times, as excess size was a negative. And their styling was at the top of their game. Another factor is that the recession of ’58, which rippled all the way through 1961, presumably swung loyal GM buyers away from Buick, which had a dramatic drop during this period.

Share started to droop after 1965, and accelerated after 1968. Ford had all-new big cars in 1969; GM’s were just face-lifted. Chevy had a bit of a roller-coaster ride between ’72 and ’78.


     2. The Mid-Price Brands:


On to the mid-price brands, although probably the Chrysler brand should be here too. That wasn’t technically possible, as this chart gizmo only allows Y-axis five entries.

Let’s get the losers out of the way first. Both Edsel and DeSoto had a very brief impact here. By the way, keep in mind that these share percentages are of the whole big car market, not just in their price category.

Mercury also had a pretty bad drop between ’56 and ’58, as their bigger and more expensive new ’57s were not well received, and there was a turn to cheaper big cars in ’58 due to the recession. Moving back to a Ford body in ’61 didn’t really help, except of course in cutting its cost to build. But the new ’65s were well received, and Mercury enjoyed a modest share growth trend through ’71. But as was the case with Ford, the chunky styling of the mid-70s dragged them down some. Starting in 1981, the Panther box Mercuries enjoyed a new boom in share, although by then total sales were modest due to the continued decline in big car sales.

Oldsmobile dropped in ’57, but worked its way back by 1960. A rather sharp one year drop in ’61 (a recession year) might be explained by less than stellar styling and a shift to lower priced Chevrolet, but it bounced back in ’62. But then through 1968, Olds steadily lost share, probably quite a bit of it to Pontiac. 1969 saw the beginning of a steady rise, which accelerated sharply after 1975. Olds’s big car share continued to rise strongly through 1983, and after 1980, beat Chevy for the #1 big car position. It was the glory years for Olds, both the Cutlass as well as the big 88/98s.

Buick had a steep drop beginning in 1956, after having worked its way up to the #3 spot and knocking Plymouth out of it. The common story is that quality dropped from overly-rapid expansion. But one wonders for how long that rep would have lasted. And there’s no sign of Buick’s losses from ’55-’59 being picked up by a competitor. One can’t help but wonder if it was already an early swing away from cheaper large cars to Chevrolet or Ford in some cases, as well to Cadillac in others, which had improved share those years.

This drop didn’t flatten until ’58-’59, and then Buick found a new level at around 6% until 1963, when its share began a mild rise. That became a strong rise starting in ’67, and peaked in 1970. Like Olds, Buick started another upswing in 1975, although not as strong. It was part of a general trend that favored mid-premium brands over the low-price brands.


3. The Premium Brands:

Legend: Cadillac=red; Chrysler=black; Lincoln=blue; Imperial=green


As noted earlier, Chrysler straddled both the mid and premium segment, but then so did some of the others (Electra, 98, etc.). And note that the Y axis scale is different here, since the share numbers are lower.

It’s interesting to see that Imperial’s share was fairly steady (and modest), except for a bump in ’57. But that’s hardly a good thing, given that premium brands became ever-more affordable, and generally increased their shares over these decades.

Chrysler’s drop in the ’50s started early, already in ’56, and note how it actually went down in ’57, contrary to popular assumption. And then continued to drop until 1960, after which time it had a strong resurgence, thanks to the new lower-priced Newport in ’61. But it appears that the restyled ’63 and ’64s were not really successful, as share drooped. The new ’65s started a very strong upsurge that peaked in ’68, and then things drooped a bit and leveled off mostly until 1978, when share (and sales) dropped precipitously, although share came back some in ’79 before the final fatal drop off the cliff.

Lincoln had a pretty good 1956, then started its decline that was halted by the new ’61s, although the improvement after that was quite modest. Share took a jump in ’66, which coincided with a price drop. From 1969 on there was a strong and steady share improvement, which didn’t peak until ’78-’79, the last years of the really big Lincolns. Share dropped a bit after that, but came back to a new high in 1983.

Cadillac’s story is of course a dominant one. Except for minor dips in ’57 and ’59, share growth was steady until a plateau in ’61-’62. Then there was a somewhat curious trough from ’63 to ’65, after which share growth continued mostly strongly, except for the strike year of 1971. From ’71 to ’75, growth was very strong, during a time when a Cadillac became ever more affordable in relation to average wages. The share became a bit choppy, probably in part to the Seville, which is not included in big car sales. And then another strong climb from ’79 through ’83, followed by a drop in ’84.

 4. Cumulative Shares, The Big Three:

So let’s go back to our first chart, which shows the cumulative shares of the big car market by each of the Big Three. We can clearly see a very significant dip for GM in 1957, due to strong share growth by Ford and Chrysler that year, thanks to all-new cars. But that was essentially a one-year aberration, and GM recovered fully in 1958, and soon headed up to a peak in 1962, when it had some 67% of the big car market. 1962 was also the all-time share high for GM in the overall market, at 51%.

Ford showed a lot of strength from ’56-’59, except for a dip in ’58. But as noted before, 1960 was the beginning of a difficult period for Ford Corp. big cars, due to cannibalization from the Falcon, Comet and Fairlane and issues of size and styling. But all three Ford brands showed strength starting in 1969, which it mostly held onto in subsequent years.

Chrysler Corporation’s bump in 1957 was clearly a classic first-year bump due to dramatic new styling. And its subsequent drop in 1958 was really just back to where it had been in 1956. But Chrysler’s slide continued through to 1959, after which it had a bit of a bump in 1960, before continuing downhill through 1962. Although Chrysler recovered some in ’63-’64, 1965 was even worse for its largest cars (note: the 1962-1964 B-Body cars are considered “full size” for this exercise, but not starting in 1965).

It would appear that styling played a very big role during the difficult 1958-1962 era. The 1958’s looked almost identical to the ’57s, and the ’59’s were still quite similar. There was much less differentiation between them than there was at Ford and GM. The bounce that Chrysler got in 1960, when the cars were new, although still looking a bit too similar, supports that supposition. The 1961’s generally odd styling did nothing to alleviate that.

The downsized ’62 Dodge and Plymouths were poorly received. Most likely that was more due to styling outside of the mainstream than their size, as GM had downsized too in 1961, although not to quite the same extent. There was a growing revulsion to really big cars starting in 1958 with the recession and a change in public opinion, and that period lasted through at least 1961. If Chrysler had brought out these downsized cars with a bit more mainstream styling, they might well have been quite successful. Especially if they had come out a year or two earlier.

By 1962, there was a raft of compact cars available, as well as the new mid-sized Fairlane. That took the social pressure and buyer resistance off the big cars, and big car lovers were free again to indulge themselves in ever bigger cars, although their share of the market after a bump in ’64 would continue their terminal decline.

How much poor quality issues affected the ’57 Chrysler Corp. products is debatable. I’m inclined to think it was less than commonly attributed, although a factor to some degree. How long was a bad first year quality rep going to last? If it really was that big of an issue. Many buyers knew these first year issues were invariably fixed by year two.

The 1957’s seemed to satiate those buyers looking for the next new thing, and the follow-up cars in ’58 and ’59 did nothing to excite them, or others. Repetitive styling was undoubtedly a significant factor. As well as folks drifting back to their preferred brands after the excitement of the ’57s dissipated.