It’s always dangerous to take on economics as a writer. You run the risk that everybody’s eyes will glaze over in the esoterica that is economic theory. But economics is at the heart of today’s tale. I’ve often been asked why the first movers in the compact car field failed so miserably in their earliest iterations. Of the new offerings in the early 1950’s from the independent automakers, only one survived to field a second generation. The rest vanished almost without a trace.
The natural question for car historians (and we car buffs) is why? What caused good ideas to fail so completely when subjected to the judgment of the marketplace? What factors turned good concepts into sales disasters? Was it quality? Price? Let’s peek behind the dry sales numbers and try to reach an understanding of the factors both large and small that killed the first generation of sensible sized cars that came and went all too suddenly.
For the purposes of our discussion, let’s name the first wave. The players: Kaiser-Frazer’s Henry J, Willys’ Aero, Hudson’s Jet and Nash’s Rambler.
All were conventional front engine/rear wheel drive cars and all but the Henry J made a small (by standards of the day) straight six their standard engine. Only the Kaiser entry came factory-equipped with a four cylinder mill, which was later joined by a six that was available in other Kaisers.
Nash started the compact boomlet on April 13, 1950 with its single model Rambler line. The name dated back to the earliest days of the Thomas B. Jeffrey company and gave the car a sporting moniker that was well respected and right in tune with the times. At first, the Rambler was only available in fixed pillar convertible form, but the line was expanded the next season to three models.
Nash’s 173 cubic inch six delivered 82 HP, but the cars’ sturdy assembly and unit body meant that it was heavy and slow. Zero to sixty took 21 seconds. But the little Rambler delivered on economy. Testers of the day reported miles-per-gallon in the low 30s in an era when conventional family cars returned figures in the low 20s. Styling was (and is) always a subjective thing, but the junior Nash looked like a 7/8ths scale model of the full size cars on offer, which was not a bad place to be. Nash scored a solid success with the Rambler, with sales high enough to expand the line for 1951.
It was too bad for Hudson that their stylists didn’t get the message about keeping the dowdy Jet in the mainstream. Despite some real strengths that recommended the car to potential buyers, styling was a deal breaker for a lot of Jet shoppers.
The Jet was well built. In common with its big brothers, the superstructure was welded and braced for a long life. A high profile and elevated seating position made the car seem bigger than its size would suggest, and testers of the day praised its handling and overall road manners.
Unfortunately, its bolt-upright, slab sided profile combined with a rather narrow track (in relation to height) made the proportions ghastly, and buyers rejected the Jet almost out of hand. The Jet made use of the Wasp’s 202 cubic inch straight six, which in the lighter car with tall final gearing returned over 30 miles per gallon. But the Jet faced a mountain that was too tall to climb when shoppers compared its almost $1900 MSRP (stripped down) to an equally de-contented Chevy One-Fifty for $200 less. That sounds like pocket change after 60 years of inflation, but in 1952, this was the difference between a successful car and an abject failure.
Hudson tried everything to move Jets off of dealers lots. The stripped down base Jet was followed in quick succession by the upmarket Jet Liner, but that high price didn’t look any better on a tarted up small car.
The Jet had exhausted the company’s treasury with its development outlay (much of which was borrowed, further driving ups costs with dead weight interest expense) and when the car failed, Hudson had no plan B. In just two model years, Hudson only built a little over 35,000 Jets and when the company merged with Nash, the Jet was sent packing. Newly formed American Motors didn’t have the money to tool and develop two competing compacts, so the Jet became the odd man out and ended as a sad footnote to the history of Hudson.
Meanwhile, over at Willys, by the fall of 1951 the builder of Jeeps was preparing to introduce its first conventional passenger car since early 1942. In theory, the Aero line of cars (CC here) would put Willys back in the mainstream of the industry and better utilize its factories to spread costs over a larger base of sales. With the expansion of the Jeep model lineup after the war, Willys had abandoned traditional passenger cars (where the competition was fierce) and focused on its easy to build all terrain vehicles that had no direct competition in the domestic market. But by introducing the Aero into an as yet unproven market niche, Willys was taking a massive gamble. To hedge its bet, Willys would bracket the market with Ace, Lark, Wing and Eagle models, each in its own carefully focused price point.
But those price points were still too high. The cheapest Aero still cost buyers almost $150 more than the base Chevy. This made it a tough sell when Chevrolet could spread costs over a production run of millions of cars and use a new marketing tool (network TV) to hammer home its value message over and over.
Willys managed to sell just over 35,000 of all series in the first model year. That turned out to be the best the Aero line would do, as production and sales soon began a decline from which the little Aero would never recover domestically. By 1955, Willys Motors (now part of the failing Kaiser passenger car portfolio) packed up the dies and moved Aero production to Brazil, where the car became the iconic car of a generation (much like the ’55 Chevy in the U.S.)
The Henry J, unlike the other domestic compacts, was a cheap car that aimed at the same buyer that might consider a used car or a Volkswagen Beetle (the kind of people who wanted a new car that could seat 5 and return good fuel economy.) The base Henry J (named after the company’s chairman Henry J. Kaiser) came with a 134 cubic inch four cylinder engine that reinforced its image as a penalty box for cheapskates. Kaiser began production of the Henry J in July of 1950 (right behind the Rambler) but was never able to derive any first mover advantage by jumping into the market early.
Part of the problem was the product itself: The Henry J came to market with no deck lid, fixed rear windows, no glove box and an all-around feeling of cheapness. Along with other penny wise but pound foolish shortcuts, the J was shipped with a then unusual 4 cylinder power plant that was purchased from Willys. Desperate, Kaiser even tried selling the car at Sears, where it was known as the Allstate.
Later, a straight six was installed which gave the car good performance, and first year sales were very respectable. But the “early adopters” couldn’t sustain the Henry J for long. As unsold cars began piling up around Kaiser facilities, the company began to drown in the debt taken on to keep the ship afloat. The company tried to stanch the bleeding by finally dropping the Henry J in 1953. Kaiser shacked up with Willys later that year and began to withdraw from the passenger car business .
By the fall of 1955, the first wave of compact cars was off the market and many of their makers were defunct or merged out of recognition. The Rambler name would be affixed to a new AMC model for 1956-57, but the first generation, 100 inch wheelbase car was gone. It would, however, be revived when recession rocked the economy in 1957. The “new” Rambler American would debut that fall and have another successful run through the late 60’s.
What went wrong? Why did the pioneers of the compact car market fail so completely? What really killed the first wave of sensible cars in the U.S.? Here is one analysis that ought to stir thought and no small amount of disagreement.
In many autopsies of these cars failures, I have noticed that many critcs opine that there was no real market for cars of less than full size in these years. I disagree. If you add up the total sales of campact cars in 1950-54, the number is rather impressive. Just over 126,000 Henry J’s, 35,000 Jets, 91,000 Aeros of all types and a further 140,000 Ramblers meant that the total average annual demand was right around 77,000 units. This would have made any one model a solid success. But spread over four makers, the economics were impossible. The high capital demands of the auto industry made it a hurculean task to make money with a niche product.
First, there were no real savings for the makers of small cars in the areas of engineering, labor, marketing or finance. All of those elements cost about the same whether a car was large or small. Print and TV ads actually cost more money when bought in smaller quantities from their vendors. Auto workers made union scale wages whether the car was full size or otherwise. Ditto for engineers and other “back office” input costs.
Only in transportation (more small cars fit on transporters) and materials (less steel , rubber and glass were used by volume) did the compacts have any cost advantage. The development costs for these compacts went a long way toward wrecking their makers’ finances.
For buyers, the calculus was, if anything, even worse. This is not unlike in our own time with snazzy new hybrid drivetrains that add many thousands of dollars to the selling price of a basic, four seat commuter car. The higher initial MSRP was hard to recoup when the cars biggest selling point was exclusively fuel economy. Gasoline averaged just over 27 cents per gallon from 1950-1955. Repair and upkeep costs were a wash, with oil changes and other routine maintenance nearly the same as full size cars.
A big hidden expense for small car owners in those years was depreciation, as small cars tended to drop in value faster than their full size linemates. The second car market was not nearly as developed in the early 50’s and when the initial owners wanted to trade, many dealers were reluctant to take a slow seller as a down payment on a new car.
The irony of the failure of the first wave of compacts in America was that within a half decade, Ford , GM, Chrysler and Studebaker would bring compact models to market that would sell more cars in a year than the other independents did in five. The Falcon, Corvair, Valiant and Lark all found ready acceptance when they hit the market in 1959-60.
Other than the Lark, the second wave compacts were clean sheet efforts that actually made money by selling in sufficient volume to spread their cost over a long production run. But even at that, profit per unit was pretty lean. Thus GM, Ford and Chrysler had cracked the code on how to make money with small cars. The secret turned out to be this: Have very deep pockets and sell a car through a very large dealer network. This practical difference (that was the difference between a small profit and a large loss) is what eluded the pioneers of compact cars that tried to go there first.
This is a great write-up – thank you!
I think the other factor against these early compact manufacturers was the only perceived value of a smaller car was thrift. All consumers (and manufacturers) had been weaned on Sloane’s steps that stated implicitly that bigger is better and therefore more valuable. The manufacturers still struggle with this, because as you stated in the piece, it does not cost that much more to big a bigger car than a smaller car.
I don;t think it was until the 70’s that consumers started to value small cars beyond thift. Sure many bought their first Toyota, Datsun or Honda because they liked the cheap operation cost, but they stayed for the dependability, build quality and handling. Value for the money, rather than just size.
Good stuff as always, Jeff.
I don’t find the original Jet to be bad-looking from the side, but that face is pathetic. The front of the Willys is kind of charming, with that funky W in its mouth. Certainly better than the Henry J, which appears to be doing something obscene with that chrome-lump insert.
The Rambler looks like a happy little pedal car. Then as now, it’s easier to like a small car if “cheerful” comes with “cheap.” I never get tired of my daily-driver ’06 Mazda3 smiling at me. But the new ones, mouth-breathing around the license plate…
I think your read on the economics is spot-on. Next question is, why was the market ready for small cars in the late ’50s? I have a guess: the rise of the two-car family. If you only have one vehicle, you might as well get one you can stuff everyone into. And I bet there were more single people driving as the whole country became more suburban.
I’m sure others on here will look at this in a lot more detail!
Very good point about “cheerful” and “cheap”. If you recall, in our own time the Dodge/Plymouth Neon was sold as a “cheerful” cheap car. It must have worked because the Neon was a solid hit despite its cheapness.
American consumers became ready because the economy went into deep recession in late ’57. That’s why AMC reintroduced the American, and why Studebaker wracked up in ’59 with the Lark.
That same recession is what, IMO, ultimately doomed DeSoto and Edsel.
One other factor that comes to mind on these cars’ failure: the Studebaker Champion. In 1950, the 113 inch wb Champion was not a big car – it weighed about 2700 pounds and with its 164 cid 6 and overdrive, was good for at or near 30 mpg. At about $1500-1600, Studebaker sold over 270 thousand of them in 1950. Think about it: the 1953 version was still small enough to pass as a credible compact when they lopped off the overhangs and called it a Lark in 1959-61.
So, it was a little bigger, a fair amount cheaper and almost as economical as the 4 cars discussed today. Always a recipe for success, especially in those days where virtually nobody had more than one car.
I think that the second wave of compacts benefitted greatly by increasing wealth and the trend towards 2-car families. Most of the compacts that I knew in the 60s were little grocery-getters for the wives while the husbands drove a full-sized sedan to work.
Good point about the Champion. AMC must have figured that out, because the 1956 Rambler was upgraded to more of a “mid-sized” body like the Champion’s. The senior Rambler became the Camry of that time — and one of the the best-selling independent cars of the post-war era.
I think that Studebaker saw its fortunes decline in the mid-50s primarily because the Champion grew too large.
A key reason why the first wave of compacts was such a failure is that none of them shared many body parts with their corporate siblings. That dramatically increased costs. Studebaker was the only independent that offered a “big” car whose body was narrow enough to shorten into a compact variant — but they didn’t go there. If they had, Studebaker might have plausibly supplanted AMC as the most successful independent of the late-50s and early-60s.
Note that Kaiser toyed with the idea of basing its compact on its big-car body. That body was too heavy and low-slung to make a practical compact, but it could have resulted in an interesting alternative to Studebaker’s Loewy coupe.
Other factors like the Chevy-Ford price war and the quality problemes and the development costs of the redesigned 1953 models, didn’t helped things at Studebaker. http://ateupwithmotor.com/sports-cars-and-muscle-cars/237-studebaker-hawk-history.html
Back to these cars themselves. From what I have read, the Henry J was the only one that could fairly be described as a bad car. My mother (whose family bought a 51 Kaiser DeLuxe when she was in high school) remembers the Henry J as the cheapest, tinniest thing she had ever seen. I have read that the door windows could crack if you slammed the door too hard. The car was built to a price and showed it everywhere. Everybody says they want a cheap car, but they mean price, not quality.
It’s too bad that it was so bad, because I have always found them kind of cute, in a Dodge Neon/Honda Fit kind of way. Had they been decent cars, they could have become the most popular. The Jet and the Rambler were just dowdy hulking things. The Aero was not bad looking.
“The Aero was not bad looking.”
One of my all time favorite cars is a 1955 Willys Bermuda hardtop. I have looked for one in vain for years.
Another reason for these early cars to not survive more than a generation (except for the Rambler) was not only were they cheap, but in my eyes, a bit on the dowdy side, unlike what came along in 1959-60 which were quite nice looking and looked sporting for their day.
These early cars while practical, often sturdy little things, didn’t have enough to make them attractive and America hadn’t been exposed to the Beetle as heavily as yet along with other European models of that ilk. I think it took people hearing about and/or driving cars like the Beetle to really see the benefits of a smaller car, plus, as has been said, the 2 car family didn’t really come along until the late 50’s at the earliest where small cars like these would be preferred if the family didn’t already have a larger car.
But even today, look at the attitude of many Americans, small = cheap, penalty boxes when many of today’s cars are as good or in some cases better than their larger counterparts in most categories, including in safety and crash testing.
Sent this story to my Dad, b. 1943, and here’s his reply:
“The buyers of cars at that time were the WWII generation. They did not win the war thinking some day I can buy an ugly car that gets good gas mileage, i.e. Henry J’s etc. They won the war thinking someday I can go the beach with a Doris Day look-a-like driving a new Ford or Pontiac convertible.”
OK, now back to work…
Best comment of the day!
Of course, it was also the returning GIs that started the import mania of the fifties, having been exposed to them in Europe. The beginning of the modern automobile market, with its split into domestics and imports, started directly as a consequence of WW2.
As I once saw it put, every GI came back from Europe with an MG TC tucked under his arm…:)
It’s a good point; but it ignores the emotional appeal of a car, especially the nuance surrounding an import. A compact American car was a scaled-down version of a standard American car; made to a price – and showing it. Appearance, fit-and-finish, and appointments all were evidence. And in addition, the American compacts as drivers’ cars, was an afterthought – if any thought went into it at all. They were made for a segment of the American market; a segment the automakers did not respect.
As opposed to a European import – which wasn’t generally a scaled-down ANYTHING. It was Car, as the manufacturer understood Car to be. It wasn’t a cheapened anything; it wasn’t supposed to generate showroom traffic but have the buyer sold up to a full-size. It was the best understanding of what an automobile should be, that they had.
And with the smaller size, the import companies’ designers had physics working for them. To quote David E. Davis, “Lighter mass is its own reward.” So the imports tended to drive better than full-size American cars and often better than half-fast American compacts.
Finally, there was no socioeconomic stigma in owing an imported car in those days. It might be advertisement of eccentricity; but it didn’t pronounce to the world that you’d not made it; that you were NOT on the way up. It was the mark of one who listens to a different drummer.
So the foreign companies had their own niche market. Their product was salable, mostly; but the social aspects of auto ownership worked in their favor as well.
Spot-on! The human being is going to buy the biggest thing he (and yes, in this case, he) is not going to spring for a Henry J if he can afford something bigger and nicer. This is the reason that compacts did not do well in the 1950s, bigger was better.
Nothing has changed. The biggest selling car is the F-150. The thing hits the scales at 6000 lbs and they are not cheap. I’d wager $35,000 would be an average transaction price on one.The majority of guys buying trucks could but all kinds of smaller cars but the don’t; they want their big, powerful chariot, even with $4.00 a gallon gas.
More evidence? I drive a lot and buy quite a bit of gasoline. What should I be driving, pray tell? Well, a Corolla or a Civic would make sense, reliable, totally cheap lease payments and fuel efficient. But I am driving a 3.2 litre Acura TL. The car is not too bad on fuel but the Corolla would cost 50% less in fuel. Do I care? Nope, because I can afford it. 500 km in the Civic would cost me $60 while the same distance in the TL costs me $90. At four tanks a months that is $120. The car is paid for, has 80,000 km on it is it is not likely to break. It is still cheaper than a new Civic. But I digress.
Even in today’s economy and market people are buying the biggest car they can afford. Is a sub-compact the biggest seller in the USA? Not by a longshot. Here in Canada they do well because of higher gasoline prices, but our market is paltry compared to the USA.
It is quite hard to explain to a buyer that a small car costs hardly anything less to produce than a larger product. This is the reason Detroit stated away from small cars for so long. They could make loads of money on a Tahoe but nothing on a Cobalt because the actual cost of building them didn’t amount to much. Now, finally, the have come to their senses and brought their small stuff from abroad, which they should have done forty years ago and we are getting some good small cars finally.
It is just at this stage of my life I know how to do math and I am interested in a $25,000 small car. I am interested in a low km used luxury car. Much better ride and enormously cheaper.
“It’s always dangerous to take on economics as a writer. You run the risk that everybody’s eyes will glaze over in the esoterica that is economic theory. ”
Thanks to that flashback to Professor Kole at Defiance College circa 1997 who taught every Econ class that I took as a Comprehensive Social Studies/Secondary Education major. Old (King) Kole (who did love his pipe and his tobacco bowl) would have explained their failures using his construct “homoeconomicus” or “economic man.” Economic man would have loved these cars with his rational head but his heart put him in V8 Chevys.
Looking back to my childhood as the son of a Chevrolet dealer, there’s another factor I’ve always felt had to do with the failure of all the above but the Rambler: Status. I can remember very vividly as a child, in the days before 5-year financing and leasing when what you drove really showed just how well-off you were. I grew up thinking it absolutely normal that nobody who wasn’t poor (or a bum) willingly drove a car more than three years old. And looked at the parents of my schoolmates in that light.
Well, I picked up those attitudes from my father . . . . .
This would have a lot to do with why the Rambler was the only success of the four: It wasn’t a cheap car, it was a neat second toy for those who could afford it. For a compact, it had status. The (finally) disappearing attitude that small cars are cheap penalty boxes goes back to this era, and is only disappearing in the last few years.
“I grew up thinking it absolutely normal that nobody who wasn’t poor (or a bum) willingly drove a car more than three years old.”
I was raised to think that only people “with more money than brains” bothered with newer cars, when old, cheap, cool cars were everywhere.
That definitely came from my dad, but it still makes good sense to me today.
My average vehicular TCO has been extremely low over the years as a result.
Of course it helps that I’ve always done most of the work myself and inherited some of my dad’s ability with mechanical things (as well as his disdain for consumer culture). Also I’ve been fairly lucky. ***knocks on wood***
I sure know what you are talking about concerning cars as status symbols. From about age 10 on my friends and I were intensely aware of what everyone drove, which engine, which trim, hardtop or sedan, etc. Of course that is why manufactures put little Vs or Vs with flags and the like to show the world what engine the owner had. Pretty shallow but that is how we judge lots of our family’s friends. I was sort of ashamed that my father would not join that rat race. Turns out he actually had good sense. Imagine that!
I think it would be wonderful if Paul our one of the CC contributors would do a few pieces exploring the cars as status symbols phenomenon.
I think that the size of the car “environment” in the USA has everything to do with why what we would now call a mid-side car (Camry, etc.), are the best selling cars. In this country the width of the roads, the size of the parking spaces, the distances we’re likely to travel, and what we are likely to need with us, are best served by this size car.
No mention of the impact of the fifties’ import mania? Folks were buying Simcas, DKWs, Hillmans, and just about every other obscure European brand in the mid-fifties. They were often considerably cheaper than these domestic compacts of the time.
Granted, many of them got burned by the lack of proper service from the gas station-turned-car dealer, which led to the VW’s huge rise. And many others may well have turned to the 1959-1960 domestic compacts, when their Aronde became immobile.
I think that the shabbily constructed little imports didn’t impress even in a short test drive with the salesman pouring on the soft soap. I think that the makes that you mentioned appealed to the kind of idiosyncratic buyer that chose between the DKW et al and the VW. They were probably never going to buy a domestic (even if smaller than full size) anyway. There were IMHO just not enough of those oddball buyers to sustain so many makes.The lack of service and spare parts also meant that repeat business was non existent.
These buyers may have been around on the coasts, but were virtually nonexistent in the midwest and south.
I agree about the repeat business, except for those brands that could prove their mettle (metal?), and prospered into the sixties, like VW, MB, Peugeot, Saab, even Renault was still fairly strong into the sixties.
The point is that the imports sold quite well. I don’t have numbers sitting in front of me, but it was considerable, and many Americans were willing to give them a shot. I do think that had some impact on the cars you wrote about, inasmuch as they couldn’t compete on price with them, never mind the lowest lines of the Big Three.
And ultimately, it was the success of the imports that led to the Big Three compacts. They just couldn’t ignore that segment of the market anymore.
“they were never going to buy a domestic”
I think you underestimate the impacts the imports had on mainstream America in the mid-late fifties. In 1959, imports had a 10% market share. By 1962, that was back down to about 5%. Americans love fads, and imports were a big fad in the period of 1955-1959. 10% of the market was very considerable.
It’s quite clear that half of these import buyers were disenchanted with their latest fad, and went back to buying domestics. These were the classic fad buyers, not the hard-core import crowd. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that the import share went above 10% again, this time with help from the Japanese, and because domestic compacts had grown so large as to not be compacts anymore.
I guess I would count my parents as some of those fad buyers. They went from a 53 Chevy and a 57 Buick in 1958 into a Karmann Ghia and a Ford Anglia in 1959-60. Then back to an Olds F-85 wagon in 61 and never another import. Actually my Dad got talked into an Accord around 1990 or 91. He wrecked it after about a year, claimed that he got more out of the insurance company than he’d paid for the car, but then bought another Taurus.
I should also point out that my Dad grew up on the east coast. But when you get into the midwest and south (outside of college towns, anyway), there wasn’t much besides VW that ever brought people back for a repeat purchase.
Yes, a perfect example indeed, and all-too common indeed.
I well remember VWs as new cars very few if any bought them again
Paul, I am going to guess that perhaps the same(small) group of buyers of the 50-54 Compacts, well this group then experimented with the small imports being offered in the late 50s until, 1960 when they suddenly had 5 US Manufacturers Compacts to choose from siphening off that 5 % market share the import(compacts) had in 1959… so somewhat of a steady 10 % of the US market was already going to the compact offerings.
That’s because the first wave of imports were either just plain crappy cars or totally unsuitable to US driving conditions. The Renault Dauphine actually outsold the Beetle in 1958-59. On paper, it must have seemed a better proposition than the VW, with four doors, a real heater and a usable trunk. Then buyers actually had to live with the thing, and the horrible dealer support, and it wasn’t long before they were traded in on Falcons and Larks and even Bel Airs. Other import early adopters ended up with microcars that couldn’t merge onto the freeway and keep up with traffic.
Just how big was that market, Paul? What percentage of total sales? In 1955 it could not have been much.
See my comment below:
Canucknucklehead: In 1955, it was still quite low, just under 2%. But it exploded quickly. And even 2% of the total market was well north of 100k cars. Compare that with the number of domestic compacts being sold then (avg. 77k per year, as per Jeff’s calculations). So imports were outselling domestic compacts already in 1955, and that was just the very beginning.
Interesting chart. I would hazard a guess that it was VW and the british sports cars that racked up a pretty steady 4% of the market, and that everything else (culminating in the 1959 boomlet)was of a lot of one-time purchases of Anglias, Dauphines, Simcas, etc., that led to a lot of buyers remorse and virtually zero repeat sales. The growth after 1965 would likely be VWs final squirt, but mostly Japaneese and possibly Mercedes.
Are we also counting the Vauxhalls and Opels sold at Pontiac and Buick dealerships as imports? Didn’t at least the Opels have a solid enough reputation that they came back a few times?
I think the reality for import compacts then was the driving habits of the United States were a lot different than their home territories, and they may have not been all that well suited for American driving styles, especially by the late 1950s interstate/freeway boom that made it necessary for even the lowliest American Car to be able to cruise strain free on a flat freeway at 65mph. A Falcon, Lark or Corvair could do that easily (and easier on the driver with their available automatics). A lot of European offerings couldn’t substain that, even the Beetle got routinely more power to keep up with those demands.
It wasn’t that imports were “bad” they were perhaps tuned to their own markets. Perhaps that’s why the Imports (besides the Beetle and assorted Fiats and Renaults) that gained loyalty weren’t all that off in character from American offerings like the Volvo 122, a Swedish Valiant if there ever was one or the host of Benzes, Alfas and Jaguars that could confidently cruise at interstate speeds and above, and had “breeding” that just about all American makes had disposed of by the late 1960s.
This is where the Japanese imports one upped the European ones though, by adapting their cars to fit better into American driving styles.
You covered some important points. I’m going to do a piece on the fifties’ import boom, as soon as painting season is over! (soon)
Your comparisms are way off the mark the likes of a Falcon Valiant Corvair need to be compared with similar UK or european sorced cars not the smaller 4 cylinder models they compare with the Ford Zephyr Vauxhall Velox type of car not the 4 bangers of the 50s which do compare well with junk like VW. Take the rose tinted glasses off and see if you can really remember the Beetle as it really was slow, noisy, uncomfortable,bad brakes, apalling handling, constantly needing valve adjustments, useless at night with a glow worm on each front fender, yes they were cheap cheap and nasty there was literally nothing in the 4 banger line from anywhere that wasnt an improvement on a VW by 1963 but Americans didnt want 4s by then
We never got the bigger Euro cars over here. VWs were hugely popular through the entire 1960s and into the ’70s in the US. Detroit’s offerings after about 1963 were considered bloated and “square” by most people under thirty. The Japanese tsunami had yet to happen. The VWs we got in the US were very dependable, built with high quality materials, and self-maintainable. Their counter-cultural image was a big deal. British cars were falling apart. The Opels, Vauxhalls and English Fords were mostly pretty boring and their dealers were terrible. (I’ll never forget when Car & Driver reviewed the Opel Kadett in about ’69. It was so bad they shot the photos in a junkyard. GM pulled their ads, it was a big flap.)
PS: You’re right though, Bryce, VWs were not a car to have a crash in. I got T-boned at about 10-20 mph in the last VW I owned, a ’65, and it folded like a paper cup. Scared me into Detroit iron for awhile.
VWs over here didnt have such a stirling rep NZ is very hilly and youve really got to thrash a beetle to keep anywhere near the speed limit they simply didnt last well. The flat 4 may happily belt along at its rev limit on flat going ok but not up and down hills, most owners gave up after the 2nd engine and traded on something better suited. I restored a beetle that had 85k on the speedo genuine its second engine a 1500 was knackered that was in Tasmania another very hilly part of the world. The finished product was a mint 1200 beetle which drove as well as any with the exception of radial tyres it was completely stock and honestly it was awful. The girl who owned was thrilled and loved it so did a lot of VW fans who saw and drove it,
I was immensly proud of my creation but did not like driving it. My then daily car was a 63 Holden the VW a 60 I currently have a 59 Hillman that is also far superior for use. I can see that chugging along gently graduated freeways would suit VWs trying to maintain decent speed on hills is beyond them.
“chugging along gently graduated freeways would suit VWs”
Der KdF-Wagen wurde für die Autobahn.
The thing is there weren’t imports sold here that would have sold directly on price and performance to the Corvair, Falcon or Valiant except the captive imports Ford, GM and Chrysler offered Bryce.
By the time there was, more often than not they were Japanese, and most American offerings save the Moribund Corvair had moved up in size to the point they were as large as “Standard” sized cars around 1950 (I think a 1968 Nova would be about the same size as a 1950 Chevrolet, with similar interior volume). Hence the Pinto, Gremlin and Vega being the new round of “compacts” around 1970. Frankly all 3 should have done captive imports since what their overseas branches offered (The Cortina from Ford or the Torana from Holden, for example) was superior.
Hence when I say most people couldn’t have made a typical European car work in their everyday lives. Most European cars were designed with Post WWII European demands in mind, economy and short distance travel. Europe wasn’t growing into a sprawling suburban model in the 1950s and 1960s, and that showed in the types of cars the designed for home markets. What would be an all out luxury sedan like the Ford Zodiac/Zephyrs of the 1950s cut it as a Rambler rate car here in the US. And out of all the captive imports that was the most “American” on offer (except the odd Simca Vedette for sale).
Even class sizes were pretty different between the US and Europe. A Peugeot 404 was “executive” or Mid Sized in Europe, but considered decidely compact by US Standards.
Edit: I wonder what happened to all 42,000+ English Fords sold here in 1959: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ifhp97/4686889951/in/set-72157623759327552
Americans would have loved Toranas especially the SLR 5000 Holden kept upping the HP and improving the handling and left the body as the 1.9 Opel 4. Ford put 6 cylinder motors in Cortinas a disaster while Chysler took an innocent 1800cc french sedan and shoved 3 different hemi 6s into it, a real rocket those were I could get tyre smoke at 60mph just by standing on the gas in mine it only had a 4.0. This was the decade when interest in US muscle cars was lost as they got too fat and slow something theyve yet to recover from.
Reply to edit same as in NZ RUST, Here the 6cylinder Zephyrs and Zodiacs got triple carbed and valiant pistoned and thrashed into the ground the little prefect4s got souped up with Cortina engines and killed the survivors are cherished by collectors
Not mentioned- the Rambler disappeared for a few years & was brought back ~1958.
I guess you’ll write something about the Crosley one of these days.
“I guess you’ll write something about the Crosley one of these days.”
The Crosley episode has always interested me. I have visited the Crosley estate/museum in Florida ( near Sarasota) and having worked in broadcasting, been fascinated with the history of WLW when it was a 500,000 watt blowtorch.I frequently spend time in the Cincinnati area and doing a background on Crosley is on my to do list.
Yeah, me too. Man, half a megawatt cast invisibly into the ether to cover the western hemisphere. That blowtorch transmitter’s still there, isn’t it?
“Enclosures weren’t so much cabinets as rooms, where people might explode if they contacted the wrong circuits.”
“Powel Crosley throws the big switch” (with one hand safely in his pocket.)
Wonderful article, I especially like all those ads. Not just for the clear photos but for what the makers had in mind for those cars. I love them all.
Another big factor in their demise, which I learned elsewhere on CC, was the Ford/Chevy price war of the early fifties. As soon as Korean War rationing lifted and Detroit could get all the steel they wanted, those two went at it big time, driving actual selling prices down into compact territory. Making it even easier for the WWII and Korean War vet to drive a ‘full-size’ new car with pride.
Imports were appealing for their quality, style, handling and/or economy, not price. In the fifties the “thinking man” turned away from chromium parade floats. Self-styled “sophisticates”, who drank martinis, read Ian Fleming, and subscribed to Playboy for what to wear and put on the Hi-Fi, not just the pictures, bought European cars like in those new foreign films.
The second car did bring many imports over, but in my experience they were for dad’s sporty commuter. My girlfriend’s dad bought his wife a ’60s Lincoln Continental for her birthday (ribbon in the driveway and all), and he drove a Karmann-Ghia to work. At our house it was a Ford XL 428 fastback sports aircraft carrier for mom, and a Fiat 850 Spider for dad.
I’ve read somewhere that the Hudson stylists had some great designs lined up for the Jet, but the guy in charge vetoed them for the shrunken Ford look. Something about wearing a hat in the car.
Rambler was the only one smart enough to market an upscale compact with two-tone paint, standard heater and radio and such. That’s the thing it has taken Detroit a half-century to learn. A small car is not a penalty box, it’s stylish sportswear. Only now with the Fiesta and Sonic are they finally getting it.
PS: Have you noticed the new Fiats have the same sort of fabric roof on fixed frame as this Rambler?
I really think price ended up being the sticking point for a lot of the early domestic compacts. In the late forties and early fifties, a lot of dealers were getting an earful from customers about how they wanted smaller cars — that was part of the reason a lot of these models got off the ground.
The problem was that I think those customers were really reacting to postwar sticker shock, which put retail prices up 50% or more from their prewar averages. Buyers assumed that the price increases coincided with the way cars were growing (something that had started to become visibly pronounced right before the war), and figured that a car the size of a Model A would also have a price to match. When they saw that that wasn’t the case, even with a car as stripped-down and basic as a Henry J, I think a fair number of those customers shrugged and walked away.
Two minor notes. First, the Henry J’s six was not the same offered in the big Kaisers. The big Kaisers all had the 226 cid Continental six, whereas both Henry J engines came from Willys. The Henry J six was the flathead version of Willys’ 161 cid engine. (The only Kaiser that used the more powerful F-head was the Kaiser Darrin.) Second, Hudson’s styling department was well aware that the Jet was a dowdy thing. Hudson management, influenced by a powerful regional dealer, insisted on making it look like a scaled-down ’52 Ford, which obviously did not pan out well at all. Frank Spring, Hudson’s styling director, protested strenuously, but he was overruled.
“I’ve read somewhere that the Hudson stylists had some great designs..” Of course! I read it at Ate Up With Motor last year. http://ateupwithmotor.com/compact-and-economy-cars/245-hudson-jet-history.html You’re too modest to link to your always-top-shelf articles.
Same found a Jet for sale surfed to Ate up with motor and learned far more than I needed to know great research Aaron
“In many autopsies of these cars failures, I have noticed that many critcs opine that there was no real market for cars of less than full size in these years. I disagree. If you add up the total sales of campact cars in 1950-54, the number is rather impressive. Just over 126,000 Henry J’s, 35,000 Jets, 91,000 Aeros of all types and a further 140,000 Ramblers meant that the total average annual demand was right around 77,000 units. This would have made any one model a solid success. But spread over four makers, the economics were impossible. The high capital demands of the auto industry made it a hurculean task to make money with a niche product.”
I may be misunderstanding your point here but, your statement seems to show that the lack of a market for these cars was a major contributor to their downfall? I would think that the economics and capital demands of manufacturing a “niche” product would really depend on the market being there for it.
Basically four automakers jumped into a market that could only bear one.
I do believe that there was a definite market for these kinds of vehicles, but too many makers tried to squeeze through the door at once. I do however, believe that if the indies had tried introducing these kinds of vehicles a few years earlier, during the great sellers market, they would have sold many more of them and maybe, just maybe, have accelerated the move to two car families by a few years (used models on the market would have been great starter or second cars after the initial depreciation was absorbed).
So we agree, but by degrees.
I’ve said basically the same thing as Jeff, which is that there was a market, just not one big enough to sustain four or five major competitors, especially when each came from an independent automaker that was already running pretty lean on cash. AMC sort of lucked out by being the last one standing in 1955-1956 — with most of that segment to themselves, they were able to sustain themselves until the recession provoked a small car boom later in the decade.
Until that point, the only really strong incentive Americans had for buying a smaller car was the possibility of a lower price. Of course, there were people who were keen on fuel economy for its own sake, or who agreed with George Mason and George Romney that buying a land yacht for around-town driving was silly, but those were still basically aesthetic points. In the States, gas was cheap and in no obvious danger of running out, you generally didn’t have taxable horsepower ratings or registration fees based on vehicle size, and roads were generally straight and not yet horribly congested. Some people wanted smaller cars, but the point is that if you found you could get a better deal on a big one, there was not yet any compelling economic reason not to go that way.
No Decklid?!!!!! Wow that is penny wise shenanigans.
The Henry J always reminded my of the comic strip “Henry” the shape was so generic cut.
Kind of would like a Mini Ford that sat you high up.
The basic Rambler is what my Dad drove in his 62 American…squared up.
Eliminating the decklid and the glovebox on the Henry J was done to placate the feds, basically. Henry Kaiser had borrowed a lot of money from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1948, in part to build a compact. He told them he would bring it to market for less than $1,200, so they made that a condition of the loan. Even a lot of Kaiser-Frazer people were very unhappy with it, and the opening trunk lid became an option very quickly. Without it, it was sort of a flashback to 1934, when external trunks were still not that common; by 1950, people had gotten used to not having to wrestle suitcases through the passenger door.
The early Henry Js without trunklids all had folding rear seats to get at the trunk, naturally, and one interesting development was that after the trunklid became available, it was possible to order your Henry J with both the trunklid and the folding seat — a very handy feature a lot of cars did not have at that point. (Kaiser had also offered the Traveler, with its two-piece hatchback tail and folding rear seat, which was another idea ahead of its time; that one was supposedly Henry Kaiser’s own inspiration.)
Deja vu, all over again in 1970- the cheapest of the AMC Gremlins didn’t come with a back seat or an opening rear hatch.
Lot of good discussion here of cars I’ve never seen! Look forward to more on the first-wave imports.
Going back to the original story, Jeff was focusing on compact domestics that came out in the first wave of blank-slate postwar cars, ’50-’51. From what I understand the atmosphere then was quite different than it was in ’55 – the stereotypical nostalgic “sunny” ’50s seem to cover ’55-’57. The ’58 recession was a relatively small setback (let’s buy a small car) in an overall upward trend (let’s have a car for everyone in the family) – both the trend and the setback augured well for compacts, imported and domestic. I think? I try not to speak with too much authority about such faraway times!
Wish that I could forget the Henry J. In 1960 my father bought an eight year old used blue one for $150. He loved the thing. I was embarrassed to be seen in it and would try ducking my head when ever passing my friends. I do not know how many million miles he had on the thing but it never once broke down or needed any repairs. He sold it after three years for $200. They may have been ugly but the Old Blue J worked.
Actually remember at that time a lot of people were buying strange used cars, guess the recession then was hard in our little suburb. The family across the street had the step down Hudson. We kids all thought it was prehistoric. We would never see another one again.
But by far the worse was a next door neighbor who had some kind of little Fiat, one day walking home with his son he offered us all a lift home. All went well for a couple of blocks until we came to this little hill, more a mound actually. The car slows way down the slowly edges backwards. The daddy says everyone out and push. I learned never to accept a ride home ever again.
I digged the archives and here a more detailled article about the Willys Aero
I once readed somewhere then Ford do Brasil had suggested another reskin of the Aero/Itamaraty for the mid-1970s before they decided to go with the Maverick. I spotted some pictures of a prototype at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hugo90/2315393647/
Those pics look like a baby Lincoln…
Good thing they went with the Maverick. Applying a 70s-style coffin nose to the Aero body moved the needle from “old hat” to “downright ugly.”
I’d say good find if my eyes didn’t hurt so bad.
I got a kick out reading the verbage in the Nash Rambler Airflyte Specification ad. When was the last time you needed to know that “the front seat” was” divided left of center”.
I thought so too, piston rings in the ad? On a closer look, I think it’s from the brochure. I love that page regardless.
great analysis. my dad always said that he still regrets that my mom made him sell his henry j. she felt that it wasn’t safe when his commute changed to 80 miles of highway driving a day. he says it was the most reliable car he ever owned. but then again two of the other cars he owned were fiats…
I think what none of the American manufacturers understood in the ’50s was that the appeal of small cars isn’t necessarily economy and low price, but can also be ease of parking, improved driving dynamics due to lighter weight, and other small-car advantages. Nowadays small size no longer equates to cheap, and you have cars like a BMW 3 series that are small but premium. I can’t think of any reason that wouldn’t have worked to some extend decades earlier; certainly that helped the Rambler succeed where its competitors failed. Also, the Big 3 small cars introduced in 1960 all were intended to be low-buck economy cars, but buyers had other ideas, preferring Corvair Monzas to stripped 500 base versions for example.
I think the Nash Rambler was actually a second car (for well to do families), or car for rich kids, not a family one-car and there in lies it’s success, but it was a very small market and it built to and marketed to that niche. They others tried to make a small Chevy/Ford/Plymouth and just couldn’t compete.