Automotive History: U.S. Model Name Debasement from the 1950s to 1970s – And The First Shall Be Last

Model names are some of the most valuable assets that an automaker has: Companies spend millions of dollars per year on advertising in the hopes of building a durable brand that will stand the test of time. Properly nurtured, a model name can engender decades of customer goodwill over generations of buyers, like Corolla, Corvette, or F-150.

This is taken as bedrock in marketing circles today, but it wasn’t always so: One of the many peculiarities of the 1950s to 1970s era was the rapid debasement of model names, where US manufacturers regularly introduced new range-topping model names, gradually pushing the previous top-of-the-line model down to the bottom (and in some cases disappearing altogether) in a continuous revolving door of model names.

This curious phenomenon may not quite rise to the level of a deadly sin, but it certainly didn’t help matters when the buyer of last year’s midline model now finds the name of their car affixed to this year’s poverty spec model.

Chevrolet Bel Air

Perhaps there is no better poster child for this “barber-pole” effect of model name deprecation than the Chevrolet Bel Air. The Bel Air name was introduced in 1950 as the name for the new two-door hardtop coupes (to distinguish them from the lesser Styleline and Fleetline pillared roof models). In 1953, Bel Air became the top trim line of all Chevrolet body styles (as distinguished from the lesser 150 and 210 trim lines).


The Bel Air’s time at the top of the heap would be short-lived, however. In 1958, the two-door Impala would become the range-topping Chevrolet model, followed next by the Bel Air, with the Biscayne and Delray taking over for the 210 and 150, respectively at the bottom of the lineup. By 1959, Bel Air was officially a mid-range model, with the Impala gaining convertible and four-door bodystyles and the Biscayne taking over the bottom feeder slot from the retired Delray.

Midway through the 1965 model year, Chevrolet introduced the Caprice as the new range-topper above the Impala in response to Ford’s surprisingly popular LTD. This pushed the Bel Air name down to the bottom half of the Chevrolet lineup, just barely about the Biscayne.

1975 Chevrolet Bel Air

1975 Chevrolet Bel Air

The Biscayne disappeared from US showrooms in 1972, reducing the Bel Air to entry-level model status. In 1976, Bel Air got booted entirely off the Sloanian ladder, leaving the one-time top dog Impala as the new base model. Note that Biscayne and Bel Air names were used a bit longer in Canada, but the end result played out the same, with both names being demoted before eventually being dropped completely.

1976 Chevrolet Impala

1976 Chevrolet Impala

The Impala name itself would disappear after 1985, leaving the Caprice to be the sole name of full-size Chevrolet cars, having to span the entire range from cabs and police cruisers to pillow-tufted Broughams. It should be noted that both the Impala and Caprice names would be resurrected and killed off again in Lazarus fashion several more times over the ensuing decades.

All in all, the 20-year fall from grace of the Bel Air from riches to rags is pretty impressive, but certainly not unique as we shall see.

Pontiac Catalina

Catalina was introduced as the top trim level to the Chieftain hardtop coupe in 1950, much like the Chevrolet Bel Air. However, the Catalina’s fall from grace would be far quicker than that of its Bel Air sibling.

The Catalina name would be applied to all Pontiac two-door and four-door hardtops throughout much of the 1950s. In 1958, Pontiac introduced the Bonneville, available in both two-door hardtop and convertible bodies, as its new range-topping model.  The Catalina became a full-fledged model in 1959, slotting in at the bottom of Pontiac’s lineup in place of the departed Chieftain and Super Chief models. The Catalina, top-of-the-line model just a few years earlier, would be Pontiac’s entry full-size model for the remainder of its existence.

The introduction of the full-sized Ventura in 1960, the full-sized Grand Prix in 1962, the mid-line Executive in 1967, and the new range-topping Grand Ville in 1971 all further cemented the Catalina’s position at the bottom of the Pontiac lineup.

The Catalina name would continue to anchor the bottom of Pontiac’s full-sized lineup until it got “Sloaned,” disappearing altogether in 1981.

Ford Galaxie and LTD

GM wasn’t alone in depreciating its range-topping model names before taking them out behind the woodshed. One only needs to look across town to Dearborn at the Ford Galaxie and LTD.

The Galaxie was introduced in 1959 as the top dog full-sized Ford, slotting above the various Fairlane and Custom models. By the mid-1960s, the Galaxie name had gained 500, XL, and LTD variants, but was ostensibly still at the top of the Ford pecking order.

By the late ’60s, the LTD and XL had spun off into separate models, placing the Galaxie firmly in the middle of Ford’s full-sized lineup (above the Custom and Custom 500), and signaling the beginning of the Galaxie’s decline.

The Custom disappeared after 1972, leaving the Custom 500 at the bottom to largely service fleet customers and pushing the Galaxie name ever closer to the bottom of the Ford lineup. In 1975, the Galaxie name was dropped altogether while the Custom 500 name was used only for special-order fleet customers, leaving LTD as the sole name for all full-sized Fords in the US.

While the victory of the LTD name in 1975 was total, it would be short-lived – Ford’s “Broughamance” with the LTD name wouldn’t last much longer than it did with the Galaxie.

Like the Oldsmobile Cutlass, the LTD name would suffer massive dilution in the late 1970s by being applied to everything from mid-sized cars (in the form of the LTD II), Panther-bodied cars (to which it would eventually cede the Crown Victoria name), and finally a Fox Body sedan before finally being put out to pasture in 1986, just over 20 years after the LTD name first appeared.

A wise marketer once told me that “A Brand is a promise a company makes to its customers.” It still baffles me to this day how Detroit would create and destroy so much brand equity in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve never seen an adequate explanation for this model name deflation effect, but perhaps our readers will chime in with theories of their own.

Related Reading

Curbside Classic: 1977 Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe – A Once-Storied Name’s Last Stand In Canada

Curbside Classic: 1965 Ford LTD – It Launched The Great Brougham Epoch