The big RWD car was once the iconic symbol of America, where everything was bigger, and the bigger the better. America’s post war optimism and global economic dominance combined with jet age styling trends to create ever longer, lower and wider cars. Until 1960, that was the only kind built by the Big Three. And they continued to be built until the last Ford Crown Victoria ran off the lines in 2012.
But they’re gone, forever.
So who or what killed them? Was it the two energy crises and resultant spike in gas prices? The government, via CAFE and other regulations? The Japanese invasion? The Germans? FWD cars? The Trilateral Commission?
All these (except one) were accessories to the murder, but the biggest killers were much closer to home, right under our roofs even. And that’s who we’re going to expose here, along with some of the other perpetrators.
But first, let’s take a graphic look at the extinction of the species. We’re talking about the large RWD (Rear Wheel Drive) car lines commonly referred to as “full size” or “standard size”. Here’s their annual share of the US passenger cars market (1950-1996). Yes, the two energy crises (1974 & 1980) both knocked them down, about 10 share points each time. And the big switch to larger FWD cars by GM and Ford in 1985-1986 took a final big bite.
But by far the biggest hit to big cars came between 1956 and 1962, six years during which their market share plummeted from 95% of the market to 56%. And although there was a bit of an upturn for a couple of years, the decline soon continued to a scant 35% just before the first energy crisis (1973-1974).
Those are the years (1956-1973) we’re going to primarily focus on, as this all happened during a time when gas prices were actually declining (in adjusted dollars), from $2.80 to $2.18 per gallon. This period was instrumental in making big cars a minority player as well as giving them their less-than stellar image, which snowballed into an ever-bigger negative as the years went on.
The full chart stops in 1996, the last year for GM big RWD cars. After that, Ford’s Panther cars soldiered on yet for some years until 2012, but their sales number and market share slowly headed to zero. And an ever-increasing percentage of later year Panthers went to fleets. (I left out the current Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger since they are a good bit shorter than all of these large cars except the ’55-’56 Chevy and Ford).
Which raises another point: Big RWD cars were always the mainstays of fleets, including police, taxis and company cars, although the latter became diffused with time. This undoubtedly helps to explain why big car sales did not fluctuate as much in annual sales numbers as the market overall, as shown on this chart. Just how big fleet sales were back then is a good question, but it clearly was not an insignificant factor. Lacking annual fleet sales stats, the market share numbers are inflated by them, and overstate actual retail sales. Without fleet sales, big RWD car programs might well have died even earlier.
This chart shows that in terms of volume, big cars had two huge drops: from 6 million in 1956-1957 (it was even higher in 1955) to 4 million in 1958. And from 1958 through 1973, big car sales stayed fairly steadily in a rough range of 4-5 million units per year. But market share dropped mostly steadily during this period, because the market overall grew so strongly during that time, and that growth was in every category but big cars
Between 1973 and 1975, as a consequence of the first energy crisis (long before CAFE went into effect), volume crashed by over 50%, and never really recuperated. Volume increased some from ’77 – ’79, thanks to the new downsized big GM cars and a better economy, but never broke 3 million units. And of course the second energy crisis and related recession, when gas prices rose even more strongly, dropped 1980 MY big cars sales to 1.2 million
But enough of the preliminaries; let’s unveil the chief culprits:
Yes, women, who almost universally didn’t like how big cars got after 1956, and eagerly snapped up smaller cars like this Corvair. Doesn’t she look happy?
And their kids. With a major assist by the beatniks, or the Beat Generation of the 1950s, the precursors to just about everything that happened in the sixties.
Although the profound societal changes that would change the country (and the car market) forever came to full flower in the 60s and 70s, they can be traced back even further to the bohemian arts scene in Greenwich Village in the 1910s-1920s. The Beats just picked up where that scene left off in the Depression and war, and then become a highly visible influence in the 1950s. And it soon engulfed the country in the 60s and 70s. And it affected women disproportionately more then the rest of society, for all-too obvious reasons.
So let’s focus on the women initially, keeping in mind that what changed them and in turn the car market was also changing society at large.
Does anyone think that most women were genuinely happy behind the wheel of really big American car? Of course there were some, most likely in less densely populated parts of the country. But as our cities and suburbs grew and women started to drive more, often out of necessity, they became increasingly unhappy with the increasing size of the standard American car.
Keep in mind that power steering was far from universal in the ’50s and first half of the ’60s. As cars got bigger and heavier, the steering got slower to compensate. And the ever-lower seating made it disproportionately more difficult for shorter women to see out. Watching a short or small woman struggle with a big car was something I witnessed quite a bit firsthand as a kid, and I felt genuinely sorry for them.
Let’s get this over with as delicately as possible. Big cars were 100% a guy thing. Our cars got bigger and bigger as our collective male egos got bigger and bigger during America’s Exceptional Period (1945 – 1973), thanks to having won World War Two and the resultant global dominance of our economy. Driving a big car or truck gives guys a sense of power, dominance, prestige and control It’s a very visible extension of our manhood, if not necessarily in the genital sense, but certainly in a broader psychic context. And of course, there’s the presumed sex appeal. American women may not have wanted to drive them, but a big new car was apparently the best symbol of reproductive fitness a man could readily acquire.
So naturally, the more the better. Detroit’s ability to mass-produce ever-bigger and flashier cars for a reasonable amount made American guys feel like a million bucks. By 1957 or so, the template for the big American car had been set. As in, longer, lower, wider, finnier and with lots of chrome. Bling, in other words.
Try to find a vintage shot of a woman loading the trunk of a big American car. It was brutal, as all the luggage had to be lifted over the back end of the car, and then pushed forward in what was typically a very shallow but long and convoluted space. And one had to mind the trunk lid that was all-to eager to inflict a gash on one’s forehead. This was a job for the man, not the little woman. And it only got worse after those huge protruding 5 mile bumpers arrived in 1974.
But women did the grocery shopping, and that’s why supermarkets had bag boys. They loaded up the trunk with all those heavy bags. But mom still had to wrestle them out at home.
But they don’t have bag boys to at Costco.
This is how it’s done nowadays.
And it wasn’t just the huge long, low trunks either.
It was also the long, huge front ends; about twice as long and big as actually necessary. There’s room for two, maybe three V8s in here.
Speaking of length: the new 1957 Plymouth wagon, at 211″ long, was a full fourteen inches longer than a 1956 Chevrolet wagon and almost as long as a 2019 Chevy Suburban. Plymouth had been the first low price brand to break the 200″ barrier in 1955, and only two years later, they broke the 210″ barrier.
And it wasn’t just the length, but the excessive width. You really think this is what most women wanted in a car? And that they enjoyed driving this to the store parking lot? And to parallel park downtown in front of the beauty parlor and the department store? And pay to fill up the 26 gallon tank to feed the big V8? Gas wasn’t cheap at $2.80 a gallon (adjusted), wages were lower, most families had a single income, and these big cars got crummy mileage. You think women cared about big V8 performance while running to the school a mile away to pick up the kids on a rainy day?
When did women start becoming unhappy with American cars? Up until the 1920s, cars were rarely targeted at women. But the booming economy and the changing norms of the 20s made cars increasingly accessible to some women in affluent households, and suddenly car makers saw an opportunity to expand sales. But invariably, it was the smaller cars that were advertised at women. Her husband undoubtedly drove something much bigger than this tidy little Chevrolet.
Until the post war suburban boom, most folks lived in close-in traditional and dense neighborhoods like this, or even denser in inner cities. Women didn’t need to drive, and many never did. There was a grocery store a few blocks away and it delivered, as did the the milk man and the bread man.
But the huge boom of suburbs in the late 40s and 50s changed that dramatically. Women almost had to get a driver’s license, and many drove their husbands to the commuter train station in the big car, or were stranded at home, or got themselves…a smaller second car.
I learned all this very quickly on our arrival in the US in 1960. My dad’s boss and his wife came to pick us up at the airport in Cedar Rapids in their two cars. Guess which one was his and which was hers. I was a bit surprised to see her driving such an old car, but she loved it as it was so compact but tall and roomy.
It’s not a coincidence that this 1949 Plymouth wagon has almost all the same dimensions including height, width and length as a RAV4, the most popular car with women today.
Within a few months after our arrival, her old Plymouth wagon was replaced by a new 1960 Falcon wagon.
And the DeSoto was replaced the next year by a 1961 Galaxie sedan, for him. If you look at vintage ads and brochures, there’s a huge disparity between the number of images of men driving the big cars vs. women driving the smaller cars, for all too obvious reasons.
The family two houses down from us had these two cars. Guess which one I rode in many times on on the way home from school on rainy days, jammed in with about a dozen other kids? And which one I never rode in? I can think of numerous other similar examples in Iowa City.
Here’s one more: Mrs. Lloyd-Jones, who drove a Corvair Greenbrier, America’s first minivan and a mere 179″ long. Her husband drove a big late 50s Plymouth sedan. She wouldn’t touch it.
And in Towson too. My best friend was one of ten kids in his family. Guess which car his dad drove to work solo every day, and which one his mom drove. She didn’t care how many kids were piled in with her, but then kids weren’t really ferried around as much like nowadays. She loved her little Estro-Dart but wouldn’t drive that big Ford wagon. That was strictly “his car”, used to go to church on Sundays.
I could go on…
Of course there were exceptions, including my own family. The ’65 Coronet wagon was bought in Iowa, and initially was our only car. But then it was only a mid-sized car, and about as small as three seat wagons got back then. When we moved to Towson that fall, my father needed a car to drive to Hopkins, and bought himself a Kadett. But then he was never going to buy a big American car.
The ’65 Coronet wagon was replaced by a ’73 version. But in 1981, the kids were all gone except for one, and my mom traded it in for a 1981 Escort wagon with a buzzy and feeble 70hp 1.6L four and the jerky automatic it was teamed with. Did she miss the power of that fine 318 V8 and the smooth Torqeflite in the Coronet? Not the slightest. She loved that Escort, because now parking at the crowded A&P lot or at Towson Plaza was a breeze. And she loved the Honda Civic that replaced it even more. Much more fun to drive, she always said.
American cars got progressively bigger throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s. The last new full sized car by the Big Three to still be a reasonable size was the 1955 Chevrolet. Wheelbase was a tidy 115″, width was a modest 73″, and over-all length was 195.6″; that’s just a couple inches longer than a new Camry.
The 1955 Chevy set an all-time sales record for any brand of big cars: 1.7 million. And the ’55-’57 Chevys quickly became the most sought after and highest priced used cars after it was replaced by the much bigger ’58s.
By 1959, the Chevy was now 211″ long and 80″ wide. And several inches lower. You think this guy cared about what his wife really wanted?
But some men knew what women really wanted, even in 1958. And that was the year Rambler sales first exploded, up 65%. The common explanation for that is that 1958 was a recession year, and folks wanted cheaper cars. That argument is as weak as women being the weaker sex. The cheapest ’58 Rambler actually cost more than the cheapest big Chevrolet.
It wasn’t price; by 1958, there simply were no more reasonable sized cars from the Big Three; 1957 had been the last year for the Chevrolet. Not coincidentally, the Rambler’s length (191″) and width (71.3″) were just a hair less than the ’55 Chevy. The sweet spot.
Cars like the popular Plymouth Suburban (’49 top, ’57 bottom, Rambler middle) had become huge, growing over two feet in length. Yet its interior dimensions did not keep pace, especially in seating comfort, as passengers were now squeezed between the much lower roof but the still high floor due to its massive frame.
And Rambler sales kept right exploding through 1959 and 1960, which were strong years for the economy. And then they started dropping in 1961, which was a recession year. Why? Because of the huge onslaught of compacts from the Big Three in 1960 and 1961.
Domestic compacts weren’t exactly new to the market in 1958 or 1960. Back in 1953, Willys launched its excellent Aero compact sedan, almost the exact same size as the Rambler and Ford Falcon, and it was a flop. The same year, Kaiser’s compact Henry J arrived, and also flopped. And also the Hudson Jet, which flopped even worse, if that was possible. Why did they all fail? The all-too obvious reason is because there wasn’t yet enough differentiation between them and the standard-size cars from the Big Three. A few inches here and there didn’t justify the fact that these compacts generally still cost as much or more than a low-end Chevy. But by 1957-1958, it was well worth it, as cars had suddenly gotten too big.
And all three of these early compacts lacked flair and style. They were men’s ideas of what a smaller car should be.
There was one exception: the little 1950 Rambler, a compact convertible sedan and a wagon, heavy on style and flair, of the kind that very much appealed to women. It started the whole compact revolution, and by 1960 Rambler was the fourth best selling brand.
Studebaker read the Rambler tea leaves, and in 1957 rushed out their drastically-shortened compact Lark for 1959. It was a genuine hit, and was the only thing that kept them from going under, for the time being.
There’s surprisingly little difference in usable interior space between these two. Which one do you think women would rather drive to the store?
Of course it wasn’t just Rambler, the Lark and the Big Three compacts in 1960 that caused this huge drop in big car sales. Imports had been growing steadily since the end of the war, but their combined market share was still in the low single digits. But suddenly in 1955, import sales began a rapid growth fueled by an explosion of the VW Beetle, and after 1958 the Renault Dauphine came on strong too. By 1959, the imports’ market share topped 10%. This coincided directly with the period (1955-1958) when American cars started getting too big.
Statistics as to the share of women drivers of imports back then would be interesting to examine if they could be found. Undoubtedly their small size, low initial cost and thrifty operating costs made them very attractive to women, who on average cared about these qualities more then men.
Of course, the same applies to the domestic compacts. The percentage of ads and brochure shots for the new Big Three compacts targeting women is exceptionally high.
The 1960 Falcon was a huge success, selling 436k units. But big Ford sales dropped that year by 474k units. Coincidence? For 1961, Falcon sales increased again, and big Ford sales decreased again. Coincidence, again?
1960 Valiant sales were 194k. 1960 big Plymouth sales were down by 207k. Also a coincidence?
Chevrolet knew what women wanted.
And they got it.
But what they wanted even more was a bit of sporty flair and bucket seats in their compacts. And they got that too starting in the spring of 1960 with the madly new successful Monza coupe. The Falcon, Valiant, and every other car line in America quickly followed suit. The Monza was a huge turning point in the market: no longer would smaller American cars lack style and flair. The Falcon’s sales soon withered.
The Monza’s success led directly to the Mustang, which targeted younger women shamelessly, with a six cylinder, no less. And it was of course madly successfully with younger women. And some older ones too.
These make a perfect study in contrast to Dodge’s colossal blunder in trying to target women ten years earlier with its ridiculous La Femme. By now you know the answer as to why it really bombed: it was a whopping 212″ long. And it was expensive. It was pink. And it was…lame; a bunch of marketing guys’ idea about what women wanted. As if they had a clue.
Despite being largely tone deaf, Detroit got the very powerful message about its big cars having gotten too big. The sales numbers spoke very loudly. GM was the only one that could afford new bodies for 1961, and across the board, they were a bit trimmer and lost the crazy fins. “Parkable size” suddenly was a selling point.
Cadillac went even one step further, offering “short deck” versions of its sedans. Women had been complaining for years about how difficult Cadillacs had become to drive and park, and this was the half-assed solution, for a couple of years anyway.
It was a pathetic sop tossed their way, and women quickly gravitated to Mercedes and BMWs; with a vengeance, if they could afford it. And an increasing number could.
If Cadillac had actually built a Seville in 1965, they might well have staved off much of the inevitable erosion of the brand. And when the semi-compact Seville finally appeared in 1975, it had an exceptionally high percentage of women buyers. But by then, all-too many were happily driving Mercedes. The right size, and gobs of instantly recognizable flair.
Chrysler, which got much of the blame for creating the longer, lower, wider and finnier format in 1957, saw sales falter after the first year and reacted even more radically. They ditched their planned large cars for 1962 and created all-new 1962 Plymouths and Dodges that were 8″ shorter and 7″ narrower and sitting on a 116″ wheelbase, bringing them back to the format of the 1955-1957 Chevys.
Although considered flops, they did sell almost as well as their 1961 predecessors. Their controversial styling did them no favors, and their sales improved each year as their styling was sanitized in 1963 and 1964. And although there were new large C-Bodies for 1965, sales volumes for both Plymouth and especially Dodge large cars would never again be truly competitive. But these smaller cars were re-positioned as mid-sized cars for 1965, and contributed substantially to Chrysler’s improved market share starting that year. The Coronet handily outsold the new C-Body Dodges.
Between 1963 and 1967, big cars lost almost 11% of their market share, dropping from 58% to 47%. This wasn’t so much from a drop in their sales as from an explosion of smaller alternatives, including from imports, especially VW. Ford sold no less than 680k ’65 Mustangs in an extended year. Compact sales were still steady, and mid-sized cars were in ascendancy. There were lots of attractive smaller options.
Pontiac unleashed a monster with its 1964 GTO, which put smaller cars in the spotlight for both performance as well as just for youthful image and sex appeal.
Quite the contrast in the choice of female models to appear with its finest from just one year before. But 1963-1965 was a critical time of change, as the first baby boomers were just hitting the car buying demographic. A high school kid would have liked nothing more than to borrow dad’s Grand Prix for the school dance. But a year or two or three later, all he could think about was his own GTO or something comparable. The GP quickly became a has-been.
The baby boomers unleashed a tsunami of new buyers into the market, which increased the total market by some 50%, from about 8 million in 1964 to almost 12 million in 1973. And how many of them bought a new big car? I don’t think I’m going on a limb when I say effectively zero. In fact, during this huge expansion of the market big car sales dropped by some 20%, and lost almost half their market share. But I’m sure you’ll remember someone who did.
The times they were were changin’, and ever faster at that, as import sales zoomed upwards again in the second half of the 60s. But for the most part Detroit was oblivious, as they would be for much of the following decades until two of them went bankrupt and the other barely squeaked by. Grosse Pointe Myopia was the collective disorder, so well chronicled here.
Meanwhile women were increasingly coming out of the closet, or kitchen, more specifically. The percentage of women content to stay home and cook and iron and clean was dropping, fast. Many who did but weren’t happy doing it self medicated with alcohol or Valium. I had no less than three grade school friends whose moms were severe alcoholics. It was very depressing to go to their houses after school.
Traditional norms and expectations were being turned upside down. The divorce rate soared. Feminism was on the march, along with other long repressed groups. America’s patriarchal society was beginning to crumble. And no, women who were expressing (or demanding) their increased agency weren’t buying big American cars, if for no other reason than for what they had come to symbolize.
The whole essence of the huge changes sweeping society was the rise of self-expression and non-conformity, a splintering into ever more smaller groups and self-identification. And the impact on the automobile market was enormous. The market fragmented into ever more segments, beyond just the compacts, pony cars, intermediates and imports.
Already in the mid 50s, pickups like the 1955 Chevy Cameo Carrier were breaking out of the workman’s truck image.
The 1964 Dodge Custom Sports Special took it to the next level, with bucket seats, floor shift, racing stripes and an available 426 wedge engine.
And not just real sports either. The Dude trim package was targeting a more narrowly defined slice of the market, and one that reflected the growing cultural schism in the country. This was not exactly the same Dude as made famous by another actor.
Which reminds me that our next door neighbors in Iowa City had a ’61 Chevy sedan for him and a ’63 Chevy II for her. Then they sold their house and built a new one at the edge of town on a couple of acres, and he sold his sedan and bought a new ’65 Chevy pickup for him. They were on the leading edge of a major new trend, moving to exurbs and semi-rural property, one that hasn’t quite stopped yet. Pickups became the best selling light-vehicle category quite some time back.
The VW bus became the ultimate anti-big American car symbol, with its feeble little engine, no hood or trunk, but room enough to live in. Or go anywhere. Or at least dream about it.
Just like the hippies’ long hair was adopted widely in the 70s, so was their van. Detroit embraced this trend with a fervor; if they couldn’t sell younger buyers a big car, they would happily crank out big vans instead. Keep the party going, as long as possible.
And that went for SUVs too. What started out as gnarly little off-roaders quickly became ever-more civilized trucks that even women soon embraced with a fervor, especially after the compact ones appeared.
But amidst all of this intense change and fragmentation, there was a reaction too, a powerful one.
In 1965, a whole new era began, one I’ve dubbed it the Great Brougham Epoch. The 1965 Ford LTD is its standard bearer, but it had already started a year or two earlier.
As in December 1963, when Esquire magazine published this rendering of a Stutz Revival Car, by Virgil Exner. It was hugely influential, a whole series was created and they were turned into toy cars, several prototypes and the limited production Stutz Blackhawk. The neo-retro movement was on.
This wasn’t just an automotive trend; it was a major societal and political one, a conservative reaction to all of the rapid changes that were being unleashed in every element of life. Neo-classical decor, architecture, clothing and other aspects all flourished in the Great Brougham Epoch.
Click on this ad and read the text if you want to understand better just what was going on at the time:
“these are uneasy times, about pollution, safety, the economy…at Chevrolet, you want meaningful change…at Chevrolet, we understand, and our aim is to give that to you…Caprice, the biggest Chevrolet ever, the change is complete”
Yes, it’s the fall of 1970, kids are getting shot on campus demonstrating against the war, Black Power is on the rise, the first Earth Day was in May, Chicano students are striking in LA, Women are striking for equality, the first Gay Liberation Parade was in June and Chevrolet now has the solution to all of your deep societal, economic, environmental and safety anxieties: ride in blissful isolation of them in your bigger, heavier, softer-riding, quieter and less efficient 1971 Caprice. All your problems are solved!
I’m sorry if I’m coming off a bit heavy handed, but I lived through this era during my formative years and was actively involved in all of these causes, so perhaps I’m not able to be fully objective about it and its effect on the image of big American cars. In an effort to compensate and inject objectivity, I’ve spent time compiling and adding individual model numbers from the Standard Almanac to create total numbers by car line (size/type), which are not available anywhere else, and creating a spreadsheet from which I made these charts. I’ve been at this task for over two years, and it’s not complete yet; this is just the first category I’ve finished. And the results surprised me.
So if my emotion-tainted words, or the words in the ads don’t do it for you, here’s the numbers, one more time: During a time of great economic expansion (1960-1973), ever-cheaper gas, and fast-growing real income, a time that is often seen retroactively as the golden age of the big American car, they lost one half of their market share. They were just not cool anymore, or even worse than that.
It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology or statistics to know that these final huge cars (the longest ever was to the 1973 Imperial, at 235.3″) were targeted solely at certain men and bought solely by them. This is the ultimate anti-woman car, despite the young woman in the ad. It’s Daddy’s girl…who would soon enough cajole him to buy her a new Rabbit or a Celica.
Folks may have isolated themselves from the troubles outside in their big new Caprice, but it was going to be a short-lived ride, once the gas tank went empty, for good. Because when OPEC turned off the oil taps in October of 1973 to all those countries that had backed Israel in the Yom Kippur War, the global price of oil shot from $3/barrel to $12 by the end of the boycott. But gas was hard to find at any price, and big, thirsty cars were suddenly a liability.
Gas prices actually didn’t jump all that much, from 36¢ ($2.19) in 1972 to 53¢ ($2.73) in 1974. But there’s something hard wired into humans that when they see a commodity that’s always been plentiful and cheap suddenly become scarce and rise in price that makes them react rather impulsively. And they did just that with their purchases of cars.
The Pinto shot to the top of the best-seller’s list of nameplates in 1974, with 544k sales. The Vega wasn’t far behind, with 456k sales. And how soon would folks have regrets? Maybe there was something in the middle that might have been more pragmatic?
Like a mid-sized car? That came next as soon as things stabilized, and the Olds Cutlass took the gold in 1976, and made some repeat appearances in coming years.
From 1973 to 1974, big cars lost almost one third of their market share. And it kept dropping, for two more years. Big cars were suddenly on the endangered species list, it seemed.
The downsized ’77s from GM changed that trajectory, if only briefly. And yes, that really is more like it. And no, these weren’t downsized because of CAFE; GM began its downsizing program well before the first energy crisis, as they knew their cars had gotten too big. And their sizes were locked in by 1975, before CAFE was ever taken up by Congress.
These much better (but still quite large) cars gave the category a bit of an upward bump in 1977, the last time the big cars would have a share size bigger than the teens or single digits. Ford and Chrysler followed suit with downsizing in 1979, which gave another little bump. The ’77 Chevy managed to sell 662k units, about one half of its 1969 ancestor.
And then it happened again in 1979, when Iran drastically reduced oil output in the wake of its revolution against the US-backed Shah. Although this time the global oil supply was only reduced some 4%, widespread panic resulted, and oil prices jumped more than during the first crisis. US gas prices went from $0.65 ($2.53 adjusted) in 1978 to $1.22 ($3.75) in 1980. By 1982, prices leveled off and soon began a long steady climb down, but the damage to big cars was permanent. Their market share plummeted almost in half in one year, from 19% in 1979 to 11% in 1980. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…
The federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (“CAFE”) standards were created by Congress in 1975 in the wake of the first energy crisis and went into effect for the 1978 MY. It is often given as a major cause of the demise of the big American car. Undoubtedly it played a role, but by the time it might have started to have any meaningful impact, big cars were already down to about 10% of the market.
And they weren’t really having much trouble meeting the CAFE numbers. A 1980 full sized Chevrolet was rated at 18/26, which would have been a 22 combined mpg, well above the 20 CAFE for 1980. But that’s just for the full sized cars; the CAFE included all cars built by GM. By 1980, most of them were smaller and more efficient. Efficiency is what buyers wanted at the time, and not because it was being mandated.
One might rightfully point out that the V6 powered Chevrolet had mediocre performance. But then this was during the long-lived dark era of the double-nickle (55 mph) speed limit. And the reality was that no cars had good performance at the time. Almost all cars and trucks sold during the late 70s and into the mid 80s were modestly powered, with very few exceptions. Welcome to the Malaise Era, precipitated by higher gas prices, compounded by tightening emission standards and exacerbated by the temporary lack of high technology solutions.
Although gas had dropped a bit, it was still above $1.00 ($2.30) until 1987. And fuel efficiency, although better than in the 70s, still had a long way to go. There’s very little reason to assume that big cars would have sold substantially better if they had more power. A 305 powered Chevrolet was a lot faster than all of the four cylinder minivans and the early V6 compact SUVs being snapped up at the time in the mid 80s. And it was a moot point: literally no one under a certain age was buying big cars anyway, especially so on the coasts and major metropolitan areas. The big car had long ago become the old man’s car.
Young families had long moved on; decades ago, for that matter. The baby boomers shunned buying new big cars from the get-go, with rare exception. And starting in 1984, the minivan and compact SUV were red hot with that demographic, and between them, they absolutely killed what was left of the big station wagon. The original swb Chrysler minivans were all of 177″ long, the lwb versions 190″. And with a high seating position and a short hood but room for up to eight. No wonder this was the biggest hit of the 80s and 90s. Chrysler had ditched the last of its big RWD cars a few years earlier and never looked back. By 1987, they had already sold over a million of them.
The exception would be the Taurus wagon, which along with the sedan redefined the size, shape and capability of the new standard American car. At 188″ long (191″ wagon) it was right back to that magic number, within inches of a ’55 Chevy and ’58 Rambler, and so many others that hit the sweet spot. With its FWD, it was significantly more space efficient than its RWD counterparts, as well as more fuel efficient and much more fun to drive. And they sold very well: In 1988, as an example, Ford sold 126k Taurus/Sable wagons, and GM sold 140k A-Body wagons. These had become the standard family wagon, for those that still wanted one.
The Taurus and its domestic and import competitors were the final coffin nail in the big American RWD car. It had nothing more to offer than nostalgia as well as a rugged platform for taxis, police cars, limos and other commercial uses. And not surprisingly, useful alternatives have been found for all of them one they disappeared.
Given that this site is all about the love of old cars, and big American RWD cars probably get more love here than any other, my goal here is not to denigrate the big American car. Many of us grew up riding in them as kids—or wish we had—and thus were deeply affected by them. And many of you, including many younger readers, have owned them as transportation as well as hobby cars. They have a unique appeal that has only grown as they become more scarce. Their passing is a genuine loss.
But it’s also important that we not mythologize them in ways that are not historically accurate. Just like not all Chevelles were not SS396’s, not all American cars from the mid ’50s on were full sized ones. Their size made them a unique part of American culture, and perhaps now we can lament the fact that there weren’t more made. Blame it on your mother or grandmother. And yourselves.
Of course the big American car is still alive and well, in the form of the pickup, the ultimate guy-mobile. The pickup’s (and big SUV’s) popularity as personal transportation started growing in the mid ’60s, and it really accelerated in the ’70s. Expensive gas slowed that down in the ’80s, although mini-pickups were madly popular. But as gas prices leveled off and receded in the ’90s, big pickup and SUV sales exploded. And their share is still growing.
Since women all have (and buy) their own cars now, it’s also the ultimate reflection of how polarized and fragmented the market has become. To each their own.
Note: These charts were a bit of a challenge to create. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve slowly been building an Excel spread sheet by tediously adding up the production numbers of all the various models of any given size from my tattered Standard Encyclopedia of American Cars. Why the publishers didn’t do this is beyond me. Who cares how many 1964 Bel Air 2 door sedans were built? How about how many full size Chevrolets? It’s still got a ways to go, but eventually I want to make it available to anyone here at CC as well as use it to create similar analyses of the various categories/sizes.
Defining the total US light vehicle market, which includes passenger cars and light trucks and vans, was a particular challenge. From 1977 on, I had stats for that combined market. But the charts I used in this post are for just the passenger car market, all the way through. But I have added this chart above that shows Big RWD Cars’ share of both the passenger car and the total light vehicle markets. I extrapolated the light vehicle market by adding a multiplier to the passenger car market stats that were available. I gradually increased that multiplier from 1.10 in 1964 to 1.22 in 1976, based on some information available, but there’s some assumptions in that (the light truck market was 23.7% in 1977), but presumably it’s not enough to make a material difference. it’s safe to say that prior to the early 70s, the great majority of light trucks were used commercially and not primarily as a substitute for regular passenger car duties.