Automotive History: The Lowest, Widest and Longest American Production Cars

can you make it a bit lower?


We’ve been pointing out for years here about how the longer, lower, wider mantra as applied to American cars turned out to be a dead end, in more ways than one. It’s not just because there was a point where the trend was inherently self-defeating, but also because it sparked such a strong negative reaction from the market. As we detailed in “Who Killed The Big American Car?“, the full-sized car’s market share started to plummet in 1957, the year that the trend went into overdrive. The result was that the Big Three were forced to develop and build compacts for 1960, which we’re going to look at in detail in the coming days, which ironically had better interior dimensions in some/many metrics than the full size cars. The result was cannibalization, and further drops in the market share of big cars.

But just which big American cars were the worst offenders, in terms of being the lowest, widest and longest?

Lowest large standard production sedans/coupes:


1961 – 1963 Lincoln Continental:  53.5″ 

This should not be too surprising, given that the ’61 Conti started out life as a concept for the ’61 Thunderbird, and shares elements of its inner body structure with the actual ’61 T-Bird. The ’61-’63 Continental is really more of a four-door coupe than a sedan, which it properly became in 1964 when it got a longer wheelbase and taller roof, making its rear seat room more in line with the competition. 

1960 Oldsmobile:  53.7″

My guess was that GM’s 1959-1960 cars would be the lowest of the more common mass-produced lines by the majors (the Conti slipped by). And that includes the ’53 and up Studebaker coupes, which ranged between 54.6″ (’58 Golden Hawk) and 56.4″ (’53 Coupe). Anyway, they’re a bit out of our survey, being coupe-only bodies.

I was kind of hoping it would be the Cadillac, since given its extra length and dramatic styling, it certainly tends to look the lowest. It is only four-tenths of an inch taller, at 54.1″. Why the Olds is a tick lower than the other GM cars of that vintage is not exactly known, but probably because of slight variations in suspension settings and such. Although these ’59-’60 GM cars all shared the same basic body, they all had their own unique frames and suspensions.

Through the gauzy lens of time, it’s common to think of these ’59-’60 GM cars as giant land yachts, and with expansive interior accommodations. They were certainly long and wide, but their interiors were shockingly cramped in proportion. I had the chance to spend some time inside this ’59 Cadillac that I wrote up, and it was a rude awakening. These cars sit high on frames, and even the ones with the X-Frame only provide a rather modest foot well in the rear. The front floor is high and flat, and with the low roof, there is precious little headroom, and one feels quite hemmed in, exacerbated by the big steering wheel.

It’s utterly unlike any modern car; something like a Camry is vastly roomier and more comfortable. And the shocking truth is that the Corvair, despite being a couple of inches lower, had more interior space in several metrics, including headroom. The ’59-’60 GM cars came in for a lot of criticism, and not just for their ridiculous styling. As functional cars, they were the absolute nadir, with their excessive length, terrible interior space utilization, and all of that glass creating an interior environment that was brutal unless one could afford the expensive air conditioning. Which most buyers couldn’t.

No wonder these are the whipping boys of the big car critics of the time. And that time, 1958-1961 was a period book-ended by two sharp recessions, which really fueled the demand for compact cars, especially since they generally accommodated their passengers more commodiously or considerately.

Not surprisingly, GM saw the error of its ways, and the new 1961 cars all were a couple of inches taller, a few inches shorter, and a bit trimmer in the waist, allowing for more upright seating and (somewhat) better accommodations. It was a modest concession to reality.

Widest large standard production sedans/coupes:


1960 Ford: 81.3″

It’s hard to reconcile why Ford thought that building the widest car ever, one that was so wide it exceeded the maximum allowable width in several states, was a good idea (they had to scramble to get temporary approval).

Yes, the ’60 Ford is a full 1.2″ wider than the legendary ’58-’60 Lincolns, which somehow managed to look longer, lower and wider than they actually were, thanks to the magic of their styling.

It was also something of a flop, as sales dropped quite sharply from 1959.

And the ’60 Falcon was the most obvious reason why, as it offered a vastly more efficient way to carry the typical family. Unless one was carrying six adults regularly, the Falcon was a much better proposition. And as a result, it was the biggest selling new car in history.


Widest large standard production sedans/coupes:


1973 Imperial: 235.3″

When it comes to length, the combination of Brougham Era excess and mandated 5-mile bumpers resulted in the longest cars all coming during the 1973-1976 era. And ironically, the longest of them all, the 1973 Imperial, didn’t even have full 5-mile bumpers front and rear. It just had gobs of that excess.

GM’s C-Bodies and the big Lincoln of the 1974-1978 era all fought hard for the title, but none could top the Imperial. We covered this shoot-out here a few years back, if you want the details.

As to the earlier era, the ’58-’60 Lincoln does win that one, with a whopping 229″, but looking at least a couple of feet longer.


Note: I have omitted the Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Limo/Sedan for this exercise. It was the only regular production extended length limo, but obviously in a league of its own.