Automotive History: Mid-Size Madness – What Would You Have Chosen In ’65?

If you’re in the market for a midsize car today, you have plenty of choices–providing you want a four-door bar of soap. Oh sure, there are several nameplates from which to choose–Camry, Impala, Fusion and Optima, to name a few–and they all come in the same flavor of bland competency. Where’s the flair, man? Once upon a time, before regulations trumped style, a buyer could get virtually whatever their heart desired, right down to colors, options–and yes, Virginia, even a body style other than a family-friendly four-door sedan. Want an aqua F-85 Cutlass convertible with a white interior, V8 and four-speed? Done! How about a red Lark Wagonaire with a red interior, 350 McKinnon (nee GM) V8, and automatic? No problem! Yes sir, you could have those cars and everything in between–in 1965. So let’s set the way-back machine to that classic year and check out the current midsize fare. Maybe we’ll even pick something out!

The Chevrolet Chevelle was in its second year of existence, and sales were going gangbusters. For folks who’d tired of the middle-aged spread of Chevy’s full-sizers, the Chevelle (and flossier Malibu) provided a breath of fresh air. Its tidy package, as has often been noted, was dimensionally close to the iCar 1955-57 Chevrolet.

If you bought a Chevrolet in the 1960s, you really couldn’t go wrong. They were well-built, had stout mechanicals, and there was a friendly Chevrolet dealer in almost every burg you’d care to pass through. Many buyers agreed, and snapped up over 31,000 Chevelle 300s, 37,500 Chevelle/Malibu wagons, 41,000 300 Deluxes, and 152,200 Malibus in 1965.

The next step up the ’65 GM mid-size ladder was Pontiac’s Tempest/LeMans series. While the Chevelle was handsome yet conservative, the Poncho was a knockout. Stacked headlamps, smooth, Coke-bottle flanks and Pontiac’s hail-fellow-well-met reputation were all good reasons to splurge a little for a Pontiac. And who doesn’t love the Van and Fitz brochure artwork?

Oh, it would be so easy to pick out a GTO hardtop or convertible, wouldn’t it? But believe it or not, the GTO was not the only mid-size Pontiac, though you could be forgiven that when attending today’s car shows and cruise-ins. Yes, there were two doors, four doors, hardtops and wagons aplenty, in Tempest, Tempest Custom, and LeMans flavors. And, of course, the GTO. When the model year closed out, 39,525 Tempests, 84,653 Tempest Customs, 107,553 LeMans, and 75,352 GTOs found happy new owners.

Less seen these days than the Malibu and LeMans, the Oldsmobile F-85 and Cutlass were nonetheless handsome, well-made cars. Just as stepping from a Chevy to a Pontiac got you more appointments and special touches, moving from the Poncho to the Olds also bumped you to a nicer car. Oldsmobile was a great car in the ’60s, though somewhat under the radar when compared to its brassier Buick and Cadillac sisters. To those in the know, however, the Olds was a fine car and a great value. The F-85 and Cutlass were no exceptions.

As with the GTO, Olds’ sporty 442 model debuted the year before, in 1964. Though not (yet) as well-known as a hot car, the 442 did get a bit more noticeable from its F-85 siblings in 1965, with optional red-stripe tires and a simulated brake duct with 442 emblem, as seen in the lower right of the picture above. By 1968, the 442 would be right up there in popularity with its Chevelle SS396, GTO, and Buick GS corporate cousins. And I don’t even need to mention the success of the Cutlass nameplate during the next twenty years, do I?

And how could I not mention the unforgettable Vista Cruiser, now in its second year? The stretched-wheelbase F-85 wagon replaced the big Olds wagon in the lineup until the Custom Cruiser debuted in 1971. The Vista Cruiser itself lasted through 1972 with that cool roofline, to be replaced with a less palatable pop-up sunroof in 1973 Colonnade wagon guise. Of course, you could get a regular wheelbase, non-Vista-windowed F-85 wagon too. But why would you want to? Of the F-85, F-85 Deluxe and Cutlass trims, the Cutlass reigned supreme in the sales charts, with 85,207 built. F-85 and F-85 Deluxe production was 24,969 and 69,921, respectively. Vista Cruiser was the most popular wagon too, with 31,985 made.

The top of the heap in GM intermediates was Buick’s Special and Skylark. Introduced in 1961 as a “senior compact” along with the Tempest and F-85, all had graduated to mid-size status in 1964. Specials came standard with something unusual in a 1965 U.S. car: a 225 CID V6 engine with 155 hp, breathing through a two-barrel Rochester carb. Of course, if Buick buyers in Minneapolis, Omaha and elsewhere were thrown by the idea of a V6, a 300 CID V8 with 210 hp could be fitted instead.

The mid-size Buick came in three flavors: Special, Special Deluxe and Skylark. I don’t know why, but the Special Deluxe moniker always makes me think of store-brand coffee. Anyway, the Skylark did well, actually outselling the F-85, with 53,469 Specials, 47,436 Special Deluxes, and 104,532 Skylarks made. Not bad, when you consider that a Buick intermediate sold for approximately $300 over an equivalent Chevelle Malibu. $300 was not chump change in 1965.

The Buick version of the Vista Cruiser, the Sportwagon, also did well, with 28,356 built. I have a hard time deciding whether I like the Olds or the Buick wagon better. I guess I have to give the edge to the Olds, though the Buick is quite handsome too.

Moving away from 800-pound gorilla GM, let’s see what FoMoCo has on offer. The 1965 full-size Ford was a sharp car, but that’s outside our purview for today, so the Fairlane is it from the Blue Oval. As you can see, Ford stylists tried to take the sharp ’64 Fairlane and add ’65 Galaxie styling cues to it. The result is rather blocky, and while it is inoffensive, the resulting look is a bit bland.

It works better on the station wagon, though I don’t think you could get those wheels and tires in 1965. I had to fall back on my car show library for the ’65 Fairlane, as its brochure was not in, believe it or not. Ford’s mid-sizer was available in Fairlane and Fairlane 500 versions; 52,974 base versions and 170,980 500s came off the line before the year was out. This was the last year of the “original” Fairlane; in 1966, an all-new Fairlane line would debut. Like the 1964 GM A-bodies, they would be bigger and better than before.

If you wanted a Ford product but desired a bit more finesse in styling after looking at the Fairlane’s blocky visage, your only choice was the Mercury Comet. Yes, it was still strictly a compact in 1965, but I’m including it here because having the Fairlane as the sole FoMoCo entry was just too depressing against GM’s mid-size A-body juggernaut. Although the side sculpturing of the ’65 was a little busy, the stacked quad headlights and simple horizontal grille were handsome indeed. And for you sporty types, you could get a Comet Cyclone hardtop with 200-hp, 289 CID V8, four speed, extra gauges on top of the dash, and wheel covers with the look of reverse chromed wheels. All in all, a nice ride.

For the more buttoned-down set, a Comet Caliente sedan could be just the ticket. 1965 Comets came in base Comet 202, Comet 404, high-line Caliente, and sporty Cyclone variants. Of course, a Villager wagon with Di-Noc woodgrain siding was available too, though quite rare with only 1,592 sold. 165,052 Comets saw the light of day for 1965.

And now we come to venerable Rambler. Rambler came out with an all-new Classic in 1963, but by 1965 it was time for a major facelift. You can still see the ’63 in the roofline, but all in all the ’65 had the appearance of an all-new car. The rear deck was extended by several inches for a much more capacious trunk, and lines were generally more squared-off, in the fashion of the times.

The 770 series and sporty 770H hardtop were the top of the line. The 660 was the bread-and-butter model, with the 550 being the skinflint/frugal person’s choice. Five different body styles were offered, including a new convertible in the 770 series.

The convertible was particularly handsome, and when equipped with the premium-only 327 CID, 250-hp V8, quite speedy. Sadly, only 4,953 770 cabs were made. For the more frugal set, a 126-hp 199 CID Six was standard in the 550, with a 145-hp 232 Six standard in all other Classics. A 287 CID, 198-hp V8 was also available, and did not require premium fuel.

Yes, the 1965 Classic was a nice car, but GM had been eating Rambler’s (and Studebaker’s) lunch since the 1961 debut of the Tempest, F-85 and Special. Though as a whole Rambler didn’t have a bad year, it wasn’t as good as expected, considering the huge expenditure in new styling for not only the Classic, but the Ambassador, now wearing distinctive front sheetmetal and riding a newly stretched wheelbase.

When all was said and done, 51,350 550s, 87,643 660s and 64,663 770s (including 5,706 770H hardtops) were made. Rambler made money for the year, but when you compared 1965 calendar year sales of 346,367 against 393,863 for the year prior, you could tell that there could be trouble ahead. In fact, the 1965 Classic would be the next-to-last last new mid-size Rambler, as the refreshed 1967 model essentially lasted all the way to 1978 as the AMC Matador.

Of course, I have to mention the Marlin, which was basically a Classic with a bizarre kind-of-fastback (humpback?) roofline. It debuted in February 1965 as a mid-year addition. There’s a reason this vintage ad shows it from the back and at an extreme three-quarter view. In side view, this car was, to be kind, awkward. Engine options were about the same as the Classic, as you’d expect. This car did not find many takers, with only 10,327 built in its short model year.

Ah, Studebaker. By 1965 I suppose most people outside of Indiana (and Hamilton, Ontario) didn’t know that Studebakers were still made, albeit in Canada. Yes, the ’65 Studeys were imports, powered by McKinnon Chevy Sixes and V8s. The Avanti, Lark hardtop, Lark convertible and GT Hawk were all sadly departed, but you could still get a Daytona Sports Sedan or Wagonaire. Commander two- and four-door sedans, a Commander Wagonaire, and and top-trim Cruiser sedan rounded out the line. Daytonas were available only with the 283 CID, 195-hp V8, while Commanders and Cruisers came standard with a 194 CID, 120-hp Six. And yes, I suppose these were more compact than mid-size, but I have to do my part to spread the Studebaker love!

It was a sad ending for what could have been. Studebaker was at times its own worst enemy, and in 1965 it was more true than ever. After automotive division champion Sherwood Egbert was forced to retire, the remaining Studebaker board summarily wiped out the auto division shortly after the 1966 models’ production began. 1965 Studebaker production was predictably minor, with only 10,699 made. The most popular model was the Commander four-door sedan, with 4,344 produced.

Dodge got a default mid-size in 1965, as a clean-sheet, “real” full-size 1965 Dodge replaced the 1962-64 “shrunken” Dodges. So what did Chrysler do with the old model? Why, they simply facelifted it and reintroduced it as the “new” midsize Coronet! Actually, it was a no-brainer, as the 1962-vintage platform was the perfect size for an intermediate. Coronets came in base Coronet, mid-line 440 and fancier V8-only 500 trim, with the usual assortment of coupes, sedans, hardtops, wagons, and a convertible.

And I would be remiss not to mention Paul’s personal mid-size family truckster: the 1965 Coronet wagon his dad bought new. He coulda had a Town & Country…

1965 Coronets sold decently, with about 63,100 Coronets, 37,500 440s and 33,300 500s made.

If your Mopar love (JPC I’m looking at you) ran more to Plymouth than uppity middle-class Dodge, you had your pick of Belvederes: Everything from a red Satellite convertible with bucket seats and V8 to a pea-green, Slant Six four-door sedan that your Great Aunt Sissy would just love.

In 1965, Chrysler was pulling itself out of the hole it had dug with the 1957 models, and all of their ’65 wares, from Valiant to Imperial, were pretty solid cars. The Satellite was especially attractive in hardtop form, as shown in this pristine gold survivor I spotted at the Cambridge, IL car show last summer.

I especially like the shadow box upholstery treatment, with the Plymouth “frog’s legs” emblem embossed in the center. This was a quality car. Shame that Plymouth, and pretty much all the other U.S. manufacturers, would lose the plot while mired in wave after wave of safety and fuel economy regulations that would appear during the next 10-15 years.

As you can see, the Belvedere and Coronet had quite a bit in common, though that wasn’t all bad, especially in the hardtops, with that cool reverse-angle C-pillar. Somehow I prefer the Plymouth to the Dodge. It just looks cooler to me. Belvederes came in Belvedere I, Belvedere II and Satellite trim levels. All told, 159,335 Belvederes and Satellites of all types came off the line in ’65.

So now we’ve come to the end of the lineup. Lots of tempting choices, eh? It would be easy to pick a LeMans convertible or Skylark hardtop, but I have to go with the road less traveled. I’ve always admired the 1965-66 Rambler/AMC Classic, and I will have to go with one of the “Sensible Spectaculars.” Give me an aqua 770 hardtop with either an aqua or white vinyl interior, automatic, and the 287 CID V8 (don’t want the 327, as it takes premium). What would you pick?

(Studebaker brochure images are from