CC Chart: Mid-Priced Brands Market Share, 1955-1964 – A 37% Collapse, And Not Just Because Of The 1958 Recession



The years 1956-1959 were extremely ugly for US mid-priced brands, their collective market share dropping by 37%. The recession of 1957-1958 is often credited with this drop, but that’s far from the full story. That recession started in mid-1957, affecting 1958 MY sales. But as this chart shows, the downward trend started in MY 1956 and had its steepest drop during MY 1957, before the recession started.  There were even bigger factors at work, or perhaps we should we say more compact factors.

I’ve been reading a lot of old Motor Trends from the 1950s, and there’s numerous editorials that confirm what I had already known. There was a large cultural change at work; in the first half of the ’50s Americans had seen large mid-price brand cars as aspirational, something that would buy them status and prestige. But that changed starting in about 1955, and Americans suddenly embraced imports, compacts and lower-priced brands. The status from ever-larger and chromier and more expensive cars turned out to be illusionary; in fact, imports and compacts suddenly conveyed even greater prestige as they were seen as smart and fashionable, especially by the better educated and more affluent, who were as usual the trend-setters. Large American cars were suddenly seen as too big and with excessive chrome, ornamentation, fins and other affectations.

It should be pointed out that in the 1950s, the majority of new cars were bought by white collar professionals and such, and that the typical blue collar worker bought used cars. This helps explain the rapid shift that took place, as better educated and more affluent white collar workers were (are) typically more open to new cultural trends, which in autos meant imports and compacts. Ive documented this shift more thoroughly in my article “Who Killed The Big American Car?”.

The bottom of the trough was 1959, which happened to corresponded with the all-time excesses of fins and such.

This cultural phenomena was well documented in the media at the time. It was reflected in the explosion of sales for VW and other imports as well as Rambler (and Studebaker, in 1959) and the Big Three compacts of 1960. This phase ended in 1961-1962, with medium price brands and large (but not nearly as excessively finned and chromed) cars improved their market share, although the gains for large cars the would only be temporary before they resumed their terminal decline in market share.

But medium priced brands would come to dominate the domestic market in the ’70s, but with their mid-sized and smaller sized cars. This reflects a key change that started with the imports in the ’50s and the 1960.5 Corvair Monza: what buyers really wanted was well-trimmed but also trim cars. The mid priced brands offered just that in the years to come, as in the repeat best seller Olds Cutlass coupe.


Related reading:
Automotive History: Who Killed the Big American Car?