Driving Comparison: 1958 Ford 300, 1959 Chevy Biscayne, 1960 Dodge Dart, 1960 Comet –Which Low-Priced Six-Cylinder Car Is Best?

I’m in the unique position of owning four six cylinder American sedans from 1958-60 that were volume sellers in the low-priced field.  So the question inevitably arises: Which car would deliver the greatest value to a car buyer from that time?  I have driven and lived with all four for a while now, so I can give you my unique perspective.  My opinions are strictly my own, which may or may not agree with what automotive testers of the time may have written.  So let’s test drive them all!

1958 Ford Custom 300:

The Ford Custom 300, equipped with power steering, is a relatively compact (8″ shorter than the Chevy or Dodge), easy-driving car.  It does everything it’s supposed to do, without any complicated or irritating design features.  With its mechanical sounding engine (145 hp 223 six), light handling and good roadability, it reminds me of a German car, like Mercedes.  The ride is a little on the firm side, but still excellent.  On takeoff, the engine is a little noisy, but it settles into a satisfying cruise mode when traveling at moderate speeds.

Ford’s new power-assisted “Magic Circle Steering” is very smooth.  You breeze around corners and curves with little effort.  The Ford-O-Matic transmission always starts in 2nd, unless you floor it (Or select “L”.)

The Ford is equipped with a manual choke.  Pull the knob out for cold starting;  push it in as the engine warms up.  Thus you have manual control over mixture and idle speed.

Ford seats:  firm, durably upholstered, good driving position.

Body panel fits are not the most precise (very Un-German).  It’s hard to find a ’58 Ford where the taillight panels line up correctly (even in the brochures!)  Doors close with a thud, not a solid “click”.

The Verdict:

As equipped, best city car, with its easy steering and smaller size.  On the interstate, the engine is turning a little too fast, and you wish for an overdrive gear instead of the useless “granny gear” low.  Equipped with the new Interceptor V-8, this car would really eat up the road!

Lowest-priced Ford car with plenty of (optional) chrome and gold trim on it, so it doesn’t look like a stripper!


1959 Chevrolet Biscayne:

If a Ford owner were to visit a Chevrolet dealer in ’59 and drive the new Chevy, he would realize that this new car is definitely a step up in quality and engineering.  It’s quieter, roomier, and rides like an expensive car.  Visibility through the Panoramic windshield is outstanding.  (You can really “See the U.S.A.” in your new Chevrolet.)  The styling is sleek and advanced.  The body is solidly built.  There’s a lot more trunk space.  The doors close with a precise “click”.  GM’s “Magic Mirror” finish is shiny and mirror-smooth.

“But darn these newfangled low-slung chariots!  You hit your hat getting in!” 

But once you are in, things are pretty comfortable–with plenty of head and leg room.  It’s what I’d call a relaxed driving position, and you’re sitting pretty low.

Chevy’s Hi-Thrift six (135 hp, 235 cubic inches) with its hydraulic lifters, is super-quiet and smooth.  Powerglide transmission, with its one upshift, contributes to the smoothness.  Much of the time while driving, you hardly hear the engine at all!  A real cruiser!  Power is adequate and then some.

Chevy’s “Jet-Smooth” ride is soft, yet manages to stay flat and well-controlled.  It absorbs tar strips better than the Ford.  Manual steering is surprisingly tight and precise, and you can take fast turns without much lean.

The problem is, while the ’58 Ford feels light and easy to handle, the ’59 Chevy with manual steering feels heavy and ponderous when maneuvering around tight turns at low speeds.  Steering is over 5 revolutions lock-to-lock, so a lot of wheel-winding is needed going around corners.  The preciseness of the manual steering is best appreciated on the open road.

There’s no lack of ornamentation in the Biscayne, despite it being the lowest trim level in GM’s lowest-priced line.  The gauge pods are dramatic, and the non-deluxe steering wheel has some unique sculpturing, along with the metal horn button with its engraved jet motif.

Chevrolet gives you a well-built, well-designed product, but then cheapens little things to keep the Biscayne price low.  Dash knobs are plastic, not chrome, and they’re not labelled on the Biscayne!  I have to remember:  “It’s LIGHTS, then WIPERS“.  Wipers are electric–better than vacuum commonly used at the time.

And Biscayne only gives you a narrow trim strip on the side that doesn’t extend all the way back.  No two-tone paint divider strips either.

Super-wide seats are vinyl and patterned cloth.  There’s a subtly embossed design on the door panels, two-toned ice blue and gray.

The Verdict:

Chevrolet offers economy buyers lots of room;  smooth, quiet power;  a luxury ride;  good [open road] handling;  dramatic style;  solid construction;  wonderful visibility;  and proven Chevrolet engineering.  Power steering and Bel Air trim are recommended upgrades.


1960 Dodge Dart Phoenix:

With the all-new Dart series, Dodge enters the low-priced field for the first time.  This is the Phoenix:  the top-of-the-line Dart.  With its power steering and brakes and high-level trim, it offers a luxury driving experience comparable to higher priced cars like Imperial, but without the overpowering size.

If the Ford was vaguely Germanic, this Mopar product seems French, à la Citroen.  That is, wonderfully fanciful design and complex, even byzantine engineering that works beautifully until something goes wrong and if you can put up with its quirks.

First the good:  This car glides down the road beautifully and is very satisfying to drive.  Torsion-Aire ride is a real thing!  The “Full-Time” power steering makes handling super-easy.  Power brakes have a velvet feel and work well (when they’re working–more on that later).

The brand-new “Slant Six” engine (145 hp, 225 cubic inches) is so smooth, the spinning fan and pulleys alone let you see it’s running.  There is a little solid lifter click, but you don’t hear it in the car.  Combined with 3-speed Torqueflite transmission, power is ample and responsive for normal driving.

What a control panel!  Way out of the low-priced field!  Steering wheel has plastic gold trim with embedded “sparkles”.

Driving under a highway bridge at 32 MPH.  Translucent “Scope-Sight” speedometer is extremely visible.

Transmission push-buttons are durable and work well, but are more Space Age fantasy than function.  A column-mounted lever is actually easier to use.  The lack of PARK is a definite inconvenience.  The parking brake on the driveshaft doesn’t hold that well, even after an overhaul.  Push-button heater has a super-silent fan and provides pleasant heating comfort.

Chrysler’s well-advertised “Total Contact Brakes” with two wheel cylinders in each front wheel are, in the words of one mechanic, “Total crap!  I hate working on them!”  I’ve had a problem with grabbing brakes.  If the car sits too long, rust forms on the brake drum inner surface.  Then the brakes grab harshly.  I have to drive back and forth with the brakes applied to “clean” the drums, and then everything’s fine after that.  But still…who wants to put up with this?  My other cars don’t have this problem.

Unique Dodge pull-out door handles.  The doors close solidly but not with a nice “click” like the Chevy.

Luxury Dodge seats–well-upholstered and most comfortable.  You don’t sit real low as in the Chevrolet, thanks to new-for-1960 unibody construction, which eliminates the frame and allows a lower floor and better seating position.

The Verdict:

The Dart is overall the most pleasant car to drive and has excellent seating comfort.  It also has flamboyant style inside and out that sets it apart from all other cars.  The lack of PARK, poor brake design (parking and service) prevent it from being “ideal”.


1960 Comet:

In 1960, buyers were getting tired of big cars, and the Compact Craze was on.  Falcon and Comet were among the best selling compacts.  But was a Comet a good alternative to low-priced, standard-size cars? For reference, a base trim 1960 Comet cost about 12% less than a 1960 Chevy Biscayne.

Last August I bought this Comet and fixed it up.  I then determined that in many important respects, the Comet was not as good a car as the others in my collection.

In theory, it sounded great–make a smaller car, style it like the big cars, and reap rewards in compact size and operating economy.  Well, here’s what I found:

As compared with the 1958 Ford Custom 300 (Ford’s “cheap car” from two years prior), the Comet’s ride is stiff and choppy;  the engine not as smooth;  the seats not as well made;  the brakes harder to push (harder than the manual brakes on the Ford and Chevy, both of which are heavier cars);  and the steering is heavy without the precision of Chevrolet’s manual steering.

I hate to rag on this neat little car, but I just didn’t feel it had the qualities necessary to make it a satisfying car to own.  I like the styling, including the unique dashboard design . . .

. . . and the engine (90 hp, 144 cubic inches) is a marvel of simplicity and was so easy for me to work on.  One thing I immediately noticed was that due to the very short stroke, it would rev easily by just pressing the gas pedal a small amount. But I had to step on the gas harder and the engine had to work more for a given level of performance. The Comet was also terrible on the interstate where there was a lot of wind noise and the engine was winding up really loud. It’s just not nearly as relaxed on the highway as the big cars.

I find Comet advertising to be somewhat misleading.


The Verdict:

Despite its virtues, I don’t think the Comet is a good alternative to the Big Three’s standard-size cars.  I would advise economy buyers in 1960 to get a Plymouth Savoy/Dart Seneca six or a Chevrolet Biscayne six (with power steering).  They would get a nicer car for not that much more money.  I just sold the Comet to someone who I believe will appreciate it more. 

And which car is best overall?  I would have to say the Dodge Dart.  It arguably has the best engine, best suspension, best transmission, best seating, best dashboard–and clean, sculptured looks that are a tastefully restrained version of the super-flamboyant big ’60 Dodge.

This judgement is not meant to diminish the other two cars I have.  They each have their own “personalities” which are unique and desirable.  One of the advantages of having three classics is you don’t get “tired” of driving just one.  It’s refreshing to switch from one to another, which allows you to appreciate their unique driving characteristics all the more each time you drive them.


Related CC reading:

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Comet, With New Optional 101 HP 170 Six – It Should Have Been The Standard Engine

Curbside Classic: 1960 Dodge Matador & Polara — Incredible Cars Somehow Overlooked

Curbside Classic: 1959 Chevrolet Byscaine – The Original Art Car

CC Story: 1959 Chevrolet Impala — Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Curbside Classic: 1958 Ford Fairlane 500 – Movin’ On Up

Curbside Classic: 1960 Comet – Orphan Looking For A Home