Consumer Reports has been testing new cars and writing about them since the 1930s. They also became semi-famous for their dot charts showing the repair incidence of used cars with data supplied by their subscribers, numbering about 100,000 in the 1960s. This was really revolutionary because prior to this, the average car buyer had no “impartial” source of information about new and used cars. In this multi-part series, we’ll be looking at some of the highlights of the last 60 years of owner surveys.
This page is from the May 1960 issue. All American makes fit on one page! 1954-1959 is an interesting range–it covers a few independents before they became “badge-engineered” versions of other cars. In the early dot system, a blank square = much better than average; a shaded circle = average; and a dark circle = much worse than average. A few observations:
–The worst car [in terms of reliability] is the 1958 Mercury. 1957 Buicks and 1958 Lincolns are also bad. The best car is the 1958 Rambler. A 1955 Oldsmobile is also good.
–Chrysler makes the best engines. However, Plymouth engines (built by the same corporation), are among the worst.
–Despite claims that poor Packard quality in 1955 hurt their 1956 sales, it seems that the ’55 Packards were about average, and ’56s were rather exemplary, except for transmissions (which is quite an exception, but still).
–Studebakers were remarkably trouble free [Surprise!] Ditto 1957 Nash and Hudson [Another surprise!]
It’s 1963 now, and we can see how cars of the ’50s have aged over time. The most reliable used car now is . . . a 1957 Chevy with a six. Cadillacs are also relatively free of troubles, although Cadillac and Chevrolet quality is starting to slip as the ’60s progress. ’57 Buicks are still bad, but Buick quality is actually improving.
1960 was the first year of the Big Three compacts. The Corvair is off to a bad start. So is the all-new Slant Six used in 1960 Valiant, Plymouth, and Dodge. (I thought that engine had a “bulletproof” reputation!) The 1960 Comet has the best record.
The worst car is now the 1959 Studebaker Lark with a six (9 black marks). Even the dreaded 1958 Mercurys and Lincolns are holding up better than that by this time. Meanwhile, 1958-59 Ramblers (Consumer Reports’ darling) are now developing serious engine troubles (valves, piston rings, engine bearings). And 1957-58 Plymouths are rapidly disintegrating, and are about as poor reliability-wise as the Stude.
1964 may be the first year that CR included foreign cars as well. Volkswagens are great (except for the engines???)
So that’s the story of cars manufactured during that fascinating slice of time, 1954-63. Some were good, some were bad; but even the bad ones had their charms and were loved, and some of the good ones let their owners down at some point. Cars are a lot like people that way.
After all is said and done, I am left with these questions:
–Do good or bad ratings of cars made 40-70 years ago have any relevance to owners today? Will I have less trouble with a 1955 Oldsmobile than a 1958 Mercury? Both cars would have long outlived their intended lifespans, and all their worn or broken parts will have to be replaced or may have already been replaced. Anything that old will require a lot of attention, no matter what.
Yes, there’s a story behind each of those dots–a real-life story of disappointment, anguish, of getting stranded, of something breaking at the worst possible time; arguments with the dealer, used car salesmen, mechanics, spouses–the added expense, finding the right parts, getting those parts installed correctly, the tarnished reputation of car brands, and on and on.
And finally, is there some way all of this trouble could have been avoided? Whose fault is it?
Coming soon, Part II: Consumer Reports rates used cars of the 1960s.