This short editorial from the January 1960 Motor Life is essentially an introduction to their comparison tests of the new Corvair, Falcon and Valiant, coming over the next few days. These new compacts were the single biggest event in American post-war automotive history; the Big Three finally committing to build small cars. Were they import-fighters, or just American cars back to the more reasonable size they had been prior to their constant inflation, starting in the late 1930s?
Depending on your point of view on that question, you were bound to be either disappointed or happy, as the two were quite different things. The imports were decidedly smaller, cheaper and more economical, with four cylinder engines. Detroit decided that was not for them, and all three turned out to be six-seaters with six-cylinder engines. For better or for worse.
So the editors of Motor Life weren’t totally disappointed. To the extent that they were, it’s because all three ended up with more or less the same size, and not one of them was a direct import competitor. How it would have turned out if that had been the case is subject to great speculation, like here in the comments. A smaller four-cylinder Corvair? A Ford v4 Cardinal?
Before you jump in, keep in mind that VW sales continued to increase in 1960 and each subsequent year, even though import market share did drop in 1960. It suggests that VW buyers weren’t seduced by the bigger domestic compacts at all, but some of the buyers of other imports in previous years might have become disappointed or disenchanted with their Lloyd, Simca, Austin or Zundapp. We’ll never know for sure.
But what we do know is that in the case of the Falcon and Valiant, they clearly cannibalized sales of their full-sized stablemates, both of which suffered big drops in 1960 and 1961. Which was prophesied in this line: “Finally, and what may be most important of all, with cars like these and the two compacts we’ve already had (Rambler and Lark) it is difficult to justify the existence of the standard sized cars”. And so it increasingly went, as full-size car market share continued its long and deadly decline, hurried along by the new compacts and their sporty and mid-size offshoots soon to come.
The suspense is killing me. Which car did they like the best? Are we taking bets?
Falcon of course.
But however, I think american carmakers could not built small cars, because of the dollar. Until the end of the Bretton-Woods-system the dollar was far too expensive, thus the big three could not compete with cheap european imports. Altough oddly enough they still did produce better compacts than the importers, namely in their european factories. Ford 12m and Opel Kadett could turn circles around the beetle.
Hate to break the news, but there was no “winner”. Back then in comparison tests that was more common. The idea that a comparison has to involve a winner (or loser) was created in later years, for obvious reasons: folks like to see everything divided into winners and losers, so the press obliged.
Best of the worst then?..
It seems to hint that none of the three offer the complete package they had hoped for, with the most appealing qualities of each being counterbalanced by specific letdowns.
“…some of the buyers of other imports in previous years might have become disappointed or disenchanted with their Lloyd, Simca, Austin or Zundapp. We’ll never know for sure…”
Never know? Did any of those cars stay around in the marketplace with more than a scant token presence?
What were the critics’ opinion about the Beetle?
If Detroit produced three varying degrees of Beetle, would these critics have been happy?
In the 50’s, it was almost universally praised, except by some big-car die-hards. Here’s a glowing review of a ’56 VW by Tom McCahill:
Maybe, maybe not. I think they would have liked to see one of the Big Three build a direct competitor. The problem with these Big 3 compacts was that their price wasn’t very compact, being perilously close to the low-end trim versions of their big cars.
Cars like the VW were significantly cheaper to buy and operate. But of course the dollar-DMark ratio played into that.
They weren’t compact cars, they were *relatively* compact cars, relative to the “standard” behemoths.
Does that make these cars, ‘compactors’? Or were they made into dishwashers?
George Romney was responsible for popularizing the term “compact car.” He was referring to the standard, 108-inch wheelbase Ramblers. The four-door versions of the Big Three compacts were each shorter than the “standard” Rambler.
Surely the Pontiac Tempest was a four-cylinder ( albeit a very large four-cylinder…)
So was the Chevy II.
The Pontiac Tempest and Chevy II weren’t available for the 1960 model year, nor were they smaller than the Falcon in size or available engine displacement.
At least to me, an interesting “what if” would be what if the Big 3 had stopped full sized cars, at least for the low priced 3 brands. Make the “full size” cars more for the luxury brands of Lincoln, Cadillac, and Chrysler. Might that have worked?
As noted, the interior room of the American compacts was about as good as their larger cars. As the article noted, the cars were “perfectly adequate for long-distance travel in comfort.” They had wagon variants, convertibles, coupes and sedans in all of the compacts. Nobody “needed” a stripped large car when an equipped compact was as good or better in price? The drop in sales of full sized should have been acted on, but the OEMs missed the grand opportunity to make wholesale changes that would have paid off in spades later.
At launch the Falcon could be had as a 2- or 4-door (post) sedan, the Corvair as a coupe or sedan and the Valiant only as a 4-door sedan. Falcon and Valiant wagons came at midyear, Corvair’s for ’61 with convertibles and hardtops appearing over the next few years.
If you wanted a compact convertible or hardtop, or needed a compact wagon right away in the fall of ’59 the independents and imports were still the only game in town.
Actually, the Corvair launched only as the four door. The coupe came along early in 1960.
All true, but the fact that those variants were added shows that the OEMs realized there was a market for them. And they had to notice the cannibalization of the full sized cars. I don’t know that my scenario would have worked, and consider it highly unlikely, but if they would have downsized and stopped offering the larger cars, the whole idea that it cost as much to build a big car as a small car might have been flipped, with them noticing that if one made the smaller car the mass market leader, a bigger car, sold in lower volume, could still make a profit along with the smaller car. Start smaller and move it up in size, rather like what we see today. The latest Continental, as a good example, was built on a stretched Fusion platform, not the larger Taurus platform. I would suppose that was due to the cost of the Fusion platform was better amortized, and any further development of the Taurus platform would have been money probably never recouped. You can usually enlarge something easier than making it smaller.
The problem with that scenario is that, even with the drop in full-size car sales, the full-size Fords and Chevrolets remained very popular.
Chevrolet still sold over 1 million full-size Chevrolets throughout the rest of the 1960s…and that Chevrolet shared its basic “B body” with the full-size Pontiacs and lower-level full-size Oldsmobiles and Buicks. In an industry where volume and amortization of tooling costs are critical to success, no manufacturer is going to walk away from that level of volume.
I would hazard that the 144 (with a whopping 90 pre-SEA Net horsepower!) cubic inch six Ford Falcon would be least suited to long-distance travel in comfort, since there isn’t any more of the article to read. Which one won the comparison? Since they’re also talking about quality of materials and manufacture, I’d bet the Corvair won since it would be the most like the imports that it was being compared to.
You might be surprised, on several counts. The Corvair only had 80 hp.
Keep in mind that expectations were significantly different now. Speeds were lower, there were still very few interstates and freeways, and folks generally drove less hectically.
In spring of 1962 we took a family vacation of four weeks, Indiana to the Worlds Fair in Seattle, visiting cousins in Montana, Yellowstone, et al, along the way. When we got home we had driven 5,090 miles. In a 1961 Falcon four-door sedan with the 144/85HP six and three-speed manual. My Dad was pretty skillful in winding that thing out but Paul is right, a lot of the travel was on roads that did not require high speed driving and speed limits and expectations were lower. We had two new 61 Falcons. Fortunately the trip was in the one with the deluxe trim package which included much more extensively padded seat cushions. The car was reasonably comfortable, commodious, economical, and reliable for the time. It also was noisy, underpowered, and unsafe by today’s standards.
Our neighbors bought a new Corvair in 1960 and kept it for years as the whole family was mechanically inclined (they had to be to keep that thing going). It was a great Midwestern winter car – with a ferocious gasoline heater and rear-engine traction.
Valiants were almost non-existent in our area until the second generation came out. I think the initial wacky styling was a bit much for conservative Midwesterners. And the ones that were around seemed to rust much faster than other makes.
The Falcon and Valiant appeared down under and people drove them huge distances its a bigger country than mainland USA they were quite adequate providing they held together the majority of roads outside cities werent paved All three arrived in New Zealand but how many Corvairs I dont know survivors turn up every now and then but did they come here new who knows the other two arrived via Australia and the Valiants had a good rep, theb Falcon competed with Ford Zephyr another similar sized car from the UK that already had a good name but they sold in moderate numbers survivors are few
It’s all very simple, really–the industry plays “follow the leader.”
Early ’50s: What sells? Buick. What is Buick? A big, heavily chromed, sculpted, soft-riding boulevard cruiser. Also Oldsmobile–it’s like Buick, but with a powerful OHV V-8 that has good “pick up”. Cadillac, same thing only plusher and gaudier, rules the luxury market. Automatic transmissions, power steering/brakes/windows/seats/ashtrays, you name it, also sell big. So starting in ’55, all cars start getting bigger, chromier, with more powerful V-8s and more options, more Buick and Cadillac-like, because that’s WHAT SELLS.
If GM and Chrysler have 5 divisions, Ford should have 5 divisions too, hence Edsel and Continental.
When the out-of-sight, space aged Forward Look comes out in ’57, GM scrambles to come to come up with its own longer-lower-wider-finnier versions, because that what the public WANTS. If Chevy (the low-priced leader) is “All New All Over Again” in ’59, next year Ford has to come out with its own ultra-long-and-wide version which has horizontal fins too.
Then in the late ’50s, a sizable chunk of the fickle public gets tired of piloting these big, gas-sucking arks around, and the idea of a smaller, simpler car becomes REFRESHING. Rambler sales take off, and imports are “cool!” So the Big Three come up with compact cars that resemble Rambler, because that’s what’s selling. GM makes the Corvair more like an improved, Americanized Beetle, but it is not as successful as the Rambler clones. Hence, Chevy II, Chevelle, etc.
FF to 2020: Nobody’s buying sedans any more; it’s all SUVs, crossovers, and trucks. So makers are dropping sedans (most coupes are long gone). ‘Cuz no one wants ’em. Tesla is hot, so look for more Tesla imitators.
So you see, it’s all the free market in action. Nothing wrong with it; it works the way it should. It’s competitive, and people get what they want. Much better than the old Soviet planned economy, where people wait years to overpay for a new, crappy Zaporozhets, which sort of looks like a Falcon or Corvair, but is much, MUCH worse.
“Nobody buys sedans anymore” / “Telsa is hot”. Cognitive dissonance much?
Well of course Tesla wont give real numbers but I’ve read that the recent sales have been ~75% Model Y. Yes some of that is due to it being the newest model but I expect it will continue to be their best selling model for the near and not so near future.
You’re absolutely not wrong here, but I’d like to share this anecdotal point, and as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data.
The diehard Tesla fans I know tend to fall in one of two camps: either they were buying German sports sedans before, so a Model S is just a fun electric version, or they buy in to the Tesla brand enough where if they sold a octo-wheel single-occupant version, they’d put a deposit down.
In recent years I have developed quite an admiration for the early sixties Valiant. Dramatic styling that was quite attractive, except maybe for the 2 door sedan. Excellent drivetrain with Torque Flight and the slant six. Clearly one of Exner’s hits. Really the unsung hero among the three compacts unveiled for 1960. The boring Falcon may have been the choice of Main Street America, and the rear engined Corvair the darling of the enthusiast magazines, but the unheralded and unappreciated Valiant may have been the best of the three.
Consumer Reports reports rated the Valiant the highest in many respects but was, alas, disappointed in its build quality.
Typical Mopar, great powertrain and engineering, sloppy assembly.
We always had GMs, but when my dad got a 1994 Intrepid as a company car, it was a revelation. Amazing car, styling, packaging, functionality, it beat anyone in the industry, I thought.
Then on a road trip from Chicago to Miami when in the south the A/C decided to barf all over the front carpet and stop working.
So we had to rent a car once we got to Miami, after driving hundreds of miles with no A/C.
Then it had more trans troubles after we got back to Chicago. And left him way out in the burbs with no way home a few times, calling AAA from the office phone. Dinner’s gonna be late.
I think my dad left the job, and the car, before things got really dire. It’s been almost 30 years, can’t really remember.
But I still have great memories of seeing it parked on the street in front of the place, in that early 90’s teal with gray rocker panels. With the taillights with the dual reflector stripes and the center backup light. That was a cool car for its time.
I look forward to the rest of article—I’m sure I’ve never seen it before.
I’m the diehard Falcon guy who’d love to revisit all of Ford’s decisions that led to what debuted in 1959.
I just pulled up Popular Mechanics’s owners’ survey for the ’62s, which told me a few things I didn’t know: (1) no power steering or power brakes yet, and (2) original 1960 axle ratio was 3.10, and with the 144CID engine, PM reported mileage quite competitive with the imports. BUT, not responsive enough for owners, so Ford changed to 3.50 for ’61 even before the 170CID engine appeared for ’62.
This 1962 owners’ survey gives a sense of things, with offerings expanded, fancier trim available, etc.
“I’m the diehard Falcon guy who’d love to revisit all of Ford’s decisions that led to what debuted in 1959.”
A lot of that is found in a 96 page booklet Ford published, “Buyer’s Digest of NEW CAR FACTS for ’60.” You can look for a copy on eBay:
Popular Mechanics again—interesting take on the rise of the compacts, later that same calendar year (Oct. 1960):
The statistic that surprised me was that nearly 80% of Falcon buyers didn’t even consider buying an import.
In apt of the country outside populated areas foreign cars were not readily available except for perhaps volkswagens and slot of foreign cars were considers strange. Style was important look how the mustang took off when in was introduced.
Guess I need to check spelling when I post. I’ll blame on auto correct. Meant to say alot in to different places.
I’d still bet that figure was much lower on Corvairs and even Valiants.
I’m not familiar with “Motor Life” magazine, but their voice has a nasty modernity when they say things like, “it is difficult to justify the existence of the standard sized cars.” Apparently, their editors were of the sort who assume that everyone should drive what they find acceptable. Demographically, I’m quite certain there were enough large families to justify six-seat sedans with full shoulder and hip room combined with huge trunk space. Vast eight passenger wagons were still quite common at my elementary school in the ’70s too.
Detroit probably had consumer clinics or survey results telling them that their smaller cars should sacrifice little of what people expected from any other American car, but that doesn’t mean that nobody needed the full measure of space provided by a big car. Besides, what would it have been like to actually drive a 144 ci Falcon or 140 ci Corvair hauling six adult passengers? Could it have climbed a mountain? Passed a truck on a two-lane road? Pulled a boat? V8s were the right engines for many of the jobs people asked their cars and wagons to do sixty years ago.
I guess some of their complaints about the excessive utility of the 1960 compacts proved true when acceptance really took off via destroying their practicality and efficiency to create the pony cars. Overall though, I think the 1960 compacts were pretty rationally sized cars. I remember reading a British review of the 1960 Valiant. They thought it represented a reasonable value with their exclusionary protectionist tariffs, such was its superiority to anything remotely affordable made on their side of the pond. That we could buy it for little more than half as much made them rather green. I wonder what they’d have thought had they tested a 225 or an HP.
I don’t disagree with you, but I have a bit of disagreement on your view that the “editors were of the sort who assume that everyone should drive what they find acceptable.” The truth is that a smaller car usually suited the needs of any family, unless it was exceptionally large, and even then, that seems to relegate their choices to multiple vehicles or a large van or bus to carry around their members in one group. It is the same argument (I need bigger!) that makes people decide to buy a house based on a large dining room to be used once a year for the entire contingent of friends and family gathered for the holiday meal. The other 364 days a year, the dining room sits mainly unused. Now, if that is what makes you happy, good for you, but don’t try to tell me that it was necessary, as that same group could spread out and eat at separate tables, with no other impositions.
As others have noted, the driving styles of the 1960s were different. Slower speeds, less highway driving, and fewer people towed anything on a regular basis. For those who did lots of highway driving, or towed, or had very large families, yes, a larger car was a better choice, but for many, it was not. Those 6 adults in a Corvair were going to assume it would be slow and cramped, just as putting 6 adults in a 6 cylinder full sized car would be – especially to “elbow room required” Americans. Remember that at that time, 4 or more kids in the back seat, no seatbelts or child seats, was common. And often in 2 door cars, so the kids couldn’t accidentally open the rear doors and fall out! You can compare the past with the present, and the present will almost always win, as that is your point of reference. But when you only judge based on the criteria of that era, those cars were really an eye opening experience.
We still have two lane highways in lots of the country, trucks are now much more powerful and lots of cars struggle to get past a trucktrailer combo,
As a past owner of a (225 slant six) 1974 Plymouth Duster, my choice for 1960 would have been the Valiant. I don’t have room for another car, but I’ve long admired the early Valiants and Lancers with their bizarre styling and would not mind having one with some minor upgrades the Duster would later get like electronic ignition, front and rear seat belts, and a front anti sway bar. If nothing else, it’d be easier to see out the back window than my Duster was. I do a fair amount of highway driving both winding/twisting two lane roads and interstate going back and forth to my mom’s to do things around the house my dad did when he was alive and the Valiant would be a good size car for that weekly trip. In the early 1970’s, my dad had a 1964 Valiant with a 273 that was quite a fun car in its day.
Is it really true that the increased width of full-sized cars is a waste? The concept of “airiness” means more to occupants than hard statistical measurements. I sometimes use my back seat to carry things, and the extra width of a ’59 Chevy enabled me to close both back doors when carrying a long item. The driver and 1, 2, or 3 passengers are more comfortable with all the extra room. I have almost never done “3 across”.
You combine that with the big trunk, the smooth, solid ride, the quiet engines with good power, and you have a car that was a genuine step up in utility for families and individuals trading their previous Chevys for ’59s. And these are things a Corvair (or any compact) couldn’t provide. Maybe that’s why Chevy sold over a million full-sizers annually into the ’60s and beyond.
Car Life, 1959 explains it well:
No it’s not, depending on one’s priorities. The issue was that this extra width, and even more so the much longer length, was essentially being forced on all American car buyers. That was the problem, as many drivers, especially women, did not care for the bulk and difficulty in maneuvering and parking these very large cars.
the simple reality is that a good foot could have been lopped off the front and rear end of every full-size car, without affecting its functionality. But obviously that wasn’t going to happen.
No one is suggesting there shouldn’t be a choice, but width doesn’t have to come with excessive length, or lowness of height.
Spaciousness is indeed a sought after quality. My F150 is extremely comfortable with driver and passenger, add a third passenger in the middle and it is terrible. It’s hard for me to turn the steering wheel when parking. I once a made a three across, 600 plus mile round trip to So Cal to help my Son buy furniture for his college apt. It was one of the worst trips I ever took. I had driven minivans previously because of the passenger and cargo carrying flexibility. Three rows of seats was a real luxury, I could space the kids out.
Growing up in the 1960s I knew a couple of families that had ten kids. I’m guessing that they seldom went anywhere at the same time as a family. That number of kids would lead to wide range in ages, I’m sure that outings were restricted to certain age groups, older kids didn’t want to do kiddie stuff. This particular family had an old station wagon, 6 up front, 3 or 4 little kids in the back. It was probably easier to pick up the Grandparents and bring them to the house.
Crowded living was tolerated at this time, I had an Irish buddy who told me that he grew up with three brothers and three sisters in a three bedroom house. There were two bunk beds in each of the kid’s bedrooms. I slept in a bedroom with my two other brothers when I was little. When my older brother and I were in high school, my folks finally bought a four bedroom two bath house. To us, it might as well have been a mansion. Now I live in the three bedroom, two bath house that all my kids have grown up in, it was tight for a few years, but now, with only one kid at home I got the extra bedroom for my den. When we are finally empty nesters ( fingers crossed!) our house will be perfect.
Spaciousness is related to occupancy, less people more room. Same with cars.