Vintage Article: Motor Trend’s 1959 World Cars Issue – Compact And Economy Cars

One of the biggest U.S. automotive market trends in the late 1950s was the increased interest in more manageably-sized, economical cars and Motor Trend gave these segments good coverage in the 1959 World Show issue.  While the Big Three would loudly respond with American Compacts for the 1960 model year, in 1959 only Rambler and Studebaker had domestically-produced offerings in that category.  All the rest of the were imports, and frankly there was an incredible variety of choices, some familiar, but many were very obscure and soon left the U.S. market for good.

It’s funny how similar (and old-fashioned) the DKW (above) and the Morris (below) looked, though the German car was front-wheel-while the Brit was rear-wheel-drive.

Italian design house Pinninfarina was very busy busy at both the high-end and low-end of the market for 1959, delivering both the diminutive Austin A-40 and the massive Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

Two key Japanese players were dipping their toes in the water of the U.S. market, though these early products from Toyota (above) and Datsun (below) were less than shining successes.  However, the Japanese fixation with continuous improvement allowed both companies to revamp their products quickly and return with much more marketable products for American buyers.  Within 10 years these two brands would rank among the top-selling imports, while many other European small car brands would falter and disappear.

Has anyone here at CC ever seen a Moretti in person?  I haven’t….  The company was based in Turin Italy and actually survived until 1989, primarily as a low-volume builder of modified Fiats.

Look at the page above and the page below to see the wide array of European brands that tried to be viable choices but failed in that mission.

One of the bigger challenges with smaller cars is how to make them visually interesting.  Goggomobil tried mid-50’s Buick style sweep-spear two-tone paint, but the effect was less than optimal.  The brand name was tough too–buyers would have had a hard time telling people the make of their car without eliciting a chuckle.

What’s a Lloyd Alexander you ask?  I wondered the same thing … with that name surely it was from Great Britain.  But no, actually this company was Lloyd Motoren Werke from Germany as was part of the Borgward Group.  Popular it was not–Lloyd ceased all production in 1963.

Both Fiat and Renault had the potential to be popular offerings for U.S. small car customers, but both were tarnished by reputations for poor quality that would hinder their attempts to gain sales traction in America.

The Volkswagen Beetle was becoming ever more popular in the U.S. market in 1959, which defied conventional wisdom for the chieftains in Detroit.  What they failed to see was the superior quality and reliability of the car, which was inexpensive but never felt cheap.

Ford’s European offerings were decent quasi-American little cars, but were fish-out-of-water in U.S. Ford dealerships, where there was better money to be made selling frugal buyers traditional, bigger American Fords in the lower-cost trim levels.

Vauxhall did a brief stint in the U.S. market being sold through Pontiac dealers.  But the folks heading to Poncho showrooms were more likely mesmerized by Wide Tracks than economy cars.

AMC deserves a lot of credit for its pioneering role in developing the American-made small car market.  With Rambler fielding both the low-priced American and the larger but still pragmatically-sized Rebel, AMC effectively covered the market for buyers seeking more rational products.  Too bad the company lost the plot in the 1960s and tried to compete head-to-head with the Big Three, rather than figuring out how to keep its smaller cars desirable.

Both Peugeot and Simca served-up well-executed conventional sedans in the compact segment.  More avant-garde French design came in the form of the Dyna Panhard, as well as the Citroen DS.

Smaller cars did not have to be cheap.  Both Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar had well-styled and beautifully crafted products that were priced accordingly.  This premium approach to Compact cars, common in Europe, would ultimately become popular in the U.S.  Too bad the U.S. makers didn’t have the foresight to take advantage of this emerging trend….

In addition to the Economy Segment “English Fords,” FoMoCo also offered both German-built and British-built compacts to U.S. buyers, which no doubt added to marketplace confusion.  One thing U.S. buyers would have been clear on was that these little Fords were “foreign,” which wasn’t necessarily seen as positive by the mass market at that time.

While Opel was more successful in the U.S. market than Vauxhall, being sold through Buick dealers was probably more of a hindrance than a help.  One of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” armchair quarterbacking exercises that I enjoy is imagining alternate scenarios where GM would have created a new division and dealers to sell its imports–economy buyers mights have felt more at home, and dealers would have been better equipped to service the metric-based products.

The Lark was another Compact car pioneer from an American maker, and successful as well, at least initially.  However, given Studebaker’s significant business challenges, the car ultimately didn’t stand a chance.  In contrast, who’d have thought that Volvo, which offered a Scandinavian version of a 1940’s Ford for 1959, would emerge as one of the more successful higher-end U.S. imports within a decade?

And that to me is the interesting part of this last installment in the Motor Trend 1959 World Show car series: the factors that would ultimately reshape the U.S. market–rational sizing, higher quality, better handling–were already knocking at the door in 1959.  Of course boldly-styled big American showboats would continue (as they do to this day, they are just trucks/SUVs now), but the die was cast for the new breed of more logical transportation solutions.  A relatively small handful of brands covered in this series were able to capitalize on these trends and remain in the U.S. market today, albeit with varying levels of success.

So what will the next 60 years hold for the automobile business?