Vintage Article: Motor Trend’s 1959 World Cars Issue – Family Cars And Luxury Cars

Motor Trend classified the core of the American car market as “Family Cars” in 1959, and they certainly represented the bulk of sales.  The Big Three dominated with their large and flamboyant offerings, though the over-the-top designs would turn out to be the beginning of the end for tail fins. Even at the luxury end of the spectrum, there was a sharp contrast between the style of U.S. offerings and the imports, which would play out in other segments as well.  Read on to see key highlights by brand as compiled by the editors of Motor Trend.

Poor Studebaker.  Raymond Leowy’s clean, breakthrough design from 1953 didn’t lend itself to the addition of faddish fins (which arrived for 1957 and continued for 1959), and thus seemed out-of-style and out-of-date.  The surprise star of the American market in 1958 had been Rambler, including the “stretched” Ambassador that attempted to be “full-sized.”  For 1959 the basic design continued, featuring slightly more compact and practical dimensions than the competing products from the Big Three.

1959 was the year that General Motors fought back against Chrysler’s striking “Forward Look” of 1957.  The unexpected leapfrogging of Mopar’s designs had prompted a “palace coup” in GM’s styling department, with Bill Mitchell managing to displace the legendary styling boss Harley Earl.  Mitchell proposed low, sleek, fully finned designs to be introduced for 1959 in lieu of Earl’s intended continuation of the bulbous and overly-chromed 1958 models.  To achieve the rapid transformation on such a short timetable, GM’s corporate bosses dictated more commonality than ever in terms of platforms and components.  Look closely and you’ll see that A-, B-, and C-Body lines shared a common front door architecture (based on Buick’s design).  Stylists still did a good job masquerading the common bits to create distinct personalities by division.  For my personal preferences, I’d pick Pontiac as the best of the bunch, with the handsome split grill that would soon become a brand trademark, plus the new “Wide Track” stance that made the car look slightly more “planted.”

For 1959, the pioneer of the “Forward Look” served-up the first significant restyle of that basic design theme (1958 Mopars had basically been a carryover of the 1957 styling with just minor tweaks).  While the re-skins looked fresh, they were no longer breakthrough as they had been two years earlier.  Plus, Chrysler was still recovering from the bad quality reputation that had plagued the first “Forward Look” products.  Still, Chrysler did trot out new engineering features including improved engines and the novel “swivel seat” to aid with ingress/egress.

Ford Motor Company released new designs for 3 of its 4 divisions that came across as the most conversation of the Big Three offerings.  Bodies were more square cut, fins were less extreme, and though there were plenty of garish styling details (especially on top trim models), the looks were subdued compared to competitors.  Edsel and Mercury in particular came across as much more tame relative to the wilder designs offered for 1958.  In fact, to me the 1959 Edsel was by far the best looking of the three short years that the brand was on offer, with a better integrated vertical grille in place of the notorious “horse collar” (or worse) from 1958.  Only Lincoln carried over with the mammoth and overwrought style of 1958 more or less intact.

GM’s highest volume division offered some of the most extreme new styling: Chevrolet’s rear “batwings” (or “gull wings”) riding over “cat’s eye” taillights certainly looked, uh, “memorable.”  By contrast, Ford’s Thunderbird carried over the successful 4-seat design from 1958 with only minor trim modifications.

Two unexpected cars to make Motor Trend’s “Family Car” list were the traditionally British Jaguar Mark IX and the sleek, novel Citroen ID-19, DS-19 from France.  I can’t imagine that there was too much cross-shopping between these two and the big, finny domestics.

The cartoon illustrations that Motor Trend used to introduce each section of the World Cars issue were pretty entertaining.  This was certainly the overwrought caricature of the American luxury car, as embodied by the top Cadillac, Imperial and Lincoln models (interestingly Cadillac and Lincoln also showed up under “Family Cars”).

For the most traditional upper-crust luxury statement in 1959, it was hard to top Rolls-Royce and its “sportier” Bentley sibling.

Glamorous European/American hybrid styling and Chrysler V8 power make the Facel one of my favorites.  Lancia meanwhile was busy showcasing Italian styling with clean lines that would set the pace for the 1960s.

Cadillac turned to Italian Design House Pininfarina for its 1959 update of the ultra-expensive Eldorado Brougham.  While exceedingly low volume, this car nonetheless gave a glimpse at the styling direction the entire Cadillac brand would take in 1961.  The Imperial, meanwhile, remained unabashedly American with its chrome-slathered update of 1957’s “Forward Look.”  Mercedes, by contrast, seemed positively subdued from a design standpoint, emphasizing top quality and Germanic driving dynamics to lure well-heeled American motoring sophisticates.

So that’s a wrap for Motor Trend‘s recap of Family Cars and Luxury Cars circa 1959.  Tune back in tomorrow to check out Sports Cars and GT Cars.