Vintage Comparison Test: 1965 Buick LeSabre, Chrysler Newport, Mercury Monterey, Olds Dynamic 88, Pontiac Catalina – Road Test Evaluates Medium Standard Sedans

(first posted 2/22/2017)   Last week Eric703 served up this fantastic post on the 1967 Chrysler Newport Custom, prompting lively discussion on how the Chrysler stacked up relative to its competitors from GM and FoMoCo.  To gain some period insight, let’s take a look at Road Test Magazine from September 1965  (well, off by 2 years, but close enough).  The issue offered an overview of “Medium Standard” sedans from Buick, Chrysler, Mercury, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, even going so far as to pick a winner.

First off, the automotive segment definitions in the mid-1960s were rather different than today.  The lions share of sales in America went to domestic brands, so the industry segmentation was defined by Detroit (imported brands were typically grouped together as “Foreign” or “Imports” and could be anything from a VW Beetle to a Jaguar E-Type).  While domestic Compact, Intermediate and “Specialty” (i.e. Mustang, Riviera) segments had emerged, full-sized cars were still considered the core of the market.  The Full-Size category was then broken into sub-segments: Standards (Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth—aka the “Low Priced Three”, and also the largest AMC products), the more upmarket Medium Standards (Buick, Chrysler, Dodge, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Pontiac) and Luxury (Cadillac, Imperial, Lincoln).

The upper-middle-class Medium Standard segment has all but vanished today (volume brands now sell luxurious cars, luxury brands now sell “attainable” cars, while the “middle” has shrunk to near irrelevance), but these brands delivered big business back in 1965.  Combined sales for Buick, Chrysler, Dodge, Mercury, Oldsmobile and Pontiac hit 3,055,490 units for ’65 (35% of domestic output), and though this total trailed the 5,155,135 cars sold by Chevy, Ford and Plymouth (58% of domestic output), most of the Medium Standard brands went out the door with marked-up price tags and represented lucrative business for their makers.

1965 was also a banner year in that it was the last time that almost all the full-sized cars from the Big Three were thoroughly redesigned at the same time (only Imperial and Lincoln were holdovers).  For the Medium Standards, these new platforms were deployed to win over buyers willing to pay a bit more money for a more “upscale” car from a more “prestigious” brand.  Given the new products and the importance of the segment, it was only natural that Road Test Magazine would take a look at the best selling full-sized Medium Standards to see how they stacked-up.

In the magazine’s early years, Road Test operated like an automotive-only version of Consumer Reports, accepting no auto-related advertising and offered product assessments with less sugar coating than the typical Buff Book.  Road Test also reviewed models that were often given the short shrift by car enthusiast magazines, including Medium Standard family sedans.

For this comparison, Road Test primarily zeroed-in on the entry point for full-sized cars from the “upmarket” brands.  While base prices varied a bit, all were typically ordered with key optional equipment (automatic, AM radio, power brakes, power steering), so prices averaged anywhere from $3,500 ($27,000 adjusted) to $4,000 ($31,000 adjusted).  Note: a ’65 Chevrolet Impala 4-door Hardtop with the same equipment would have been about $3,200 ($25,000 adjusted), so moving into the Medium Standard class would have cost anywhere from 9% to 25% more.  Additional options and fancier trims could take those prices far higher, but Road Test was aiming to evaluate these cars as the first step-up from a Chevy, Ford or Plymouth, so representative–and relatively basic–cars were tested.

The Pontiac Division had transformed from wallflower in the 1950s to Tiger in the 1960s.  Throughout the range, Pontiac used bold, handsome styling, ample performance credentials and compelling marketing to convey a youthful, glamorous image.  When it came to the full-size bread-and-butter Catalina series, options could be layered-on to create anything from “mild” to “wild,” though most cars were undoubtedly the former.  How good was the product itself?  Well, unless specially equipped, it was pretty much a standard, soggy big American car.  For Medium Standards, however, imagery was essential to selling cars and in 1965 Pontiac was a style leader with the Catalina being a primary beneficiary.  Pontiac sold a whopping 271,058 Catalinas for 1965, of which 34,814 were 4-door Vista Hardtops.

1965 marked a significant step in Mercury’s move from being a “fancy Ford” to a “lesser Lincoln.”  Though sharing a new platform with Ford, Mercury’s styling was more differentiated from its cheaper sibling in a quest to be perceived as more upscale and better positioned to compete against Buick and Chrysler.  Mercury continued the unusual “reverse canted” backlight with retractable rear window on the 4-door Breezeway models, like the one reviewed by Road Test.  In the days before air conditioning became regular equipment on cars, the fully-opening rear glass undoubtedly aided ventilation, though the roof styling was, shall we say, an “acquired taste.”  Sales numbers reflected that, as 19,569 Monterey Breezeways were delivered, representing just 22% of the total 1965 Monterey output of 88,454 units.  Overall, however, the “lesser Lincoln” approach was a hit for the division: sales for the full-sized Mercury (including Monterey as well as the pricier Montclair and Park Lane) soared 59% over 1964, to 181,701 units.

(Correction: the 1965 Mercury brakes had 204 sq, inches of swept area; 225 for the wagons. ED)

(Correction: All 1965 full-size Buick brakes had 197.32 sq. in. of swept area.  ED)

When it came to a blue-chip brand image in the Medium Standard segment, Buick was the name to beat.  Even in 1965, GM’s “Sloan Ladder” was still relatively intact (buyers started with the affordable Chevrolet, and worked their way up in price and prestige through other GM divisions), and Buick was firmly ensconced on the rung just below flagship Cadillac.  Given this premium positioning, it was odd that the popular LeSabre series trailed its competitors in terms of power output, with the 300 cubic inch 2-barrel V8 standard and the only power upgrade available being a 4-barrel version of the same mill.  Road Test found the 300 CID engine offered adequate power and felt the Buick was well-balanced overall.  Buyers agreed, as Buick sold 142,996 LeSabres for 1965, including 41,778 4-door Hardtop Sedans, in both base (18,384 units) and Custom (23,394 units) guises.

Apparently not-so-popular at Buick was the instrument panel design for 1965.  Road Test noted that the deeply-tunneled instrument binnacles located very low down on the dashboard were hard to read.  Others must have screamed as well, since the 1965 design was replaced after just one year with a much more conventional instrument panel for 1966, including a high-mounted strip speedometer and a conventionally opening glove box (versus 1965’s bin type)—no doubt better for holding those “malteds.”

While Road Test selected the “base” full-size models from Buick, Chrysler, Mercury and Pontiac for the comparison test, they opted to review the mid-tier full-size offering from Olds—the Dynamic 88 sat between the entry-level full-sized Jetstar 88 and the premium new Delta 88.  Like its rivals from sister divisions Buick and Pontiac, the Oldsmobile B-Bodies sported beautiful new styling, courtesy of Bill Mitchell and his talented team of designers.  While each divisions offering looked unique, they all shared a flowing, modern style that was pure GM.

Being the mid-range full-sized offering, the Dynamic 88 boasted strong credentials under hood, with the largest standard engine—425 CID 2-barrel V8—of all the cars in the Road Test comparison.  Even with the most displacement, however, the Olds was not the fastest—that honor went to Pontiac.  However, the big engine was no doubt well suited to smooth, quiet operation and handling abundant power-sucking options like the available built-in factory air condition, at a cool $430 ($3,315 adjusted).  The Olds also earned kudos as the best handling car of the GM trio tested (though not the best overall in the comparison).  119,508 Dynamic 88s found homes for 1965, including 38,889 4-door Holiday Hardtop Sedans.

The honor for best handling (relative to the segment, none of these were remotely sporty cars) went to the Chrysler Newport.  Mopar products, with their unique torsion bar front suspensions, were noted for providing better responsiveness and road feel than competitors from FoMoCo and GM.  The downside for the unit-bodies Chrysler products was that they lacked the isolation and quiet ride of their cross-town rivals, though for many buyers that was a virtue rather than a vice.

Mopar brought out a range of all-new C-Bodies for 1965, all sporting crisp, clean styling courtesy of Styling Chief Elwood Engel—arguably some of his best designs during his entire tenure at Chrysler Corporation.  The Newport rode on the same 124-inch wheelbase as the New Yorker, and other than grille and trim differences, appeared very similar to the more expensive line, making it a compelling choice for customers seeking a “big money” look.  Sure enough, some 125,795 customers voted with their pocketbooks and “moved-up” to a Newport, including 61,054 4-door sedans.  Overall, the Newport enjoyed an impressive 48% increase in sales versus 1964, putting Chrysler back on more solid footing after the challenging years of the early 1960s.

Time to get down to the brass tacks—which of these models was preferred by Road Test Magazine as the best of the workaday Medium Standard sedans?  The Chrysler Newport took top honors, though the others were close behind.  If you were shopping these cars back in 1965, which one would you have chosen?

For me, it comes down to process of elimination.  The Mercury drops out because of the slighly clunky styling (as compared to sleeker rivals).  I really admire the looks of the glamorous trio from GM, and would have been tempted by the balanced Buick or the potent, decent-handling Olds.  But then there was the allure of Pontiac with its trendy imagery and aggressive style—properly equipped, a Catalina could have been ordered into something special.  For example, I’d have wanted the special 8-lug aluminum wheels with the bigger, vented drum brakes (not cheap at $138–$1,064 adjusted), though I doubt too many Catalinas (other than the sporty 2+2) models were so equipped.  But once you started adding options, the Pontiac became pricey, pushing it into the territory of makes with a more premium image, like Chrysler.  So yes, like Road Test, my pick for ’65 would have been a Newport—for an upscale family car, it was hard to argue with the looks, performance or warranty coverage that was available with the most affordable Chrysler.

Now, time for you to pick!