Vintage Comparison Test: 1968 Economy Imports – A Really Big Comparison Of Really Small Cars

(first posted 1/26/2018)       Sit back and relax.  Get something to drink.  Take the weekend if you need to.  This is going to take a while.  For your reading pleasure, here is the comprehensive comparison test of leading imported economy cars, as conducted by Road Test Magazine in the April 1968 issue.  In fact, at 54 pages, it basically is the whole issue of the magazine.  Covered are the Datsun 510, Fiat 124, Ford Cortina, Opel Kadett, Renault 10, Simca 1000, Toyota Corona and VW Beetle.  Read on to see how Road Test evaluated the cars, and which ones they picked as the winners.

Each of the cars tested sold for around $2,000 ($14,459 adjusted), making them all true entry-level cars.  While the most basic AMC Rambler American started at that price point, the cheapest offerings from the Big Three came in about $200 higher ($1,446 adjusted).

Engineering ranged from the archaic (VW) to the mundane (Opel, Toyota) to a budget-priced sophisticate (Datsun).  While packaging was often very good for the overall vehicle size, certain cars, like rear-engine rear-wheel-drive Simca, had suspension designs that resulted in suboptimal (and potentially dangerous) handling for the average driver.

Each of these cars was designed for economy, not scintillating performance.  While Road Test claimed that the cars could keep pace with American freeway traffic, the performance results tell a rather pokey story: the quickest car took 19 seconds to get through the quarter mile, and the highest quarter mile top speed was 71 mph (both for the Datsun).  The slowest of the slow was the clutches bug.  The semi-automatic transmission definitely wasn’t a good fit for the VW: that car was 2 seconds slower in the quarter mile than the manual, requiring a 22.49 seconds for the run.

Disc brakes were standard on several cars in the test, an important and technically advanced (for the time) safety feature–especially for such low-priced machines.  The coming years would see widespread adoption of discs.  However, front engine designs would soon win out over the rear engine layout for economy cars.  Plus, front wheel drive would take over as well within the next decade, leading to far better packaging and benign, predictable handling.

Given their overall size, the cars were quite well packaged.  Certain domestic cars were far larger yet couldn’t offer much more in the way of usable interior room and luggage capacity.  Surprisingly, seat comfort was also praised on several of the cars, and in some cases (like Renault) the seats were arguably better than those found in larger, more expensive domestic compacts.

What happened to the commentary on Simca, you ask?  I have no idea!  I even double-checked the issue to make sure I wasn’t missing any pages.  For whatever reason, Road Test just didn’t write-up anything on the Simca’s comfort and convenience, just as they barely covered the Simca’s performance and braking.  Mon Dieu!

It’s interesting to note the progress that has been made in fuel economy since 1968.  These low-end, low-powered, lightweight cars were by far the most fuel efficient on the market at the time, yet the mileage results wouldn’t even be considered particularly good for one of today’s mid-size sedans with ample pick-up.

Not surprisingly, Volkswagen scored well in overall ownership costs, based in large part on strong resale values.  Toyota, however, was already coming on strong in 1968 and was holding its value well and building a good reputation for quality and dependability.

Road Test had a lot of love for the Renault, but those feelings weren’t matched by marketplace performance.  Renault only sold a grand total of 21,662 cars in the U.S. for 1968, just a smidgen ahead of the Ford Cortina’s 21,496 sales.  Fiat, RT‘s second place finisher, didn’t do much better, with 30,521 U.S. sales.

The next three finishers on Road Test’s list were also among the best selling U.S. imports: Datsun retailed 58,467, Toyota sold 71,463, and champion Volkswagen sent over a whopping 582,009 (no wonder Detroit was beginning to pay attention).  However, unlike VW, Datsun and Toyota focused on making their cars more useful and suitable for American tastes.  That devotion to meeting customer needs, coupled with their high quality, would soon see both brands eclipse the German wunder-car.

Despite significant handicaps, like an unexceptional product and indifferent sales and service through Buick dealers, Opel still delivered 84,680 cars stateside.  I still wonder how things could have turned out differently if General Motors had better Americanized the product and sold it through Chevrolet dealers–it might have allowed GM to more effectively fight back the import challenge and could have avoided the Vega debacle.  Ah well, missed opportunities are so easy to see in the rearview mirror….

And then there’s last-place Simca, the odd stepchild in the Mopar stable.  Not only did Road Test virtually ignore the rear-engined French product for big sections of the test, I’m not even able to find any data for U.S. Simca sales from my usual Standard Catalog of Imported Cars.  However, Simca does deserve credit for the car described (but not tested) in the sidebar on page 21 and copy on page 22: the 1100 was in fact a very modern design that established parameters for future FWD econoboxes.

So there you have it: extensive coverage (save for Simca) of leading small imported economy cars in the U.S. market.  Try for a moment to go back in time and forget what you know about how these cars/brands did in later years, and think which one would have been your pick if you were buying this type of car back in 1968.  For me, the choice would have been the Datsun, as it offered a good blending of international small car attributes in a handsome little package.

What would your pick have been?

UPDATE: The missing Simca has been found!  Sharp-eyed J P Cavanaugh opined that Road Test may not have even actually driven the Simca 1000 for this comparison, since the new Simca 1100 was on the horizon.  Well sure enough, I think the Simca 1000 that made it into a few of the pictures, and formed the basis for the commentary on the Simca, was actually a car they tested back in 1967!  That’s right, the February 1967 issue of Road Test Magazine had been devoted to comparing the economy imports, just like the April 1968 issue.  In 1967, the cars covered were the Datsun 410, Fiat 124, Fiat 600, Fiat 1100, Ford Anglia, Ford Cortina, MG 1100, Opel Kadett, Renault 10, Simca 1000 (the missing car from the 1968 comparison!) and Toyota Corona.  Typical Road Test gaffes aside, the 1967 comparison looks to be a great read with a lot of detail as well.  So, look for a post of the 1967 Economy Import Comparison next Friday for a follow-up, long-form read to take you into next weekend!