General Motors was the undisputed U.S. market leader as the 1957 model year got underway. In spite of a dominant 52% market share, GM wasn’t content to rest on its laurels and rolled-out a dizzying array of models on redesigned platforms (new B- and C-bodies), extensive facelifts for the A-bodies and even promising new technology like fuel injection on select models. So GM entered the new model year with guns blazing–let’s take a look at all the highlights as detailed in Motor Trend’s 1957 New Car Show issue.
1957 would turn out to be a rough year for Buick, as sales dipped 29% compared to 1956 (and were off a whopping 45% from 1955 when Buick ranked 3rd in the industry). Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the new products–they were longer, lower and wider in keeping with the tastes of the times. But for image-conscious buyers seeking the latest and greatest, other brands were quite tempting: Chrysler Corporation was fielding a range of cars that screamed “Suddenly it’s 1960!” while the all-new Buicks looked more like “the Second Half of 1956.”
Ah, the infamous GM X-frame! The U.S. car makers really were fixated on style for 1957, and General Motor’s new chassis layout allowed lower floors and a commensurately lower roofline to deliver sleeker new looks. The fact that there were no longer any side frame rails to help protect passengers in a side impact collision didn’t seem to matter, though even Motor Trend pointed out the safety weakness of the new design.
In most other ways, however, the new Cadillacs continued the brand’s tradition of tip-top luxury. Plus Cadillac introduced the all-new ultra-luxury Eldorado Brougham. This was the most expensive American car on the market, selling for $13,074 ($111,965 in today’s dollars), which was an incredibly large price tag at the time (for comparison, the exotic Mercedes-Benz gull-wing 300SL retailed for $7,463–$63,913 adjusted). However, as a halo car for the brand that most Americans would have considered to be the best in the world, the price tag made sense, and the car itself made for an interesting flagship. Loaded with every conceivable comfort and luxury feature, like a pioneering version of “memory” seat adjusters and an air suspension system, the Eldorado Brougham was the dream car champion for 1957.
Popular culture praises the 1957 Chevrolets as an icon of Fifties style. All the clichés are present and accounted for: pointy fins, gaping grill, sweeping chrome trim. For me, however, the looks are lacking compared to the more cleanly styled 1955 and 1956 models. The market conceivably agreed with my assessment, as Ford overtook Chevrolet for the #1 position in the U.S. market for the first time since the 1930s. Not that Chevrolet sales weren’t strong–they declined the least of all GM divisions, dropping just 4% compared to 1956. The division still sold an impressive 1,507,904 cars and commanded a 24% share of all U.S. car sales.
America’s only sports car continued its momentum for 1957. Power upgrades, including optional fuel injection, burnished the Corvette’s performance credentials, while paint and trim were further enhanced to offer more 1950’s glamour. Sales climbed 80% compared to 1956, and ensured that GM’s fiberglass 2-seater would remain in the line-up.
Oldsmobile once again offered a balanced blend of fresh but conservative styling, crisp handling (by the domestic standards of the time) and copious power. No question the ’57’s were nice middle-of-road cars for the center of GM’s brand line-up, but unfortunately Oldsmobile took a 20% nosedive in sales compared to the year prior.
1957 was the year that Pontiac’s new General Manager, Bunkie Knudsen, was able to start making his mark as he worked to revamp the dowdy division. Gone were the dated “Silver Streaks”–chrome strips that had adorned the hoods of Pontiacs since the 1930s–which Knudsen likened to “old man’s suspenders.” Newly available under the de-chromed hoods were impressive high performance engines: Tri-Power (three 2-barrel carburetors) and Fuel Injection. It was the dawn of the Pontiac performance era, which would soon position the brand as the “hot” car to have for “with it” buyers.
Despite all GM’s investment in design and engineering for 1957, the company lost market share, dropping 8 percentage points to 44% of the U.S. market. It wasn’t that The General’s efforts weren’t impressive. Rather, it was the ferocious competition that successfully stole share with their own exciting new offerings, as we will see in the next few days.