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Small Car, Big Shadow

Friday, March 13, 2009

A guy named Romney kick-started the compact car revolution 50 years ago.

“While riding in my Cadillac, what to my surprise, a little Nash Rambler was following me, about one-third my size.”

“Beep, Beep,” sung by the Playmates, 1958.

America battling its way out of a recession.
The U.S. auto industry hit hard.
Annual car sales down 30 percent.
Imports of smaller foreign cars rising.
Talk about déjà vu!

This was the state of events exactly 50 years ago, in early 1959. American car sales had fallen from 6.1 million vehicles in 1957 to 4.3 million in 1958, a sales slump so severe that the Eisenhower White House had taken to urging citizens with the slogan, “You auto buy now.”

The majority of American cars were big and getting bigger. But buyers in a depressed economy were taking a closer look at cheaper, smaller foreign cars. Strange names became familiar as American magazines filled with ads for Morris, Opel, Renault, Fiat, Hillman, Vauxhall, Simca, and even a couple of odd little cars from Japan—Nissan’s Datsun and Toyota’s Toyopet.

The imports touted low prices, easy handling, and fuel economy. Detroit was not indifferent to the message and indeed big auto makers had bought stakes in and were marketing some of these cars—the German Opel from General Motors, for example, or the French Simca from Chrysler, and British Consul from Ford.

Although the remarkably well-built Volkswagen Beetle had been paving the way to acceptance of imports since the early ’50s, foreign makers had managed to sell only 60,000 cars in the United States in 1955, less than 1 percent of the U.S. market. But in 1958 more than 430,000 foreign cars were shipped into the United States. And 1959 would see a startling 668,000 foreign cars imported, a 12 percent market penetration.   

The only American automaker whose 1958 sales had not declined happened to be the only one featuring homemade smaller cars. American Motors Corporation, a company born out of the desperate 1954 marriage of two failing veteran car makers—Hudson and Nash—doubled its sales, from 91,469 in ’57 to 186,227 in ’58. The cars that did the trick were the Rambler, built on a 108-inch wheelbase, and its newly introduced little brother, the Rambler American, built on a 100-inch wheelbase with the body dies from the original Nash Rambler of 1950. Most American cars at that time were riding on wheelbases of 115- to 130-plus inches and often weighed a half-ton more than the 25003000-pound Ramblers.

American car sales had fallen from 6.1 million vehicles in 1957 to 4.3 million in 1958, a sales slump so severe that the Eisenhower White House had taken to urging citizens with the slogan, ‘You auto buy now.’

Unlike the flamboyant luxo-barges so prevalent in the ’50s, the Ramblers were crisply designed and engineered, well made, and surprisingly roomy for their size. They incorporated “unitized” construction—the body and frame welded together in a strong, rattle-free single unit. AMC advertising emphasized “Get the best of both…big car room and comfort, European small car economy, handling ease.” By the mid-fifties Ramblers tended to have about them the aura of a college math professor, a sober accountant, or an engineer who smoked one of those metal-stemmed pipes. But during the ’57’58 recession they began to gain traction with a broader spectrum of car buyers. Indeed, 1959 would see AMC nearly double its sales again, selling more than 360,000 Ramblers.

AMC was headed by one of the leading apostles of smaller cars, George Romney (former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s dad). He had been instrumental in the introduction of the original Rambler in 1950 as an adjunct to the line of full-sized Nash cars. “You’ve never seen anything like it,” said the early ads touting the streamlined, unique, but somehow homely little car with its 6-cylinder, 82-horsepower engine.

The Rambler’s good build quality and eccentric charm caught on. First year sales of about 11,000 jumped to more than 68,000 in 1951. Other independent makers sought to imitate it with now largely forgotten cars of comparable size—the Henry J (Kaiser Motors), the Willys Aero, the Hudson Jet, and the somewhat successful Studebaker Lark. But the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) had pretty much ignored the “baby Nash.”

Throughout the 1950s Romney inveighed against “dinosaur” size cars. He popularized the phrase “gas guzzler” (at a time when gasoline was about a quarter a gallon!) and he brilliantly finessed the American public’s perceived negative impression of small cars by calling his Ramblers “compacts.” By 1959 the public was at last paying attention. The Nash name (and Hudson’s too) had by then been relegated to the scrap heap of automotive history. But the original 1950 Rambler had become a pop culture icon thanks to a song called “Beep, Beep.” Sung by a now forgotten group called the Playmates, it had made the charts in late 1958 with its whimsical tale of a Cadillac driver who spots a “little Nash Rambler” in his rearview mirror.

The Cadillac owner’s disdain for this little upstart car and the annoying beep of its horn turns to embarrassed wonderment when he tries to outrun it. At 120 miles per hour “The Rambler pulled along side of me/ As if we were going slow,/ The fellow rolled down his window/ And yelled for me to hear,/ ‘Hey, buddy, how can I get this car/ Out of second gear?’”

Everybody found this musical joke good for a chuckle because the premise seemed so ludicrous. But the fact was the 300-plus horsepower Cadillac, like so many other American cars at the end of the ’50s, had become a bloated, baroque, chrome-laden whale; a tail-finned caricature of itself. And in a way the little Rambler had been shadowing “Big Detroit” for almost a decade, blowing its horn to make way for more sensible cars.

The combination of a recession, an influx of foreign cars, and the surprising rise of the Rambler finally got the Big Three’s attention. In January 1959 blurred “spy” photos of a small Chevrolet being tested showed up in the automotive press. In early February, Time magazine reported that “The Big Three automakers are deep in crash programs to get into the market with small compact cars.”

George Romney popularized the phrase ‘gas guzzler’ and brilliantly finessed the American public’s perceived negative impression of small cars by calling his Ramblers ‘compacts.’

By April, George Romney was on the cover of Time under the headline “Small Cars: Foreign Invasion & Domestic Challenge.” The cover story noted that Rambler’s “share of the market has risen from 1.6 percent to 6.2 percent in two years. Yet the public is still ordering Ramblers faster than American can produce them.”

By late fall the introduction of the Big Three’s 1960 models included their first compacts: GM’s rear-engined Chevy Corvair, Ford’s Falcon, and Chrysler’s Plymouth Valiant. Up until 1960, “variety” in the Big Three’s cars had been expressed mainly in sedans, hardtops, coupes, and station wagons, all built on pretty much the same large wheelbase and differing only in the amount and location of chrome trim. But now the American automotive landscape would never be the same.

A flood of compact and “intermediate” or “midsize” cars began pouring out of Detroit. GM introduced a “second wave” of compacts in 1961, featuring the Oldsmobile F-85, the Buick Special and Skylark, and the Pontiac Tempest. These cars grew in size and weight and horsepower with each passing year. By 1964, for instance, the “compact” Olds F-85 four-door sedan had become a “midsize” car, its wheel base growing from 112 inches to 115 inches and its weight from around 2500 pounds to over 3000. To augment the successful Falcon compact, Ford introduced its midsize Fairlane for 1962, billing it as the car “just right for just about everybody.” But the Fairlane had the same wheelbase and weighed only 325 pounds less than a full-size Ford of ten years earlier.

And look what happened to perhaps the most sensational small car introduced in the last half-century, the Ford Mustang. The sporty, long-hooded brainchild of Ford General Manager Lee Iacocca was brilliantly fashioned from basic Falcon components but with, in Iacocca’s words, “a youth wrapper around it.” Introduced at the New York World’s Fair in April 1964, Ford’s new “personal car” was an instant hit. Sharp edged, lean, and very affordable (base price $2,368), the Mustang sold a half million copies in 18 months and achieved a legendary status that endures today.

By the mid-fifties Ramblers tended to have about them the aura of a college math professor, a sober accountant, or an engineer who smoked one of those metal-stemmed pipes.

Ford management was delighted to find that Mustang buyers were ordering an average of $1000 in options, like air conditioning and bigger engines, all adding to the car’s weight. And some would-be customers wanted roomier seats. By the early ’70s, the Mustang had grown 8 inches longer, 6 inches wider, and almost 600 pounds heavier than the original. “The Mustang was no longer a sleek horse,” Iacocca later commented. “It was more like a fat pig.”

Whether small, medium, or large, American cars tended to grow as buyers demanded more “luxury and convenience” features—and more room. Over the ensuing decades Detroit’s smaller cars generally grew bigger until they rivaled the full-size cars, at which point they would be replaced by another small car. With George Romney gone on to his political career, even AMC’s cars began to fatten up and be augmented by smaller lines like the Gremlin (1970) or the strange squat Pacer (1975), billed as “the first wide small car.” Soon there were “sub-compacts,” like Chevrolet’s ill-fated rustmobile, the Vega, then the Chevette, and later the Cavalier. Ford had its Pintos and Tempos and Escorts; Chrysler its Omnis and Horizons and Neons.

But big cars continued to be the best sellers and the source of huge profits. As industry experts have often pointed out, the fixed investment in plant and machinery, labor and advertising is about the same whether you are building a full-size or small car. The material costs may be slightly higher for the big car—a few hundred dollars perhaps—but the big one will sell for many thousands of dollars more than the small one. 

It took the early “oil shocks” of the 1970s along with increasing safety and environmental regulations for Detroit to dramatically rethink its idea of a big car. GM led the way in the historic downsizing of its vast fleet of cars beginning in 1977. I remember it well. My 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan rode a 133-inch wheelbase and weighed 5,242 pounds. My next Fleetwood, a 1979, was just as roomy and as fine a highway cruiser, but it was built on a 121.5-inch wheelbase and weighed 4,240 pounds.

The 300-plus horsepower Cadillac, like so many other American cars at the end of the ’50s, had become a bloated, baroque, chrome-laden whale; a tail-finned caricature of itself.

Since the 1980s, the public has had a wide choice of cars of every imaginable size. A revolution largely unseen and uncomprehended by the public has made this greater variety affordable: The advent of the electronic machine tool. Computer integrated manufacture, translating computer-aided design and engineering into glass and steel reality, has made it feasible for a single manufacturer to produce cars of various sizes and designs in relatively small but still cost-effective batches.

Unfortunately, as American build quality began to decline, the Japanese and European manufacturers were delivering cars not only with exceptional fit and finish but with intelligent solutions to the technology that makes cars cleaner, safer, more agile, and more fun to drive, with better brakes and suspensions and surprisingly powerful yet economical and clean-burning engines.

The obvious popularity of these better cars forced Detroit to follow. Now, the American consumer has a broad choice of good quality vehicles to choose from: small and large, sensible and “fun.” Many of them are American-made—Chevy’s Malibu, Ford’s Focus, Cadillac’s CTS, or Buick’s Enclave, to name a few. But Detroit is now struggling to get consumers to pay attention to its cars once again.

A revolution largely unseen and uncomprehended by the public has made a wide choice of cars affordable: The advent of the electronic machine tool.

As thoughtful auto buyers consider their actual needs and realize that high gas mileage isn’t everything when it comes to hauling a family or towing a boat, they benefit from a rich, complex, and dynamic American automotive market. It is no accident that it began evolving about 50 years ago—fragmenting, really—into a bazaar of cars large, medium, and small in dizzying variety. The modest Rambler tapped car makers on the shoulder and helped them discover more market segments than they had dreamed of: customers for brazen muscle cars and virtuous little “econoboxes,” for sport utilities and personal luxury sedans and straightforward family cars, for cavernous minivans and  parkable little runabouts. Even before the original Volkswagen Beetle, the “little Nash Rambler” awakened the American appetite for more quality, reliability, and variety in automobiles. For a small car, it has cast a very big shadow over American automotive history.

Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for The American. He covered national and international affairs for Reader’s Digest in its Washington bureau for 34 years.

Image by Getty.

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