25 September 2007

The American love for big cars

While at the library Saturday I found Cars of the Sensational '60s by Dan Lyons and, digging around in it, discovered this.

With all the hype about the excesses of the 50s and 60s one should remember the number of small sensible cars and how well they sold. This book is essentially an ode to the former, but contains some interesting articles on the latter.

One, the 1960-61 Studebaker Lark. I can, just barely, remember these cars. I was only 11 or 12 and wasn't much interested in cars at the time. Here's a quote about the popularity of small cars at the time:

In 1959, Lark had the playground nearly all to itself. The introduction of the cute compact was fortuitously timed. Its success stemmed the tide of red ink that was drowning Studebaker, and temporarily gave hope of a revival of the company's failing fortunes. But the competition was right on Lark's tail, rolling out compact models of their own in 1960. Such was the strength of the small car market that even the infusion of new product from other players did little to stunt Studebaker sales...

So much for the myth that Americans back then only wanted huge cars with enormous tailfins and yards of chrome trim. Again, in talking about the Chevy Corvair Monza, Lyons notes "Small cars were big stuff in the early '60s. In 1960, the Big Three all arrived with new economy offerings: the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant and Chevy Corvair." The Corvair was the most innovative, or unconventional, depending on your outlook, and would eventually become notorious thanks to Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed. But that wasn't because the public did not want small, economical cars.

One problem with these cars, I think, was that Detroit really did not want to sell small cheap cars. They made more money off larger cars draped with lots of options. Lyons explains this in another way, though:

There's more to life than sensible shoes. Most compact cars, of course, are sensible shoes -- at least they start out that way. But, automakers know that people want to have a little fun, even when they're trying to be good. So, they subtly add some sport to the sensible.

Notice the condescension: "even when they're trying to be good." My memory of the type of people who were buying the compact economy cars of that era is that they were trying to stay within a budget. They just didn't have the money for anything more, nor did they particularly want anything more. Conservative, pokey folks need cars too. And on what evidence did the automakers "decide" on what people really wanted?

Lyon continues:

The early '60s produced a bumper crop of economy cars... they mostly all followed the same rollout strategy. The first wave was all sensible models. Following on its heels were slightly less sensible versions for those who were just a wee bit less puritanical in their purchases.

He goes on to say "The concept worked." I bet.

Now read this: The Ford Falcon "was an instant hit, selling a whopping 435,676 in its first year." Think about that for a minute. It's a sales figure that was only topped by Lee Iococcs'a Mustang, and then only by a very few copies - just read Iococca's autobiography to see how proud he was of that achievement and you will realize just how impressive the numbers were for that first year of the Falcon.

So why the need to tart it up in the years following the model Lyon describes? Could it simply be the quest for bigger profits per unit rather than anything about what the American public wants?

And, dear reader, do you think it is possible that Detroit has been playing the same game with the bigger and thirstier SUVs over the years?

Of course not. They are only responding to market demand.

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