This is the story of a $1.5 billion gamble by five men—captains of mighty teams which are competing for one of industry's biggest pots of gold. They have risked the billion and a half in styling and tooling up for the chrome-splashed 1958 U.S. automobile race, biggest, gaudiest, noisiest in history, which is now starting its cross-country course in showrooms, on the printed page and through kinescope tubes. As the pace of styling change speeds up and the market becomes ever more unpredictable, the struggle for the checkered flag, or sometimes merely for survival, intensifies. Still, the rules require the captains to place their glittering bet with an attitude of perfect confidence, and so, once again, they do. The five men behind the wheel are:
Henry Ford II, 40, tall and plumpish grandson of the eccentric genius who started all this assembly-line commotion. Fashionably educated at Hotchkiss and Yale, he proved mettlesome in winning the postwar power struggle for Henry I's crumbling empire, wise in restoring it to financial health.
Harlow Herbert (Red) Curtice, 64, smoothly tailored, suavely aggressive president of General Motors, who pulled Buick from the Depression depths on his way upstairs. His billion-dollar expansion plunge in 1954 steadied U.S. business and gave his annual predictions oracular import. Curtice's challenge: "GM must always lead."
Lester Lum (Tex) Colbert, 52, a husky glad-hander out of Oakwood, Texas ("I'm just a country boy"), who paid for a Texas U. education by speculating in cotton. As president of Chrysler the country boy borrowed $250 million in 1954 to give his company a transfusion and went happily down the road to fins and fortune.
George Romney, 50, a handsome, hard-hitting Mormon, who has, like his colleague (below) in the Little Two, an unfavorable post position. He is pitting his smaller Ramblers against what he calls the "big, gas-guzzling dinosaurs" of the Big Three for a larger share of the prize money in 1958.
Harold Eugene Churchill, 54, "Church" to his Studebaker-Packard employees, who built a tractor for himself at 12 on the family farm and likes do-it-yourself tinkering to this day. Austerity is the rule of S-P as Churchill fights for "a selective share" of the spoils of the race.
The race of races among the automakers this year has been, of course, that between Chevrolet, the passenger-car sales leader for 21 years, and Ford, its historic antagonist. Harlow Curtice has said, "I do not expect to be around on the day Ford beats Chevrolet." Those words may be taken more as an expression of a Detroit chieftain's eternal optimism than as literal intent, but they must taste singularly bitter right now. For in the latest list of sales registrations, for the first eight months of 1957, plus 17 states for September, Ford leads Chewy by a margin of more than 48,000, by 1,045,837 to 997,593. It would take a miracle for Chewy to catch up by December 31 despite brave words from the Chewy camp.
The lesson of 1957 for the Big Three is crystalized in that race: you must have a car as long, low and wide and, beyond that, as new looking as the competition to be thoroughly successful. The 1957 Chevrolet was a sound car and by Detroit standards a joy to drive, but Ford and Plymouth had more persuasive styling. Inasmuch as Detroit works three years in advance, Chevrolet's 1958 line was already determined before the 1957 race began, so it is obvious from the shape of the 1958 Chevvy that its masterminds were hip to the long-low-wide trend. They miscalculated its importance by one year and that was that.
General Motors, still the over-all industry leader despite its dip to 47% of the market in the first eight months of this year (down from 51% in the like 1956 period), moves now to recoup with major changes across the board. The Chevrolet, which should be an extremely tough contender for the 1958 sweepstakes, is nine inches longer, four inches wider and as much as 2½ inches lower; the new prestige Impala model is an inch lower still. An impressive air suspension system (available on all GM cars) that not only smooths the ride but keeps the car level despite unbalanced loading may be had for $115 extra. Dual headlights are standard (as generally throughout the industry), and a host of power-assisted controls are optional (as throughout the industry). Most striking in the styling is a gull-wing effect in the rear, the most spectacular tail a Chevvy ever flicked at its opposition. With a new 280-hp, 348-cu.-in. V-8, Chevrolet now has a range of five V-8s of 185 to 290 hp and a 145-hp six. The new Corvette is changed hardly at all mechanically, but the aluminum-reinforced fiberglass body, reminiscent of the meteoric SS racer, is mint new. A ride with Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Nuvolari of Detroit, left no doubt as to the car's superlative performance.
Pontiac, which adopts an X-frame and rear coil springs (as does Chevvy), goes substantially lower, wider and longer, introduces a new 370-cu.-in. engine and offers 240 to 310 hp depending upon accessories. Oldsmobile and Buick, massive enough for anyone in 1957, are dimension-ally unchanged and their engines are continued, but the bodies are unmistakably new and notably devoid of rear-window dividers. Gone are Buick's famous fender pips. In comes a luxury model called the Limited. Cadillac will have a solid new entry and the solid old mystique going for it.
Against that dazzling array Ford counters with, first of all, a surprisingly revamped Ford car that has a more massive front, a multigrooved roof and a pair of jutting twin taillights which replace the familiar round lenses. Ford had just had a sweeping revision for 1957; the look of the 1958 is an unmistakable signal that hotter styling wars lie ahead. A bit wider than before but otherwise little changed in basic dimensions, the Fords boast hotter engines. The old 292-cu.-in. model now is the smallest of three V-8s; the new ones of 352 and 332 cu. in. develop 300 and 265 hp, respectively, with four-barrel carburetion. The 223-cu.-in. six produces 145 hp, a modest increase. Like GM, the Ford Company offers ride-leveling air suspension on all makes. The Thunderbird soon becomes a four-seater, further evidence of Ford's insistence that it is not a sports car but an elegant "personal" car.
Now that the Edsel has arrived (SI, Sept. 2), Ford has upgraded Mercury with the luxurious Park Lane, seven inches longer than the standard 213-inch-long Mercurys. Mercury looks much the same for 1958 but is considerably less loud. The biggest stock engine in the U.S., an extra-cost 430-cu.-in. unit developing 400 hp, heads an engine line of exceptional oomph. Lincoln blossoms out with the longest stock model in America (19 feet 1 inch) and one-unit construction in an all-out bid to catch the elusive Caddy.
CHRYSLER: MORE FINS
Unlike GM and Ford, Chrysler Corporation enters the 1958 race without major styling change. The wedge-shaped, fin-tailed look has been a smashing success so far; it boosted Chrysler's share of the market for the 1957 model year 3.56% (to 19.54%) and returned Plymouth to third place in the standings, behind Ford and Chevvy, and ahead of Buick. Chief Stylist Virgil Exner, has become a prophet with lustrous honor.
The scope of Chrysler's 1957 styling adventure—spectacular models in each of the five lines—represented a colossal, if shrewdly calculated, risk, and it dramatized Tex Colbert's determination to revitalize the Chrysler operation. For 1958 the risk taken is hardly less great: that of seeing whether the cars are still visually exciting enough to be vigorously competitive with the bold new models from GM and Ford.
Some face lifting has been done, to be sure: revision of grille designs, rearrangement of body ornamentation, enlargement of windshields. Beneath the skin the news is in engines. Two new engines of 350 and 360 cu. in., developing 280 to 333 hp depending on carburetion and accessories, appear throughout the line under a variety of names (offering fuel injection for the first time). These are engines with deeper blocks and less weight than previous comparable models. All Chrysler Corporation V-8s are fitted with a new fuel-rationing choke system to improve operating economy. As in the past each make offers a high-performance engine package; the most powerful models again are in the Chrysler 300 series, now called the 300-D, equipped with a 392-cu.-in. engine.
One of 1957's major engineering accomplishments was the Chrysler torsion springing. Its contribution to handling and performance impressed many U.S. motor sportsmen and astonished Paul Fr√®re, the fine Belgian Grand Prix driver, in an all-out race course test of the Plymouth. It will, of course, be continued on the 1958. Chrysler is so pleased with the system that it is not now introducing air suspension.
Behind heavier Plymouth bumpers are hotter engines ranging from 132 hp for the 230-cu.-in. six to 315 for a special 350-cu.-in. V-8. Dodge's cluttered 1957 grille is now no less massive but considerably cleaner. De Soto also has a noticeably new and chrome-laden front end, as does Chrysler, which adds a shorter (by four inches) model in its Windsor line. The Imperial made a flying start in the luxury market this year and should again be a keen contender.
AMERICAN MOTORS: ECONOMY
American motors, with a successful bread-and-butter car in the 1957 Rambler, pursues the theme of compactness and economical operation still more aggressively in the new entries. The larger Nash and Hudson lines have been discontinued, and the company now offers only one "big" car, the Ambassador. Before the year is out AM will explore the small-car market further (it currently imports the tiny Metropolitan from England) by reviving a short-wheelbase Rambler (100 inches).
Restyled with flared fins in the rear and a lower, wider grille, the standard 1958 Rambler measures a shade over 191 inches in length. That makes it about 1½ feet shorter than the Chevvy and the longest Ford, and AM naturally trumpets the obvious advantages in parking and garaging it. Inside it is no less roomy, says AM, than its competitors. The Rambler, and all AM models, are again of one-unit body-frame construction, and they are now dipped in a giant paint bath before final assembly to reduce the risk of water penetration and rusting.
Rambler engines have been stepped up a bit in horsepower: the 195-cu.-in. six from 125 to 127 and the 250-cu.-in. V-8 from 190 to 215. In spite of the boost, say the engineers, greater fuel economy than in 1957 will be possible because of higher compression ratios and revised carburetion. Dashboard instruments have been relocated for greater visibility. A new push-button system has been developed for automatic transmissions. Reclining seats again may be lowered to form beds.
Little different from the Rambler except in size and power, the 1958 Ambassador is slightly over 200 inches long. It is equipped with a front sway bar to improve handling. Horsepower of the 327-cu.-in. V-8 is increased to 270 (from 255 for the old Nash and Hudson) by a higher compression ratio and a new four-barrel carburetor. Both Rambler and Ambassador incorporate a new internal transmission shifting system operated by vacuum control rather than mechanical linkage, as well as a step-on emergency brake. A new Ambassador station wagon bows.
Studebaker-Packard, heartened by the brisk sales of its economy model, the Scotsman, will push it vigorously this season. But unlike American Motors, S-P will continue to offer a wide variety of choices and will, of course, still distribute Germany's Mercedes-Benz cars through its dealers. President Harold Churchill promises to introduce another smaller car later, and the guessing is that it will be the German Goggomobil.
Sportiest cars of the S-P line are the Hawks, joined now by a Packard Hawk. Both the Packard and the Studebaker Golden Hawk have the supercharged, 289-cu.-in., 275-hp V-8 that was new last season. Studebaker's nonsuper-charged Silver Hawk V-8 develops 210 hp (225 with a power kit), and the Silver Hawk Six, displacing 185 cu. in., 101 hp. They are all built on a 120-inch wheelbase; the Packard, at 205 inches, is an inch longer than the Studebakers. An exception to the industry trend is the fitting of a pair of single headlights on the Packard. Studebaker Champions and Scotsmen, too, have single headlights, but the dual lamps are available.
In its conventional models S-P has dropped the roof line substantially, in keeping with the industry's low-profile trend, but is making no attempt to outdo the Big Three in length and girth. The low-priced Scotsman (a de-chromed Champion) is a little over 202 inches long: the luxury President just four inches longer. All Studebaker sedans and station wagons are 75.8 inches wide. The new bodies are noticeably, but not drastically, different from the 1957s, especially in front, where the headlight assembly protrudes sharply. Horsepower, ranging from 101 for the 185-cu.-in. six to 225 for the 289-cu.-in. V-8, is the same as last season's. S-P points with pride to an improved suspension system whose variable-rate springing adapts itself to road conditions and passenger loading.
In December, S-P will introduce a new Packard sedan that is said to be especially handsome, and later this month new hardtops in the President and Commander series.
Churchill, like AM's Romney, insists that he will be using black ink exclusively in the ledger next year.