The foreign automobiles that have provoked so many hurrahs and so many headaches in the United States will be shown under one roof in a few days at a whopping exhibition in New York. From April 5 to 13 they will occupy (along with a few Detroit models) some 200,000 square feet of floor space at the International Automobile Show in Manhattan's Coliseum. There will be passenger cars, elegant and plain, sports cars and minicars—a massive reminder that foreign cars have taken deep root in America.
Three years ago the number sold in the U.S. was trifling. In 1956, however, it jumped to 98,187 and last year to 206,827. That was a healthy 3.5% of the American market. Right now the imports are coming in at an even faster rate than in 1957, and there is every reason to look for a new sales record this year.
This is exceedingly distasteful to the Detroit automobile manufacturers. Every time a Detroit executive hears the Auspuff of a new Volkswagen, he is apt to mutter darkly about "lowered standards of living." His own current sales charts give him no lift, because the 1958 domestic models are off to a slow start. He is worried about the business recession, and the nation is worried about him, since Detroit's ills cause tremors all over the country.
Detroit, then, is concerned about the foreign cars—not primarily because of the volume of sales, but because the upswing shows a measurable preference for cars Detroit does not build. In a good business year Detroit would not be concerned. If the domestic slump is prolonged, however, and the small car market becomes potentially profitable for U.S.-built models, Detroit is sure to act aggressively.
March 31, 1958
So far, with one minor exception, Detroit has met the European challenge in a practical way only by bringing in cars produced by its foreign subsidiaries. These have done very well. Sales of English-built Fords, for example, more than quadrupled in 1957, reaching 17,062. Sales of American Motors' little English-built Metropolitan increased from 7,145 in 1956 to 11,791 last year. General Motors has recently begun to import its English-built Vauxhall (1,500 a month) and German-built Opel (1,000 a month). Chrysler and Studebaker-Packard have no convenient foreign-made car to exploit, but S-P has taken over U.S. distribution of the distinguished German Mercedes-Benz cars. Chrysler is understandably shy of the small-car field after its sad experiences with a small Plymouth in the early 1950s.
The exception to the general practice is American Motors' revival of its 100-inch-wheelbase Rambler American. But then the dies were already on hand, and the 1958 production schedule calls for only 25,000 cars. The Big Three are not likely to make the $300 million gamble of tooling up for a small car until the potential market becomes a good deal larger.
WAR OF NERVES
Until then Detroit will go its accustomed way, and the minority of buyers who prefer foreign cars will go theirs. In the running war of nerves between Detroit and these dissidents, some automakers choose to label the latter "the narrow-shoulder crowd." Many partisans of the imported cars, in return, are extreme in their verbal barbs at Detroit. This has not prevented Chevrolet from undertaking a crash program to prepare a 1959 model ever larger than 1958's.
Meanwhile, the small-foreign-car buyer is being analyzed extensively. Usually he has an above-average income; still, he says he bought his car primarily for economy of operation or low initial cost. In a large number of cases it is his family's second car; he finds it well-made and easy to maneuver and park; he would buy a small car again.
A point missed by most of the surveys, though, is the close link between the rise of small-passenger-car sales and the growth of the U.S. sports car movement.
A spectator at an American sports-car race cannot fail to notice the large number of foreign passenger cars in the parking fields. The European sports cars and the people who show them off have acquired chic and glamor—and even created new styles in clothes.
This sports-car gloss has carried over to the small European sedans. It is reasonable to assume that Volkswagen did not lead the list in 1957 merely because more than 64,000 U.S. buyers wanted an inexpensive car delivering 30 to 40 miles per gallon of gas. They obtained that, to be sure, but they were getting a fashionable car as well, in spite of the droop-snoot appearance and plainness of their mounts.
Beyond that, they were getting a car that had many genuine sports-car qualities: a short wheelbase, quick steering, a useful gearbox, excellent road-holding in fast turns—advantages shared in varying degrees by all the small imports.
If the cars are pinched for passenger and trunk space, underpowered and in some cases awkward to service by American standards, the buyers are not making much fuss about it. Potential VW buyers are waiting up to a year for delivery through regular channels; impatient ones are supporting a brisk bootleg market, paying up to $300 over the normal price, and used-car depreciation is amazingly slight.
The perky Renault Dauphine from France, Volkswagen's top challenger, found more than 22,586 buyers here in 1957, up from less than 2,500 in 1956. Fiat, Italy's largest auto manufacturer, crashed the market last year with its small 1100 and smaller 600 models. Hillman of England more than tripled its 1956 take last year, with sales of 11,124; and Morris of England counted 5,375 buyers against fewer than 500 the year before. Sales of French Simcas rose from 2,006 to 5,766. The Swedish Saab found 1,500 customers, mostly in the Northeast, in its first full year in the U.S. A new Triumph sedan has recently come in from England, following a bang-up year here for the Triumph TR3 sports cars.
These and a few other makes are the ones which most aptly fit the American conception of "the small foreign car." They range in length from 145 to 160 inches, in horsepower from 32 to 45 and in price from just under $1,600 to about $1,900 before state and local taxes at eastern ports of entry. Prices on the West Coast and inland are higher.
Not the least of the foreign cars' appealing features is the wide variety in body styles and engineering features. The VW and the Dauphine are excellent examples of rear-engined cars that have made good. The Saab and the German DKW offer uncommon 3-cylinder engines and front-wheel drive. Fiats are well known for their Italianate zip and racy exhaust note.
For ultimate fuel economy there are the minicars, like the German Isettas and Goggomobils; for silken luxury, the patrician conveyances from Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Facel Vega, Jaguar and the celebrated Italian coachmakers; for admirers of the futuristic, France's Citroen DS 19; for seekers of rarities, the Czechoslovakian Skoda.
All these, and the thriving sports cars, too, will stand in glittering array at the International Show. Jaguar will introduce a new roadster in the XK series; Saab will unveil a new touring car, the 750 Granturismo, which comes equipped with a more powerful engine than the standard 93Bs, a tachometer and a Halda average speed computer.
The automotive year ahead will be momentous, as competition for U.S. dollars among the proliferating foreign-car dealers becomes more intense, as Detroit restudies the European penetration in the light of its immense production and sales apparatus and as the recession runs its rocky course. The auto show arrives at a significant hour.