Once again Detroit's molting season is upon us. The plumage which looked so bright a year ago has been shed, and slicked-up new models are on the wheel from Ypsilanti to ybor City and points east and west. Citizens who like to vocalize about the mass and glitter of Detroit automobiles are serenading each other again, but in fact the new cars seem to be headed for a very good year, after a frankly painful one.
Two years ago, at the beginning of the accelerated trend to flatter, longer and wider cars, an adman for one of the Big Three saluted his machine with this bit of doggerel:
O, sweet Chariot, swung low,
You're a dream car come true.
There's no car in your field
That is longer than you.
A rival adman ran this slogan up the flagpole: "It's got git."
October 19, 1958
Taken together, these rhapsodies reflected pretty accurately what Detroit had divined the majority wanted in a car: size and jet-takeoff performance. As the photographs on the following pages show, Detroit (with some modest exceptions) still feels that way about size. And if the horsepower race has ended, it has done so at a point at which nearly all the cars have as much git as anybody wants.
The new cars from the Big Three, then, are strikingly long, low, wide and flossy. There is said to be a less obtrusive use of chrome and other bright metal trim, although this is not immediately discernible in all models. The market for smaller cars—usually called "compact" cars these days to distinguish them from foreign economy cars—has again been left to American Motors and Studebaker-Packard.
Once more the stylist is king, and this year Detroit's weightiest stylist, Harley Earl of General Motors—a man who likes to obsolete 'em fustest with the mostest—is sending out the cars with the most radical changes. Earl, a tall, richly tailored man, as neatly upholstered as any of his wheeled creations, saw the decline of the carriage at first hand from his father's carriage shop, and has in recent years given GM cars a look of weighty solidity.
For 1959 Earl has okayed a notably racy line, sharply different in character (except for the Cadillac) from what we have come to expect. Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks have almost no resemblance to the 1958 models. His Buick, by the way, was an immediate hit, with production running behind orders. Sobersided styling at Chevrolet has given way to a surprisingly extreme shape (see page 68), a further affirmation of the big swing away from plain-Jane bodies in the lower price ranges.
CRISP TALK AT FORD
George Walker, the man who handles art at Ford, is a flamboyant, thick-chested ex-pro football halfback who loves to talk about the crispness of his models. His 1957 Ford was a sales champion, but the '58 didn't have as much snap, crackle and pop. The 1959 is a cleaner, smarter car (see opposite page), and in comparison with the Chevy a thoroughly conservative one. Mercurys, Edsels and Lincolns have not been introduced yet, but you can expect the biggest change from Mercury, the least from Lincoln.
Over at Chrysler, the prematurely white-haired Virgil Exner, a onetime GM stylist, has put his seal on another set of racily finned models. These will round out the three-year cycle begun so sensationally with the 1957s. The year 1958 saw very little change, but the new cars are noticeably different in detail while still faithful to the original concept.
American Motors and Studebaker-Packard are banking on the recently developed American taste, in some circles, for less size and more economy. AM's Ramblers were a rousing success in the recession year just past. This year the high tail fins are a bit different, and AM is taking its small 1955 station wagon out of mothballs to join the Rambler American sedan, de-mothballed last year. S-P will try to get out of the financial shallows with a new compact car, the Lark.
What's this about compact cars from the Big Three? Well, GM and Ford have spent about $500 million on development and can go into production on relatively short notice (Ford with a six-cylinder, front-mounted engine; GM with perhaps an aluminum rear engine). For the time being Chrysler will let its French Simca be its small car (both GM and Ford, of course, also import their own foreign-built cars). GM and Ford will wait until they are absolutely convinced the market is there before taking the plunge. Each company feels that it would have to sell upwards of 300,000 models to make such a venture worthwhile; meanwhile, they want to see how the bread-and-butter '59s are going to sell. There are a lot of ifs here, but informed Detroiters expect to see the new compact cars in production before the end of 1959.
Despite the annual hubbub over size and power, there is every reason to believe that Detroit will go right along putting most of its eggs in the long, low, wide basket. The 1960s will be every bit as hefty as the '59s—and a little lower. If the small-car market becomes big, Detroit will cater to it eagerly, but until then...well, turn the pages.
Like the Chevrolet (page 68) and the other GM cars except Cadillac, the Pontiac has a radically new body. Up to nine inches longer, three inches wider and three inches lower than the 1958s, it comes in three series, with engines of 215 to 345 hp available. The Chevrolet is slightly larger than last year's, with headlights lowered seven inches. A new six-cylinder economy engine complements the V-8 line. Delray name goes out.
The old model names are out, including Roadmaster, that famous symbol of material success. To point up the newness of the '59s, Buick now introduces these names: LeSabre, Invicta and Electra (Dynaflow, however, is still Dynaflow). Wildcat is the perhaps inevitable name of a new 401-cubic-inch engine, added to the current 364-inch V-8. Cadillac restyling (page 69), while not as drastic, is showy, especially in bright work between fins.
This is the Lark, the "compact" car with which Studebaker-Packard hopes to get back on its feet in the auto industry. Shown here at the Paris Auto Show, it will not be introduced in the U.S. until next month. Sedans will be 175 inches long, station wagons 184 inches. Two engines will be available, an economical six and a V-8. S-P says it already has a whopping 25,000 orders. The famous Packard line has been discontinued.
Lower-priced models are 10 inches longer, the "98" series six inches longer; all are slightly wider and lower—and cleaner than the chrome-hung 1958s. There is more glass area, as throughout the GM line, and an unusual headlight treatment. Better economy is claimed for the big V-8 engines, of 270 and 315 hp, through refinements to carburetion, choking and transmission systems. Brake drums are flanged to limit fading.
Unique among Detroit cars, the Corvette is a dual-purpose racing-touring sports two-seater with a fiber-glass body. Last year's basic styling is retained. The addition of radius rods to the rear suspension is expected to improve the handling qualities of an already nimble car. Brake cooling is improved, and engine options from 230 to 290 hp are offered. Transmission systems include a four-speed gearbox for sports car purists.
Having produced nearly 175,000 cars in the 1958 model year, double the previous year's production, American Motors offers more of the same. The four-year-old short-wheelbase station wagon is revived to join the Cross Country wagon (above). There are minor styling changes in the regular Rambler lines as AM girds for a bigger changeover for 1960. Unitized body-frames dipped in rust preventer are again a salutary feature.
Dodge shares with all the Chrysler Corporation models the torsion springing, which gives exceptional handling qualities, and the new optional swivel seats, which permit easier front-door entry. Moderate restyling includes a lower roofline. A six-cylinder engine develops 135 hp, the V-8s up to 345 hp. The most noticeable difference in Plymouth styling (page 70) from last year is in the rear fin treatment and the indented front fenders.
Cushiony tires with only 16 pounds of air pressure and a non-glare rearview mirror which snaps to "dim" automatically when a following car's headlights strike it are new, optional features augmenting the styling face-lift. Lightweight engines produce 305 to 380 hp. The Imperial (page 70), most expensive and least changed of the Chrysler lines, is roomier and has a stronger frame. A stainless-steel roof joins conventional tops.
An enormous compound-curve windshield with 61% more glass area than last year is the most striking feature of the '59s. In some models the rear window also wraps up into the roof. Mercury officials say the new cars will be "totally new, from road to roof," with the instrument panel moved forward six inches to increase knee room, and the wheelbase lengthened as much as four inches. The drive-shaft hump will be considerably smaller.
Here, too, the dimensional change is chiefly in the lowered roof. The more massive-looking headlight brow is characteristic of the higher-priced Chrysler Corporation lines. A new, optional rear air-suspension system is available in all Chrysler models, and pushbutton temperature controls are added to the well-established pushbutton transmission controls. Chrysler's overlapping engine series gives De Soto a 290- to 350-hp range.
LINCOLN and CONTINENTAL
Like Mercurys and Edsels, they won't be on the road until next month. Following the big changeover last year, which made them the longest cars on the road, the look of the '59s will be only slightly different, as in the grille treatment above. Two new Continental models are added, a town car and limousine. Ford Motors' other luxury line, the Thunderbird (page 67), was a hit as a four-seater this year and is changed only in minor details.
Introduced last September, the Edsel entered a declining medium-price market in a recession year, but still nearly 60,000 were sold. Edsels are face-lifted for '59 and priced nearer the Fords, while Mercury is upgraded. Ford's Fairlane 500s (page 67) are an inch longer, Custom 300s six inches longer. Ford engines develop 145 to 300 hp. A crash program will put a stylish new Ford, the Galaxy, to cost about $3,000, in showrooms soon.
THUNDERBIRD FOUR-SEATER IS LITTLE CHANGED FROM HOT '58
BIG, ROUND TAILLIGHT, ONCE FORD TRADEMARK, RETURNS
CHIEF STYLIST GEORGE WALKER
FAIRLANE 500 CONVERTIBLE HAS A CLEANER, BULKIER FRONTAL AREA
TAIL OF THE ONCE-STAID CHEVY IS AMONG DETROIT'S MOST EXTREME
STARTLING CHEVY STYLING IS IN FULL VIEW ON IMPALA
CADILLAC MAKES SURE IT WON'T BE LOST IN CROWD
CHIEF STYLIST HARLEY EARL
ELDORADO CONVERTIBLE SHOWS CADILLAC'S HEFT AND GLITTER
DEEP PLYMOUTH FRONT HAS NEW WRINKLE ON BROWED FENDERS
MASSIVE, CHROMY GRILLE FOR PRESTIGE IMPERIAL Le BARON
CHIEF STYLIST VIRGIL EXNER
SWING SEAT (ON PLYMOUTH FURY) IS THE NEW CHRYSLER SALES HOPE