Beneath a soft-focus picture of a Volkswagen in a meeting room at the New York Coliseum last week was a typically Volksy inscription: "First Beetle of Spring."
Outside in the show arena glossy 150-mile-an-hour Jaguar XK-E sports cars, the hits of the fifth—and largest ever—International Automobile Show, had small windshield stickers bearing in minute but smug print the word: SOLD.
But for all the confidence shown in these cars, they were isolated isles in an industry awash with uncertainty. Imported car sales had dipped from 10% of the rich American market in 1959 to 7% last year. Dampened by gross overproduction overseas and the new, hugely popular U.S. compact cars, which now account for some 30% of the domestic output, the foreign car boom had not only reached a peak but gone into reverse. Said one British auto executive, between medicinal draughts of a pale, dependable British ale, "We knew it was going to happen some time, but we did't know it was going to be so bloody sudden."
Said another: "After the January and February sales reports I was ready to open the closet door and hang up the noose." But, he added, the first 18 days of March had brought his company U.S. sales greater than the total for the year's first two months. Spring, nature's season for opening buds and car buyers' pocketbooks, was thankfully here after a hard winter in which domestic and foreign car dealers alike had been forced to live off the fat accumulated in previous good years.
Despite the signs of an upturn, however, foreign car men were hardly bouncy. Cautious hope was the prevailing mood. They would surely never again take 10% of U.S. sales but, after all, 1960 had been the second-best year yet for the importers. In all, they had sold 498,785 vehicles for the year, and this meant rich returns in foreign currencies. Even if the 1961 total drops to 400,000, as many have predicted, it will still be a relatively good year.
What really worries the players in this global dice game is where the foreign share of the U.S. market will stabilize—if that word can be applied to so chancy a field. Last year's production cutbacks, price cuts and callbacks on U.S.-bound shipments by the hardest-hit firms will not have to be duplicated if they set more realistic goals. But what is realistic?
A longtime Detroit observer, Automotive News Associate Editor Robert Lienert, sees no prospect of a big foreign car rally. He says America's recent splurge on imports was in a fad market. "People wanted smaller cars," he says, "and the American-made compacts of the day weren't the type they wanted to buy. The Volkswagen triggered the fad market, but VW couldn't produce enough cars to fill it. People didn't want to wait. They went out and bought other makes, creating a false impression in foreign factories that the American market was bursting with enthusiasm for any imported car. Then Volkswagen hiked production and got a lot of the business it otherwise would have lost."
Obviously the tag "imported" no longer assures quick, easy sales. Apart from the compacts' counter-thrust and the importers' misreading of U.S. trends, there appears to be a substantial buy-American swing, stimulated by this country's balance-of-payments troubles and some union action. Importers are generally agreed that they now must stress:
1) The superluxurious cars, sports cars and ultra-small, ultra-economical family cars that have no American equivalent now and are not likely to have soon.
2) The individuality of small cars that compete with the compacts in size and price.
3) Improved dealer and service organizations.
All this indicates that the American buying and browsing public has never had it so good. Not since the prewar years, as the show amply illustrates, have there been so many cars to choose from, nor has the business climate been so conducive to hard bargaining on the public's part.
To Saturday's opening came a record 47,000 persons who saw 400 models of 80 makes of cars from the U.S., Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands and Sweden. Russia's sturdy but plain Moskvitch and Volga sedans, shown last year, were absent.
Prices ranged from $889 for a tiny, blocky, 50 mph (but 60-miles-pergallon) American car called a King Midget, which was having its world premiere, to $28,925 for a seven-place Rolls-Royce limousine, which has been seen before but wears well.
Broadly represented at the show for the first time, Detroit put its fast-multiplying compacts squarely in among the foreign cars with which they have competed so harshly. Detroit may build only one true sports car (the Corvette), but it is obviously ladling plenty of sports car syrup as well as interior plush into its newest compacts. Following the lead of the dolled-up Corvair Monza are new models like the Pontiac Le Mans, Ford Futura, Buick Skylark, Comet S-22 and Olds Cutlass. The Pontiac, for example, has sporty wire wheels, knock-off hubcaps and sports bucket seats. "If you don't have buckets," says Lienert, "you're no place."
Amid the show's gloss and glitter, though, no car had more appeal than the Jaguar XK-E, which was being shown in the U.S. for the first time. From the tip of its arrogantly long, elegantly rounded hood to the taper of its tail, the XK-E is plainly a sports car thoroughbred. British newsmen have been flinging purple nosegays at it for a couple of weeks now, and it may even be as extraordinary as they claim.
The car's galvanic quality is due partly to its aerodynamic good looks, partly to its reportedly superb road-holding and genuine top speed of something near 150 mph (those lead-footed British newsmen have been having a high old time proving it) and partly to its price of approximately $6,000. That is half the cost of a comparable European Grand Touring sports car and only a few hundred dollars more than current Jaguar XK-150 sports coupes. Moreover, the E-type is the first mass-produced Jaguar of any consequence to discard the bulbous if stately Olde English styling associated with the Coventry firm. It is a jet-age car. Its so-called monocoque structure (a basic welded, stressed steel shell with front sub-frame to carry engine and front suspension) is reminiscent of and derived from the D-type Jaguars, the purely racing models that three times won the famed 24-hour run at Le Mans.
The E-type comes in two models, a coupé whose roof slopes in a "fast-back" line to the rear bumpers and a roadster with a convertible soft top and detachable hardtop. Both models have the Le Mans-proved six-cylinder XK engine which, with 3.8 liters piston displacement and three carburetors, produces 265 brake horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Suspension is independent front and rear. Brakes are the disc type that now predominates in road racing. The rear brakes are in-board to reduce unsprung weight, that old bugaboo of high-performance cars, and there is a dual-control system so that if either front or back brakes fail the other set will operate.
At the show the Jaguar people have stationed a long-legged, pneumatic brunette alongside one of the E-types on a revolving turntable. She's nice, but superfluous. So many orders are coming in, some accompanied by $1,000 deposits, that the American demand can't possibly be met for months. The U.S. will get 60% to 70% of the cars, but the production goal is only 100 a week and that isn't expected to be reached until August.
The Jaguar, then, is a perfect example of the kind of hit-'em-where-they-ain't car with which foreign producers hope to combat Detroit. Another solid show car, new this year, is the $8,700 Mercedes 220 SE from Germany. Its hardtop styling is clearly aimed at satisfying U.S. taste. Its particular fuel-injection engine and swing axle are just as clearly not to be found in domestic cars.
Another exotic entry, having its world premi√®re, is a 90-mph, $3,000 sports car from Israel called the Sabra. The word sabra denotes a thorny-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside cactus, and that is what the Israelis hope their very first car will be. The body is made of plastic (as is the American Corvette's) and the engine is the British Ford Consul's. From France comes the new Peugeot 404, one of several European sedans styled by the Italian master Pinin Farina (SI, March 27) for one of the few makes to hold its own here in 1961. As Director Roland Peugeot explained in a Coliseum room acrid with Gauloise cigarette smoke, the more powerful, more luxurious 404 will be sold side by side with its forerunner, the 403. Peugeot will build 500 models of each car daily. This is not exactly Detroit's idea of dynamic obsolescence, but evidently it works. Lighting up an American filter-tip, M. Peugeot said the factory expects to sell every one without difficulty.
Also new to the show and the U.S. were two European cars with American-style quad headlights, Britain's Humber Super Snipe ($3,995) and Italy's Lancia Flavia ($3,685); the production model of Sweden's 100-mph Volvo P-1800 sports car ($3,795), a prototype of which was seen last year; a French Renault Dauphine with some souping up by Racing Car Designer Amedee Gordini ($1,595); the Ford Gyron, a two-wheeled, deltashaped car with futuristic coachwork—supposedly to be stabilized by a gyroscope (not for sale); and a Kart designed by Brooks Stevens along lines that seem to have come straight from a toboggan.
But as the show crowds ogled the new and different, the Volkswagen offered clear evidence that if you build the same old beetle the world will beat a path to your door. The first beetle of spring looked exactly like last year's and the previous year's (although, as usual, minor improvements had been made inside), and the only thing worrying VW men in the U.S. was the black market.
It seems that of 160,000 Volkswagen passenger cars sold in America in 1960, some 20% were brought in by unauthorized parties who worked through apparently legitimate order-placers in Germany. The American VW distributor expects U.S. sales to increase by 20% this year and wants the black market spivs to please get their hands out of the till. Wistful rivals wish they had as pleasant a problem.