Almost as much as nature abhors a vacuum, the men who build America's cars deplore the idea of an unchallenged competitor. For five years Detroit has watched with mingled admiration and avarice the Ford Thunderbird's solo flight to a high plateau of profits and prestige. Now for the first time the 'Bird has hostile company. Two rivals have been launched to scrape beak and claw with the Thunderbird for the growing market in what Detroit likes to refer to as "personal" cars—cars that bespeak sport and luxury. The newest intruder is Buick's widemouthed, elegant Riviera (left), introduced just this week. Already in production but still novel to most potential buyers is Studebaker's Avanti (below), a wedgelike, Italianate auto mobile, the most powerful version of which is the world's fastest stock car.
Ford's cool response to these challengers, which it knew perfectly well were coming, is the 1963 Thunderbird (illustrated below), also introduced this week. Except for minor styling changes, the new Thunderbird looks exactly like the present model. Funds that might have been spent on drastic resculpturing have been invested instead in improvements invisible to the eye—e.g., noise deadeners, more powerful brakes, superior hydraulically operated windshield wipers.
The three cars differ from one another in more than looks alone, but they all have in common the "personal" qualities. They include a two-door hardtop body sharply different in appearance from each company's standard cars, four individual "bucket" seats, a "console" instrument area between the front seats and a maximum speed potential of more than 100 mph. Price tags are in the $4,500-to-$5,000 range.
When Ford invented the personal car in 1954—first year of the old two-seat Thunderbird—sports-car purists were pained. The four-seat 'Bird, introduced in 1958, scarcely mollified them. (Chevy's Corvette has remained a two-seater and is, of course, acknowledged to be Detroit's only real sports car.) The purists' supercilious attitude toward the Thunderbird has worried Ford all the way to the bank, as they say. It is precisely because Ford chose not to build a small, stiffly sprung sports car with hair-trigger steering for the buffs, but sought a wider appeal, that Thunderbird sales have reached a lucrative 80,000-a-year level and that the Riviera and Avanti now want in.
September 16, 1962
"We went pretty low on volume guesses for the first four-seater," said one of Ford's executives the other day, "and then found we had a ten-strike. Many buyers had to wait three to four months for their Thunderbirds in 1958."
"It is," wrote the contented owner of a more recent 'Bird, "the most waved-at car on the road today."
Besides the basic hardtop model, this year as in the past there is also a convertible 'Bird to be waved at, with a top that stows itself beneath the rear-deck lid (thus making the trunk useless for luggage, which somehow doesn't seem to bother the owners), and a curious roadster version in which a removable cowl covers the convertible's rear seats. Although five inches shorter than the standard Ford Galaxie, the 1963 'Bird is some 500 pounds heavier. Ford believes its customers want the feel of a heavy car and gives it to them. A 390-cubic-inch, 300-hp engine provides reasonably brisk acceleration and passing power; a hotter 340-hp engine is also available. The car is, of course, essentially a boulevard and turnpike machine; its sporting aspect lies mostly in the bucket seats and jaunty styling.
Identical to the Thunderbird in concept is the Riviera, which the Buick wordsmiths term a "personalized sports coupe." The decision to build it was made at General Motors' corporate summit. Bids were made on high not only by Buick but also by Pontiac and Oldsmobile. Volatile Buick, which had vaulted to third place in the industry with 1955 sales of 737,000 but had slumped to 245,000 in 1959, was the logical choice because of its now embarrassingly roomy plant capacity. A super pitch by super-spieler Roland Withers, sales manager, is said to have clinched the Riviera deal for Buick in the spring of 1961.
Of the three cars treated here the Riviera is the most conservative in appearance, which was to be expected of prudent, prosperous GM. It is also the longest—three inches longer than the Thunderbird. However, the car weighs substantially less—even less than standard Buicks—and its 401-cubic-inch engine has a higher-rated horsepower, 325. This combination results in a top speed reportedly between 115 and 125. The Riviera accelerates from 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds—very spirited traveling indeed.
The Avanti is something else again. It is a conspicuously daring gamble by President Sherwood Egbert to restore luster to Studebaker's faded name. As such, the Avanti is important not only for the profits it will make but also as an "emotion-mover" (in industry jargon) to attract customers into Studebaker showrooms.
The car is an audacious one for America. Raymond Loewy's racy fast-back coachwork (roof line sloping directly to the car's rearmost extremity) is easily the industry's most spectacular at this moment (although Chevy's 1963 Corvette, to be unveiled in two weeks, is going to open an eye or two). The car's performance can be breathtaking. Supercharged engines are available, and an Avanti in the most highly modified trim became the world's quickest passenger car by averaging no less than 168.15 mph at Bonneville in two-way flying mile runs. Most buyers of supercharged Avantis will specify a less violent package. Equipped with the standard, unsupercharged 289-cubic-inch V-8, the hp rating of which has not been disclosed, the light (3,000 pounds), compact (a foot shorter than the 'Bird), normal Avanti is plenty hot. Manual transmissions are available, as is not the case with 'Birds and Rivieras.
In trying out the three cars, not as a cornering demon but merely as a keen motorist, I found them all comfortable, peppy, stable at high speeds and vice-free to the limited degree that I attempted vigorous driving. The Avanti felt lightest and stiffest, as it should have, and had the quickest steering. The Riviera pilot model had ultrasensitive brakes, which took some getting used to—a point soon forgotten in the exhilaration of doing 100 mph with a feeling of complete security over the wavy asphalt of a narrow two-lane road. In 400 miles at the wheel of a Thunderbird roadster, mostly in the 70-to-80-mph range on expressways, I experienced the sense of well-being that accompanies rapid motoring in a well-appointed car.
These personal cars accentuate the recent sweeping industry move toward features with a sportive flavor—especially bucket seats. The trend continues in the 1963 models now being introduced. Technical innovation is largely absent from the new models, although Cadillac will have a new 325-hp V-8 engine and Chevy a new 230-cubic-inch six.
Many cars will have a different look, but in most cases only subtly so. Ford is adding convertibles in its Falcon and Comet compact lines; Mercury is adding engine oomph; the Ford Galaxie will offer as optional the swing-away steering wheel pioneered by the Thunderbird, and will have an optional four-speed stick shift.
Chrysler Corporation has replaced its Dodge Lancer with a new 111-inch-wheelbase Dart; standard Dodges are longer, as are Valiants and Plymouths; and the Imperial's gunsight tailpieces are no more. The industry is generally cleaning up and simplifying car exteriors. Ramblers have been given their first major restyling in years and are a bit shorter, although wheelbase length has been increased. Studebaker has again changed the familiar Lark in minor ways and is not expected to alter the Lark look drastically until next year. Powerful, virtually fade-proof disk brakes on the front wheels, one of the Avanti's best features, will be offered at extra cost in all other Studebakers.
As the battle of the automobile marketplace warms up to its customary frantic pitch, however, there will probably be no more exciting contest than that between the 'Bird and the sharp-clawed Riviera and Avanti. The champ has drawn two bright competitors.
Sporty Riviera by Buick has a markedly wide front, four headlights, massive parking light pods (in front fenders) and eggcrate grille. The driving wheel can be adjusted to seven positions. The body is steel, the hubcaps are simulated knock-offs (√† la Indianapolis) and the roof line reflects the Thunderbird influence, now heavily copied in the industry. The Avanti by Studebaker (right) is of fiber glass, has but two headlights and no grille. Designed by Raymond Loewy, it has an air scoop below the front bumper, is stylishly pinch-waisted and fast-backed. Advertised as fast and safe, it has disk brakes and a roll bar in the roof.