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1960 COMPACTS/IMPORT FIGHTERS THAT SUCCEEDED

speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
Define "succeeded" :-).
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  • andys120andys120 Loudon NHPosts: 16,751
    Most of you don't remember it but the Automotive Big Three and half were quick to react to the original import threat posed by the Europeans led by Volkswagen. By 1960 they had developed a generation of sturdy compact cars that were not the equal of the Euros in gas mileage or driving fun but were cheap to run and repair (with some exceptions) and in many ways more practical than the big tanks we were used to.

    The way was led by the also rans. American Motors had been selling the dowdy Rambler for several years and Studebaker followed with the relatively spritely Lark in sedan, wagon and convertible form.

    In 1960, the big boys jumped in. Ford with the Falcon and slightly larger Mercury Comet. ChryCo had the slightly odd-looking Valiant and it's near twin the Dodge Lancer (no "Chrysler nameplate compact then).

    GM came in with a line-up that was four deep and each differed from the others in a way that GM cars haven't been before or since. Chevy had the sporty, rear-engined Corvair with a VW like air cooled flat 6(before Porsche!). Pontiac's LeMans featured a V-4 and a revolutionary rear transaxle.
    Buick's Skylark featured an aluminum V8 of 215 cid. The Olds F85 was probably the most conventional but if memory serves me it had a variant of the Buick V8.

    The GMs and most of the others had available sporty versions w buckets, floor shifts and hardtop and convertible designs as well as wagons.

    If you weren't there it'would be hard to understand how the auto scene changed in 1960. Up until then it had been a world of increasing Giantism with a few funky alternatives like VWs, Volvos, Morris Minors and such.

    Then, as if someone threw a switch, compacts were everywhere.

    These compacts succeeded in stemming the imported tide for some years...then they succumbed to Giantism and morphed into intermediates by the time the one-two punch of the oil shocks and the new Japanese small cars came along and forever changed the American car scene.

    I know I've left out a lot but that's the take of one who saw it happen. Please feel free to jump in with opinions, corrections, memories or observations on the "compact car" scene of 1960 and thereafter.

    2000 BMW 528i, 2001 BMW 330CiC

  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    Just a minor correction, the Tempest had an I-4 (half the Pontiac 389). The Olds F-85 also had the Buick aluminum V8 but with different heads.

    Probably the two compacts that succeeded the best were the also-rans, the Stude Lark and Rambler (?), in the sense that they kept those two companies in business for a few more years. In fact Rambler was the #3 automaker in '62.

    The plain jane versions of American compacts were not terribly well received IIRC but the sporty versions that came out a year or two later were fairly popular. They were the predecessors of the Mustang and established that there was a market for a small "sporty" car (although no one foresaw the Mustang's level of success).

    As to whether American compacts succeeded, Corvair would have died long before 1969 if Chevy hadn't developed the sporty Monza version. The Chevy II of 1962 was GM's attempt to get competitive in the basic compact sedan market.

    Tempest was an engineering marvel and nightmare at the same time. Lasted through 1963.

    F-85 and Special were much more conventional but both the aluminum V8 and automatic were troublesome. However the V8 led to a spin-off, the V6, that would later save GM's bacon.

    Chevy II/Nova sold well through the '70s but after '68 it was hardly a compact.

    Falcon was buried by the Mustang and Comet morphed into an intermediate in '66.

    Don't know that much about MoPar compacts although I know they were strong sellers. I don't know if they did much for Chrysler's bottom line, however, because the profit margin must have been small.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 22,143
    ...and noticed, about those late '50's Ramblers, that the only thing "compact" about them was their overall length. Inside, they looked every bit as roomy as a Ford, Chevy, or Plymouth...it's just that they took out all the wasted space up front that made those other cars look so much more graceful. Actually, a Plymouth might've been wider inside, but the Rambler made up for it in height.

    In fact, cars today like the Toyota Camry, Avalon, Nissan Altima, Ford Focus, etc, seem to be drawing off the old Rambler design, getting their interior volume with upright, stubby bodies.

    Oh yeah, one minor correction...the Pontiac 4 was actually a "slant-4"...1/2 of a 389, but cut down the middle length-wise.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 22,143
    ...I think the compact Dart and Valiant pretty much held up the Mopar line. Dodge and Plymouth depended on them much more than Ford or Chevy did. Dodge and Plymouth ceased being truly major players in the full-size field after 1961. They downsized their lineup about 15 years too early for 1962, and almost accidentally invented the intermediate. Dodge came out with a half-hearted attempt, the Custom 880, at mid-year '62, and by '65 both Dodge and Plymouth had a full line of full-sized cars again. Still, they just weren't the big sellers that the full-size Ford and Chevy were. In contrast, the Dart was often the top selling compact in the '60's, and it and the Valiant were about the only thing holding Chrysler up in the '70's, as everything else came crashing down.
  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,704
    I have reason to believe that Dodge and Plymouth had the most reliable cars of the era- the Dart and Valiant. With Slant Sixes and 727 TorqueFlites, they were unbeatable in durablity.
  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,704
    Why was the automatic transmission of the '60s F-85 and Special so unreliable? Was it because of the design, or just the fact that every automatic transmission was not built to last in that decade? Wasn't the F-85 supposed to be called Cutlass back then?
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 22,143
    ...actually calling the Dart and Valiant the worst car ever made! But before we start flaming, follow the reasoning here...

    These cars had some of the most bulletproof engines and trannies ever built...BUT they had a propensity to develop a leak at the base of the windshield. The fresh air intakes would get clogged up with dirt, leaves, and other debris, and then fill up with water, which would spill into the passenger compartment. Mere mortal cars would blow and engine and drop a tranny long before, the the Darts and Valiants would keep on running, subjecting their owners to the water torture long after lesser cars had bit the dust!

    Oh yeah, Jrosa...the 727 was the heavy-duty Torqueflite, which first appeared for 1957. By the '60's, it was put mainly behind big-block Mopars such as the 361, 383, 400, 413, and 440. The 904 was a lighter-duty Torqueflite, that went behind engines such as the Slant Sixes and smallblock 273/318. However, I think the 340 and some of the higher-output 360's got the 727. They also made another variant of the 904 called the A998 (IIRC), that was a bit beefier than the 904, but still nowhwere near the 727. My '79 Newport had that tranny...at least according to the fender tag. I honestly don't know which Torqueflite my '79 NYer has...it's a 360, but a low-output engine, so it may just have the 904/A998.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 22,143
    ...did they have that Roto-Hydramatic thingie? Or was it that 2-speed "Jetaway" transmission?
  • andys120andys120 Loudon NHPosts: 16,751
    it was indeed half of a 389.

    Sporty versions of these cars did become quite successful and lead directly to the ponycars. Ford put the Fairlane 221/260 V8 in the Falcon Futura and equipped it with buckets and a console mounted shift (4-speeds optional). It was a simple matter to adapt the chassis to the long nosed, sporty Mustang with virtually the same underpinnings. The Mustang was Ford's answer to the success of the "poor man's Porsche"
    the Corvair Monza which could be had in Turbo-charged form (again before Porsche or Saab!)
    Turbo versions of the F-85 were available as well.

    Cutlass was the name originally applied to the sportier F-85s.

    2000 BMW 528i, 2001 BMW 330CiC

  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    I looked in my '63 Olds shop manual and it says the F-85 had an honest-to-God four speed automatic. I don't think I ever knew that. On the other hand it says the "F.S.C" (full size car) also had a four speed and I know that's not true. Weird. It's like they never updated the 1960 manual.

    The Buick Special/Skylark had what was called a Dual-Path whatever (Dynaflow?). It was a two speed but not the Powerglide. I had one in a '63 and had no problems but they have a reputation for being fragile. I did end up breaking a u-joint in that very smooth and expensive two-piece driveshaft--that's another feature that disappeared in '64.

    I'm pretty sure that in '64 the Dual Path became the Super Turbine 300, a two speed with a variable pitch torque converter. It had a gizmo called a variable pitch stator that could increase torque multiplication. The early 401 Gran Sports also had this tranny and it was their secret weapon in class drag racing. In fact you could hook up a switch through I think the wiper circuit so you could manually control the stator pitch to fine tune your launches.

    I also think this later two speed was used in the '64-66 GTO and 442 but without the switch pitch feature.

    The Tempest used the Corvair transaxles including Powerglide.
  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    Some of the most interesting compacts were the ones that didn't succeed.

    The Hyper-Pak Valiants with ram-tuned four barrel in the early '60s--I don't know if you could actually buy one but the parts were available over the counter. I think it was Hot Rod that tested one and said it sounded like an Offy.

    The aluminum block Valiants of the same era--supposedly the slant six was originally designed to be cast in aluminum and that's why the block is so rigid (with just four main bearings) and so heavy.

    The Tempests were intriguing cars. The half-a-V8 setup must have been a cross flow (intake and exhaust ports on different sides of the head) something no other American (and very few European) inlines had. Came with your choice of low- and high-compression one- and four-barrel engines. The four barrel was fairly quick with four speed. 15" wheels standard when all the compacts used 13" and even the big cars used mostly 14". HD suspensions, gauge packages, plus of course that Corvair transaxle and the flexible driveshaft. An awful lot of engineering for not much.

    The turbo Olds came with water injection instead of reducing the compression ratio from 10.5:1 to something a supercharged engine could handle. Most of them grenaded and the ones that survived were retrofitted with standard four barrel.

    The Falcon/Comet six was fairly hopeless but the factory had an over-the-counter kit to convert it to three one-barrels. The intake manifold was cast integral with the head with runners the size of worm burrows so there wasn't much you could do to improve breathing. To add the two outboard carbs you had to pull the head to drill a hole at each end of the manifold and mount a carb pad. You also milled the head to get a little more CR than the stock 8.5. The first Mustang sixes (and I think the earlier Falcons) were available with the English Ford Dagenham four speed.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 45,975
    Succeeded? If you mean 1960 I don't think any of them succeeded, as they were all terrible cars.

    At least by 1962 you had the Chevy II, far and away the best of the lot. In '63 the F85 and Buick Special were very attractive and upscale compacts but melted their engines with alarming regularity. The Corvair was as we all know a disaster, the Falcon an underpowered little rat trap, and the Lark and American old fashhioned and crude (still running flatheads!). The Tempest was a bone-shaker with a very weird driveline arrangement that died an early death (those big 4s were pretty quick, though).

    By 1965 the picture looked a lot brighter. The Futura had been out 2 years with a V8, the Valiant was more attractive and better made, and the Nova, while certainly not very innovative, ran and ran and ran. The Tempest was by this time a pleasant and totally conventional car.

    Rambler and Lark were pretty much not even taken seriously by 1965, and were completely outclassed by the imports.

    With the intro of the Datsun 510 in 1968, Japan raised the bar and it was a whole new ballgame. The Americans had no car equal to the 510 and we see the imports starting at this point to take serious market share away from the Big Three, all of it in the compact market.

    As the imports innovated, the American cars got more and more ordinary. Gone were rear engines, turbocharging, front engine/rear differentials, etc. of the early compacts. All the US experiments in innovative compact cars died as a result of being rushed to market. It was a serious retardation in American engineering prowess that was to haunt us until the 1990s.

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  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,944
    Well, have to admit it...I'm old enough to remember those days...barely :).

    Shifty, I think there was one 1960 compact that was head and shoulders above the others. The butt ugly 1960 Valiants proved to be nearly indestructable and paved the way for the improved Valiants and Darts that were forthcoming. Of course, we all know the history of the slant sixes that came in those Valiants.

    In 1962, my parents bought a new Buick Special that later became mine. I learned to drive in that car and drove the livin' stuffing out of it until I sold it with 80,000 miles in 1968.

    The 215 aluminum engine was flawless during that time. On a trip from L.A. to Seattle I cruised at 100 MPH for lots of miles...I know....

    The Dual Path transmission was another story. Granted, I was hard on it but I probably had it overhauled four times. The second time, a transmission shop made the mistake of giving me a "lifetime" warranty. They had the pleasure of rebuilding it two of three times after that.

    After doing this, they posted a sign on their wall listing two or three transmissions they would not warranty for more than three months. The Dual Path was at the top of that list.

    Weird little two speed. They would only go 10 MPH in reverse. The oil pan was held in place with one bolt in the middle of the trans pan!

    And I ran into the guy who bought it from me years later in a restaurant. This was probably five years later. At the time, he still had it but he said with something like 150,000 miles it was getting tired and starting to use oil.

    Lot of great memories with that little Buick!
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 45,975
    I really liked the little Buicks, I thought they were quite handsome cars. It's certainly plausible you had good luck with your aluminum V8 as you might have had some car sense but the majority of people met disaster with them. They overheated like crazy. I never got mine to run right. As with Corvairs, These cars required more care than Americans were willing to give them This 215 engine as you know was sold by Buick, turkey that it was, and bought by Rover where it became a long running turkey. Rover did finally make it reasonably reliable, enlarged it, redesigned it, etc. but it was always pretty inefficient--a very mediocre engine at best compared to other American great V8s. I never understood why any company would use it except in desperation.

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  • andys120andys120 Loudon NHPosts: 16,751
    were the reasons for the popularity in Britain of the Buick/Olds aluminum V8. It might be interesting to list the cars that employed it besides the Range Rovers: Morgan Plus 8, V8 version of the Rover TC(I forgot what they called it), TVR ? , MG-V8

    Any body rember those names or others that used it?

    I said those cars were successful because they sold well and managed to stall the import onslaught be providing a reasonable domestic alternative for many.

    All of them had their flaws. None of them provided the driving feel that we foreign car aficionados preferred but they were relatively good cars compared to import fighters that followed like the Pinto, Vega, X-cars, Escort, Chevette etc.

    2000 BMW 528i, 2001 BMW 330CiC

  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,944
    Never once overheated. I used straight coolant in it. I do know others had bad experiences and that most mechanics hated them.

    That Buick could whip a 283 Chevy at the time which surprised a lot of people.

    It is funny that Rover would use that engine, Looking under the hood I see my little 40 year old engine! Oh, now there is fuel injection, etc but the heads and block look the same.

    I don't know how those heavy pigs can even move with that tiny engine?
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 45,975
    Range Rovers were pigs as many people found out to their dismay.

    I guess by "successful" to my mind I mean "actually convinced someone not to buy an import", and I don't see Corvairs and early Falcons, etc. doing that. I think many people tried them and then went back to the VW, which was better built and more reliable.

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  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,704
    You had a little Buick before? What year?

    I agree with you wholeheartedly 100% that Range Rovers were pigs as well as dogs. I once drove an early '87 that one of my friends had (she was pretty rich). Let me tell you, that 3.5-liter did not even have the guts to make it up a very steep mountain in our little Vermont county. As far as I'm concerned, my old '92 Jeep Cherokee could out-perform it, no problem.

    But, if VW Beetles were some of the most reliable cars from yesteryear, how come the engines needed replacing every 60k-70k miles?
  • andys120andys120 Loudon NHPosts: 16,751
    Shifty, I'm convinced that for every person who dumped their Corvair for a VW there was someone who happily swapped their Dauphine or Minx for a Falcon or a Valiant.

    I personally know of an MG1100 owner who traded for a Falcon around '67 and never bought foreign again. This person was one of the pioneers having bought his first VW in '56 and gone thru several VWs and 3-pot Saabs.

    Don't forget how many European makes were driven from these shores never to return: Borgward, DKW, Skoda, Siata, Morris, Austin, Rover,
    Humber, Simca, and Citroen to name a few.

    2000 BMW 528i, 2001 BMW 330CiC

  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 22,143
    ...like the Dart, Valiant, Falcon, Chevy II, and those that followed, was that they gave the buying public a small car that could still comfortably seat 4 or 5 good-sized people and haul around a decent amount of luggage, while returning performance that, depending on the engine, could be pretty respectable.

    In fact, cars today like the Camry, Accord, Altima, Malibu, etc, are really just modern renditions of these old compacts, so the basic formula hasn't changed much, just been updated and re-hashed for a new audience.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 45,975
    Well, it's true there were some terrible imports as well, but as history shows the Americans never built anything to "drive them from the beaches", as they are still here in force. Those imports that did survive obviously had something that the compacts didn't--fuel economy for one, technology for another, and in the case of the Japanese, reliability--but that wasn't a factor in 1960, more like late 60s.

    VWs were reliable for what you paid and what you got. Yes, you did have to rebuild the engines every 60K but they were simple to do. Even today you can swap out a VW engine for around $800, installed, maybe even less. That's pretty amazing. Try replacing a Chevy 6 without a hoist. And VW build quality was impeccable for the time, as good as a Cadillac was.

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  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 22,143
    ...that our compacts didn't "drive the foreigners from the beaches" was mainly that GM, Ford, and Chrysler discovered pretty quickly that what sold tolerably as a compact sold even better as an intermediate. Witness the new-for'64 Tempest/F-85/Special/Chevelle, as well as the '63 Dart, which was much larger than the Lancer that preceded it. A '63 Dart is about as long as a 1955 Chevy (or a '64 Chevelle), so that shows you just how "compact" they really were. The Falcon bulked up considerably over the years too. I saw a '60 or so at a show on Saturday, and that car looked downright tiny!

    Detroit compacts never really competed too heavily against foreign compacts, mainly because they were a whole different size class...compact. NOT subcompact. We didn't get there until '71, with stuff like the Pinto, Vega, Gremlin, etc.
  • carnut4carnut4 Posts: 574
    sold his 60 VW Bug and bought a new 61 Falcon with the 170 six. I remember riding in it with him [I was 15 at the time] and hearing him say that the gas mileage was close to the VWs, the handling was good, and the comfort and room was WAY better than the VW. He preferred the Falcon overall. I had to agree. Throw in some crash safety and there you are. Later, I had a 67 VW Bug, and I remember getting no better than 26MPG on the road, and only 21 around town. Of course, I had the tuned EMPI exhaust and probably had it floored most of the time.] But I sold that bug for a 66 Dart with the 225 six. Hey, a few MPG less, but the comfort difference was HUGE. Not to mention safety. That last trip from the bay area to Yosemite and then the redwoods in that bug did it for me. [And my ex-wife!]
    I think overall, the american compacts offered comparable MPG to the imports, and more room and comfort, and that was the point at the time. I drove the early sixties Falcons as a mail carrier in 1966 [they had some of the wagons to supplement the little cushmans, etc, which were always breaking down]. Overall, I thought the Falcon was a well designed little package, especially in the wagon. And the chassis was basically OK-look where it went later as the Mustang.
    My Dad's second car at the time was a 58 Renault Dauphine, which actually was pretty reliable for him [I helped alot with the maintenance] but he finally sold it and got a 64 Chevy II with the 194 six and three speed. That car went a long, long time with no trouble at all [except for when he hosed the engine down at a carwash, soaked the distributor, and blew a piston on the way home]. But that's another story. I think he may have sold the Renault just in the nick of time.
    I wonder how the American car scene would have changed if it hadn't been for the American compacts in 1960, and the BOP compacts in 1961.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 45,975
    Of course Vega Gremlin and Pinto were not very good competition for the imports either.

    But that's true what you say, the Americans pretty much gave the subcompact market to the import, since they didn't know how to build one at that time and really saw no profit in it.

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  • andys120andys120 Loudon NHPosts: 16,751
    Carnut-I never got the advertised 32mpg from my '65 1200cc beetle (40 hp) either. The Best I could do on the highway was maybe 29 once or twice. Around town maybe 25-26. You had to floor them constantly just to get out of your own way!

    It's no wonder Judson Superchargers were popular add-ons.

    Shifty, you are correct to say that the Bog 3 and a half saw little profit in building sub-compacts.
    I think that's why they left it to the imports, not because they didn't know how to build one.

    Had it not been for the oil shocks of the 70s I doubt there ever would have been any significant market for subcompacts. They are almost non-existent in our world of cheap gas today.

    Of course compacts are smaller now than they were in the 60s but so is everything except trucks.

    2000 BMW 528i, 2001 BMW 330CiC

  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,704
    Referring to Shiftright's earlier post; it's pretty sad to see how much Cadillac build quality, so good in the 1960s, plunged badly throughout the '70s and '80s, almost at or near the level of entry-level Chevys.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 45,975
    I think both Mercedes in the 70s and Toyota in the 90s saw an opportunity in the luxury car field in the USA and took advantage of it. In a very real sense, Cadillac showed Mercedes in the 1950s that you COULD build a quality luxury car in mass production, in huge numbers. This of course Mercedes proceeded to do with a vengeance, and Toyota in 1990 thought Mercedes could be bested as well in this same area.

    I liked the first Valiants. They were weird looking it's true but they were good performers, sported the first (?) alternators on American cars, and had a sturdy engine and transmission. Compared to the Falcon, it was five years ahead in 1960.

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  • grbeckgrbeck Posts: 2,361
    I don't think it's fair to call the first compacts terrible - especially the Valiant, which aside from some build quality issues (which Chrysler rather quickly corrected), was a good car. Most of the imports had serious flaws. The VW may have boasted good build quality, but it also had agonizingly slow acceleration, a heater that kicked in just before the onset of frostbite and handling that wasn't all that much better than the original Corvair. The French, British and Italian competition had serious quirks and flaws of their own. A lot of those cars rusted away if you left a bag of salted peanuts in the glove box overnight.

    And it's hard to consider an engine that has to be rebuilt at 60,000 miles as "reliable." At 60,000 miles the I-6s and small-block V-8s in the Plymouth Valiant, Dodge Lancer/Dart and Chevy II were ready for another 60,000 - or more - miles.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 45,975
    Look at it this way....if, today, you went out and drove a 60 VW, you'd smile, but if you drove a '60 Falcon or Corvair you'd probably wonder how they ever sold one, much less thousands. They had so many problems right off the bat.

    VWs were tough cars, and beautifully simple. Sure, you had to rebuild them more often, but you could do it in your living room with a crescent wrench and a paper clip. You could R&R a VW engine faster than you could tune up a Buick Special. And has anyone ever made a dune buggy out of a Falcon chassis? VWs spawned whole industries, and they are still going strong, even being raced in Formula V. They had quality, personality and fun factor, all missing in Falcons and Valiants and Corvairs. If anything, the only thrill in those early compacts was the fear of death.

    That being said, there were exceptions as the years rolled on. I thought the '65 Corvairs were beautiful, probably among the best styled American cars ever, ever, in history. The Falcon Sprints were fun, and actually ran in the Monte Carlo Rally (didn't win due to lousy brakes and suspension) but RAN WELL!

    Early Valiants I already said I liked because they were so weird...I just loved those push buttons.

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  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    The spare tire embossed on the trunk lid was a plus too :-).
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