Early ’60s Compact Craze
The 1950s began with a bang for the automotive industry, which was still riding the post-war euphoria that was fueling sales. The public would buy just about anything that the Big Three put out there at first because commercial automobile production had been suspended during the war, and people were anxious to buy new cars. The economy was good and gas was cheap, and the automotive designs reflected the times: big cars that were not very fuel efficient.
Like most good things, however, this free-wheeling era came to an end. The country fell into a recession that caused a dramatic decrease in automobile sales in 1958, and Detroit executives recognized the need to shift gears. The public was now seeking affordable, smaller, more energy efficient options, and the American automakers didn’t hesitate with their response. The Big Three automobile manufacturers all released new compact cars for the 1960 model year, and the fourth, fledgling American Motors, had already been having success with the Rambler that made its debut for the 1958 model year.
For Ford, the compact response to the public’s appetite for efficiency was the Falcon. It is interesting to note that the man behind the Falcon concept at Ford was Robert McNamara, who went on to become the United States Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy. Though the Falcon was considered to be a compact it had the look of a smallish mid-size, and it was powered by a 144 cubic inch, 90 horsepower straight-six. The Falcon was a smashing success, and it remained in production through the 1970 model year.
The Chrysler Corporation was definitely caught in the crosshairs of the shift toward smaller cars, since their very identity was associated with big, comfortable vehicles. Their response was the Valiant that also made its debut for the 1960 model year as a unique nameplate, but starting in 1961 the Valiant was a Plymouth. The first generation Valiant had a touch of the “Forward Look” provided courtesy of Virgil Exner, but his radical stylings were under siege by then. There was a revision during the first model year, so there are “early” and “late” 1960 Valiant models; the latter batch corrected some minor problems. The 1960 Valiant featured the slant-six engine and was offered as a four-door sedan or a four-door wagon with either two or three seats.
Not to be outdone, General Motors also entered the compact car fray in 1960 with the innovative Chevy Corvair. The Corvair was a rear-engine vehicle, and that provided designers with a lot of freedom, resulting in a sleeker, low slung look, a cooler interior, and better road grabbing capabilities. In fact, the Corvair is the only rear-engine car ever to be mass produced in the United States. The 1960 Corvair featured unibody construction and an 80 horsepower, 140 cubic inch flat-six engine. The Corvair hit the ground running with sales in excess of 200,000 its first year, and overall there were more than 1.78 million Corvairs sold between 1960 and its final production year of 1969.
Contributed by Fossil Cars Staff Writer