15 artifacts in this set
The Volkswagen Beetle was different from any American car. It looked like an insect, its engine was where the trunk should be, and it didn't have a radiator. But it recalled the spirit of Henry Ford's legendary Model T. Both cars were simple, reliable, economical, and never deviated from their basic original design. The VW would go on to break the Ford's all-time sales record.
Toyota entered the American market with the Toyopet, first imported in 1958. Though a success in Japan, the Toyopet struggled in the United States. The little car was too small, too slow, and -- for its size -- too expensive for U.S. buyers. Toyota withdrew in 1960 but returned five years later with the Corona -- a car tailored to American tastes.
This 1950 Nash Rambler convertible was an attempt to market a small automobile to the American public. Other independent automobile manufacturers had produced small vehicles, but none to the success of the Rambler. The compact Rambler was attractive, well equipped, and sensibly priced. But in the 1950s, big cars ruled. Only by 1960 did the larger "Big Three" auto companies produce an "in-between-sized" car.
Nash trumpeted the virtues of its Rambler Convertible Landau in this 1950 sales brochure. Nash tried to make the Rambler appeal to everyone by giving it a little bit of everything -- even seemingly contradictory things: economy and luxury, convertible and hardtop, small enough to park and big enough to seat five, as safe as a sedan and as sexy as a sports car.
In the 1950s, Nash competed with Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors by offering something the Big Three didn't: small cars. The Nash Rambler station wagon was 10 inches shorter than its rivals, and its 30 mile-per-gallon fuel economy was twice that of bigger wagons. Nash portrayed the Big Three's cars as oversized dinosaurs by comparison.
George Romney, chairman and president of American Motors Corporation, made waves in the auto industry with his vocal criticism of the large cars he dismissed as "gas-guzzling dinosaurs." He championed AMC's small Rambler American and coined the term "compact car" to describe it. Romney later ventured into politics and served as Michigan's governor from 1963 to 1969.
When people started buying smaller imported cars, particularly Volkswagens, American automakers changed their "one size fits all" approach and offered small cars of their own. Studebaker of South Bend, Indiana, was one of the first. Its compact Lark debuted in 1959 and was a strong seller, partly for lack of competition. Chrysler, Ford and General Motors introduced compacts for 1960.
With its rear-mounted, air-cooled engine, the Corvair was conceived as an American answer to the rear-engined, air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle. Corvairs sold well, although not as well as the more conventional Ford Falcon. But sales slipped after Ralph Nader's book, Unsafe at Any Speed, raised questions about the Corvair's handling. Production ceased in 1969.
After watching Volkswagen, American Motors, and Studebaker win customers with small cars, the Big Three -- Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors -- introduced their own compacts for 1960. This brochure for Chrysler's Valiant compares the car point by point with Chevrolet's Corvair and Ford's Falcon. Chrysler initially marketed the Valiant as its own marque, though the car later joined the Plymouth line.
Like Chrysler and General Motors, Ford entered the small car market in the 1960 model year. The company's six-cylinder Falcon was a hit, selling 435,676 units in its first year -- more than either of Ford's crosstown rivals. This Falcon brochure promises big car roominess and ride quality in a smaller, more affordable package.
Do you remember when "Made in Japan" referred to tin toys and cheap trinkets? Neither do most people, and this car is one of the reasons. Roomy, well built, economical, and dead reliable, Toyota Coronas were initially popular on the West Coast, where trends often begin in America. The Corona and Nissan's Datsun 510 were the cars that established Japanese auto makers in the United States market.
Oil crises brought a jump in gas prices -- and a surge in small car sales -- in the 1970s. Japanese automaker Honda was well positioned to meet the demand. Its compact Civic managed 40 miles per gallon on the highway. Honda sold some 39,000 cars in the U.S. in 1973. Annual sales soared to more than 353,000 by 1979.
This little car was a reaction to the high gasoline prices brought on by the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the new fuel economy standards passed by Congress in 1975. It, and its twin the Plymouth Horizon, were the first American cars to adopt a front-wheel drive, hatchback configuration that was common in Europe. Motor Trend magazine named them "Car of the Year."
Most Americans weren't very interested in small cars -- until 1973, when Middle Eastern oil-producing countries cut back on oil exports. Gas prices skyrocketed in the U.S., and shortages led to long lines at service stations. Many people still wanted big American-style cars, but more and more actually bought small four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, European-inspired cars like this Ford Escort. "The new world car" evoked the Model T's slogan:...
For decades, most Americans thought small cars were cheap and should be cheap. In the 1980s, the Honda Accord challenged that attitude. It was similar in price to the Chevrolet Impala, which was three feet longer with twice the horsepower. But the Honda was well built and reliable and included extras like air conditioning, cruise control, a cassette tape player, and a rear window defroster. Sales steadily increased.