Thursday, April 9, 2009

When the Auto Industry was in Flower

One of the websites I check almost daily is the Jalopy Journal, a vintage hot rod/sports car/race car enthusiasts' site. Ryan, the site admin, comes up with so much arcane and fascinating gunk that I really wonder if he does anything other than plow through old car magazines, books and youtube videos looking for story ideas. Take today's entry.
On September 24, 1960, Flora, Illinois became "Ford Town, USA," with every one of the town's 1600 residents receiving a brand new Ford for a one week trial- even the local Chevy dealer! The stunt was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca who must have been quite pleased with himself when it actually came off.

It's interesting to contrast the US auto industry of 1960 with the state it is in today. Who in those heady days could have imagined that "Toyopets" would one day rule US roadways and that American cars would have a reputation for shoddy craftsmanship and bland styling?
1960 was a pretty good year for the US industry, IMHO. Sensible compacts like the Falcon and Valiant were introduced, and the fascinating, if flawed, Corvair entered the marketplace. An American automobile made in 1960 is still able to run comfortably in today's traffic, cruising at highway speeds and generally offering plenty of power. Brake systems may not match modern standards, but the drums of that day still work well, if not quite as well as today's discs. Certainly the same cannot be said for most European or Japanese products of the time. As much as I love Fiat 600s and early Datsuns, I'm not sure they would survive long on today's roadways.

What happened to the US Auto Industry? I think they fell victim to following the poorest examples of foreign car-makers (poor reliability, uneven build quality, and designs that always followed other leaders) while ignoring many of the best foreign-car ideas like fuel efficiency and styling that was changed sensibly- not simply to make last year's model look old. By contrast, many of the foreign car makers improved their offerings constantly. Sad to say, I'd choose a Toyota or SmartCar today over almost any modern US made car. Still, there is hope-- who would have expected a hot little item like the Solstice, especially badged as a Pontiac??? More like that, please!

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