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American Car Brands in the 1950s: An Orgy of Excess

The postwar era saw a different kind of proliferation, especially from Ford.

For a large part of the 20th century, General Motors and Ford Motor Company were the antithesis of each other, with GM inventing the concepts of model years, planned obsolescence, and "a car for every purse and purpose," while Henry Ford believed the Model T, with only regular mechanical improvements, was all the automobile any buyer from any economic class should ever want or need. But all of that changed for a while in the 1950s.

After World War II and especially after Henry Ford's death in 1948, Ford started to add to its portfolio of divisions and brands, as the "Whiz Kids," a group of 10 U.S. Army Air Force veterans that became Ford executives and—led by future U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—endeavored to modernize the company both in the lead-up to its initial public stock offering in 1955 and moving forward.

The Chrysler Corporation, the third of Detroit's Big Three, was formed when Walter P. Chrysler, former president of GM's Buick division, bought Maxwell in 1924. With regular ups and downs over the decades, Chrysler tried to replicate the GM model for many years.

Smaller companies like AMC and, briefly, Studebaker-Packard tried to pave their own automotive paths in the '50s, but it was the Big Three that defined postwar, mid-century American exuberance. Here's what America's automotive class system looked like at what may have been its peak:

Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth

These brands were the high-volume, low-priced moneymakers for GM, Ford, and Chrysler, respectively. After World War II, as the automakers ramped up auto production again in earnest to meet high new-car demand at the beginning of the Baby Boom, Ford struggled until launch of its first all-new models for 1949. That "shoebox" '49 Ford is credited with singlehandedly saving the company.

It was the only model from the "low-priced three" offered with a V-8 engine until the 1955 model year, when Chevy and Plymouth both offered optional upgrades from their inline-sixes. Chevy regularly was the bestselling brand of all in the U.S., though Ford sometimes took the crown, including in 1957. Plymouth was always third until 1954, when it fell to fourth behind the slightly more upscale Buick brand.

Ford and Chevy began to encroach on their upscale brands in 1955. Ford had the new Thunderbird and the Fairlane Crown Victoria, and Chevrolet, whose Motorama dream car became the production Corvette in 1953, made its '55 Bel Air a Pontiac-Oldsmobile competitor.

Plymouth's 1956 Fury was a two-door hardtop submodel of the Belvedere featuring gold anodized aluminum exterior trim from 1956 to 1958; it became its own model in 1959. Until the late '50s, the Big Three sold cars that would be classified "intermediate" in size by the '60s, and had some competition from slightly smaller Ramblers and Studebakers.

Pontiac, Edsel, and Dodge

Ford launched the Edsel division for the 1958 model year to take on GM's mid-market Pontiac and Oldsmobile. Its Citation and Corsair models were based on the larger Mercury platforms, with a 124-inch wheelbase, while the Pacer and Ranger shared a 118-inch wheelbase with standard Ford models.

Though the brand was established in November 1956 with a huge marketing campaign, Ford's Whiz Kids had pretty much decided to kill Edsel by the time the cars were introduced in the fall 1957. For 1959, Edsel dropped the bigger Citation and Corsair and marketed the Pacer and Ranger as "King-Sized Value in the Low-Priced Field," essentially pulling a reversal of low-priced brands going upscale—think of a base Pontiac model designed to compete with Chevrolet. Ford pulled the plug in November 1959 after building a few thousand 1960 models (the compact 1960 Mercury Comet was originally designed to be an Edsel), and settled the resultant lawsuits filed by Edsel dealers by 1970.

Pontiac had become the retired librarian's car of choice before the marque replaced its optional inline-eight with a V-8 in 1955. GM assigned Bunkie Knudsen to be Pontiac's chief with a mission to "fix it or kill it." Knudsen went upscale and sporty with the tri-carb '57 Bonneville, launched the V-8-only Wide Track '59s, and created the 1962 Grand Prix before he was promoted to Chevrolet general manager as a reward for fixing Pontiac. The 1959 Pontiac Bonneville's encroachment on Buick territory was part of the beginning of the end of the traditionally siloed Sloanism at GM.

Chrysler famously paired Dodge with DeSoto in many dealerships (like Chrysler-Plymouth). The two were pretty close in terms of appointment and equipment, though Dodge was arguably a blue-collar foil to DeSoto's white-collar image.

Oldsmobile and DeSoto

Pontiac was established as a sub-brand of Oakland in 1926, and Oldsmobile was positioned between the two in president Alfred P. Sloan's GM price ladder. In this hierarchy, Oldsmobile was considered "Pontiac-plus," and both marques sold models with inline-sixes and -eights up to the '50s. The Olds 88 and Super 88 shared GM's A-body platform (midsize, with overall length no more than about 205 inches) with Chevy, Pontiac, and the Buick Special and Century. The Olds 98 was on the B-body, shared with the Buick Roadmaster and Super, and priced on the lower end of the Super.

Similarly, the DeSoto line was half a step up from Dodge in price and prestige. Both DeSoto and Dodge got their first Hemis for the 1952 model year, replacing an L-head six that remained in both lineups, though the DeSoto V-8 was rated for 160 horsepower and the Dodge's V-8 made an advertised 140 horses.

Buick, Mercury, and Chrysler

With a straight-eight lineup and the limo-like Limited of the late '30s, Buick had long established itself as a slight step down from Cadillac and its sub-brand LaSalle. Its Special and Super of the era prompted Packard to go downmarket before WWII with the One-Ten and One-Twenty models.

By the 1950s, the Buick Super and Roadmaster were truly large cars, and growing through the decade, while the Special was an A-body model that frequently undercut Pontiacs and Buicks on base price. The Century model name was revived for 1954 (named in the 1930s for winning a race against the 20th Century Limited train), with a 200-hp Roadmaster V-8 stuffed into the Special's smaller A-body. The new '54 Century earned the nickname "the Banker's Hot Rod" and Buick passed Plymouth for third place in sales. That production volume apparently was too much for the Flint assembly plant, and the 1957 Buicks were known as "warranty cars" (according to my wife's uncle, who worked for a New York-area dealership at the time).

As a result, Buick renamed all its '59 models: Electra 225 (the "225" signifying its overall length, and sharing its basic body shell with mainstream Cadillacs) replacing Roadmaster, Electra replacing Super, Invicta replacing Century, and LeSabre taking the place of Special.

Mercury models grew for 1957 and became more luxurious by 1958 in anticipation of Edsel's impending attempt to wedge itself between Mercury and Ford. The Mercury Park Lane, Montclair, and Monterey, and a range of four-door hardtop station wagons (with no B-pillar!) all came with V-8s standard, the top engine a 400-hp, 430-cubic-inch mill named "Marauder."

The Chrysler Windsor and Windsor Deluxe were full-size cars that competed with low- and mid-priced Buicks, and carried over an old L-head inline-six until 1955, when the brand went V-8-only. Its New Yorker models competed with the Buick Roadmaster/Electra 225, and Mercury Park Lane, and the letter-car 300s were low-volume two-door grand touring hardtops and convertibles priced in Cadillac-Lincoln territory. The Chrysler Saratoga premiered for 1957 as a fancier full-size Windsor.

Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial

The Big Three's luxury brands led the way through the decade of tailfins, excess chrome, bigger and more powerful V-8s and longer, lower, wider bodies. Cadillac's 1959 models proved "nothing exceeds like excess," though Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner's late-1950s Imperials easily took second place, and Ford's Lincoln version held its own until the 1961 Continentals designed under Elwood Engel made their debut.

Imperial was the top model in the Chrysler range until it became its own brand in 1955. It shared its V-8 engine with the Chrysler 300 and New Yorker models, and Lincoln's V-8 was shared with Mercury models, but Cadillac V-8s, which by the late '50s reached 390 cubic inches, were exclusive to the brand.

Continental

The late Edsel Ford's son, William Clay Ford, was named manager of Ford Motor Company's Special Products Operations, with the goal of designing and engineering a worthy successor to the 1939-1948 Lincoln Continental. It became the Continental Division in October 1954, and a year later introduced the 1956 Continental II (not a Lincoln). For $9,966 (though Ford reportedly lost money on every Mark II it sold), you could buy a hand-built two-door hardtop with Lincoln mechanicals. Its "conservative" styling was the antithesis of contemporary Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial design. Ford pulled the plug after it sold 2,556 model year 1956 Continental Mark IIs and just 444 of the '57 models according to Hemmings.

For 1957, Cadillac reacted with the hand-built, suicide-door, hardtop Eldorado Brougham, not to be confused with the Eldorado Biarritz of the era. Distinguished by its air suspension, stainless steel top, and $13,074 list price, the car never got the huge fins of the quotidian '58 and '59 Cadillacs. It was built in the U.S. for its first two model years, then moved to Turin, Italy, where Pininfarina assembled the 1959 and '60 Cadillac Eldorado Broughams.

Pumping the Brakes on Excess: The Suez Canal Crisis

Egypt's closing of the Suez Canal from October 1956 to March 1957 during the second Arab-Israeli War cut oil supplies and increased prices. The resulting global recession is often blamed for contributing to the short lifespans of Ford's Edsel and Continental brands, and for causing a big drop in car sales, especially luxury brands. It also led to BMC's crash program to design the Austin Mini and accelerated the Big Three's development of 1960-1961 compact and "intermediate-size" models.

Special thanks to oldcarbrochures.com for permission to use its materials.