Coming or going? The 1960 model year marked an important change in direction for the American auto industry. Here’s the story with lots of great facts and rare images.
Two key developments of the 1960 new car season:
+ After nearly a decade of longer, wider, and lower in automotive design, with more chrome and taller tail fins every year, by 1960 American consumers had begun to cry enough. Public opinion was now pushing back against the absurd and often comical excesses, in the press, on television, and in popular books like The Insolent Chariots. The acme for chrome trim arrived in 1958 (Buick, Oldsmobile) while fins reached their maximum height with the 1959 Cadillac. For 1960, the Motor City was retreating into quieter, less ostentatious design.
+ In a related trend, the Detroit Three introduced their first compact cars to the American postwar market: the straightforward Ford Falcon, the innovative Chevrolet Corvair, and Chrysler’s boldly styled Valiant. (Mercury also got a compact for 1960 with the Comet, which was designed as an Edsel.) At the time, the appearance of imports on American roads was only part of the perceived threat. Foreign cars, as they were then called, held 8 percent of the new vehicle market in 1958, with Volkswagen leading the category by a fair margin and the Renault Dauphine in second place.
The more obvious threat to the classic American land yacht came from American Motors, where chief executive George Romney had embraced the compact concept a few years earlier with the petite, practical Rambler line. And now Rambler was rushing up the sales charts, from 12th in 1957 with 91,000 units to fourth place in 1960 with nearly 459,000 units—bested only by Ford, Chevy, and Plymouth. The little Rambler was outselling the popular premium brands including Pontiac, Dodge, and Oldsmobile.
While the new car market was growing overall, the mid-luxury market was actually shrinking. The Edsel, introduced to the category with great fanfare in 1958, was discontinued in 1960 with fewer than 3000 units sold. On November 30, 1960, only 47 days into the 1961 model run, Chrysler killed off the DeSoto brand with only 2123 units assembled. And as Buick slid from fourth place in 1957 down to ninth in 1960, General Motors briefly studied ending the historic brand.
For the moment at least, the new compacts were the Motor City’s hot item. You can find a few examples, along with all the flavors of the day, in the gallery below.