Cars of the 1950s & '60s

Written by rob wagner
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Cars of the 1950s & '60s
The 1950s Volkswagen Beetle transformed how North American buyers looked at automotive transportation. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

What a difference a decade makes. At the beginning of the 1950s, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler dominated the North American market with lumbering, inefficient behemoth cars. At the dawn of the 1960s, Volkswagen took a slice of that market with the economical Beetle. The Big Three followed suit with compact cars. A critical period between about 1958 and 1962 marked a significant change in automotive styling, size and engine development.

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Three developments in the late 1950s and early 1960s helped push the automotive industry from the early postwar giddiness of chrome-laden, gas-guzzling obese cars into practical, no-frills small cars. The 1958 economic recession wreaked havoc on automobile sales. North American auto sales peaked in 1955 at about 11 million, and then dropped dramatically to less than 5 million in 1958. Production then increased steadily to about 19 million in 1965. The Ford Mustang and the emergence of compact cars helped sales. By 1961, GM chief stylist Harley Earl and Chrysler head designer Virgil Exner, who were both influential advocates of huge tail fins and long-wheelbased cars, had retired. Volkswagen, which produced a remarkable 380,561 Beetles in 1957, set the tone for 1960s compact cars.

Studebaker Lark

Independent Indiana-based Studebaker was never a major player on the automotive scene, although it had been producing cars since the dawn of the automotive age. It was the first automaker, along with American Motors, to produce a compact, fuel-efficient car in direct response to VW. The Studebaker Lark's production run started in late 1958 and lasted until 1964, when Studebaker ceased its United States production operations. A base 90-horsepower 170-cubic-inch flathead six-cylinder engine or a 180-horsepower 259 V8 powered the Lark. It sat on a relatively short wheelbase for the era at 108.5 inches and measured 175 inches long.

Ford Falcon

The Ford Falcon came out one year after the Lark. It resembled nothing like its siblings from the late 1950s. It possessed no fins, little chrome and a spartan interior. A 90-horsepower 144 in-line six-cylinder engine powered it. The Falcon was longer than the Lark, with a 109.5-inch wheelbase and 181.2-inch body length, but it was lighter than a Lark by almost 181kg. In all, Ford sold 435,676 Ford Falcons for the 1960 model year.

Volkswagen Beetle

The 400-pound gorilla in the room in the late 1950s was the Volkswagen Beetle. Ownership was a statement in alternative driving and a thumb in Detroit's eye. In 1957, the Beetle had a roller pedal instead of a accelerator and didn't even have a fuel gauge. Its horizontally opposed air-cooled four-cylinder engine only developed 36 horsepower. Yet when Americans struggled with the recession, the cheap, fuel-efficient Beetle was a perfect antidote.

Rambler American

The Rambler American debuted in 1958 and remained in production through 1969. It originally featured a 100-inch wheelbase, but grew to 106 inches in 1967. The 1958 Rambler American had a peppy 127-horsepower 195 straight-six engine and a body that measured 191.1 inches. Its body style resembled a bathtub until it received a major makeover in 1961, which featured sculpted and flattened fenders and straight, strong lines. With Studebaker, the Rambler helped lead the U.S. automotive industry into producing economical cars.

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