By on January 6, 2009

Pop top worm can time. Yesterday’s QOTD (essentially) poised the question how a big a boot in Detroit’s ass will it take to get American back to building the best cars in the world? And your answer was (for the most part) that we never built the best cars in the world. Insert sound of car screeching to a halt here! Say what? Are you telling me my childhood was a lie? All my old man’s stories about his dad’s Buick Roadmasters and Cadillac Eldorados — they were fibs? That article about Zora Arkus-Duntov and the Corvette Gran Sports that all of us have read in one form another ninety billion times — it’s a lie? Hell, the articles I’ve written about Shelby’s Cobras — not true? And, am I blind? Cause I got Ken Steacy’s book Brightwork about classic American car ornamentation as a Hanukkah gift and I realized that more thought used to go into a single hood ornament than Buick has put into its entire lineup over the past twenty years. See, Alfred Sloane had the formula figured out — Post-War Americans only wanted three things when it came to cars. 1) Styling 2) Automatic transmissions 3) High compression, high output engines (aka POWA!). Obviously GM had no trouble with two and three, and Sloan brought in coach builder Harley Earl to address number one. And he was, to a very large extent, right. Go ahead, look at a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and tell me I’m wrong.

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49 Comments on “Question Of The Day: Wait a Second… We Didn’t Build The Best Cars in the World?...”

  • avatar
    Claude Dickson

    Well, the equation for a good car got more complicated since that time. There are plenty of cars that arguably meet that definition, some of which are good and some not so good.

  • avatar

    Nope. My parents’ ’57 Chevy was a POS. The ’57 Ply was even worse. Still, American style was deco extroardinaire back in the day, but so was the VW [real] Beetle, in a very different way, and so were some of the Panhards, Peugeots, and Citroens and Jaguars of the middle of the last century. Quality? The Studebaker trucks we sent to the USSR for lend-lease were certainly extroardinarily durable if my father’s war stories are accurate. On the base at Poltava, the GIs referred to any form of excellence as “Studebaker.” “She’s Studebaker,” they’d say if a beautiful woman walked by. The local populace would complement the American soldiers on the quality of the trucks. Chrysler slant sixes lasted forever. Nonetheless, if you scratch beyond the surface, there’s far too much nuance to allow for sweeping statements like that.

  • avatar

    I think it depends on what you mean by best? When it came to no-compromise cars, the answer is “Yes, certainly.”

    When it came to cars where a compromise (usually selling price), no. Detroit (and GM, most notably) has never done well when they’ve had to build to someone else’s needs. Economy cars are probably the most typical example of this; it’s almost as if there’s a resentment of the customer, and how he/she dares tell The Mighty GM how much they’re willing to pay for a car with a given feature set and level of workmanship.

    When customers started demanding things like better safety, better quality, better economy and a lower price; or when government set specific metrics, that’s when it started to go downhill. Of course, GM still blames others for this: if they could design the cars as they saw fit and if we, the customer, could just collectively shut out mouths and open our wallets, everything would be fine.

  • avatar

    Domestic luxury cars only looked competitive while there was insignificant foreign competition. The more the Germans and the Japanese (and now even Koreans) ramped up their luxury products the more the domestic luxury brands faded.

    We may wax lyrical about great retro Caddies and Lincolns but their brand’s consistent decline in market share speaks volumes for what consumers really think of their products.

  • avatar

    No question about it, America did build the best American cars in the world. (Britain excelled at building classic British sports cars. Germany made most successful car to have a thirty-year-old body style. France built, well, the quirkiest.)

    Jonny, not to be picky, but that ’54 Pontiac, with its low-compression flathead engine, was not a good example of POWA! By ’57, though, PMD was getting it all figured out.

  • avatar

    If you graph the periods in the 20th century when American cars were prized and in vogue outside the US, unfortunately these periods coincide with the aftermaths of WWI and WWII. In other words, when the auto industries of Europe and Japan were flat on their asses or nonexistent. In other words, when American cars were the only game in town.

    Once the Europeans got back on their feet after WWI, and the Europeans and Japanese after WWII, they quickly lost interest in US cars (except for their gangsters!) because they were obviously inferior.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    50merc: Just look at the hood ornament.

  • avatar

    I think the day to day cars from the big 3 were at least as good as their counterparts in other countries prior to WW2. And I think they were somewhat superior to European car makers for some time after the war, as the Europeans were still recovering and had to ‘make do’. I think, although I was only a kid then, that they held that lead into the 60s. But that’s based on a pretty limited selection really…not many Euro cars in Canada back then. I know my dad and his friends were all British roadster fans and they were fraught with troubles. And my cousins VW was pretty primitive. But then they lost their way. The flourishes that were endearing in the 50s and 60s gave way to cheap gimcracks, style gave way to cheap ornamentation, and their inability to cope with smog regs did them in. By the 70s, the lead was long gone.

  • avatar

    GM also invented basically everything that is in a modern car (they failed to develop and perfect about 80% of those innovations, allowing foreign competitors to take them).

    Up until around 1970 the US built the best cars in the world. Not every US car was better than every foreign car, but most of them were.

    In the 1950s the Japanese were riding around on bicycles (motorized if they were lucky) and the Germans were driving knock-offs of Czech and Italian cars.

    The challenge is, can anyone really pick a line-up of five or ten cars from different automotive categories from the 1950s or 1960s that some other country was making better than the US?

  • avatar

    Post-war Detroit Iron was pretty damn good by the standards of its day, which was why the rest of the world craved American cars when they could get them. Hell, in Cuba they still drive them today!

    American designs were robust, exciting and reliable. They did things that mass-market cars had never done before, and they looked like nothing else on Earth. As a broad rule, they were the best automobiles in the world back then.

    If you disagree, look at the classics Lieberman lists above, and then take a look at the utter garbage that most of the world’s drivers had to endure from the late 1940s to early 1960s:

    English cars from ‘labor’ unions that didn’t do any ‘work.’ (Neither did most of their ‘cars’, for that matter.) Underpowered French cars, some of which looked like they were excreted from the hind parts of gargantuan Scarab Beetles. Italian cars that sometimes looked beautiful and sometimes even worked. Primitive and spartan Japanese cars which gave no hint of what their future would hold. Truly terrifying Eastern Bloc ‘cars’ literally made out of sawdust.

    America made plenty of flops, even in its heyday, and there are individual examples of brilliant foreign design and engineering. The Mini, the Land Rover, the VW Beetle, and any number of solidly-built Mercedes-Benzes come to mind. (I’m sure other readers will think of more, and I won’t disagree.) But American cars were generally pretty damn good, while most of the other drivers in the world had to drive crap.

    So no, Jonny, I can’t tell you you’re wrong. They were the best; they just didn’t stay the best.

  • avatar

    Luxury cars brand share is probably a bad metric to judge the quality of the cars themselves.

    Look at the fads in the family car genre. Station wagons, minivans, all dead, not because they no longer serve the needs of a family, but because they are uncool. The success or failure of luxury brands is too dependent on social and marketing factors that have nothing to do with the cars themselves.

  • avatar
    Ralph SS

    IMHO Detroit did build the best cars for a LOT of years.

    Engines? 283, 289, 318 V8’s. Smooth grunt that lasted forever. A better engine (given it’s time) than GM small block V8? Anyone? (I will not say Bueller. I will not say Bueller). Anybody that wanted a car with a good automatic tranny had a GM or a car with a GM tranny. And style? Are you kidding me? Gobs of it all over the place. But the big deal was ANYONE could have this stuff.

    If there had not been emmision controls (early 70’s) ….if there had not been gas crisi (mid 70’s, early 80’s) the road to market would have been much more difficult for the Japanese and the Europeans. But they did happen and the rest is…

  • avatar

    No less a personage than David E. Davis called the 1963 Chevrolet “the best car in the world at the time”, which, given the upward arc of automobile feature and quality, probably means it was the best car in history to 1963.

    From the perspective of providing reliable, high-speed family cars at an affordable price, the US probably led the world well into the Eighties.

  • avatar

    Ahh yes. The ‘good old days’. Carbs, valve jobs every 20,000, tires that blew at the drop of a hat. Cornering? We don’t know nuthin’ ’bout that.

    In absolute terms, maybe there is an argument to be made in favor of the D5ish back in the 50s. They spent the money to try to build pretty decent automobiles, within certain technological limits. And overbuilt because they didn’t have the computers and FEA to enable their current misdirection.

    As to looks, well, that’s up to you. I guess in some way the ’63 killer-fin Caddi was something ok to look at.

    Pre-WW2, sure some of the domestics built some gorgeous stuff. But none of those companies made it past the 40s.

    Shelby’s Cobras? Those were AC’s Aces. Shelby just hotrodded them. Now that they are worth stupid money driving an original seldom happens -but if you want an exercise in torture – do it. They SUCK. Creaky, slap-ass build, bake your feet horrible. The repro Cobras are far better than anything ol’ Shel could ever muster.

    If I could go back in time and ‘remove’ certain people for the betterment of the automotive industry – Harley Earl would be near the top of the list.

    ‘Vettes? Compared to a contemporary Jag XKE? One is a visual feast, the other? Not so much.

    Lamborghini Miura? Pure automotive sex.

    ‘Vette? Maybe drunken sex with your not-too-hot stepsister. No reason the ‘Vette couldn’t have been beautiful, save for mediocre design taste at GM.

    GT40 wasn’t bad. But Ford had to tap DeTomaso to have a sexy car in it’s lineup.

  • avatar

    Best Car is a rather ambigious term. To me, it should mean last a long time, be tough as nails, enjoyable to drive daily, and not cost a ton to operate and maintain for decades. And also not severely detoriate in 10 years.

    If I wanted a car (prefereably sedan or wagon) that I felt like I could drive forever, maintain myself, and still have a comfortable and well-sorted ride with handling that engages a bit…then I’d either want a 60s-70s Mercedes or a 70s-80s Volvo. I6 or I4 and RWD of course, for simplicity. For too many reasons to list.

    As a Ford fan, I’d say that if they had sold their European offerings then I’d definitely add those to the list. The quite capable models that were well-built with a nice simple RWD/I-4 drivetrain…maybe a little Cosworth tuning. I do like the early Falcons though, just the right size for a family and available in a multitude of body styles, engines, and trims.

    There are very few cars, sold today, that fit my desires of a “Best car”…although I am one of the few that think a few of the Ford D-platform cars are built in such a way.

  • avatar
    Gary Numan

    GM’s zenith was the 60’s. My vote is that 1971 to 1973 were the start of the GM demise years. Those two model years launched the GM boats that not only became grossly fat in size/styling with chintzy interior details that fell apart but also brought on bodies that rusted thru quickly. Case in point, compare a 67-72 GM truck to the 73 on versions. Look at the 73 intermediates and examine the 71 large sedans. Few GM vehicles are really collectible from this point forward. As to the 54 Pontiac, my dad had an orange/white 4 door in storage for years with low miles. He bought it from a widow and sold it to her son. It was an interesting vehicle to look at.

  • avatar

    In the past, America did build good cars and they were probably better than pretty much everything that was on the road. As another poster points out, the peak was in the mid to late sixties. In those days if you bought a Malibu with a 307 in it chances are it would give you five years of good service before it rusted to a hulk. But cars were cheap then so it was not a big deal to go get another one.

    Problem was that the competition got better. I remember when my dad bought a 1974 Corolla 1600 to get to work. Everybody laughed like the dickens and said, “Well, eh, that thar thing will never start in winter, eh (this is Canada, eh)!” Getting a car started in the winter was a big thing in the 70s. There were all kinds of techniques associated with it. But not with that little Toyota. Stomp the gas and crank and away it went. Never ONCE failed. It finally died in first year of college in 1987. Quebec salt was the reason, the motor still went first shot every time. It never had any mechanical problems, not one.

    We didn’t have American cars anymore. They were all Japanese after that, until Dad died. He just didn’t want the aggravation of having to take the thing to the dealer to get things fixed that should have never made it past QC, nor did he want to start wrenching on the thing after the warranty was up. Those things were routine in America cars of the 1970s, it was routine in everything. But along came Toyota and you really could drive them for ten years with oil changes, brakes and tires.

    I have three Hondas and I used to work for GM. They are good cars. Not perfect but good. Actually, two of them have been perfect so far……

  • avatar

    “Best” is just way, way, way too vague. For the majority of the last century, we built very different cars from the rest of the world. We were the only country tat could afford big, heavy cars with V8s and automatics on any scale. Yes, Europeans built tons of amazing niche vehicles – Jags, Porsches, Ferraris, etc – but their daily drivers weren’t much until the 60’s, if then. The VW Bug was a “great” car, but if you put it next to a 57 Chevy it’s no wonder Americans thought their cars were “better.”
    Once the 73 OPEC shock hit, and as the car world became global, it was different game.
    Pre-73, you might have an argument of sorts, but the cars that everyone is so pissed off about these days are pretty much every Detroit product from ’73 on.
    That’s 35 years of bad road.

  • avatar

    During the 1950s and 1960s, the domestics made the best vehicles for everyday use. Sure, the Europeans made fun sports cars and very expensive luxury cars, but people have very different expectations regarding reliability and quality from a sports car or a limted-use luxury car than they do from a sedan that is expected to haul them to work on regular basis.

    A 1950s Rolls Royce may have had better interior wood trim or upholstery than a 1950s Cadillac, but the Cadillac could go 500 miles without breaking down, something that was virtually impossible for a Rolls of that era.

    As the publisher of Road and Track once said, “Any engineer worth his salt can design a water pump for a Rolls Royce. It takes a genius to design one for a Chevrolet.”

    And let’s end the myth that the domestics were only the “best” in the 1950s by default. Europe’s car industry was largely up and running by the late 1940s and early 1950s – even in Germany, which was bombed to rubble during World War II. American cars were still better.

    porschespeed: Pre-WW2, sure some of the domestics built some gorgeous stuff. But none of those companies made it past the 40s.

    Various 1930s Cadillac V-12s and V-16s, along with the Sixty Special models, are considered quite beautiful – equal to anything coming out of Europe at that time. So were the 1940-41 Lincoln Continentals and various V-8 Fords built through 1940.

    All of those marques are still around today – at least for now.

    And the domestics put forth more than their share of beautiful models after the war – the 1949 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the 1953-54 Studebaker Starlight and Starliner coupes, the 1955-57 Thunderbird, the 1955-57 Chevrolet, the 1955-56 Ford, the 1961-64 Lincoln Continental, 1963-65 Buick Riviera, 1966-67 Oldsmobile Toronado, 1965-68 Ford Mustang and 1968-69 Dodge Charger.

    The Muira and the XK-E were definitely beautiful cars. But even in the 1960s, average Europeans had no hope of ever driving one, let alone owning one. The average Italian was driving a Fiat in the 1960s, not a Muira.

    Meanwhile, a 1968 Dodge Charger or 1955 Chevrolet was affordable to anyone who could buy a new car in the U.S.

    The everyday stuff coming out of France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Sweden was either boring or downright ugly during those times. It’s also worth noting that many Europeans LOVE American cars from the 1950s and 1960s – particularly for their style.

  • avatar

    Yes, American cars were better, because their competition was non-existent. Everyone knows Brit cars are pretty, but terrible. The French and the Eastern bloc were absurd. The Germans had little market presence in the U.S. back then, so they weren’t in a position to challenge the Americans in the U.S. VWs were inferior to the Nash in every way but their advertising. I don’t know how Mercedes compared to their American contemporaries. Modern American cars (except Chrylser) aren’t bad, they’re just “ok,” and that’s not going to cut it in a crowded market.

  • avatar

    It seems that a majority of car people here remember the cars of the 1950’s and 1960’s. No offense to people here that are more senior than I am. I was born in 1970 and my parents and I had GM vehicles until the year 2000.

    Every one of them was terrible. The 1972 Chevy Beauville van fell apart. The 1976 Pontiac Catalina was horrible. My dad stomped the brakes to miss a pileup and the pedal bent into the firewall. The 1976 Monte Carlo was a dog. The 1985 Chevy Van had rusted interior screws from day one and the sliding door never, ever closed correctly. My final POS was the 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix. It was dead from a cracked plastic intake manifold that allowed the coolant to leak out and the motor melted down – 97K miles on it and worth nothing. My Ford Probe GT was just as bad with both window lift motors ($600 each) going at 50K miles and various other things like the HVAC going kaputt. I am done with the excellence of Detroit.

  • avatar

    I was born in 70 as well. I still got a chance to enjoy those amazing automobiles of the 50s and 60s. Yes they were the best cars in the world. 1970 is about when the US auto industry went into decline and Blobinski, you are correct, most everything since was half-assed garbage. But in context, you have to remember that making things cheaper, less quality, but more affordable, was the rule of the day. The idea became popular that for an economy to succeed you must build throw-away garbage that everyone can buy, and that everyone will have to replace very soon. So instead of buying a car that you would want to keep your whole life, you buy a car that’s much cheaper, but that you only keep for a few years, then buy a new one. Keeps people employed and keeps the money flowing as it were. After many years the folly of that plan became apparent. Quality of life decreased, landfills filled, disappointment reigned. The “malaise era” was born.

    About a year ago I got to drive an old 64 T-Bird. It was a sad reminder of what we missed. A car that rides like a dream floating on a cloud. Sure the V8 was a bit sluggish to move that massive steel body and you couldn’t really feel what the front wheels were doing, but that ain’t exactly the point. I still dream of restoring an old convertible T-Bird or Caddy and wafting on down the 101 in proper style.

  • avatar

    During the sixties they were the best cars in the world, because these cars were exactly what the consumers wanted. A large land barge with a huge engine, auto trans and boaty ride was in demand. Nobody cared about efficiency, and most people didn’t care about handling. The technology was on par with the rest of the world. The only thing you could possibly say these cars lacked compared to the rest of the world was OHC, and not even evry competitor had overhead cams. You really can’t knock the small-block Chevy, considering how long tey managed to make it last.

    There problem is they were not willing to change with the market. As people moved to smaller cars, and new technologies came around they were not willing to get on the board fast enough. Look at the full size trucks, they are still have most things in common with the trucks that were around back in the sixties.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    Its a matter of perspective.

    On the ground in 1912-28, anywhere in world, and you needed a car that you can afford and will actually run OK and you can fix it and it gets you around? Model T. Best in world for the masses. Interesting museum piece today.

    Post WWII- Same need. American iron. Unless you live where energy is expensive. Then no. But interesting museum pieces today.

    After mid 1960s, commence the long slide into oblivion.

  • avatar

    My dad had a ’54 Star Chief. It was 11″ longer in the trunk than the regular Chieftian. That hood ornament is amber plastic, and it lights up at night when the headlights are turned on. It’s impossible to look at that hood ornament and not conclude that America made the best cars in the world.

    Don’t listen to them Johnny – We did make the best cars in the world, once upon a time.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Don’t know if it was the best car in the world, but my Dad sure loved his 1953 Buick with the Straight-8 engine (Fireball-8) and Dynaflow transmission.

  • avatar

    From a european perspective, I’d say the mid-50’s was the zenith for american cars. Up until then, ordinary people would consider an american car as likely as any other car. My grandfather, for example, owned a 1939 Dodge. But from the mid-50′ and onwards, the europeans had caght up in every market sector, leaving the american cars only for die hard fans or for market sectors where the europeans didn’t have any offerings, mainly big executive cars and limousines.

    In the 60’s, the streets of Europe were full of Opels, German, French and English Fords, Volvos, Saabs, Fiats, Peuegots, Renaults, and Volkswagens so far the eye could see. And the problem was, all the american offerings were too big, to costly to own and maintain, too thirsty, etc. The Swedish Police bought in Plymouth Valiants as police cruisers, as the smallest car from the american compact car sector was bigger than the biggest of the european offerings.

    By not following the needs of the europeans, the americans had made themselves redundant in Europe as early as 1960. And they have never caught up. Once in a while there’s an occasional Jeep Cherokee or a Dodge Caravan that fills a need the europeans want. But otherwise, american cars stopped being good sometimes before Hudson stopped making cars.

  • avatar

    The automotive press and consumers for that matter tend to over romanticise about cars. Waxing romantically, we attribute qualities – often times spiritual or sexual – to cars that aren’t really there and fail to recognise that a car is a welded together piece of metal used to transport people between destinations. A car is simply a tool like a drill or a hammer. Some tools are made better than others. Some tools are more attractive, dependable, or more honestly priced, but they are nothing more than tools. With few execeptions, cars are not works of art. They are mass produced in assembly lines. Certain cars were handcrafted and built as pieces of design art. The Duesenberg falls into this category as do one off custom jobs by George Barris, Chip Foose, or the thousands of beautiful custom jobs created by capable mechanics throughout our country. America excels in automotive art with thousands of competent mechanics who bring to life mechanical sculptures. Custom roadsters as depicted here set America apart from the rest of the world.

    The area of cars I’m speaking of is not an area that encompasses the design and building of cars mass marketed to the consumer. Those cars exist in a different realm altogether.

    The consumer realm is filled with vanilla flavoured, jelly bean shaped small to midsized sedans powered by lifeless generic engines. These cars cost a bundle and they don’t last very long. They’re built with the intent to cut costs and maximise profits (read: build cheaply and sell at 500% markup). A few of these cars are well built machines but most of them suck. The longer you own them the more they suck. Each year at the North American International Auto Show the world’s automakers tease us by presenting automotive works of art while they introduce cars for the consumer that suck more than the previous year. It’s time to be honest. America doesn’t build the best cars in the world anymore because nobody builds the best cars in the world anymore.

  • avatar

    For a brief time in the mid-to-late 1960s American cars were, arguably, the best in the world. Gas was cheap and gas mileage was not a big deal.

    A new full-sized Chevrolet, for example, even loaded with options such as power steering and brakes, an automatic transmission, and powerful V-8 engine, was within the grasp of the average American consumer. (Curiously, there were also a large number of compact and mid-sized American cars sold that still had rather anemic 6-cylinder engines. Powerglide was still an option at GM until the late 1960s (and probably even into the early 1970s).

    The Interstate system was close to being finished and you could drive coast-to-coast at 80 mph, well 70 mph with the cops out. Sure, American cars didn’t handle as well as some Europeans. But we’re a large country with large flat plains. We don’t need no handling. We just drive in straight lines from “Point A” to “Point B” anyway.

    The American cars of the 1960s weren’t as reliable as they should have been, but they were comparatively simple and easy to repair and also comparatively inexpensive to replace with a new one.

  • avatar

    I like history and I like cars, but I grew up in the 90s and Y2Ks, I grew up with more modern cars than mentioned above. I can remember on thing most domestics had in common from my experience, they were not drivers cars. Compared to Euro and Asian cars, they were quiet far behind. Not all domestics, just about everyone I was exposed to. Domestics were way down the list from my “best list”. Honda Civic, Accord, even the Camry was more of a drivers car than the Buicks, Olds, Tauruses, and Minivans I drove/rode in. Not bad or wrong cars, just not for my preference. Dunno how Domestics fared before my time, I know I like them ok right not. Um..except I’m suspicious of their reliability and resale value. I’m not particularly interested in the past Domestics at this point, but the future ones look really interesting, I hope they prove reliable, and if so, I hope there will be many up here in used car heaven.

  • avatar

    Hey, Jonny, don’t get me wrong. I remember seeing those illuminated amber plastic heads of Chief Pontiac gliding down the street. Cool! Today they remind me of a time when GM cars knew how to be GM cars. An uncle had a ’53 Pontiac he’d let me borrow. It had three-on-the-tree. Except for having to unwind my right arm from around my date to shift gears, I preferred a stick to the clunky Hydramatic back then.

    Harley Earl is justly celebrated, but we should note that he also oversaw the atrociously chromed-up ’58 Olds and Buicks.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Maxb49: Comparing George Barris to a Deusenberg is like comparing Ronald McDonald to, uh, Tom Colicchio.

  • avatar

    ‘Vettes? Compared to a contemporary Jag XKE? One is a visual feast, the other? Not so much.

    Lamborghini Miura? Pure automotive sex.

    ‘Vette? Maybe drunken sex with your not-too-hot stepsister. No reason the ‘Vette couldn’t have been beautiful, save for mediocre design taste at GM.

    GT40 wasn’t bad. But Ford had to tap DeTomaso to have a sexy car in it’s lineup.

    This is the kind of absurd metric used to evaluate cars that I wrote about in my above post. The press and people who recommend cars to their friends and family through this lens are a big part of what’s gone wrong in motorland.

  • avatar

    Some “firsts” just off the top of my head. (OK don’t forget, I’m a member of the Society of Automotive Historians and have been a car “nut” for 45 out of my 51 years on planet earth).

    Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow, 1934 (first cars with a modern weight distribution, one of the first attempts at aerodynamics, extremely comfortable seating – but “uuuuuugleeeeeee”)

    Self-shifting transmission (REO, 1934) or if you prefer, the supposedly “modern” automatic transmission (GM Hydramatic 1939, Oldsmobile)

    First synchromesh (Cadillac, 1932 or so)

    First overhead camshaft four cylinder engine in a sub-compact car (Crosley, 1948)

    Torque convertor lock-up three speed automatic transmission (Studebaker Automatic Drive, 1950)

    Power Steering (Chrysler, 1951)

    Four wheel disc brakes (Crosley, 1947), four wheel disc brakes in a heavy car (Chrysler, 1949)

    Front caliper disc brakes in a mass produced, easily obtained, heavy car (Studebaker, 1963)

    Dual circuit brakes (Rambler, 1963)

    Front seat belts standard (Nash Rambler, 1950)

    Modern filtered air heat, vent and defrost system built in (Nash, 1937)

    Torison-level automatic levelling suspension (Packard, 1955, yes, a year ahead of Citroen’s famous suspension and 3 years ahead of “Detroit’s big 2” failed air suspension systems)

    Air conditioning (Packard, 1939)

    Steering wheel (Packard, 1900 – imagine trying to steer a modern car with a tiller?!)

    Light 1/4 ton four wheel drive utility vehicle (Willys “Jeep”, 1942)

    Front engine, rear transaxle and independent rear suspension (Pontiac Tempest, 1961, a full 16 years ahead of the Porsche 928, plus, it was a car that “everyman” could afford)

    First front wheel drive car with more than 200hp and with automatic transmission (Oldsmobile Toronado, 1966)

    Cruise control (Imperial, 1957)

    Curved side glass in order to increase the width of the interior vs. exterior size (Lincoln, 1961) in an easily affordable car (Rambler Classic and Ambassador, 1963)

    Turbocharged aluminum V8 engine (Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire, 1962)

    Turbocharged aluminum pancake six (Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder, 1962 – decades ahead of Porsche)

    Swivelling front bucket seats to ease entry and exit (Chrysler, 1959)

    First large cars with unit construction (Lincoln, Continental and Thunderbird, 1958)

    Fuel injection for cars readily available to the common man (Chevrolet and Pontiac, 1957)

    Car radios (1920’s, Crosley and others)

    First electro-dipping of cars to ward off rust (Rambler, 1963)

    “Bring your own” car music, factory installed (Chrysler, 1956 – yes, it was a record player) or if you prefer, “bring your own” car music aftermarket (Muntz, 1964 – 4-track) or if you prefer “bring your own” car music, factory installed (Ford 1968, 8-track)

    First ever diesel engine in an automobile (Clessie Cummins in the early 1930’s, in a Packard touring car)

    Electronic fuel injection (Chrysler, 1957 or 1958)

    Air bags (Oldsmobile and Mercury, 1974)

    Catalytic convertor to vastly reduce pollution (developed in the USA, adopted for most cars by the 1975 model year) (not adopted by the “greenies” in Europe for a full decade and a half after Americans had introduced them wholesale on all cars and light trucks)

    Electronic anti-lock brakes available in a popular priced and mass produced vehicle (Buick, 1971) (as opposed to an exotic European hand made specialty car)

    All were AMERICAN developed innovations, all but the last 3 – prior to 1970.

    That speaks volumes.

    As for “style” and body innovations…

    Packard Clipper, 1941 (beautiful flowing lines)

    Hudson cars, 1948 (look, ma, no bulbous fenders or running boards but a smooth bodyside, a low roof line – plus “step down” interior)

    First hardtop convertibles, GM, 1949

    First all steel station wagons, Willys, 1948

    First wrap around windshields, GM, 1953

    First innovative and colorful interiors, Kaiser, 1952

    First body colored, rubber bumpers, Pontiac, 1968

    First hidden windshield wipers, Pontiac, 1968

    Studebaker’s all-new 1948 cars – a styling sensation

    Studebaker two door coupe’s and hardtops, 1953 – another styling sensation

    Ford Motor Company’s Continental, 1956 – gorgeous

    Chrysler Corporation’s 1957 cars – styling sensations

    Ford’s Lincoln Continental, 1961 – elegance and style in it’s simplest form

    GM’s Buick Riviera, 1963 – gorgeous

    Studebaker’s Hawk Gran Turismo, 1962 – beautiful
    (Brooks Stevens’ best effort)

    AMC Javelin, 1968 (clean, nice – sporty and suave)

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “The everyday stuff coming out of France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Sweden was either boring or downright ugly during those times.”

    I guess you aren’t familiar with the Citroen DS; of which about 1.5 million were built between 1955 and 1975.

  • avatar

    John, I have to agree that the Cit was gorgeous – but I was an unusual kid in the 1960’s and loved futuristic kitch, which the Cit was (and believe it or not, some guy in a little “yoopee” Michigan town had one when I was a kid – no dealer support for 300 miles probably), while most Americans looked at the Citroen as just plain WEIRD back in the day.

    Also if you’re under the age of about 30, you’ll simply see a modern looking car when you see the Cit. Just waaaaaay ahead of it’s time.

    Compare photos of virtually ALL THE OTHER CARS at the Paris debut of the Cit in 1955, they all look like boxes on wheels. Or, in the case of the 2CV, a corrugated shed on wheels…

  • avatar

    I don’t think there can really be any argument that America once built the best cars in the world. The golden age was 1946 to about 1970. The average US-built family car was simply streets ahead of those made anywhere else. Especially when cost was calculated by man-hours worked to buy it. The American driver got a lot of car for the money. As for “quality” I think a lot of people confuse build-quality (or fit & finish) with reliability/durability. Except for the hand made masterpieces from the classic era (1925-40) most American cars were (are) pretty carelessly assembled. We don’t seem to have that “watchmaker ethos” that some of our foreign competitors do. The Ford-style mass production assembly line made cars cheaply but not particularly well. Let’s face it, the line jobs were monotonous and mind-numbing. (Still are.) Quality control was pretty hit-or-miss and tended to be of the statistical variety. Many factories had remake departments at the end of the assembly lines, or else the dealers were expected to correct major flaws.
    But the designs were proven. Drivetrains were overbuilt to survive our brutal operating environments and the American motorists’ lackadaisical attitudes regarding regular routine maintenance. Most foreign made 4 and 6 cylinder engines of the period would be completely shot by 100,000 American miles. US V8s were easily capable of 200,000 miles when decently cared for.
    And don’t forget the level of equipment on most American cars. V8, automatic, power steering and brakes, air conditioning. These were found elsewhere only in cars like the Rolls or Mercedes 600 – costing over 5 times as much.

  • avatar

    Note to menno: when discussing “firsts” it helps to note that most people remember them by model year, rather than date of introduction. So, Old’s first Hydramatic was in the 1940 models. Packard’s A/C was also in the 1940. (Cadillac is also said to have offered AC in 1940.)
    It was an impressive compilation, and certainly one that underscores the level of engineering and innovation from this country.
    A few other quibbles, the first curved side-glass was the Imperial in 1957. (VW Karmann-Ghia had it also in ’57.) I don’t remember the Studey autobox having TCLU. Borg-Warner developed the 3 speed torque converter automatic for Studebaker and Ford. Packard introduced TCLU for the 1950 Ultramatic. Lincoln offered “Sure-Track” antilock (rear) brakes in the 1970 Mark IIIs.

  • avatar

    That was quite a bit of innovation. Other countries might have been able to do the same, but its great that the U.S. did so much independently. Its great that a lot of the stuff was introduced to the public. Although I’m a little suspicious about how the stuff was marketed, and if the differences between the more expensive cars was really big. I also wonder where all that culture of innovation is right now. In used cars I guess.

  • avatar


    And what did Detroit do with all those innovations?

    Squandered, ignored, forgotten, sold, or abandoned.

    Electronic fuel injection? Didn’t go anywhere till they sold it to Bosch.

    ABS? Until very recently most systems were developed by Bosch or used licensed tech. Those early domestic attempts were completely unreliable and quickly shelved. The Euros kept working.

    215 V-8? GM dumped that one when? How long did Rover manage to keep that one going?

    I could probably work my way down that entire list…


    I was just talking about vis-a-vis a ‘Vette. As to the Harley Earl stuff, I know some folks find it attractive, I’m in my 40’s and I always thought the Euro stuff looked better. Even as a kid. But that’s really a personal thing. I just like modern clean styling.

  • avatar

    I think the problem here is that to call something the best, each of us must use a caveat (i.e. the best roaster, sports car, family sedan, etc.).

    I would argue that the 1956 Porsche Speedster was the best car of the 50’s (caveat).

    I would argue that the Mustang was the best car of the 60’s (impact, cost, change in buyers perception.

    I would argue that the Porsche 916-6 was the best performance general public car ever.

    Now as far as the most useful, reliable, most impact vehicle produced from the beginning to now? I would say any of the Big 3’s full size pickup trucks.

    Caveats included.


  • avatar

    IMHO Harley Earl is the most overrated stylist in history (Ed Ford and Bob Gregorie were a far better team).

    He produced an era of cars that were humpy, bumpy, dumpy and frumpy. Dull. Then finished with a bout of drunken excess. About what one would expect from recovery from (the) Depression.

    Bill Mitchell broke clean from that mess (yes, I know he worked for Earl) and gave us GM’s golden era of styling.



  • avatar

    “Get back on your feet?” It was a long haul from 1946 until the early ’70’s and Japanese cars were Crapanese cars during those 30 years, complete $hit on wheels. The war did nothing to the Japanese car industry because there wasn’t a realistic one with market prowess in existence.

    Detroit didn’t have any competition prior to the ’60s because there wasn’t any that could realistically pose a legitimate threat.

  • avatar


    My point exactly – hardly a thing since ’73. The American auto industry essentially died that year. And all those innovations? Foreign auto makers did them batter, faster, cheaper while Detroit slept.

    It is exactly THIS last 35 years of corporate culture which Detroit will not be able to overcome. Nearly every one of Detroit’s thousands of middle and upper management came up through the ranks during this time.

  • avatar

    John Horner: I guess you aren’t familiar with the Citroen DS; of which about 1.5 million were built between 1955 and 1975.

    I agree that it wasn’t boring. It was an interesting car.

    It fits into the “ugly” category, except for the front clip, which was basically cribbed from the 1953-54 Studebaker Starlight/Starliner.

    willbodine: Except for the hand made masterpieces from the classic era (1925-40) most American cars were (are) pretty carelessly assembled.

    American cars were actually pretty well made prior to World War II. After the war, assembly quality varied more among the companies (for example, Ford had trouble with its first postwar designs, and the 1953 Studebakers were poorly built). But the GM cars (particularly the Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles), Nashes, Hudsons and later Ramblers were actually pretty well assembled.

  • avatar

    WWII destroyed the economies of England, Europe and Japan. Postwar the US had the economic power and the industrial power to build, and buy(!), cars. There was scant competition since the economies and industrial power elsewhere had to rebuild. American cars in the 1950’s were innovative and the styling was dynamic but so what. Maybe compared to the decline in American car design, innovation and execution since the 1970’s with the rest of world’s automotive manufacturers the 1950’s was a really hot time but to say that we built the best cars is rather faint praise. The postwar economic boom in the US created an atmosphere that was conducive to building and selling consumer goods. The US was really the only game in town. “Menno’s” list is very impressive but it seems the quest for cheap profits by car manufacturers delayed those innovations from trickling down to the cheaper cars. The first car I owned that had disc brakes, rack and pinion steering and impressive handling, for an inexpensive car, was not an American car. Foreign competition showed what a modern car could be and the domestic manufactures have been playing catch-up since the early ‘80’s.

    I owned a 1956 Chevy in 1966 that was beat. The seats were down to springs and the body was rusting away beneath the impressive hood ornamentation. Everything that could go wrong with a car went wrong with that car. I did learn valuable mechanical skills sprawled underneath it fixing the countless problems. Cars in the ‘50s were built to last a couple of years then get traded in. Compared to cars today they were POS. True the styling was dynamic and I do enjoy seeing a restored 1950’s car at shows but to own and drive one, no thanks.

    Saying that we had the best cars is technically correct, though since we bombed the hell out of any competition we might have had, we should wonder why we wouldn’t. We also had the most undamaged major cities and the highest GNP in the world. Saying that we were the best, given the conditions postwar, and given the way the American manufacturers have squandered that success, seems a bit desperate.

  • avatar

    Henry Ford would have said that Alfa Romeos were the best cars in the world.
    I hear that Hudson cars were very good for their day.
    Best cars ever;
    Volvo 2 series

  • avatar

    I think American cars were the best in the world overall from about 1955-ish to 1970-ish, if where you were driving was in the United States. This was the time when the USA was building its still unparalleled Interstate system, and cities in the West were booming and growing with cars in mind, instead of old cities accomodating cars in lieu of horses. Plus the United States procured the vast amount of hydrocarbons it used domestically in that time-frame.

    To drive several thousand miles of paved roads through virtually every kind of geography and climate for no other reason than a family vacation is something that only some parts of the world today enjoy outside of the United States. A big car that can waft along reliably at eighty for hours on end with no more than a thumb on the steering wheel is a good car in that environment, and Detroit rides from that era fit that bill. My father has a very well restored and maintained deep blue 1960 Pontiac Ventura coupe bubbletop with a 389 Tri-Power in it. For the most part its stock, except for things like the alloy rims its on and some motor-tweaks. That car is a good-looker by any measure. Lots of twist through most the rev-range, gets mid twenties per gallon on the freeway in overdrive. Handles like a pig, but its actually considerably better than the hippo-dynamics you’d expect. Trunk big enough to toss a MINI in as a spare car for emergencies. Safety wise the thing is a throwback, but it doesn’t need a crumple-zone; it it gets in a collision with a modern car the modern car will be its crumple-zone.

    A modern construct of that car with direct injection EFI, independent suspension with disc brakes and traction control, and updated insturments in the dash and you would have an excellent car today that is better than anything Detroit sells for under $40,000 or so. I was driving that car this summer on a father-son roadtrip to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We at some point in Jackson Hole got stuck at a light next to a Pontiac Montana minivan. I remember looking around at the car I was in and listening to that motor idle, and then look over at the Montana. Ah, how the mighty have fallen I thought!

  • avatar

    I was a die hard Mustang guy until I got stationed in Italy. Dad says those furrin’ cars ruined me b/c I haven’t owned one since (18 yrs or so).

    What did it for me were the yuppies I was surrounded by when I was growing up. Mom & Dad have had GMs since the mid-80s and are only now talking about buying Japanese vehicles again.

    Their recent GM vehicles have been okay until 100K miles most of the time. What has changed their minds has been two things: my success with Hondas. I’m getting 200K miles for less trouble and cost than they are getting ~125K miles. Heck my CR-V still has the original clutch at 170K miles with ALOT of city shifting. Just one minor example.

    Their other reason to even consider a Japanese vehicle is the talk of Detroit bankrupcies. They tell me they won’t take the uncertain step of buying a vehicle when the manufacturer is going bankrupt. They also won’t own a Chrysler no way, no how. Quality (lack of). And Fords? No likely either. (no compelling products).

    I’m not relating this for any other reason than to say these two babyboomers who have for a couple decades believed in “Drive America” won’t be much longer.

    Anyhow I drove my Mustangs and saw those 80s imports. They were miles ahead. Handling, creature comforts, the little details like intermittent wipers, etc. When I finally began buying 80s imports to replace my 81 Moostang clearly my suspicions were correct – for the type of cars I was buying. You folks can argue Mercedes vs Caddy but I was driving Moostangs and VW GTIs and Firebirds (that my friends owned, never me), and so forth. I had a huge 3.3L six making the power of a 1.8L (or even 1.6L four cylinder engine) and those little cars could scoot all while getting good mileage. Foot on the floor uses alot of gas in those little cars too.

    As if I needed more to confirm my ideas about Detroit cars I had the opportunity to drive or ride in American cars in Italy. My Moostang was happiest at 60 mph. I pushed it to ~80 mph once driving to FLA and it reluctantly did the run getting truly miserable mileage. I could watch the gas needle fall to E.

    In Italy I rode down cobblestone streets in American Escorts, American Horizons that were unhappy climbing steep mountain roads, took Tempos on day trips to the snowy Italian mountains, took American Cavaliers around the city trying to keep up with cars that had half the displacement and twice the suspension design, and I drove cars HARD on the autostrada racking up hours at ~100+ mph. The American cars were crap every time. We saw the effects of the Naples roads on the American cars. Blown shocks, bent wheels, alignments that would stay aligned, and more creaks and rattles than you could shake a stick at. However the little cheapo Italian cars could last decades riding these crumbling roads (the mafia controls the construction industry in Naples, siphons off funds meant for roads). Often American folks would arrive with their domestic sedans only to quickly park them in favor of an Italian compact car of some sort.

    Here were tiny cars with style and gusto that were built CHEAP. These cars could be repaired when necessary cheaply or discarded in favor of another cheap car. Many had lasted decades like the thousands of tiny rear engined Fiat 500s, 650s, and their cousins.

    I’ve had a hard time ever giving more than a moment’s thought to traditional Detroit vehicles. I WANT to buy American but there are few products that satisify my taste. Focus, Astra, and that’s about it. Their typical compact cars (Cavalier, Cobalt, Aveo) aren’t even in the same ballgame with the companies that build cars for Europe for me. I’m buying used compacts. The large vehicles might be fine but why would I spend my hard earned cash on a 15 mpg vehicle to haul the family around town? There is a place for a large vehicle but not in my “fleet”.

    Everyone’s needs and expectations are different but it looks like more of us need a short distance car than the excess of the past 15 years regardless of the cost of gasoline. We seldom travel more than a few hours this way or that so we don’t need that big Buick or a large SUV to feel comfortable.

    FWIW I don’t subscribe to the fads of the family haulers. If I need a minivan I’ll buy one. What I really need is a stylish family wagon. Right now the VW Passat or VW Jetta Sportwagon appear to leads the pack for us. Perhaps we’ll have a pair of tiny compacts for the daily drivers and something like a minivan or Passat on standby in the garage.

    Good luck to Detroit but I doubt I’ll contribute more to their bank accounts aside from what our politicians have.

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