ABOVE: Randy Mytar’s former 1958 Buick Caballero Station Wagon, which Randy describes as having, “chrome with paint trim”.
By Tim Howley
Originally published in the March/April 2005 issue of Continental Comments (Issue # 263).
In 1958, John Keats wrote a hilariously funny book about the unfunny state of affairs in Detroit at the time the Edsel was introduced. The book is titled The Insolent Chariots. It was widely published in hardback and paperback form. You will still find copies in bookstores and at swap meets. It is well worth reading if you want to know the inside story of the U.S. auto industry when it reached its low point, and the import invasion began in earnest. Keats’ book cites three basic flaws behind the styling of American automobiles in the 1958 era. These are the rustic caution and provincial limitations of the Midwestern mind, creeping Charlie Wilsonism, and the need for maintaining a relatively high used car price. The first flaw is Detroit’s insularity, its one-track mindset, and the total obliviousness to the realities of the motoring world. Detroit sincerely believed that ever bigger, more powerful, ever more garish dreamboats were what Midwestern America wanted, and people in California who drove sports cars and imports were just a bunch of kooks. Creeping Charlie Wilsonism, named after a director of General Motors, concerns pure research vs. applied research, and that most research money in Detroit is spent on styling, and has nothing whatsoever to do with real improvements and more product efficiency. The need to keep used car prices high is quite obvious. If Detroit built longer lasting, smaller more fuel-efficient cars, used car prices would fall through the floor, and the whole industry would collapse. Thus you have the Detroit syndrome, which is designed to keep the whole thing rolling into eternity. But things were about to change.
October, 1957, marked the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik I, and the end of the postwar era of optimism in the U.S. September 4 was the introduction of the Edsel, which could not have come at a less opportune time. By October, it was clear that the Edsel was in trouble. The problem was not the Edsel, itself, which was a pretty good car by 1958 standards. however, it was not innovative mechanically, and its styling was the brunt of comedians’ jokes. As Jack Benny quipped, “Is that a new Edsel, or did somebody let the horse collar out of the bar without the horse?” The problem with the Edsel was that it was not a truly breakthrough car in terms of safety engineering, compact size and good gas economy, which was what the public was beginning to look for by the fall of 1957.
True, 95% of car sales in the U.S. were American, but the other 5% of the cars sold were imports ready to attack, and people were waiting in line for nine months for Volkswagens. The mood of the American public was quickly changing from unbridled optimism to the harsh reality that the U.S. was no longer the technological and ideological leader of the brave new world created by the defeat of Germany and Japan. In fact, Japan was already laying plans for the Toyopet invasion, which began in 1959. Proof that new times were coming was the fact that the Edsel bombed. Ford had made a $250,000,000 gamble on a car originally conceived in 1947, and lost. Never has market research gone more amuck! But the Edsel was only a part of the big circus picture.
1957-58 was the height of sharp practices in selling cars. It was not only dealer practices but factory practices as well. High-balling, low-balling, sweat rooms, hyped up sales events, dealers being forced to take on more cars than they could profitably sell, factory and dealer financing sharp practices, the silliness and high cost of annual styling changes, cars that totally ignored safety, and above all no sticker price. It took the government in the late sixties to mandate that factories put plainly market retail prices on the windows of all automobiles, listing the base price, price of options, shipping costs, etc. Still even this did not reflect the true price of a car because there were factory rebates to dealers, and all manner of dealer incentives not passed on to the public.
Another factor, especially in the late fifties, was the poor workmanship, the inconsistency of quality, and the notorious Monday and Friday built cars. 1957-58 has often been cited as the height of poor quality. The 1957 Ford, as beautiful as it was in the Fairlane series, was a slap-dab piece of workmanship. Moreover, the design of the car encouraged early rustout, and in those days nobody was putting primers on the inside of the sheet metal. In 1959, Ford began a quality control program that did not really show results until about 1964. Yes, the industry was in a mess in 1958, and the styling of the cars only gave a hint of all the problems.
Keats’ book tells how and why the imports got a stronghold. He writes, “In 1952, when only 27,000 foreign cars were sold in this country, Detroit paid no attention to them. As one dealer said at the time, ‘there’ll always be a few nuts’. By 1955, foreign car sales had doubled to 54,000 units. Detroit shrugged: “What percentage of 6,000,000 is 54,000?”