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Compact cars, American style

Hanging out on forums, frequently here at impalaforums.com, has helped pique my interest in cars, especially learning about the history of the car industry in North America.

In my lifetime, 1961 to the present , I've seen many different sizes and types of cars sold and used in the States. But as I learn more about car history, I realize that the wide variety of car types is a fairly recent thing, that well into the 1950's, about the only size of cars made by the Big Three were B-bodies, or the Ford and Chrysler equivalents. At GM, that was the bulk of passenger car production, with a few C-bodies thrown in, and those were basically just stretched B-bodies that otherwise used many of the same parts.

For most of the 1950's, about the only alternatives at the Big Three were trucks of some sort - ie, pickups and Suburbans. No compacts, no mid-sizes. There were two exceptions, both in the sports car category, the T-bird at Ford, and the Corvette at Chevy, but it began life with a straight-6 - not very sporty - and neither was considered an economy car.

That said, by the late 50's, compact cars, such as the Volkswagen Beetle and the Nash Rambler, had begun to attract Detroit's attention. In response, the Big Three began developing their first compact cars. And keep in mind, there were no intermediates or mid-sizes up to then. So these were all new departures for the Big Three. In GM's case, yes, they sold many models, but almost all those models were B-bodies - be they Oldsmobiles or Pontiacs, be they hard tops, coupes or wagons - they were all B-bodies. (Now you know the secret to GM's dominance in that era )

So the first forays into something not a B-body were the compact cars released in the early 60's. The A-bodies, G-bodies, H-bodies, and W-bodies would all come later. But first out the door were compact cars, something decidedly different than the B-bodies.

At Ford, they cranked out the Falcon, which started production in 1960. That same year Plymouth offered the Valiant - my dad had a 1962, with factory A/C, albeit mounted separately, on the hump, under the dash

GM launched not one, not two, but three different compact platforms, first the 1960 Corvair (Z-body) followed in 1961 by the Pontiac Tempest, Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass/Jetfire, and Buick Special/Skylark, all on the Y-body platform.

One year later, in 1962, Chevy would roll out their second compact in the Chevy Nova (X-body).

These were all deemed compact cars. And, when I think about, they were indeed compact, some more than others, and none of them very large. For sure, the Nova was not a sub-compact, but it wasn't a mid-size either, so compact is the best term to apply.

Of course, when I hear the term compact, I think of some diminutive little car with a motor to match, something with four, or maybe six cylinders, at most. (I also think ugly, at least when I think about the 1961 Buick Skylark )

And these cars surely offered economy motors. The Falcon had two different 6-bangers, one with 144 cubic inches displacement and the other with 170. The Valiant was offered with two sixes topping out at a whopping 225 cubic inches.

As many are aware, the Corvair had an air cooled, opposed 6, mounted in the rear, over an independent rear suspension. The Nova offered two sixes, and also a 153 cubic inch I4 (2.5L). Buick offered their 198 cubic inch (3.2 L) Fireball V6, the forerunner of the popular 90 V6's offered in many forms over several decades. And Pontiac offered a 196 cubic inch I4 derived by cutting off one cylinder bank from their popular 389.

So all these economy-oriented compact cars were offered with economy-oriented engines - the cars could be purchased at a lower price, and they drank gas at a lower rate.

But then the marketing guys got in the picture "If we put a V8 under the hood, we can sell a few more cars to folks on a budget but hungry for some hot rodding." At least, that's how I envision the presentation in the board room

In fact, that's how how Oldsmobile came out of the chute - offering only V8's - a 215 cubic inch (3.5 L) aluminum Rockette V8 (years ahead of the Vega), or a turbo-charged version of that same motor - no fours, no sixies - nothing but aluminum V8's (although they were of lower displacement than most other V8's).

Buick also offered their version of the 215 which differed on the top end, but shared many parts. Pontiac put that same motor in their Tempest, too.

Not to be out-rodded, Chevy offered both their 283 and 327 in the Nova. Of course, by 1963 Pontiac was offering their 326 (I saw one report of Pontiac using the 389, but I couldn't confirm that for the Y-body Tempest. No doubt, it was offered later in the larger A-body (mid-size) Tempest.)

Ford and Plymouth did likewise, offering V8's to go with their sixes. The Falcon had a 260 (precursor of the 289) while the Valiant had a 273. (The Hemi came later )

So all these economy cars had Mr Hyde versions with V8's in them. Most were small blocks (283, 327) or smaller (215), but technically, the 326 was a big block. And a few years later, the big block 396 was offered in the Nova (which is nearly 4x the displacement of the 1.8L in my Chevy Cruze ).

While a 6.5 liter big block V8 doesn't seem to align with the notion of an economy car, the marketing guys could spin that around and show the customer the savings to be had getting that 396 in a Nova versus paying more to get it in a Chevelle or Camaro

So, with that in mind, the 396 Nova really was an economy car

Doug

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Last edited by plano-doug; 07-15-2019 at 04:03 PM.
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