Feature Story

HISTORY: U.S. SMALL CAR FAILURES

by Bob Hagin

July 10, 1998

The Geo name is now history, and while its updated cars now carry the Chevy name plate, it's no secret that GM's little three-cylinder "city-cars" are anything but hot sellers. This comes as no surprise to auto historians who have noted that over the years, Americans have been less that enthusiastic about cars that are very much smaller than the contemporary and generally accepted mid-sized passenger cars of the same era. Several auto makers have tried to break our big-car mind-set but the results have been bad. These are some that failed to make the cut:

ALLSTATE A-SERIES - In the late '40s, Sears Roebuck vice-president Theodore Houser posed this question to his board of directors: why not sell a small, practical Sears-badged car through the auto facilities that were just then being developed at Sears department stores? In retrospect, the answer should have been because Sears shoppers wouldn't buy them, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. The pudgy little Henry J, a 2300 pound two-door sedan built and marketed by the upstart Kaiser-Frazer auto maker, was the basis for that car. Houser was on the board of directors of K-F, so that may have influenced the project. The Henry J itself lasted from '51 to '54 and enjoyed a spat of popularity, but its Allstate clone was a dismal flop in both '52 and '53, the only years it was sold. Back then, Sears credit cards weren't in vogue.

AUSTIN AMERICAN - Actually, the Austin American wasn't so much a small car as it was a midget, and that was one of the factors that lead to its demise. It first appeared in 1930 - not the best of economic times in the U.S. It was built in Butler, Pennsylvania by the Austin Motor Company of England and was based on the wildly popular British Austin 7, the Model T of Great Britain. But Americans liked things big, even if it meant buying a less economical Ford Model A for a few dollars less. With a 75-inch wheelbase, the Austin was so small, it couldn't have a back seat, another drawback for prolific America. Sir Herbert Austin pulled the plug in '35, but the concept wasn't ready for a burial just yet.

AMERICAN BANTAM - When Sir Herbert called it quits, entrepreneur Roy Evans convinced the bankruptcy court to literally give him the whole operation for $7000. To avoid having to pay Austin a two-percent royalty per car, Evans and his crew redesigned the engine, raising the horsepower by almost 50 percent, had Alexis de Sakhnoffsky (he "Americanized" the Austin for us in '30) upscale the body for a pontoon- fendered mid-'30s look and hit the market with a 1200-pound "cutie" in 1938. His timing was bad, unfortunately, since The Great Depression was at it's worst that year, as I recall. Evan's bright spot on automotive history is that his Bantam "reconnaissance" car was the design accepted by the U.S. Army as the prototype for the military Jeep.

CROSLEY - Small, tinny, rough-riding and underpowered best describes the Crosley - especially the pre-war two-cylinder version. It weighed less than 1000 pounds and was totally unacceptable to Americans in '39 and '40, its two prewar years. Its resale value skyrocketed during World War II when the supply of gasoline to us civilian drivers was drastically rationed. After the war, appliance magnate Powell Crosley had his car upgraded, enlarged and modernized, and powered it with a 750 cubic centimeter overhead cam four-cylinder engine that eventually found its way into thousands of small SCCA race cars. The Crosley Hotshot was a true sports car (a friend, Mary Lou Robson drives a restored '51 model in vintage car races) but it didn't help the company's poor sales and the marque went on to Automotive Valhalla in 1952.

NASH METROPOLITAN - It may be misnomer to call the Metropolitan a failure since it lasted eight years, but sales at the end were grim. The '54 "Metro" was a bulbous little hardtop coupe that was built in England around British Austin A30 mechanical bits and pieces plus a larger Austin A40 engine and gearbox. I had several of them and although they were somewhat "tippy," they drove well but they were prone to break their skinny axle shafts. There was a convertible available too, but it became a dated design and the 400 Metros that were sold in '62 were holdovers from the year before. By that time Nash had been converted into the Rambler name which was in turn conglomerated into American Motors in '66. The little Anglo-American eventually got so gentrified that it showed up in its last years with an honest-to-gosh trunk lid.

PLYMOUTH CRICKET - Another Anglo-American flop was the ill-conceived and ill-timed 1.5 liter Plymouth Cricket. In truth, it was a rebadged British Hillman Avenger that was brought over as a fuel-pincher from '71 to '73. Chrysler had bought out the ailing Rootes Group of England in '65 and Hillman quality (never really great to begin with) went downhill from there. The Cricket was ballyhooed as "The Little Car That Can," but reliability wasn't a strong point. When Chrysler next imported a car in '76 to carry the Plymouth nameplate it came from Japan and the company wisely left the Cricket name in the trash can.

Henry Ford II made this public comment in the '60s. "Small cars mean small profits," he said, "and we're not interested." "The Deuce," as he was called, certainly had his finger on the pulse of the American buying public.

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