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A Brief History of
The First 100 Years of the Automobile Industry
in the United States

Chapter 14 - After the muscle cars, the world comes to an end

by Richard A. Wright

An outlaw auto culture took shape in the United States after World War II.

A generation of young people who came of automotive age in the postwar period were building an underground car culture based on speed and customized older cars they called "hot rods."

Marketing people say cars make a statement about their owners, the Chevrolet sedan as surely, albeit differently, as the Duesenberg. Detroit was not sure what to make of the statement posed by a chopped and leaded pearlescent purple '39 Mercury with frenched headlights and a "souped-up" V-8. So it ignored it. For a while.

Fords of the '30s and early '40s vintage were the most popular machines with the hot-rodders, because they were inexpensive and they had V-8 engines. Hybrids were not unusual. In the middle and late '50s, high-compression Chevrolet V-8 engines became popular and a '34 Ford roaadster with a Chevy V-8 and Hydra-matic drive (this was not the sports car crowd) was and is highly prized.

They cruised the growing number of drive-in restaurants and they blocked off little-traveled roads in the country -- or in the cities -- to race wheel to wheel with their high-powered rods.

Detroit ignored them for a while, but soon drag racing and stockcar racing became respectable and attracted wide followings. And these fans bought cars. Detroit wooed them with "muscle cars," factory hot rods.

Many critics disapproved of this outlaw band of auto lovers, but they became a part of American culture. They were too big a chunk of the generations now ranging from 50 to 70 to ignore. After pretending they were not there for about 20 years, Detroit began building cars for them in the '60s.

There were earlier attempts at appealing to the performance market. In '53, Chevrolet unveiled its Corvette, a beautiful fiberglass-bodied sports car which pleased hardly anyone. It had a ho-hum six and automatic transmission.

Ford's Thunderbird, introduced as a V-8 two-seater for '55, was better received, but there were plenty of back-alley artworks that would blow its doors off.

Over the years, the Corvette became a truly world-class sports car, while the Thunderbird swelled up into a luxury car. Both were priced well out of the ordinary car range. In April, 1964, Lee lacocca, then general manager of Ford Division, became the first person to appear on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines the same week. (Bruce Springsteen and Andrew Wyeth's model Helga have since matched that feat.)

lacocca became famous that year because of the Mustang, a car that caught America's fancy as few have before or since. Ford hoped to sell 100,000 in its first year. In fact, 420,000 were sold in the first six months, shattering the former first-year mark set by the Ford Falcon in 1960.

The Mustang, itself an answer to Chevrolet's successful Corvair Monza, which showed there was a market for a small, inexpensive sports car, spawned a series of "pony cars."

The Mustang far outstripped the Corvair, because its V-8 engine far outstripped the Corvair's six. (Interestingly, in its efforts to get more power out of its air-cooled, rear-mounted six, Chevrolet fitted some Corvairs with turbochargers, foreshadowing later high-performance efforts.) The Mustang was offered with a big V-8 that would leave most cars in its exhaust. It was a factory hot rod.

And lacocca rode it (with a few detours) to the presidency of Ford Motor Co.

Marlboro cigarets are a marketing textbook case of a turnaround in a product's image. From a low-volume ruby-tipped woman's cigarette, Phillip Morris and a tattooed cowboy made Marlboro into a macho brand and in a relatively short time it was the biggest-selling cigarette on the market.

The auto industry has its own "Marlboro story." It started in 1956, when General Motors President Harlow Curtice surprised the industry by naming Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen, a young (40), ambitious engineer and son of the legendary William Knudsen, to head the ailing Pontiac Division.

Pontiac had become a stodgy car with limited market appeal, a car for conservative old men and little old ladies. A "plumber's car," as Knudsen's management team assessed it. Knudsen decided the car needed a more exciting image and that the best way to do that was to, in fact, make the car more exciting.

When Marlboro went macho, Phillip Morris changed the formula of the cigarette's tobacco so that, in fact, it had a stronger, richer flavor that appealed to both men and women. And Knudsen decided to back up Pontiac's new image with an exciting car. To help him do this, he hired an even younger engineer with plenty of ideas and ambition to match Bunkie's -- John Z. DeLorean.

DeLorean, not yet 30, was an engineering boy wonder, first at Chrysler Corp., then at Packard, where he was head of research and development. Knudsen offered him a similar post at Pontiac.

Knudsen, his chief engineer, Elliot (Pete) Estes, and DeLorean secretly launched a stock-car racing activity -- secretly because GM had agreed in 1955 along with the rest of the industry not to engage in factory racing efforts.

In the early '60s, a buyer or a dealer who knew what to look for in the Pontiac catalog of optional equipment could put together a racing machine, a factory hot rod.

In 1963, a dealer in Royal Oak, Ace Wilson, began marketing -- with the help of Jim Wangers, of Pontiac's ad agency, MacManus, John & Adams -- a high-performance "custom" car made of stock Pontiac options. He called it the Bobcat. Part of the Bobcat package was the name, made up of rearranged letters from Pontiac model names and affixed to the car to let the world know that the owner had something special.

The Bobcat was both a financial and esthetic success and in its Tempest form it was the a preview of the Pontiac GTO, which came out in '64, just beating the Mustang to become the first "muscle car."

The GTO was the car all succeeding muscle cars would be judged by. Ironically, the GTO administered the coup de grace to the old-fashioned hot rod, because very few individuals could build one as cheap or as fast as the GTO. Only Ford and Chrysler Corp. had the resources to challenge it. And they did.

Estes later became president of GM and Knudsen and DeLorean probably would have also, if they had not become impatient and quit GM.

When the GTO and the Mustang hit the market, gasoline was cheap. But the muscle cars would be on the way out before the first oil crisis in the early '70s, killed not because of the abandon with which they gulped fuel, but because smog and the toll of highway death and destruction were changing American attitudes toward the car.

Researchers in California had determined that the irritating cloud of smog that was spreading over not only the Los Angeles area, but metropolitan areas around the country, was caused by unburned hydrocarbons (droplets of gasoline) in automotive exhaust reacting with oxides of nitrogen, also present in auto exhaust, and sunlight.

California led the way in setting standards for air pollution and the effort to clean up auto exhaust drained Detroit's engineering resources starting in the mid-'60s until the new car was pretty well removed as a major source of air pollution a decade later.

But that enormously complex technological challenge wasn't the auto industry's only problem. When Ralph Nader did in the Corvair he showed that the auto establishment was not invulnerable and safety critics launched their own assault on the automotive citadel.

In fact, safety had long been a concern in Detroit. All were agreed that cars should be safer. The question was how best to do it.

Motorists and their passengers are killed and injured in automobiles not by the primary crash but by the so-called "second impact." When the car decelerates rapidly, as it does when it hits a tree, occupants continue to move forward, into the dashboard, the windshield, or the steering column to be bashed, decapitated or impaled.

To prevent or mitigate these second impacts, the auto makers installed seat belts, collapsible steering columns and safety windshields in their cars before the government enacted any standards. But the government said it had to do more.

In the late '60s, Eaton Corp. showed a system it had developed for aircraft which sensed a crash and inflated "air bags" into which the passenger would be thrown and cushioned from the hard surfaces inside the car. The government and the insurance industry liked the air bags because many drivers declined to buckle up the belts that were standard equipment on all new cars starting in the mid-'60s. The auto makers didn't like them because of the space-age technology which they said could not be made fail-safe in a production-line operation. The belts work, Detroit said, make the use of them mandatory.

Before the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut off the supply of oil to the United States in 1973 -- by then imported oil accounted for some 40 percent of consumption -- warnings were being sounded at industry meetings and in trade journals about the crisis to come. The United States was at the mercy of OPEC, they said, and over the longer range the world was running out of oil.

The government began setting fuel economy standards which were often in conflict with the air pollution and safety standards which had to be met.

Cutting nitrogen oxide emissions required making engines run less efficiently, thereby increasing fuel consumption. Making cars smaller to meet economy requirements often conflicted with safety designs. And some safety standards added weight to the cars, cutting fuel economy.

When OPEC created a sudden demand for small, fuel-efficient cars in the mid-'70s, the American makers were not ready with good designs.

The Japanese were.

Japan first came into the United States in 1958 with the strange little Toyota Toyopet and Nissan Datsun. But the cars were second-rate and there was no sound dealer network to service them. Nissan and Toyota withdrew. But they would be back. They studied American methods. And when they came back, they did it right.

Volkswagen was the first to feel the Japanese onslaught. VW had dominated import sales since it first started coming into the United States around 1950. But Toyota steadily closed the gap and passed VW in sales in the United states in 1975 and Nissan passed it the following year.

The Japanese had similar success against American nameplates. By the end of the decade, Japanese makers were selling 2.5 million cars a year in the United States, close to one in every four units sold.

Detroit was reeling.

Copyright 1996, Richard A. Wright
Published by Wayne State University's Department of Communications