American Comment



The mid-winter lull in competition activity presents an opportunity to cast a look back at 1968 and the performance of the American automobile industry as a whole. Although the final figures have not yet been tabulated, it was by all odds a banner year—the best, in fact, in the industry’s history, with total new car sales reaching a record of approximately 9.6-million. This compares with the previous record of 9.3-million sales that was set in 1965. But these are total figures, representing the sales of both domestic and imported cars, and when they are broken down into their component parts the performance of the domestic industry is not quite as rosy as it first appears.

In 1965 domestic dealers rang up 8.7-million sales, while the imports accounted for slightly less than 600,000 cars. Over the next three years, however, sales of imported cars increased over 50% and in 1968 they topped the one million mark for the first time. This, then, left domestic dealers with sales of approximately 8.6-million cars, or slightly less than their 1965 peak. So while the industry as a whole established a record in 1968, it was the imports rather than the domestic makes that were gaining ground fastest. This has not always been the case, and the following table reveals some interesting details about how the imports have fared in the American market over the past 15 years.

Sales of Imported Cars in the United States

Sales – Percentage of Total
1954 .. .. 23,403 – 0.59
1955 .. .. 58,465 – 0.82
1956 .. .. 98,187 – 1.65
1957 .. .. 206,827 – 3.46
1958 .. .. 378,517 – 8.13
1959 .. .. 614,131 – 10.17
1960 .. .. 498, 785 – 7.58
1961 .. .. 378,622 – 6.47
1962 .. .. 339,160 – 4.89
1963 .. .. 385,624 – 5.10
1964 .. .. 484,131 – 6.00
1965 .. .. 569,415 – 6.11
1966 .. .. 658,123 – 7.31
1967 .. .. 779,220 – 9.32
1968 .. .. 1,000,000* – 10.40*
* Estimated

As can readily be seen, the late 1950s were boom years for the imports with their sales growing twenty-fold over 1954 and their share of the market climbing to over 10%. The growth was particularly rapid in the three years 1957-59. But the domestic manufacturers were well aware of the inroads being made by the imports and it was in the autumn of 1959 that they introduced their own “compact” cars to fight the foreign horde. Under the impact of Ford’s Falcon, Plymouth’s Valiant and Chevrolet’s Corvair (which was joined in 1961 by the Chevy Il when the rear-engined Corvair proved too radical for American tastes), the sales of imports plunged. The decline did not stop until 1962, when their share of the market had fallen to less than 5%. By 1963, though, the domestic compacts were beginning to undergo the usual Detroit treatment. They became “longer, lower and wider”; new, better-equipped models were added—and they priced themselves right out of the import market. Following the pattern of the late 1950s the imports thrived, until by 1968 they again claimed more than 10% of the market.

How did individual foreign manufacturers fare during this last five-year boom? The following table shows their comparative positions and sales. Because the final figures were not available for the last two months of 1968 the table compares the first 10 months of 1968 with the same period in 1964.

Sales of Imports in the United States for First Ten Months

1968 Pos. – Sales – Make (1967 Sales – Pos.)
1 – 461,766 .. .. Volkswagen (254,646 – 1)
2 – 67,395 .. .. Opel (12,334 – 6)
3 – 50,873 .. .. Toyota (*)
4 – 31,703 .. .. Volvo (14,702 – 5)
5 – 31,267 .. .. Datsun (*)
6 – 23,753 .. .. Fiat (7,654 – 9)
7 – 19,027 .. .. Mercedes-Benz (9,107 – 7)
8 – 18,651 .. .. English Ford (*)
9 – 16,472 .. .. Triumph (19,065 – 3)
10 – 15,969 .. .. Renault (15,956 – 4)
* .. .. .. .. .. .. M.G. (20,787 – 2)
* .. .. .. .. .. .. Simca (7,893 – 8)
* .. .. .. .. .. .. Austin Healy (7,272 – 10)
67,137 .. .. All others (35,508)
804,011 Total of all makes first 10 months (404,924)
* Not in top ten

Volkswagen, as always, continued to set the pace, with more than 50% of all import sales, but the most striking features of the table are the startling growth of the Japanese makes and, unfortunately, the equally startling decline of the British makes. Toyota and Datsun were hardly in the market, let alone in the top ten in 1964, but by 1968 they occupied third and fifth places. Toyota, in fact, is the fastest growing import. In the 12-month period from October, 1967, to October, 1968, its sales rocketed over 250% and by the middle of this year it will probably overtake Opel as No. 2 among the imports. Datsun is also climbing rapidly and the final 1968 figures will undoubtedly show it in third place ahead of Volvo. The performance of British makes is far less encouraging. Although English Ford had climbed up to eighth place, M.G., which was second in 1964, is now out of the top ten entirely, and Triumph, which was third in 1964, has fallen to ninth place. There are several reasons for this decline and one of them was given by a very reputable U.S. magazine in June, 1968: “We’ve always liked the B.M.C. 1100 (sold only as an M.G. in the U.S.). An extension of the ADO or Mini idea, it seemed from the first to have real VW-challenging potential. But it never lived up to its potential because it was shoddily assembled and wore itself out before you could get it back for overhauls.” B.M.C. eventually took note of their declining sales and last year replaced the M.G. 1100 with the Austin America. This is essentially the current Austin 1300 with special emblems and trim for the American market, but it has two features that should make it a much better seller than the M.G. 1100. First, the larger, more powerful engine should be better able to stand the rigours of America’s high-speed motorways. More important, the car has automatic transmission as standard equipment and still sells for under $2,000 (£840). There is only one domestic car selling for less than $2,000 and it has manual transmission.

However, despite their first one-million car year—or, more accurately, because of it—the imports enter 1969 on the threshold of another battle with their domestic rivals. As in the late 1950s, Detroit is keenly aware of the resurgence of the imports and once again it is preparing to beat them back. This time, though, Detroit plans to meet the imports head-on and its new sub-compacts, as they are called, will match the imports in size, features and, most important, price. (The original compacts never quite met the imports head-on because they were 18 to 24 inches longer and cost as much as £150 more.) Ford and General Motors recently confirmed that they will bring out subcompacts, while Chrysler and American Motors have said they are preparing for them. Ford’s contender, called the Maverick, will be unveiled in April, more than a year ahead of General Motors’ entry, which will be introduced in mid-1970. When asked why he was announcing the car so far in advance, General Motors’ chairman, James Roche, said it was because of his concern for the share of the market being taken by imported cars and because he wanted the American buyer to know that G.M. would soon be selling a car in that class. Mr. Roche is apparently quite sensitive on those points because he added later: “We want to build this car here, in American factories, with American labour and with American skill. We want to show that Americans, who brought the automobile to its high state of perfection, can still build them better.” Neither Mr. Roche nor Ford chairman, Henry Ford II, would give any details about their cars, but some general information has been published. Ford’s Maverick will be about 176 in. long—about 8 in. longer than a Cortina—and use of the basic 2.8-litre 6-cylinder engine from the Falcon will help keep the cost below the $2,000 mark. (Mr. Ford emphasised that far from being dropped, the Cortina marketing programme in America will be stepped up in 1969. But it is still bound to lose sales to the Maverick.) General Motors’ car, which will be built and sold by the Chevrolet division, will be almost the same size as the Cortina with a length of about 170 in. and a weight of about 1,900 lb. Mr. Roche said it will sell in the same price range as the Opel, and the current cost of in Opel is about $1,800 (£750). And so, while imported cars are riding the crest of a popularity wave in the United States, they face much tougher going in the next two or three years.

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The late model stock cars (saloons) that run in NASCAR’s Grand National Division have been producing some remarkable speeds lately. During recent Firestone tyre tests for this month’s Daytona 500-mile race, Buddy Baker in a Dodge Charger lapped the 2½-mile Daytona tri-oval at an average speed of 194.380 m.p.h. In four separate 25-mile runs Baker averaged 192.550 mph.—quite remarkable for a saloon with a stock body and a weight of 3,900 lb. According to NASCAR, Baker’s 194.380 average stands as an unofficial world record tor a closed course. The official closed course world record, which was also set at Daytona, stands at 191.938 m.p.h. It was set by Jim Hurtubise in July last year at the wheel of an Offenhauser-powered front-engined Indy roadster. The highest official practice speed ever recorded at Daytona—189.222 m.p.h.—was set by Cale Yarborough in a Mercury when he won the pole position for last year’s Daytona 500.

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Although U.S.A.C. has no regulations governing steam-powered cars, Anton Hulman, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has emphasised the Speedway’s policy of encouraging the development of all types of engine by sending out entry forms for the year’s Indianapolis 500 which specifically allow cars with unusual propulsion systems provided evaluation tests indicate that they can be expected to compete with regular entries “in a fair and equitable manner”. William P. Lear, an inventor, industrialist and aircraft builder, says he will have two steam-powered cars ready for the evaluation tests when the Speedway opens for practice on May 1st. One of the designers of Lear’s cars is the controversial Englishman, Ken Wallis, who worked on Andy Granatelli’s Original STP Turbocar and on last year’s ill-fated Shelby turbine cars.

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Acting on the suggestion of the Continental Correspondent in the last August’s issue, the Watkins Glen organisers, like those at Brands Hatch, are going to experiment with Indianapolis-style qualifying at this year’s U.S. Grand Prix. Glen Press Director, Mal Currie, emphasised that it would only be an experiment and that normal open practice would still determine the official grid positions. But on the Saturday afternoon they will try the Indianapolis-style qualifying, in which each driver makes two or three flying laps (four at Indianapolis) against the clock on the empty circuit. The commentator can follow each lap closely, the times can be announced immediately, and qualifying becomes much more meaningful for the spectators. Currie said that if the experiment is successful this type of qualifying may well be used at the 1970 U.S. Grand Prix. However, if Grand Prix organisers do adopt Indianapolis-style qualifying it is to be hoped that they do not adopt the Indianapolis practice of putting the first day qualifiers ahead of the second day qualifiers—even when some of the latter are faster. —D. G.