Monday, May 24, 2010
  Random automotive observations

A set of auto trivia points. Most of these are one-year exceptions to broad rules.

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1. What was the one year when you couldn't buy an American car with a floor shift?

1953.

From the very start of the automobile, gear levers were on the floor (with the major exception of the Model T, which had no lever at all; its clutch pedal served as the low-high selector as well). Column shifts began to appear in various forms around 1932 as aftermarket remote control devices. In 1938 Olds and Buick had the column lever in modern form, and by 1941 all major cars were on the tree. Only the tiny primitive Crosley kept a floor control. When Crosley died in 1952, no floor shifts were made in America for one year. Then in '54 the Corvette brought it back; other sporty cars joined in; finally in 1960 some 'family' cars had floor shifts again. The column shift started to disappear in the '70s as three-speed manuals and big families faded out. Its original purpose was to provide more passenger space in the front seat, which was really pointless. In the '30s and '40s, the typical front seat was too narrow to hold 3 people comfortably, regardless of lever location. By the time the typical car got wide enough for 3, the typical car was automatic anyway!

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2. What was the one year when you could get an American car with a 4-speed column shift?

1963.

Column 4-speeds were common in Europe through the '50s and '60s, but for some reason American makers didn't pick up on the concept... with one very rare exception. Ford offered its British 4-speed column shift on the Falcon and the Econoline van in '63. Almost nobody bought them.

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3. The newest Ford Fiesta will get 29 MPG in town, 40 MPG highway. Various commenters are cheering this development, a plain gasoline car running in the same league as hybrids, beaten only by roller skates like the Smart.

Well, why is 40 MPG so damn special and smug-worthy? Several compacts of the 1950s and 1960s got the same mileage, with a lower initial cost and vastly lower upkeep. Such as the Crosley mentioned above, or the Renault R8 that I owned and loved.



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4. When was the first use of the term "Sport-Utility" for a car?

1948, and yes, Crosley again.

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5. Suicide doors. In this case the gap during the uniform '50s was longer than one year. From the start of automobiles until about 1940, most four-door cars had the rear doors hinged at the back. GM pulled away from the pattern in 1940 with 'metropolitan sedans', with a shorter roof and front-hinged rear doors, but other manufacturers continued the clamshell arrangement through the '40s. The last high-volume suicide sedan was the '52 Studebaker. Chrysler limos and DeSoto taxis continued using an old-style body in '53 and '54. No suiciders at all in '55 and '56. Cadillac resumed in low quantities with its peculiar Eldorado Brougham in '57 and '58, then gave up. No suiciders at all in '59 and '60. Finally in '61 the clamshell came back in two different ways: the grand Lincoln Continental and Thunderbird, and passenger vans like the Chevy Greenbrier and Ford Econoline. Now it's widespread again. Most van-type SUVs have sliding rear doors that open from the front, and plenty of club coupes and club-cab pickups have small 'auxiliary' rear doors, often without external handles.

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6. Brand hierarchy. Among the big three, GM was the champion of brand identity and hierarchy for a long time; Ford and Chrysler were slow to pick up the concept. In 1930, GM had 9 brands, Chrysler had 4, and Ford had 2. You could argue that Ford didn't even have brands as such until 1939; the Lincoln division was pretty much a way to keep Henry's son Edsel respectably busy, and wasn't a 'profit center'. But the others finally did catch up. What was the one year when Ford had more brands than GM?

1960.

Ford had 6 names and GM had 5. Ford, Edsel, Comet, Mercury, Lincoln, Continental. This is a bit tricky, because the Edsel was cancelled early in 1960 and Comet was introduced late in 1960 as a nominally separate brand. Everyone understood that Comet was Mercury's compact, but it didn't become the Mercury Comet until 1961. Also, Continental didn't deserve brand status. It was just a slight trim variation on Lincoln. Nevertheless, it was officially a marque.

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7. Brand hierarchy again. What was the one year when Chrysler had more brands than GM?

1960 again!

Chrysler had 6 names and GM had 5. Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, Imperial. Again this is a bit tricky, because Valiant was introduced in 1960 as a nominally separate brand. Everyone understood that Valiant was Plymouth's compact, but it didn't become the Plymouth Valiant until 1961.

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8. If you count the Jeep (and its station wagon and Jeepster relatives) as a passenger car, most of the gaps disappear. In addition, the complete hiatus of auto production in WW2 disappears. With Jeep in the mix, you can say that cars, four-cylinder cars, small cars, and floor-shifted cars were all built continuously in America from 1902 to now.

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9. As shown above, the late '50s were a low point for real variety, a time when most alternatives disappeared at least temporarily. The smallest range of sizes, smallest range of engine types, smallest range of body styles. You could say that The 1956 American Car was a four-door sedan on a 116" wheelbase with a V8 of about 260 cid and an automatic transmission, and you'd be very nearly correct. Simultaneously, 1956 was the high point for styling variety. You could instantly identify every brand from every angle, in dim light at a distance, solely by its silhouette. You didn't need to see details like taillights and grilles and side trim. This had never been true before, and after 1960 it was never true again.
 


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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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