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50 Years Ago...1965 and the Automobile.
The Glory Years
It could be said that 50 years ago, the car business in America was the bearer of one of the sexiest industries in manufacturing and engineering. "Sloanism" had replaced the idea that once a car was designed well, it would meet the customers demands for many years.
General Motors' Albert Sloan innovated planned obsolescence of a product. By emphasizing styling, mostly marked by cosmetic annual change, and a cycle of three year major restyling and new features, General Motors introduced buyers to a dissatisfaction large enough to trade in and up to a newer and often more expensive model. This created a buying a cycle that was much less than the mechanical life of their current vehicle. Without meaning to do so, this also created the unique used car business.
In the years after World War II, America's economic boom allowed manufacturers to take Sloanism to an extreme. As History.com notes, models and options proliferated and every year cars became longer and heavier, more powerful and more gadget bejeweled. Americans were in love with their cars and they spoke as much about a persons personality and lifestyle as it did how he or she travelled.
In the 1966 model year (introduced in the fall of 1965), General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors offered 364 body styles. Before options, prices ranged from $2,004 for a Rambler American to $10,456 for a Cadillac limousine. Oldsmobile also introduced the first front wheel drive American made car since 1937, the Toronado. Front wheel drive didn't really become popular with the public until the 1970s.
On March 4, 1964, the first Ford Mustang rolled off the assemble line. Because it was introduced in the spring, instead of the traditional fall introduction, it later became know as the 1964 and a half. it was the pet project of a young Lee Iacocca, who later went on to fame in commercials and for saving bankrupt Chrysler. Some say it was less a vision and more of a quick attempt by Ford to generate a marketable car. Of course Mustang enthusiasts wince at such a statement.
Ford engineers used many of the components of the Falcon on the first Mustang to hurry along development and to keep costs down. Ford made the Mustang available with multiple options and extras. Introduced at a base price of $2,300 consumers added an average of $1,000 in options making Mustang models very profitable. It was the auto advertised as "the car designed by you." And heavily advertised it was.
The first day of availability, people rushed to the showrooms and 22,000 Mustangs were sold the by the end of the day. Over 400,000 were bought by its first anniversary and a classic was instantly born.
To that date, 1965 was the automobile industry's best. Production, sales, employment and profits rose to all time highs. 11.1 million cars were built and delivered during the year. This broke a record that had stood for 10 years, since1955.
New car buyers spent 36 billion dollars and auto industry profits exceeded 3 billion. In fact General Motors recorded the highest profit of any company in any industry in any nation in history. In 1965 Chevrolet was the first brand to build more than 3 million cars and trucks in a single year. They built their 56 millionth vehicle that year. Both domestically and overseas, the U.S. automakers allocated billions of dollars for new plants and additions.
In January of 1965 Lyndon Johnson and Prime Minister Lester Peterson of Canada signed a trade agreement that greatly benefited the large American car manufacturers. Called the United States Automotive Products Agreement, it removed tariffs on cars, trucks and auto parts between the U.S and Canada. Before this agreement, only 3 percent of vehicles on Canadian roads were made in America. By 1968 40 percent of cars and trucks purchased north of the border were made in the United States. Automobile and parts production quickly became an important part of the Canadian economy.
There seemed to be nothing but sunshine and rainbows on the horizon for the "Big Three" American auto makers.
But 1965 was the end of an era,
By 1965, auto accidents were the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 40. Industry leaders were getting pressured on many fronts to put safety and quality above styling. That year, Ralph Nader published his book "Unsafe at Any Speed."
This book is often perceived as the book about the Corvair. In fact, only one of its 8 chapters is dedicated to the Corvair. The subject of tire pressure is a repeated topic throughout. Recommended tire pressure was generally chosen for comfort rather than safety. Nader made an appeal to standardize gear shift patterns between makes and models. Ford was the first to use the P R N D L pattern. He highlights the history of crash science and accused engineers of ignoring known facts of safety.
In 1999, a panel from New York University ranked this book 38th in a list of the 100 most important pieces of journalism for the 20th century. It may have been the wave that pushed the boat to shore.
For 1966 models, the auto makers made up a "safety package" which would be standard on all vehicles built. The package included backup lights, multiple windshield wipers, rear seat belts and windshield washers. Along with standardized shift patterns these items seem ridiculously simple 50 years later.
The National Emissions Standards Act was passed by congress, also, led by the efforts of Senator Edward Muskie a Democrat from Maine. This led the way for more and more regulation of the cars and trucks we buy today. In 1966, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established marking a historic shift in responsibility for safety from industry and consumer to government. It is estimated that the safety regulations set by the government saved 150,000 lives in the next 20 years.
The End of the Sloan Doctrine.
Government regulation, national economic changes and the failure of American companies to respond to new customer demands led to a loss of market share. By 1970, Japan had passed Germany, France and Britain to become the second largest auto manufacturer in the world.
Energy crises in the 70s and continued weakening of demand of the vehicles the Big Three were producing led to Japan becoming the leader in building cars and trucks.
Still, the place of the automobile in lore, legend and social change is of no greater importance than the United States. We still have a love affair with our cars.
And we can breath clean air and feel relatively safe while driving.