Love Them Furrin Cars!

March 17, 2012 by  

In this blog, I wax nostalgic about those wild and wacky imported cars of the 1950s and 1960s that came to American shores.

Back in the 1950s, following the devastation of World War II, many European and Asian countries were working hard to get back on their feet, financially and every other way. One key item in this was the need to bring in foreign currency to bolster their own currency. Even the victors in Europe were bankrupt. The cry in England was “export or die!” Also in England (and elsewhere), precious raw materials (and war debt) needed to be paid for in “hard currency” (US dollars or precious metals like gold), which resulted in a policy that limited the amount of finished goods available to the local population–so that the vast majority of manufacturer’s production was exported, which brought in more hard currency to pay war debt and to import raw materials, etc.

The Marshall Plan, beginning in 1948, brought in much investment and access to low-interest loans to again help get these destroyed countries back on their feet. Germany’s “economic miracle” couldn’t have happened without access to grants and cheap loans to rebuild their devastated national infrastructure.

Most of these countries figured out right away that exporting automobiles to the U.S. would be a direct path to riches beyond their wildest dreams. What they didn’t count on was the fact that:

  1. Americans really didn’t like those little “furrin cars,”
  2. Road conditions in the US were more suited to larger, overbuilt, slow-revving power-plants and pillowy rides on those long stretches of highway and rapidly appearing superhighways, whereas the “foreign jobs” with their high revving engines and tight suspensions were better suited to urban or short distance travel,
  3. Many of these cars cost as much or even more than an equivalent American car, so that “pound for pound,” American cars were a better value,
  4. People who drove those small foreign cars were looked upon with suspicion in a time when McCarthyism still ruled (the stereotypical foreign car owner was a college professor who wore a beret and had leather patches on his corduroy jacket sleeves–very subversive!),
  5. At 20 cents a gallon or less, gasoline was so cheap, economy was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind–so what if a new Buick got 12 miles per gallon–a new Buick in the driveway sent out the signal you were a success!

Into this mix came the first postwar cars from Germany, France, England, Italy, Sweden, and some of the Eastern European countries.

1957 Buick Roadmaster 1954 Volkswagen 1954 Austin A30 1960 Morris Minor Traveler
1955 Jaguar 2.4 1953 Triumph Mayflower 1950s Ford Prefect Renault 4CV

In 1948, the first two Volkswagens were imported into the U.S. Sporting a design that was already almost 15 years old, these woefully underpowered cars with savage handling characteristics, lousy brakes, unsynchronized transmission, and a heater that was little more than a joke (it consisted of air that the engine cooling fan asthmatically moved across the engine cylinders which was then ducted into the passenger cabin) were seen as objects of amusement.

More popular were the sports cars being brought back to the U.S. by members of the American military occupation forces returning home. This is what put the MG roadsters on the map, and what encouraged the management at MG to begin exporting their roadsters and sedans in larger numbers to America. Other British manufacturers began doing the same: Austin, Morris, Jaguar, Standard (parent of Triumph), Ford of England, and others began showing up in showrooms around the US. The British seemed to understand more than most that they needed to make cars that the Americans wanted to buy. They eschewed the mundane little Austins, Wolseleys, Singers, Standards, and other sedans and instead focused on exporting their popular sports cars to the States.

By the early 1950s, French cars like Renault, with their modern 4CV, Simca (formerly Ford’s French division), and Peugeot were being imported. Fiats from Italy; Saabs and Volvos from Sweden; and a whole bunch of interesting cars from Germany, such as the BMW Isetta, DKW 3=6, Goggomobil, Borgward, Lloyd, and the more mainstream Porsche and Mercedes-Benz established their presence in the New World. Later on in the 50s, the French Citroen with its over-the-top styling and brilliant engineering, and Dutch DAF with its unique belt-driven CVT transmission widely used today came upon the scene, just in time to see several venerable American brands like Packard, Nash, and Hudson fade away.

By the mid 1950s, there was no escaping them. Volkswagen and Renault vied for the top sales rung for imports. Volkswagen ultimately won because they made the decision early on to build a strong U.S. presence with a carefully-controlled and managed dealer network with strong ties to the factory. Renault and most of the rest handed out franchises to anyone who asked for one, and did not set up an efficient parts distribution system. They soon discovered this was a big mistake. As mentioned above, these little European cars were not really all that well-suited to American driving conditions, except perhaps for the little Volkswagen. The little 2, 3, or 4 cylinder engines starting at about 40 cubic inches and 20 horsepower (when a Buick had a powerful 364 cubic inch, 300 horsepower V8), were not designed to run flat-out all day and broke quite often. To maintain a semblance of reliability, these little cars required rigorous adherence to the manufacturer’s service schedule, while a typical American car never saw the service bay unless it required repairs. More often than not, when using one of these little French or German or British cars on long trips, American drivers would find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere with the nearest dealer some 250 miles (or more) away, and that dealer might not be able to get parts for a month or more. As you can imagine, that especially hurt the marginal auto brands who had virtually no parts distribution system (anyone got an exhaust expansion chamber for a ’58 Wartburg?). But when used as intended, for around-town use, as a “second car” for the “little woman”, they worked quite well, indeed.

1960s Citroen DS21 1965 DAF 31 1950s Porsche Speedster 1963 Wartburg 311
1961 Simca Aronde P60 1950s Peugeot 403 Fiat 600 Multipla 1959 Saab 93
1950s BMW Isetta 1965 Auto Union/DKW 1000 1950s Goggomobil 1950s Borgward Isabella

Then came 1958 and a brief economic recession, coupled with the American buying public’s emerging distaste at the “planned obsolescence” and complete over-the-top styling of the typical American car of the day. Buyers stayed away from the traditional top 10 manufacturer’s showrooms in droves. The only American manufacturers who were seeing increased sales were Studebaker (briefly pulled out of their death throes, to which they ultimately succumbed in 1966) with their heavily-decontented Scotsman model, and Rambler, who had dusted off the tooling of a 1955 compact and put it back in production as the Rambler American. Among foreign cars, this was the last year that Renault, with their new Dauphine model, beat Volkswagen in sales. This was also the year that Detroit stood up and took notice of the situation, by bringing in cars they sold in other countries to their American dealerships. Buick got the German Opel, which was styled to look like a big finny American car, at 2/3 scale. Pontiac got the British Vauxhall, which, due to poor business and material management, managed to produce cars with steel that had been sitting outside in the elements for months at a time, so they literally shipped cars around the world that were pre-rusted, though owners didn’t see the results of this for a year or two. The 1958/59 Vauxhall Victor looked like a scaled-down ’58 Oldsmobile, which, to some, wasn’t exactly a good thing. Studebaker cut a distribution deal with Daimler-Benz to put Mercedes-Benz and DKW products into their showrooms, which did nothing but harm the Mercedes-Benz brand (and did little or nothing to further the DKW/Auto Union brand), and the deal was cancelled by 1962. In the early 1960s, Chrysler, realizing it didn’t have any “captive imports” bought the only major auto manufacturer in Europe that was willing to be purchased (something that should have set off alarm bells!), Rootes Motors. Rootes was a British manufacturer who had consolidated a number of products prior to the Chrysler takeover, including such “distinguished” brands as Hillman, Singer, Humber, Sunbeam, and the French Simca concern. This gave Chrysler a number of captive imports that they sold through the 1970s, before selling the remains to Peugeot in 1978. Ford offered a number of products from England and Germany at Ford dealerships throughout the 1950s and early 60s, though sales were barely a blip.

Japan was really late to the game. The first Japanese imports didn’t hit California until the late 1950s, and had zero impact in the midwest or eastern US until the late 1960s.

Captive import sales were never all that great, and the blame for that can be placed directly in the hands of the dealer and their sales force. With lower purchase prices, the commissions were less, and for the dealer, the profits were less–on vehicles that were forced on them by the “big boys” in Detroit. Furthermore, the sales force did not receive sufficient training in how to sell these “different” vehicles, so they preferred to steer potential customers toward the “big iron” Detroit products. The old saying went that “for just a few dollars more a week, I can get you into this Buick Special! Why would you want an Opel?”

1961 Mercedes-Benz 180 1961 Lloyd Arabella 1958 Studebaker Scotsman 1958 Rambler American
1959 Opel Rekord P1 1958 Vauxhall Victor 1958 Oldsmobile Convertible 1960s Hillman Minx

One interesting sidenote of Chrysler’s takeover of Rootes, was the story of the popular Sunbeam Tiger roadster. The Tiger was developed by Carroll Shelby of Ford Cobra fame, as a lower-cost version of the Cobra. Shelby’s engineers took the plucky little Alpine and stuffed a small Ford V-8 under the hood. With Chrysler now in charge, they couldn’t really market a product with the engine made by a competitor, and their own small V8 wouldn’t fit, so they killed the Tiger, in spite of decent sales figures.

1960 Singer Gazelle 1959 Humber 1960s Sunbeam Alpine 1950s Toyota Crown

By the end of the 1960s, it was all over for the marginal automakers. With the introduction of American safety and exhaust emission standards, it became much too expensive for most European manufacturers to attempt to compete here unless they had sufficient sales numbers to justify the extensive and expensive modifications to their products to make them legal for sale in the U.S. Additionally, car buyers began expecting more in their new vehicles. The small, crude econoboxes of the 1950s were, for now-prosperous Europeans, a sad reminder of the bad old days. Now they could afford nicer vehicles with larger engines, roomy cabins, and all the conveniences formerly reserved for the wealthy. It took a little longer in Japan, but by the mid 1970s, even cars of the Kei car class (with engines smaller than about 360 cc until later legislation permitted larger engines) were much more luxurious.

All that said, being a “baby boomer” born in the 1950s, I remember oh so well not only the enormous chrome barges of the late 50s that I still love so well, but also the really unusual imports. South Florida, magnet for all things weird and unusual, seemed to be a magnet for these oddball cars, too. In my own neighborhood in suburban Fort Lauderdale during the early-mid 1960s, we had things like a Morris Minor wood-bodied station wagon, a Hillman Minx, a Borgward Isabella, an MG Magnette, a 3-cylinder two-stroke Saab, an early 50s Volkswagen, a Renault Caravelle (a Dauphine with a roadster body–kind of like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear), and in my own parents’ driveway, a Simca Aronde P60 sedan. There were plenty of Fiats and English Fords, too (my older brother’s buddy had a mid 50s Ford Prefect which he used to show off by starting it with the hand crank).

1950s Volvo PV444 1964 Renault Caravelle 1950s Renault Dauphine 1958 MG Magnette

Note: all the images I used in this blog came from the Wikipedia Commons site at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Automobile_manufacturers.