Odd and Interesting Cars as Seen in 1960s Fort Lauderdale
April 13, 2012 by Larry Grinnell
I don’t know what it is about South Florida, and Fort Lauderdale in particular. It’s a magnet for so many things: insurance fraud, mail fraud, illegal gambling, drug distribution, and political corruption on a scale that would exhaust a whole team of district attorneys, though Palm Beach County, where I now live, is trying very hard to beat Fort Lauderdale and Broward County’s sleazy record.
I was four years old when, following the death of my father, my mother bundled us all up in our brand new ’59 Chevy Parkwood Station Wagon and moved us to Fort Lauderdale in July of 1959. After living in Indianapolis, this truly was a paradise, and especially for lovers of oddball cars, both foreign and domestic.
For example, back in the 1960s, a fellow named Nick Jenin, using Fort Lauderdale as a home base, cornered the market on 1948 Tucker cars. He had ten of them that he hauled all over the US, displaying them at state fairs and other. I don’t personally recall when his collection was sold and dispersed, but it was still fascinating to me that one person had taken it upon himself to collect so many Tuckers—a car which, in the early 60s, was all but forgotten except for a few enthusiasts. I didn’t even know about the Tucker automobile until the late 60s, when my high school wood shop class received a donation of about 25 years of Mechanix Illustrated magazines, dating back to the World War II timeframe. Starting in 1946, they were graced with the wonderful writing of their road tester, Tom McCahill. I need to write a story about him, someday. Next to Car and Driver’s David E. Davis, McCahill was one of my favorite automobile writers. Tom was a most interesting fellow, whose riches to rags to solid middle class story was legend. One teaser, though. Tom’s father, an alcoholic wastrel, couldn’t touch his son’s substantial trust fund left to him by a prominent and wealthy grandfather (with the intent of keeping it from his son), but per the laws of the time in the 1920s and 1930s, he could mortgage it. He did, without any intention of paying his son back. Exit Tom’s fortune. Anyhow, McCahill did a comprehensive road test of the Tucker in 1948 (he loved it), which was published in one of those old, dusty Mechanix Illustrated magazines sitting in an old bookcase in the woodshop. But, as always, I digress…
Fort Lauderdale of the 50s and 60s was a magnet for dealers of the weirdest and wackiest foreign cars you could possibly imagine. I have to believe that there were nearly as many dealers of these oddball marques as in car-crazy cities like Los Angeles and New York. It was also a magnet for weird American cars, too. Fort Lauderdale had one of the last Checker dealers (a huge 1950s-looking taxicab), and one of its most successful. It also had very successful Avanti II and Excalibur dealerships in the late 60s and into the early 1970s.
The unexpected 1958 recession provided the impetus for the car buying public to look at alternative products. First, money was tight. People were either unemployed or underemployed, but they still needed wheels. However, the buying public had just about had it with the planned obsolescence schemes foisted on 1950s consumers, where for a couple of years, each successive new car model from the “Big 3” (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) looked very different than their previous year’s offerings. For many, keeping up with the Joneses forced a lot of people to buy a new car every year. By the late 50s, the chrome-laden land barges that Detroit offered were poorly built, under-suspended, severely under-braked gas hogs (6-8 MPG for some luxury brands—but of course gas was 20-25 cents a gallon then), and were laden with countless objects in the interior that were seemingly purpose-built to impale or otherwise permanently maim you in even a low-speed impact. Yes, with apologies to Mr. Nader, most cars of the 1950s and early 60s truly were unsafe at any speed.
Offered alongside these chrome land yachts were some interesting alternatives from across the pond(s). The McCarthy days were mostly behind us by the late 50s, encouraging at least a little more independent thought. Previously, owners of those “foreign jobs,” were looked upon with great suspicion—like they weren’t real Americans, because, simply put, real Americans bought American cars. Drivers of those foreign cars were suspicious people like college professors and other free thinkers who didn’t fit the mould; people who refused to conform to the social mores and the general public’s idea of how you should look and how you should behave.
With the recession, and many people still needing second (sometimes first) cars, the buying public began to open up to alternatives not born in Detroit, Kenosha (American Motors), or South Bend (Studebaker). Brands like Renault, Volkswagen, and some of the more interesting sports cars out of England in particular began to hit U.S. roads with increasing frequency. Many of these brands first hit these shores in the hands of returning G.I.s, who had been stationed in Europe just after the War. What many Americans discovered was how much fun these little foreign jobs were to drive. Not so Detroit noticed, until the recession of 1958. They first saw some signs of the recession, as well as the increasing popularity of those little “tin cans,” and began their own efforts to come up with American-made alternatives, though they wouldn’t be available in any big way until 1960, when Ford introduced the Falcon, Plymouth brought out the Valiant, and GM bravely launched the Corvair. But in 1958, they weren’t quite ready, so Ford and GM (at this time, Chrysler didn’t have a European subsidiary) introduced the first “captive imports” to the US. They made cars in England and Germany, and began offering them as an alternative to the independent European brands, mainly as a way to hold back the wave of imports while finishing development of their own compacts. German Opels were sold at Buick dealerships, and British Vauxhalls were sold by Pontiac dealers. English and German Fords were sold at Ford and Mercury dealerships, though none of them really caught on—mainly because auto dealers most often used these odd little European cars to upsell customers into more conventional (and more profitable) American iron. They never gave the captive imports a chance—at least not until the energy crisis days of the 70s and 80s.
One thing many of these little cars didn’t have was reliability. They were mostly designed for urban transit where their small sizes made it easy to get around on the ancient and narrow streets of those old European towns and villages. Additionally, Europe was just emerging from the devastation of the Second World War, and these small cars were often all that buyers could afford. Here in the U.S., with the new superhighways and those wide-open spaces, these little cars would be blown around the highway by the big trucks and huge “Yank Tanks” (as the British called American cars), as they screamed by doing 70 or 80 MPH. Most of the little European cars couldn’t do much more than 50 or 60 MPH, and certainly not continuously for several days, such as when making a cross-country trip. And when they broke, which they did fairly often, getting spare parts was a dicey affair. Problem was, most European automakers handed out franchises to anyone who asked for one. There was no plan for stocking the kind of parts needed. There were no regional parts depots. There was little or no factory training of service technicians. When you bought one of those foreign jobs, you were on your own (as were the dealers). In some cases, you might expect your car to be laid up at the dealer’s for weeks, while waiting for parts to come from Europe by boat. Also, because these cars were often built to a higher level of precision, scheduled servicing was mandatory if you wanted a modicum of reliability. This is something Americans weren’t used to. Oil was changed and chassis were lubed when the owner thought about it, and when it was most convenient, and certainly not often at the factory-recommended intervals.
One of the few manufacturers who bucked this trend was Volkswagen, whose management knew that to be successful in the highly-competitive and lucrative US market, all of the items just mentioned (quick and easy availability of spare parts, factory trained service people, financially stable dealerships, etc.) were the way to be a success in America. VW’s chief rival in the late 50s was the French Renault car. These little 4CVs and Dauphines were the most popular imports until Volkswagen flew past them in 1958. Renault’s dealer network was nowhere near as well established, nor was parts availability anything to be proud of. In the ten years since production resumed in Wolfsburg, Germany following the War, VW was number one, and remained so until the Japanese invasion of the early 1970s.
Back to Fort Lauderdale. For some reason, there were a number of dealerships of the oddities of the world, run by entrepreneurs with a dream (and usually very little cash). As one dealer failed, another one stepped in to take over that brand (anyone want a Goggomobil?). The street where I grew up and others within one or two blocks of my parent’s house demonstrated the diversity of European brands like few other locales (or at least others I had seen).
Let’s go back to the 1960s and look at some of the wild and wacky foreign cars found on NE 40th Court, between NE 16th Terrance and NE 18th Avenue in a little town called Oakland Park, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
1960 Morris Minor Traveler: The neighbors at the west end of 40th Court had a couple of kids about the same age as my sister and me. They were part of the car pool that drove four or five kids from the neighborhood to Oakland Park Elementary School. This little Morris was the neatest thing. It was a woody station wagon. In other words, it had a wood body, lovingly varnished. It rattled to high heaven, and the 1-liter Morris engine struggled to keep up with traffic, but was still a great around town car.
1962 Hillman Minx Convertible: Our next door neighbor, a building contractor, drove the Hillman, a product of England’s Rootes Group, who also owned the marques of Singer, Humber, Sunbeam, and later, the French Simca. An interesting and lovely car. It was a product of the late 50s and early 60s, being equipped with a four-speed transmission, controlled from a lever coming out of the steering column. Gee, four speeds and reverse through a tortuous linkage must have been a challenge. By the late 60s, the column shifter had all but disappeared with the return of the sportier floor shift.
1961 Renault Caravelle: This was a wacky car. It was based upon the quite popular Renault Dauphine, but with a roadster body. Very sporty looking with nothing under the trunklid (this was a rear-engined car) to back it up. With a 750 cc four-cylinder engine, it could barely get out of its own way, but at least looked good doing so. Most of the European manufacturers had at least one sporty car in their product mix. When the neighbors across the street from us got ready to trade the Caravelle in the early 1970s, I could have had it for $250. Problem is, by that time, the last Renault dealer in the area, a 15 mile drive away, was just about to go under for the second or third time, and I already had two cars that I couldn’t get rid of: a 1952 Willys Aero Ace and a 1960 Chevrolet Biscayne. Even though Bruce and Jeanne had maintained the car to a very high standard, it probably would not have served me very well, and would likely have spent much of its time disabled at the side of the road.
1960 Simca Aronde P60: This was my parents’ second car. My stepdad needed the big family Mercury wagon for making sales calls throughout the state of Florida during the week. On weekends, he drove the French Simca to his “day job” with the City of Fort Lauderdale. It, too, had a column-shifted four speed transmission. I can remember quite well some of the more “interesting” words I picked up from my parents when they struggled to locate reverse (a very convoluted process). That said, the little Simca with its 1.3 liter 4 cylinder engine was a surprisingly decent and reliable vehicle, not to mention pretty stout. My mother was smacked in the rear at a traffic light by a lady who was more interested in beating her unruly children than watching where she was going. She hit the Simca doing about 25 MPH and knocked it out into the intersection (for those who know the area, it was N. Andrews Ave. and Oakland Park Boulevard). Other than some whiplash that did little to improve my mother’s already variable disposition, the only major damage was a dent to the bumper and a big dent to the trunk lid. My older brother was assigned the task of finding a replacement trunk, which he did at a scrap yard in Miami. For the rest of the time we had the car, it was powder blue with a beige trunk lid. All in all a satisfactory second car, if a bit on the obscure side.
1961 Borgward Isabella Coupe: A few doors down, one of the neighbors had a Borgward Isabella. This was a really nice, conservative coupe, by a German manufacturer who positioned this product against lower-end Mercedes-Benz and mid-range BMWs of the day. It had a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and yes, you guessed it, a column-mounted four-speed transmission. Sadly, the Borgward company failed in 1962, when, prompted by some of the competition, German banks refused to provide a much-needed bridge loan to Borgward—a loan which would have been paid off in a few months.
1962 MG Magnette: The Magnette was the MG luxury sedan of the day. Powered by the same engine as the MGA roadster, it got around quite well with its 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. It, too, had a four-speed transmission, but this time, properly positioned on the floor where gearshifts belong. I remember it was a silver-gray in color and quite nice. The interior was clad in leather and the dashboard was wood. Several years later, this same person traded the Magnette for a…
1968 MG 1100: This was the “big brother” to the Austin/Morris Mini, and one of the most popular cars in England. Part of the British Motor Company (BMC), this platform spawned, with minor trim variations, cars with the MG, Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley, and even the Italian Innocenti brand. It had a 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine with a floor-mounted 4-speed gearbox.
That was just on my street. To the west and south, on NE 16th Terrace, one homeowner had a double-whammy of autodom’s weirdness:
1954 VW “Oval Window” Beetle: I remember this car very well. This was an early VW with the much smaller oval rear window, and sticks that swung out from the pillar between the front and rear side windows that lit up (weakly). This was the semaphore-style turn signal—popular in Europe through the mid 1950s, but ultimately replaced with the conventional flashing indicators we know and love today. The accelerator pedal wasn’t a pedal at all, but a rubber wheel (a “roller”) that you pushed down. The wheel rolled with your foot action, making for a pleasant, if odd, sensation when accelerating (which VWs did only grudgingly—especially this one, burdened with the original 1.2 liter air-cooled four cylinder engine).
Early 1960s Saab 93: Delightful weirdness from the cold northlands of Sweden. The Saab 93 was powered (if you can call it that) by an 850 cc three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. Due to the design of a two-stroke engine, you had to pour oil directly into the gas tank at the approximate ratio of one pint per 5 gallons or so. If you put too much in, the exhaust emitted a lovely cloud of blue smoke (good for suppressing South Florida’s ever-present mosquitoe population). If you didn’t put enough oil in, you risked wearing out or even seizing the engine. I still remember the ring-a-ding sounds the engine made (think motorcycles with two-stroke engines, but maybe a little lower-pitched). It had a column-mounted three-speed transmission. Later models got a four-speed, but still column-mounted.
Heading north on 16th Terrace past NE 40th Court, heading to NE 40th Place, there was a:
1959 Fiat 1100 (Millicento) Sedan: Though only possessing a 1.1 liter engine (and a column shift, unfortunately), this trim Italian could be tossed around with great “brio,” always asking for more. Unfortunately, the Fiat dealer network was somewhat lacking, and Fiats got the deserved nickname of “Fix it again, Tony!” They were built with substandard Soviet steel, and unless you remained on top of things, they rusted like the dickens. Lordy did they rust! I recently saw a very well-restored example at an old car show and fondly remembered the one from my neighborhood.
A few more streets over, someone had a Fiat 600 Multipla, probably one of the first minivans in concept, though much, much smaller than any American-made minivan of the 80s and beyond. It was designed as a family car for those with limited budgets, powered (well…) by a 600 cc four-cylinder engine and had a floor-mounted four-speed transmission. In Europe, the Multipla was a popular taxi, with seating options permitting up to seven passengers. The driver sat right at the front of the car with the windshield mere inches from his nose, much like the iconic VW Bus, meaning in a collision, the driver was pretty much a goner.
1955 Ford Prefect: The English Ford Prefect was based on a prewar design, powered by an 800 cc side-valve four-cylinder engine with a floor-mounted three- or four-speed transmission (unsynchronized, I think). My older brother’s best friend had one, and loved to impress his friends by starting the engine with a supplied crank (!). Yes, there will always be an England.
Along with these more unusual cars, there were plenty of more mainstream English sportscars such as the Triumphs, MGs, Jaguars, Sunbeam Alpines and Tigers, as well as a few Germans, including the Porsche and BMW marques. I did see a few Citroen DS-21s, as well as a number of Peugeot 403s (think Columbo’s beat-up convertible) and 404s. I saw few other Simcas around town. In the early 1970s, one of our neighbors had a Jaguar XK-E 2+2. Fiats were much more popular in the 1970s with models such as the 124, the 131 Mirafiori, the 124 roadster, and even the little 850 Spider. They still were unreliable as all heck, and while they didn’t rust quite as badly in South Florida, the sun usually did a seriously destructive number on the interiors, cracking the dashboard and vinyl upholstery. By the 1980s, it was all over…or were they? Just a few years ago, Fiat made a serious investment in Chrysler and has begun offering the Fiat brand for the first time in over 20 years in the US, so far to a lukewarm reception. Fiat is also preparing to reintroduce the Alfa-Romeo and Lancia brands to U.S. buyers. It’s an interesting time to be a car enthusiast.
But I digress…
This was just in my neighborhood! I wonder how many other neighborhoods in South Florida had this huge variety of weird, wild, and wacky cars from around the world. Other cars available at this time included the German DKW, with a two-stroke engine, which was sold at Studebaker dealers (who had a distribution deal with Mercedes-Benz which included the delightful “Deek”). The full range of mainstream British cars was sold, too: Jaguar, MG, Austin, Morris, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and so on. The Germans were represented by the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz, DKW, Porsche, VW, Borgward, and BMW. France was represented by Simca, Renault, Peugeot, and of course the Renault.
Of course, the Japanese invasion of the late 60s and early 70s changed everything. Inflation and less-advantageous exchange rates raised the price of the European sedans to the point that the manufacturers were forced to go up-market or pull out entirely. Exhaust emission and safety regulations that started in 1968 really spelled the death-knell for the more marginal brands. They simply could not afford to modify their cars to meet the new laws in the US. One Japanese maker got around this, by taking advantage of a loophole in the new law. They could sell anything, completely exempt from safety and exhaust emission rules, as long as the car weighed less than 1,200 pounds. Subaru introduced their tiny model 360 (powered by an air-cooled, rear-mounted 360 cc two-stroke two-cylinder engine). It was the first car ever declared Unacceptable by Consumer Reports Magazine. It looked like a 2/3 scale Volkswagen Beetle. Sales were extremely slow, and the importer, Malcolm Bricklin, quickly pulled out, causing untold damage to the Subaru brand in the U.S. Subaru reintroduced the brand a few years later with some interestingly engineered small sedans with horizontally opposed four-cylinder engines that were much more mainstream, and were one of the first small car makers offering four-wheel drive.
I might add that there were plenty of mainstream American-made chrome barges in the neighborhood, too. Around the corner was a ’58 Buick Limited, a car so chrome laden, you could be blinded if you looked at it in the direct sunlight. The rear end was extended an additional ten inches, making it a challenge to drive this car up a steep driveway without dragging the tail and ripping out half of the exhaust system. They sold a lot of cars with an air suspension option which included a control that lifted the car a few inches higher, in order to aid in negotiating some of those steeper tail-dragging ramps and driveways.
Yes, I am an unrepentant weird car lover. I hope you enjoyed this little trip down Memory Lane, er, NE 40th Court.