Published August 28, 2017 in Warp & Woof
Exploring the Sundwick Automotive Photo Library: Part III – Imports in the Heart of the Auto Industry, Detroit-Flint, 1953-63
Beginning in the 1950s, before Detroit discovered “compacts,” there were dealer franchises in the heart of the auto industry, from Detroit to Flint, that sought to fill a growing demand for small, economical cars. They sold various low-priced models from Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and even Czechoslovakia. In the 1940s there had been attempts by U.S. automakers to market smaller cars, but the only successful model was the Rambler from American Motors, first introduced in 1950 (still Nash at that time).
There, in the “belly of the beast,” a rebellious sense captured some local consumers who were skeptical of the long-term viability of their communities’ dependence on the dominant American auto manufacturers. In Flint, it was GM. These consumers were non-conformists. Yes, they wanted sensible, economical transportation, but they also just wanted to be different from their neighbors!
In my family, the first to express his non-conformity this way was my Uncle Carl. He taught music in the Detroit public schools, and was the conductor of a large high school orchestra. One of my earliest “car memories” was of his peculiar little Renault 4 CV, which he owned about the time we moved north from Dearborn to Flint. The 4 CV was well-known in France at the time, but I certainly had never seen one here, in eastern Michigan.
Its engineering was based on the rear-engine platform which was becoming popular in Europe for many small cars. But, unlike the VW beetle, it used a tiny (550 cc, or “4 CheVaux” by French measures) cast iron in-line four – not the horizontally opposed aluminum engine used in VWs and Porsches. And, also unlike VW, it had four doors! My uncle’s 4 CV was black, but when I studied in France during my junior year abroad in 1967-68, I discovered they were made in other colors, too.
After moving to Flint, I discovered that, even in that smaller city –in effect, a General Motors “company town” – there were a few people that owned low-priced imported cars. I saw Austins and Morrises, and those popular-priced sports cars: MG and Triumph. Austin-Healeys had a bit more muscle, didn’t see too many in Flint. Nobody would spend the money for a Jaguar XK-120.
Imported did seem to mean English in those days – perhaps due to the regional influence of the Detroit BMC (British Motor Corporation) franchise, Falvey Motors.
When the Renault Dauphine replaced the 4 CV in the late ‘50s, they became popular as well (there was even a Renault dealer on the outskirts of Flint).
Volkswagen was in the mix, but hardly dominant among the various European choices.
In my Flint neighborhood, soon after moving there, I discovered an insurance salesman on the next street who drove a beautiful Jaguar Mk. VII sedan (selling for $5-6K, even in the fifties), and a strange family of central European origin who bought a Czech Skoda! (Where? I don’t know … were they Communists? Don’t know that, either).
Then, another uncle in Detroit (Uncle Bob) was bitten by the import fever. He was an independent CPA, apparently feeling no allegiance in his vehicle choice to Detroit automakers (well, he did have a second car, a Ford Country Squire, as I remember) … first he
bought a spiffy Triumph TR-3 roadster, then a tiny Fiat 600, later a
slightly larger Fiat 1100 wagon. He also passed along the old issues of his Road & Track subscription to me, after he finished them.
One thing that sets these 1950s imports apart from the Japanese invasion of later decades is that they were not demonstrably higher quality than contemporary American cars. In fact, buyers were generally willing to settle for lower quality as a fair trade-off for their considerably lower retail price. Most were notoriously unreliable – and, parts may have been costlier than those from domestic manufacturers.
Here is where Rambler excelled, after establishing itself nationwide in the mid-fifties. It had comparable reliability to other American makes, yet still offered that appealing smaller size and greater fuel economy, for a price slightly lower than market leading Chevrolets, Fords, and Plymouths. In the aggregate, Rambler and these imports motivated new “compact” designs from Detroit’s Big Three by 1960 (Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon, and Plymouth Valiant).
General Motors, prior to the introduction of the Corvair, had tested the waters domestically by selling German Opels through Buick dealers across the U.S. Ford had been trying to do this with English Fords, selectively in certain markets (including Detroit) throughout the fifties.
Chrysler briefly partnered with Rootes Group in Britain (Hillman, Sunbeam) and Simca in France, but somewhat later, and with little impact where I lived.
By the early sixties, the British imports (except for those great popular sports cars) and smaller Germans (save VW) were fading
from the scene, until something revolutionary entered the American market in the early sixties, again putting Britain briefly in the center of attention. This was the original BMC Mini, designed by Alec Issigonis, and first reaching our shores in 1962.
Renault and Fiat kept a following through the sixties, but Borgward, Goliath, DKW, and that weird Czech import, Skoda, all disappeared. Swedish Saabs and Volvos made their first big U.S. push in the late ‘50s, too. And, Alfa Romeo competed directly with the Brits — giving their signature low-priced sports car platform an Italian accent (low-priced compared to Jags, Porsches, or Mercedes SLs, at least).
As the sixties wore on, interest in most of the European brands continued to decline, with Volkswagen and sports cars the exceptions. The Japanese, first arriving on the West Coast only in the late ’50s (Datsun and Toyota), and East Coast in the mid-60s, would remake the landscape for the domestic auto industry in the following decades. Detroit ultimately would become a shadow of its former self.