The ( mostly ) American cars page

A Brief Subjective History Of American Automobiles

by Jaakko Paloneva

I like old American cars because they represent an era of automobile design when size, styling, power and gadgets were the things that the buying public wanted and that's exactly what they got. Now I'm talking about cars made between mid 50's to early 70's, an age that I and many other enthusiasts consider the golden age of American automobile. It was a time when nobody cared about fuel-economy, safety or versatility as long as your car had long sleek lines and a big-inch motor. The late fifties saw some of the wildest styling trends in automotive history. The cars had to be long, wide, low and have lots of chrome. Inspiration for styling was sought from aeroplanes and then-hot space flight theme. A '59 Cadillac is a propably the canonial example of that era.

The second major trend was the horsepower war in the late 60's and early 70's, which resulted in what we now know as the musclecar. Pontiac GTO or the better known Ford Mustang are credited for being the first of the breed where a relatively powerful engine is dropped in the engine bay of an intermediate-size car. Competition for the buyers between GM, FoMoCo and Chrysler Corp. led to huge powerful engines, that made musclecars very brutal machines. Suspension and handling very usually given little attention, yet those cars could out-power and out-perform many modern sports cars in straight-line performance. Soaring insurance payments, pollution laws and the first oil crisis put an end to those rumbling big-block V8s and the glory days of American automobile.

I can't see the alleged beauty in any modern car. Today all cars look too much the same and are too international. US manufacturers design their models to suit European taste and vice versa. Back in the '50s and 60's cars from different market areas were much more diversified. You could tell if the car was American or European from the very first glance. American mass-production cars were distinctively bigger, more powerful and better equipped than their cousins from the old continent. Some may argue with that, but I would claim that as a fact when we are considering the average mass production cars. I appreciate some old European makes for their innovations, performance and styling, but they tend to fall in luxury or sports car categories. That meant a lot of money and it still does. Back then USA had a considerable economic and industrial edge, mainly because of its enormous domestic market. That made mass producing cars at very reasonable consumer prices possible.

The three things I like most about old American cars are styling, V8-engines and accessories. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but I like full-size body styles the best. They capture the optimism of the era and the belief in the nations superiority the best. The American pushrod V8 engine is an institution itself. It's a fairly simple engine and some consider it has been outdated for a long time. The basic construction still in production has changed very little since the fifties. Changes are made mostly at the intake side and accessories. It has always had two advantages: it's big displacement and cheap price. Ford's flathead and Chevy's small-block helped make the V8 engine a standard in US passenger cars and nowadays in trucks. In Europe, the V8 engine has always been an exotic powerplant found only in expensive sports cars. When European engineers wanted more power for their cars, they usually tried to squeeze it from their smaller engines with unquestionably fine tricks, but that made the engines even more expensive. On the other side of Atlantic, the American engineer usually just increased the displacement of the engine, thus creating more power. Some people call these engines archaic gas-guzzlers. It's a good thing that we have more environment-friendly cars today, but I think that there is certain ingenuity in American pushrod V8s. Back in the 60's you could afford to have more power under your commuter's hood than a contemporary Ferrari had.

American cars have always been well-equipped in comparison to European or Japanese cars. That was especially true in the 50's and 60's. Nowadays it's all too easy to realize various accessories with modern electronics, so they usually won't impress me much. American car buyer has always wanted to have a wide array of luxury options available for his/her car. That led to some quite unbeliavable gadgets and gimmicks, but also to invention of about all accessories that you encounter in a modern day car. An option-packed fifties luxury car could easily have more accessories than a well-equipped modern passenger car. And about all of those gadgets were realized with mechanical systems and the use of intake manifold vacuum.

That turned out to be quite a lecture on superiority of old American cars. I feel that way, please feel free to think otherwise. I won't say anything about modern cars because I don't think that the country of origin matters that much anymore. I would still prefer an US-made car for my daily driver, because I have grown accustomed to ample accessories, automatic transmission and above all, a soft suspension that contributes to a comfortable ride albeit the handling will suffer.

Last modified on 02.04.02 (