Jim Bradshaw: The gold old days, when fins were in
Once upon a time late October and early November were days of high anticipation, not only because it was the time when traditional football rivals met but also because it was when American automakers unveiled their spiffy new models.
Ford introduced its family sedan and its fancier Mercurys and Lincolns. Chevrolets led the General Motors parade, but GM also showed off its new Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, and Cadillacs. Chrysler brought out its Plymouths and Dodges, along with its namesake brand. But there were also a few other models to pick from back in the days when I first became interested in such things.
The advertisements proclaimed, for example, that all you had to do was get a peek at the 1959 DeSoto to “feel an urge to ease behind the wheel and drive it.”
“Touch a push button, feel the instant response of a mighty Turbo-Flash V8 engine,” the ad urged. “See the smart new Flair Stream Styling.” The “flair” in Flair Stream came from the big tail fins that were the fashion of the day.
Studebaker’s compact Lark sedan was “completely redesigned” for 1959. It was, the ads said, the “common sense car” that every family could afford. The Lark was supposed to be the money-maker for the company, but its Silver Hawk was the car that was meant to lure buyers into the showroom It also featured tail fins and engine choices ranging from a 90 horsepower six cylinder to a 180 horsepower V8.
The Silver Hawk did bring buyers in, and lots of them drove out in a Lark. Business was good enough to make the 1959 model year Studebaker’s first profitable one in six years. Alas, it was also one of the last.
Down at the Rambler dealership, the 1959 Ambassador Country Club was advertised as the “smartest new luxury car of the year,” but the best sellers were its smaller sedans that were “easy to handle, park, and pay for.” Most competitors, the Rambler ads claimed, were “even longer, wider, heavier, and thirsty for gas,” but Ramblers were “trim and compact” with even better gas mileage than last year’s thrifty models.
American Motors, which made the Rambler, was created when the makers of Nash and Hudson cars merged in 1954. Both of those models had since gone by the wayside. The last Nash and the last Hudson rolled off the assembly line in 1957. That was also the last model year for Packard, which had merged with Studebaker several years earlier.
But there was also a new car in the competition.
In 1959, its second year, the Edsel was “trimmed five inches in length” from the gas guzzling 1958 model, and its “excess weight” was cut by 150 pounds. It was, as its ads said, “priced competitively.” The suggested retail price of a 1959 Ford Fairlane ranged from $2,400 to $3,000, depending on options. The Edsel Ranger, its least expensive model, cost about the same; it’s top-end Citation model ran about $3,600, which was more expensive than a Ford but cheaper than the Buicks and Mercurys and Ambassadors that it was meant to compete with.
But the Edsel still had a front grill that looked like someone sucking on a lemon, and its tail fins didn’t make much of a fashion statement either. Some people suggested that the grill was appropriate; Edsel had acquired a reputation for turning out poorly constructed “lemons.”
The brand staggered through 1959 and 1960, but by then it had guzzled off $250 million from Ford’s bottom line. Enough was enough. Only 2,846 Edsels were produced for the 1960 model year, and even that proved to be too many.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.