American Microcars of the 40s, 50s and 60s

American Microcars of the 40s, 50s and 60s

It was the mid-1940s. America was emerging from a decade and a half of depression and war. The nation’s industrial might and entrepreneurial spirit were focusing themselves on something they had not done in a very long time…sell stuff. For the first time in years, Americans had money to spend. They wanted new suburban houses, washing machines, refrigerators and TV sets. Most of all they wanted cars. They wanted new cars to replace the old ones that for years they’d been holding together with spit and bailing wire. Demand was frenzied. Anyone making cars could sell cars…lot of them. The great Seller’s Market was upon us. And like wildflowers after a spring rain, strong demand brings forth entrepreneurs blooming with ideas to sate it. 

 Not only were hungry consumers looking to replace their old clunkers, they wanted a second car as well. Women were entering the work force. Suburbia had spread out our transportation needs. To many, one car was no longer sufficient. But after so many years of frugality and deprivation the idea of having two hulking machines was hard to fathom. Why not make that second car an economical little runabout that was cheap to buy and cheaper to operate? Thus was born the American microcar.

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King Midget

King Midget

Midget Motors of Athens, Ohio made the King Midget micro car from 1946 to 1969. It was the most successful independent car maker of the last 75 years, though few have ever heard of it. How is that possible? Well, it depends on how one defines success. The measure of Midget was certainly not volume. The well-funded Kaiser Motors – which began the same year as King Midget - built over half a million cars over 10 years – 100 times Midget’s total sales. Of course, Kaiser lost the modern equivalent of over $1000 on each car it sold. Midget Motors made money on every one of its. Is success gaged by notoriety? The drama surrounding the amazing Tucker played out loudly and tragically in period newspapers and on magazine covers. Even though Tucker’s production was 1/100th that of Midget’s, its story was so compelling that 40 years after the fact, Frances Ford Coppola made a movie about it. No one is ever going to make movie about the King Midget. The car business is not for the faint of heart. Henry J. Kaiser lost tens of millions of dollars on his Last Onslaught on Detroit. Preston Tucker lost his shirt and his reputation on his Tucker Torpedo. Midget Motors’ owners, Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt, on the other hand, carried no debt when they sold their company after two decades of profitable operations. It seems that succeeding small can be pretty dull stuff when compared to failing big.

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Continental: The Finest of Fords

Continental: The Finest of Fords

The Continental name has been affixed to the cars that sat atop the Ford Motor Company's lineup on and off for the past 80 years. Sometimes that car was a rarified classic like the original 1940-41 Continental, or the 1956-57 Mark II. Other times it was a laughable turd like the 1982-86 Continental. Beauty or beast, it depended  on the state of automobile design of the day. The following is a stroll through the fond memories of Dearborn's finest car.

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The Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

The Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

To understand the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, one must understand the times in which it was conceived. 1950s America was experiencing growth and wealth like no other time in history. The automobile industry responded accordingly. Cars got bigger. Features were added. Power rose as well, although most of the latter was applied to lugging around additional bulk caused by the formers. To give visual movement to all that mass, designers took inspiration from the premier technologies of the day, rockets and jets. It started innocently enough, a fin here, a spear there. Soon, fenders and bumpers were sprouting wings and thrusters. The Jet Age was upon us. One after another, new cars seemed to burst from the pages of a science fiction comic book, each more opulent and outrageous than the one before. It was a chrome encrusted orgy of SciFi bling.

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Remembering Pontiac

Remembering Pontiac

When I came to know Pontiac as a kid it was a good time to know Pontiacs. It was a make that took risks. It had its ups and downs, its deaths and rebirths. It had just seen three brilliant management teams in succession guide it from the brink of extinction in 1956, to its pinnacle which I was witnessing as a pre-teen in the early 70s. Pontiacs took up more than thier fair share of bedroom wall real estate - before one day giving way to Cheryl Tieges and Farrah Faucet-Majors. The objectives for both art themes was the same. Only the preoccupations of the viewer had changed.  Pontiac’s were hot looking! Now, almost a decade after its sad demise, of all of General Motor's four lost makes, the story of Pontiac is the most fun to think about. The upstart Saturn was a tragedy pure and simple. It was a great and heroic quest that was done in by jealousy, ego, and atrophy. Grand ol' Oldsmobile's fate flowed like the opus of a life lived well. It had early glory, a long steady rise, and then a much shorter but just as steady decline. Oldsmobile’s very name all but ensured that one day its time would come. The audacious Hummer and the quirky Saab were no more than corporate larks. "Here's a trend, " said some suit in Detroit, "Let's follow it." Things couldn't have ended well for Saab; they shouldn't have for Hummer. At Pontiac, you never quite knew how things would turn out. Pontiacs were exciting. The occasional few that weren’t? Well, at least they were interesting. With Pontiac, it was all about the cars. Let's let the cars tell the story. 

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The Woodill Wildfire

The Woodill Wildfire

The Woodill Wildfire rode the lip of a wave sweeping over America in the early 1950s. Sports cars had been absent from the scene for too long. The great makers of the classic era - Auburn, Duesenberg, Marmon and Stutz - were all pulled under by the Great Depression. The 1940s were pretty much consumed by war and its aftermath, with little energy remaining for the frivolity of sports cars. But as servicemen began to return home, they brought with them a taste for the fast, minimalist machines - Morgans, Singers, Rileys and Triumphs - they had on occasion flogged through the English countryside. Detroit was busy at the time filling America’s pent up demand for cars, any cars, with stodgy old sedans based on pre-war designs. By the late 40s a few British roadsters were being imported, namely MGs and Jaguars. But they weren’t really suited to American needs. By the dawn of the 1950s, the time became right for an all-American sports car. Everyone knows about the Chevrolet Corvette, the fiberglass dream car that wowed the nation when it debuted in mid-1953. Many credit the Corvette as being the first post-war American fiberglass sports car. Many are wrong. Predating the Vette by a more than a month was the Woodill Wildfire, a luscious little roadster that, had history taken a different turn, might have been the one known as “America’s Sports Car.”

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Capri: The Sexy European

Capri: The Sexy European

How do we define Capri, that marvelous little coupe from Ford Motor Company? It is a question only an American would ask. Throughout Europe, this sporty little coupe always bore the blue oval proudly on its bonnet. Over here though, Ford dealers already had a sporty little coupe to sell. It was called the Mustang, and rumor has it, it did pretty well. So Capri was offered through Mercury. But it wasn’t a Mercury. No Mercury ever handled like a this. The Capri took many forms, touching five countries on four continents, throughout a history that spans three decades. it was neither a Ford nor a Mercury. It was Capri, the subject of our next Makes that Didn’t Make It.

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The Gaylord Gladiator

The Gaylord Gladiator

Dreams can come true when money is no object. The Gaylord grand touring sports car was the brainchild of James and Edward Gaylord, heirs to a fortune built on their father’s invention of the bobby pin. The Gaylords were auto enthusiasts in the grandest sense. They found themselves dissatisfied with the offerings of the high performance luxury sports cars of the 1950s. They mourned the passing of the great marques, Bugatti and Delahaye, Duesenberg and Stutz. The brothers set about to build a car that, like those storied makes, possessed panache worthy of the finest streets of Paris or New York, with the performance to compete on the tracks of LeMans or Monaco, the most advanced and spectacular luxury sports car in the world. They succeeded…as long as you don’t count commercial viability as one of the criteria. 

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Eagle: The Automotive Version of a Harlequin Romance

Eagle: The Automotive Version of a Harlequin Romance

The lineage of the Eagle brand spans five automobile companies from four nations. Eagle was paired with the fabled Jeep line. It sold close to half a million cars over 10-years. Despite all that, you’ve probably never heard of Eagle. Too bad. The story contained all the elements of a good novel; romance, betrayal, farce and tragedy. It even produced a couple of excellent cars. The only thing the story missed was a purpose. No one ever stopped to ask what need Eagle filled. But then, if they had asked, we would have no story. 

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The Story of DeSoto

The Story of DeSoto

The DeSoto automobile was launched in 1928 as part of a new and rapidly expanding Chrysler Corporation. Conceived to do battle in the fast growing mid-priced range, DeSoto‘s position in the price/prestige strata was between the budget-minded Plymouth and the luxurious Chrysler. Through a series of events, DeSoto was also wedged sometimes awkwardly alongside a newly acquired but well-established Dodge brand. Throughout its 33-year history, DeSoto struggled for recognition. Ask any DeSoto devote’ and they will rattle off half a dozen delightful models. But to the average car buff, the name is but a blip on the screen of automobile awareness. DeSoto’s anonymity is especially true for those of us born after 1960, the marque’s final year. We know the stunning 1957 Adventurer, of course, with its graceful soaring lines and mighty Hemi engine, arguably the apex of 1950s American automotive design. After that, the marque is mostly remembered in B&W images of 1940s taxicabs from old movies on the late show. Such was the DeSoto lot in life; a middle child forever fighting for its rightful place within the Chrysler family of cars.

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