Jet Crash: The Compact Hudson Jet

When the Hudson Jet was first announced in 1952, company officials thought the compact sedan would be a renaissance for the venerable automaker. Today, many historians will tell you it was Hudson’s fatal mistake. This week, we look at the origins and history of Hudson’s much-maligned 1953-1954 Jet.

Hudson Jet badge on a 1953 Super Jet four-door sedan

HUDSON, ESSEX, TERRAPLANE

As automobiles and automotive brands fade into history, one thing that’s often lost is a sense of their original socioeconomic position. It’s becoming difficult, for example, to grasp that the Chrysler badge once possessed a fair degree of prestige or to assess the class distinctions implied by driving an Oldsmobile rather than a Chevrolet. For the same reason, unless you’re a fan of the marque, it may surprise you to know that Hudson was once quite an expensive car. It wasn’t at the level of Packard or Marmon, but it was the price of several Model T Fords, enough to keep it out of reach of even lower-middle-class buyers.

Whatever the snob value of an upmarket brand, there’s comfort in volume, especially in tough economic times. For that reason, Hudson made several stabs at offering smaller, cheaper products to complement the middle-class line. The first of these was the four-cylinder Essex, launched in January 1919. The Essex, which initially started at $1,595, was by no means an inexpensive car, but it undercut the cheapest Hudson Super Six by nearly $400, giving it a considerably broader appeal. The introduction of the Essex allowed Hudson to triple its 1918 sales volume, which was undoubtedly reassuring in the face of the severe postwar recession that followed.

The Essex is best remembered today for the Essex Coach, launched in 1922. The Coach, developed by Hudson engineers Millard Toncray and Stuart Baits and built by the Briggs Body Co., was the first moderately priced closed body in American production. With a starting price of $1,495, it was still $300 more than an open Essex — nearly the price of an entire Model T — but that was a much smaller premium than any rival charged. Hudson steadily reduced the price and by 1925, the Coach was actually slightly cheaper than an open Essex touring car. The Essex Coach precipitated an industry-wide shift to closed bodies, where they’d previously been restricted to luxury cars and limousines.

1929 Essex Super Six Coupe front 3q © 2009 Brian Snelson (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified 2013 by Aaron Severson)
The most popular Essex of all: the 1929 model, released shortly before the Crash. It was powered by a 160 cu. in. (2,628 cc) six with 58 hp (43 kW), a bigger and somewhat more reliable version of the notoriously unreliable and underpowered engine launched in 1924. (Photo: “Essex Super Six Coupé” © 2009 Brian Snelson; modified 2013 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

The Essex was a great commercial success and by 1929, it had the number-three slot in domestic auto sales. Hudson’s combined volume reached about 300,000 units, its all-time high.

The Crash brought Hudson’s prosperous streak to a screeching halt. Its 1930 volume was less than half the 1929 total and 1931’s sales were barely half of 1930’s. Hudson’s response was to move even further down-market, with the 1932 Essex Terraplane. Priced to compete with Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth, the Terraplane shared the Essex’s 193 cu. in. (3,165 cc) six, but it rode a new, shorter chassis and was more than $200 cheaper.

The Terraplane was not a smash hit, but it did respectable business in the worst part of the Depression. For 1933, all Essexes became Terraplanes and there was even a Terraplane Eight, powered by a 244 cu. in. (3,998 cc) straight eight with 94 hp (70 kW). By 1934, the Terraplane brand had completely supplanted the Essex and began moving back toward the mid-price field. By 1937, it was bigger than the old Essex and priced in the same class as Dodge and Pontiac.

1933 Essex Terraplane sedan front 3q © 2009 Mike's Car Pix (Mike Sawyer) (used with permission)
Since it weighed more 600 lb (275 kg) less than an Essex and had the same 70 hp (52 kW) engine, the 1932 Terraplane had rather racy performance. While it was never as celebrated as its contemporary rival, the 1932 Ford V8, it was faster (at least in stock form) and it racked up an impressive array of hill climb trophies and speed records. This is the somewhat-bigger 1933 Terraplane Six, which was just as powerful, but slightly heavier. (Photo: “1933 Essex Terraplane” © 2009 Mike’s Car Pix (Mike Sawyer); used with permission)

Terraplane was successful enough that A.E. Barit, who had replaced the late Roy Chapin Sr. as Hudson president in early 1936, became concerned that it was cutting too deeply into Hudson sales. Terraplane was outselling Hudson by more than four to one by then, which was bad for the company’s profit margins. In 1938, Hudson launched a new, cheaper “112” model (so named for its 112-inch/2,845mm wheelbase), which undercut the cheapest Terraplane in both size and price. Hudson subsequently phased out the Terraplane marque, which was discontinued entirely in 1939.

The 112, renamed Traveler, continued through 1942, but it did not return at the end of the war as Hudson decided to concentrate production on the more profitable Super and Commodore lines. By 1947, the cheapest Super Six was over $1,700, well out of the low-priced league.

STEP-DOWN

In late 1947, Hudson introduced its first postwar designs: the 1948 “Step-Down” cars. Sleek, low-slung, and surprisingly agile, despite their tank-like “Monobilt” construction, the new Hudsons did well in the booming postwar market. Hudson sold over 117,000 cars in the 1948 model year and over 159,000 in 1949, the best the company had done since the Crash. Hudson racked up a $12 million profit, also quite good.

1949 Hudson Super Eight front 3q © Aaron Severson
The early Step-Down Hudsons were available in Super and Commodore trim with either six- or eight-cylinder engines. This is a 1949 Hudson Super Eight, with the splash-lubricated 254 cu. in. (4,710 cc) straight eight and 128 gross horsepower (95 kW). The six-cylinder engine used in the Jet shared the tooling of the eight, which was discontinued in 1952. The six shared the straight eight’s bore spacing and 3.0-inch (76.2mm) bore, but had a shorter stroke, giving a displacement of 202 cu. in. (3,301 cc). It also had a pressurized oil system rather than splash lubrication.

By the summer of 1949, however, Hudson’s lack of an affordable entry-level model was becoming a problem. The cheapest 1949 Hudson, the Super Six business coupe, was more than $2,000, as much as a Buick Super or Oldsmobile Rocket Eighty-Eight. The latter comparison was particularly troubling because the ’49 Olds came standard with both a new OHV V8 engine and Hydra-Matic, neither of which Hudson could match at any price.

For 1950, Hudson launched a cheaper Pacemaker series, reviving a name it had used intermittently in the mid-thirties. The Pacemaker shared the big Hudsons’ Monobilt construction, but rode a 5-inch (127-mm) shorter wheelbase and had a smaller engine. It was about $170 cheaper than the Super Six, starting at just over $1,800. The Pacemaker still wasn’t an inexpensive car — it cost as much as a Pontiac Chieftain Eight — but it did well, accounting for about half of Hudson’s 1950 sales.

1951 Hudson Pacemaker Custom front 3q © Aaron Severson
A 1951 Hudson Pacemaker. Except for its shorter wheelbase and plainer trim, its body was very similar to that of the bigger Super Six, but it had a short-stroke version of the Super Six’s engine, displacing 232 cu. in. (3,798 cc) and making 112 gross horsepower (84 kW). The 1950 Pacemaker was offered in both standard and Deluxe trim, which were consolidated in 1951 to a single Pacemaker Custom series. This car has been modified with Twin H-Power carburetors, which were not originally offered on the Pacemaker.

The success of the Pacemaker suggested that there would be a market for an even smaller, less expensive Hudson, a modern successor to the old Essex and Terraplane.

21 Comments

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  1. I’d read the (also very good) [i]Collectible Automobile[/i] piece on the Jet, so I was eager for more. My reaction at that time was that if A. E. Barit knew more about styling than Frank Spring, he should have fired Spring, installed himself as head of styling, and had done with it!

    I note the comment about the Jet having good adhesion, but with a lot of body roll. As a man who’s owned Peugeot 504’s, I would have been OK with that.

    Former [i]Road & Track[/i] editor-publisher John Bond once termed the Jet “an outstanding American car that was far ahead of its time.”

  2. It’s important to remember that for a long time, few automakers gave their styling chiefs an actual executive position. Harley Earl became a corporate vice president in 1940, which gave him a lot of clout. After the war, he was on the same level as the divisional general managers, so disputes had to be resolved by upper management, where he had a lot of friends. At most other companies, the lead stylist was a director — even Ford didn’t add the VP of styling position until 1955.

    That was the problem Frank Spring had. He technically reported to Millard Toncray, the head of engineering, and both Toncray and Norman VanDerzee outranked him. I’m not sure to what extent Spring was even present in the meetings where the final decisions were made. It was like a major or a colonel disagreeing with the decisions of the generals; their opinion doesn’t necessarily count for much.

    I think Jim Moran’s influence had a lot to do with it. I’ve seen that happen a lot at various companies: the senior executive is already unsure or uneasy about something, and then an influential external voice pushes him or her in one direction or another. Moran was a big deal at Hudson, and a big deal in general (as his later career suggests).

    Unlike Dick Langworth and some other historians, I don’t think that Frank Spring’s original plan would have been a great improvement. It would have looked something like that four-door Italia prototype, but with a drooped nose, like the ’53 Studebaker coupe. Had Spring won out, I think this story would be largely the same, except that later historians would substitute “if only it hadn’t looked so weird and Continental” for “if only it hadn’t looked so frumpy.”

    1. Spring’s corporate relationship to Millard Toncray was mirrored exactly at Nash.

      Ed Anderson, Director of Stying at Nash, reported to Meade Moore, the Vice-President of Engineering. In fact, I’ve read from Patrick Foster that Anderson retired from AMC precisely because he felt that he had earned a vice-president’s title. AMC, apparently for a variety of reasons, disagreed.

      One more note: Roy Chapin, Jr., told me in 1998 that Barit had insisted on the Jet’s roof being high enough to accommodate a man wearing a hat. Perhaps that would account (a little) for the Jet’s awkward height.

      —Todd Ruel

      1. [quote]Ed Anderson, Director of Styling at Nash, reported to Meade Moore, the Vice-President of Engineering. In fact, I’ve read from Patrick Foster that Anderson retired from AMC precisely because he felt that he had earned a vice-president’s title. AMC, apparently for a variety of reasons, disagreed.[/quote]

        Yup. This was apparently something George Mason felt strongly about — he was concerned that if Nash allowed its in-house stylists to become too powerful or too prominent, they would parlay that into a career elsewhere. (As I recall, it stemmed from bitterness toward George Walker, who’d been a Nash consultant in the forties.) That was apparently part of the reason for crediting Pinin Farina for the ’52-’54 Nashes, although Mason told Anderson it was purely for marketing reasons.

        Barit, like K.T. Keller at Chrysler, was definitely big on the idea that you shouldn’t have to take off your hat when you got into your car. He tried to get Spring to raise the roof of the Step-Down cars for that reason, and I don’t doubt that it became an issue with the Jet, as well. Aside from hat room, Barit also insisted on chair-like seating, rather than the low, Mercedes-like seats Spring wanted, and that demanded a higher roof. From a packaging standpoint, it wasn’t a bad idea — a lot of modern B-segment cars do the same thing, for the same reason — but it didn’t help its looks!

        1. Forgot to mention: AMC President Roy Abernethy pulled a "Barit" a decade later when he asked the designers of the Marlin to do the SAME EXACT THING. They were forced to raise the roof line of the Marlin by one inch to accommodate guys wearing hats.

          That one inch destroyed the Marlin’s looks and helped to place it on the road to Failuretown.

          I’ve never heard that Mason was concerned about keeping stylists in the background. Matter of fact, Anderson didn’t really pitch himself as a Vice-President until after Mason was dead.

          If that’s true, then he surely made a mistake with George Walker, who, as I’ve heard, pitched the design for the ’49 Ford to Nash before he went to Ford. If what you say is true, then Mason’s fear about designers was realized by his own actions.

          But I’m wa-a-a-ay off topic. My original point is that history apparently teaches us nothing. We keep seeing the same design mistakes over and over and…

          —Todd Ruel

          1. I haven’t had the time to dig up my source for Mason’s attitude — it was probably in Michael Lamm and Dave Holls’ book — so I wouldn’t swear to it, but my recollection was that Mason was quite put out with George Walker. I believe Mason felt that the design of the ’49 Ford was something Walker had originally done for Nash, and since (at least in Mason’s mind) Walker had only gotten the Ford account on the strength of his work for Nash, it was particularly galling. It was well before Anderson was even hired, so it wasn’t related to him specifically. My impression was that Mason was too good a manager to express his feelings to the styling staff in that way, but I believe it affected his thinking.

            As with the Jet, I’m not convinced that the Tarpon/Marlin would have sold any better with a lower roofline or on the smaller platform. [i]Car Life[/i], driving a ’67 Marlin (which most agree is the best-looking of the bunch), dissected its marketing failure pretty astutely — that it wasn’t startingly attractive, it wasn’t especially fast, it didn’t handle exceptionally well, and wasn’t all that luxurious or prestigious — and most of that would have been true of the Tarpon, as well. I’ve seen pictures of the Tarpon model, and while it’s better looking than the early Marlin, I think it probably would have sold about as well as the Barracuda.

            But to your point, no, nobody ever learns in any sustained way. (Ironically, one of the few counter-examples was Packard’s George Christopher, who did show signs of learning from his mistakes, just not fast enough to do any good.) At the Big Three, particularly, there was so much executive turnover that the division managers would often be promoted and gone before the commercial ramifications of their decisions ever became clear — failing upward, as the saying goes.

  3. Another great article. The Hudson Jet is a very rare bird, even at AACA events. I believe that I have seen two over the years – one at the big Hershey AACA fall meet, and the other in a junkyard outside of Carlisle, Pa.

    A big reason compact sales never took off in the early 1950s was that the standard Chevrolet-Ford were not that big. In your article on the 1960s Ford Fairlanes, you noted that the 1955-56 Fords and Chevrolets represented the “sweet spot” for American car buyers in the size department. Sales of the 108-inch-wheelbase Rambler were fairly strong for 1957, but Rambler sales really took off for 1958-59, when Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth were engaged in a size and styling war.

    A 1959 Chevrolet not only sported outlandish styling, but was also much larger than before (making it harder to park). Its extreme lowness hampered exit and entry, while giving drivers and passengers the feeling that they were sitting directly on the floor. The Rambler was relatively upright (which meant that it was roomy and easy to enter and exit) and easier to drive and park in crowded settings.

    Not only did Rambler sales in 1959 set a record for an independent make, but the relatively boxy and prosaic Ford, with its squared-off Galaxie roofline, came very close to outselling the Chevrolet that year.

    While the Rambler was certainly not better looking than the Jet, it was distinctive, and Nash was much smarter in how it marketed the Rambler. Nash introduced the well-trimmed versions and upscale bodystyles (hardtop, convertible) first.

    The Rambler was also available as a station wagon – a huge bonus, and the only compact that offered this option in the early 1950s. Station wagons were new and a growth market at this time.

    It was the wagon version that put the Rambler on the map – but the Jet, Henry J and Willys Aero didn’t bother with this bodystyle. To me, THAT was a huge mistake, and a big reason why the Nash Rambler was able to gain a foothold in the mid-1950s. Wagons were a very high percentage of Rambler sales through the early 1960s (and AMC’s loss of this market, as it pursued sales of convertibles and fastbacks, was a big reason it went into a tailspin in the mid-1960s).

    1. George Mason and George Romney definitely had a far more astute idea about the challenges they faced in marketing the Rambler. It’s significant, for instance, that the Jet’s only body styles (two- and four-door pillared sedans) were the ones Mason was most hesitant to introduce, because the convertible, wagon, and hardtop were perceived as the more upscale (and more expensive) models.

      The little wagon did sell well, but I think that was as much because the Landau wasn’t terribly practical as a reflection of buyer interest. Once Nash introduced the hardtop coupe (and later the longer-wheelbase sedan), those quickly outsold the wagon. The wagon was definitely a unique item, though, and probably the handiest of the bunch.

      The Rambler’s fortunes were definitely improved by the 108-inch and 112-inch wheelbase versions, which had more workable packaging for American buyers. Even though the Jet was bigger than the 100-inch Rambler, a lot of buyers complained about rear legroom being inadequate. It’s too bad that Barit was apparently insistent on the 105-inch length; another couple of inches would have improved both rear-seat space and proportions. (If it had been FWD, the 105-inch wheelbase probably would have been perfectly adequate, but there’s a reason most modern B- and C-segment cars are front-wheel drive. Later Rambler American sedans had the same issue — the rear axle and rear wheelhouses cut sharply into back seat space.)

      I disagree that AMC stumbled because it pursued convertibles and hardtops at the expense of wagons. Rambler, after all, offered convertibles and hardtops early on, even before the AMC merger. By the sixties, wagons were not the growth market they were in the fifties. Certainly, the younger crowd didn’t want them, at least not until they started having kids in the seventies. I think that AMC’s stumble had more to do with the fact that they moved away from Romney’s brand image without a clear idea of what would replace it, so it just became like the A&P store brand version of the Big Three.

  4. Where was Chrysler in all this? If they sat out the price war, I’m guessing that they fared better than Hudson because even if they didn’t match Ford and Chevy’s prices, they had full-size cars of fairly recent design and greater financial reserves than Hudson.

    1. That’s a good question. Plymouth sales for 1953 were better than they had been in a while — about 650,000 units — but they were way behind Chevrolet and Ford. Plymouth had the benefit of deeper pockets and greater economies of scale than the independents, and they had a facelift for ’53, but they still didn’t have a true automatic, which was becoming a problem. I think Chrysler tried to keep up as best they could, but they didn’t post the kind of (artificial) gains that Chevy and Ford did.

  5. It’s a wonder that Hudson was able to sell ANY Jets at those prices. Few people (unless they were hard-cord Hudsonophiles) would be likely to spend more money for a Jet than a mid- or hi-line Chevrolet or Ford. And how about spending almost an additional $100.00 for the two engine upgrades which together providing a whopping 10 horsepower? BTW, the picture of the 1952 Ford sedan pictured in the article is labeled a Crestline. A sedan did not become available in the Crestline series until 1954. The car pictured is a Customline.

    1. Thanks for the note on the photo — you’re quite right. Fixed.

      I think the fundamental problem with the Jet is that Hudson hadn’t really thought through who it was marketed for. It was economical, but it wasn’t an economy car; it was fairly well trimmed, but it wasn’t a junior luxury car. Except for the early Terraplane, Hudson never really competed in the low-priced field (even the Pacemaker was more in Dodge/Pontiac territory), but the Hudson badge didn’t have the cachet of Buick or Chrysler. Nash, which had the same dilemma, understood it much better, and made a more deliberate effort to position the Rambler as the upscale second car for Lincoln or Cadillac buyers.

      Oldsmobile and Buick had a similar problem a few years later with the early Y-body F-85 and Special. While they were cheap for an Olds or a Buick, they weren’t inexpensive, and buyers initially seemed unsure what to make of them. They didn’t really catch on until a few years later, after the Fairlane and Chevelle were well establish. Then, a Skylark or a Cutlass was the more-upscale version of the Malibu, which was finally a coherent niche. The Colonnade Cutlass cost more than the equivalent Malibu and wasn’t any bigger, but it had a bigger engine, better trim, and a more upscale nameplate.

  6. Rambler scored its greatest successes in the 1957-60 timeframe, when it offered no convertibles or hardtop coupes.

    The Rambler American, which was a revived version of the original Nash Rambler, did not offer any convertibles until the 1961 model year, and the “regular” Rambler Classic/Ambassador did not offer a hardtop coupe until 1964, or convertibles until 1965.

    AMC spent a ton of money tooling up for convertibles in the Classic and Ambassador lines for the 1965 model year, and yet the sales were very low. AMC’s success from 1957-1963 was built on station wagons. If I recall correctly, the wagon version of the “standard” Rambler was the firm’s best-selling vehicle for several years.

    As for what happened to Chrysler during the Chevrolet-Ford sales war – Chrysler didn’t really get hit hard until the 1954 model year. Sales hit the floor, and market share dropped to about 13 percent (in the early postwar years its share had hovered around 20 percent). Stodgy styling and the corporation’s slowness to make a fully automatic transmission available throughout the entire line also hurt Chrysler.

    Plymouth lost third place to Buick that year, and some sources say it slid down to fifth place (behind Oldsmobile, too).

    In some ways, Chrysler never really recovered from the 1954 debacle. The highly styled 1957 models were a reaction to Chrysler’s sales slide in 1954 (Colbert wanted Chrysler to be renowned for styling, and to beat GM in that area), and they sold well for one year.

    But they were rushed to market, and when they started to fall apart and rust within one year, Chrysler’s sales again hit the floor. By 1962, its market share was actually BELOW its share in 1954!

  7. Another thoughtful and well-researched article. Only a few quibbles, e.g., are you sure the Packard V8 cost $20 million? Patrick Foster stated that AMC’s first small-block V8 tallied $10 million. Does your figure include the Utica plant and/or upgrades to the Ultramatic transmission?

    I wouldn’t reject out of hand Hudson’s ability to survive if it had focused instead on updating the step downs. By 1955 Hudson surely could have purchased or jointly developed a V8. Meanwhile, a new body with a low beltline would have given Hudson a competitive advantage through 1956. Kaiser’s failed attempt to go down that road isn’t a compelling cautionary tale because of its lack of a step-down chassis and the fledgling company’s shaky reputation.

    You may be right that the impact of the Jet’s dowdy styling has been overstated. However, the Willys Aero was not an ideal point of comparison. While the Aero arguably had the fewest design negatives in its class, Willys was also the smallest independent. I suspect that Willys’ limited coin would have been better spent updating and expanding its Jeep line rather than trying to reenter the passenger car field just as the post-war boom was ending.

    1. The $20 million figure (which is an approximation) came from James Arthur Ward’s book on the fall of Packard. I believe it includes tooling costs, but I don’t think it reflects changes to the Ultramatic. I don’t [i]think[/i] it includes the actual cost of the Utica plant, only the expense of setting it up for the new engine. If I recall correctly (I don’t have the book at hand), the cost was originally budgeted at $17 million, but ran over that by around $3 million.

      As I told another commentator on the Packard story, I don’t think AMC’s V8 development costs can be directly compared to Packard’s. For one, AMC’s deal with Packard had AMC underwrite a portion of Packard’s development costs in exchange for access to the R&D notes (in addition to the actual engines and transmissions purchased). Furthermore, some sources suggest that AMC’s eventual 287/327 engine was at least partly based on a V8 that Kaiser had developed (but not had the money to build) several years earlier. As a result, AMC was not starting from a clean sheet of paper in the way Packard was. Even if the $10 million figure is an apples-to-apples comparison — which I’m really not sure about — it’s reasonable to assume that it would have cost AMC more if not for the previous R&D work.

      In hindsight, it would probably have done the independents a lot of good if they had agreed around 1951 to jointly develop a bread-and-butter V8 that they could all share, but for various reasons, they did not. Short of that, I don’t know where Hudson would have gotten the money to [i]both[/i] retool its bodies and develop a V8, nor is it obvious where they could have bought one. Would Studebaker have been willing to expand production to sell engines to Hudson? Could there have been a deal between an independent Hudson and Packard to buy engines and transmissions, as there was (briefly) between AMC and Packard? Maybe, but that becomes extremely speculative.

  8. I was reading a history of the automobile industry since 1945 written in 1971 and the author devoted an entire chapter to the "small car story." In it he greatly criticized the pricing of the indepentents’ small cars, seeing their poor price considerations as a hurdle over which the claim "these cars were ahead of their time" could not clear. More interesting, I found, was the authors analysis of the Big Three’s slow entrance into the small car market, which he saw as a self-recognition of their interdependence. The author argued that no member of the Big Three would seriously enter the small car market until it was sure there was "room for all" and that the market could support the sales of small cars by all Three companies. This "room for all" theory is soemthing I hadn’t heard before in the usual analysis of Detroit’s early small cars, which mainly focus on their fear of losing out sales of bigger models and a firm belief that the right cheap car for americans was a used car. A fnatastic article, as always, but I wonder what you think of this "room for all" idea?

    1. I should emphasize, first, that I think the price of the early compacts (particularly the Jet) was primarily a problem because it failed to meet the specific expectations of many of the buyers who were interested in — and in some cases, had asked for — a car like that. Consider the people now clamoring for the next-generation iPhone; as enthusiastic as they are, how many of them would be disgruntled if the next iPhone weighed five kilos and only worked if it were plugged into the wall? Even if it were otherwise a fantastic device, its take-up would be a lot lower than anticipated, because buyers expected something they could put in their pockets. People routinely paid (and still pay) more for what they perceive as high-value products, whatever those values may be.

      I’d be curious to know what book this is — I’m not familiar with it. I think his theory is largely off base, however, or at least, that it draws faulty conclusions from the data.

      The Big Three’s reticence to enter the compact market was primarily based on concerns about their own volume, which, until 1959-1960, were probably legitimate. Looking at the sales of domestic compacts between 1951 and 1958, the interesting thing is that the total changed very little, even as new players entered or left. It took the demise of most of Rambler’s competition to give it a volume that was sustainable. Even that was not much by GM standards — GM considered anything under about 250,000 units a year to be a small niche. What changed is that because of the Eisenhower recession and the public’s disgruntlement with Detroit’s excesses, sales of big cars began to drop. The Big Three weren’t sure if that was temporary or a real market readjustment, and they decided that they had to offer compacts to maintain their market share, even if it meant getting into a market on which they were none too enthusiastic.

      I think the flaw in the author’s theory is the presumption that the small car market represented a [i]new[/i] market, which wasn’t really true, at least not until the late sixties. Some Big Three executives, notably Robert McNamara, thought the compacts would expand their market share, which really didn’t happen. The new car market in the U.S. didn’t start to grow dramatically overall until the mid-sixties, when the Baby Boomers started hitting driving age. Before that, the compact market was largely made up of existing buyers who had become dissatisfied with the standard products for various reasons (price, size, economy, styling). As a result, marketing small and intermediate models was a matter of hanging onto those buyers, not of jumping into a new market.

      Now, there is a slight grain of truth in the author’s theory, in that GM (and really only GM) senior management did live in mortal fear that if they got too big, the Justice Department would break up the corporation on anti-trust grounds. However, those fears did not really translate at the division level, which in the late fifties and early sixties was where most product and marketing decisions lay. If you were the general manager of Buick or Pontiac, you knew that your bonus and future success in the corporation depended on improving your sales figures, market share, and ROI, and it didn’t matter much whether you achieved that by creating a new product category, by stealing buyers from the competition, or by poaching the territory of other GM rivals; that wasn’t your problem. GM’s senior officials occasionally made a big show of crocodile tears about it, or about the downfall of the independents, but it never translated into any perceptible effort to stop it.

      What happened to the independents — one company tries something new, and if it works, everyone else jumps on it — happened with the Big Three all the time, and there’s little evidence that they ever deliberately tried to leave room for others. The Mustang is an obvious example.

  9. There’s an excellent article in last month’s Cars & Parts on the one-off Jet convertible.

  10. I may be a bit late, but I found one mistake(altough I really enjoyed the aricle): the photo of the interior is actually a 1951-1953 step-down, not a Jet. Jets had a completely different instrument cluster (similar to the 1954 step-downs) and non-divided windshield.
    Best wishes:
    András Horváth

    1. Thanks for the heads up — I probably mislabeled my files and didn’t notice. When I have a few moments, I’ll look to see if I have a correctly labeled picture and swap it out.

      1. That one appears to have actually been for a 1953 Hornet nearby. Sadly, I don’t have an actual dash photo for the Jet — curses!

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