In the mid-1950s, American automakers were engaged in a ferocious horsepower race. By the time the battle reached a temporary ceasefire at decade’s end, the average power of the typical passenger car had (at least on paper) more than doubled. The starting gun of that race was sounded by Oldsmobile, with its advanced new overhead-valve V8 and the new mid-size model that shared its name: the 1949-1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88.
We recently happened upon a pair of nicely restored, early-sixties Oldsmobile hardtops. Oldsmobiles of this vintage aren’t necessarily rare or unusual, but what intrigued us was the fact that one was a 1960 and the other a 1961, giving us a rare opportunity to compare the 1960 and 1961 Oldsmobile years side by side and to consider that long-standing automotive custom, the annual model change.
Even if you know nothing about cars and your only exposure to American automobiles is TV and movies, you probably recognize this shape. It’s been featured on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps, a quintessential icon of Fifties Americana in all its grandeur and absurdity. It is, of course, the 1959 Cadillac.
The ’59 Cadillac emerged from a seismic shift at General Motors and marked the transition between two very different eras in automotive design. This week, we look at the history of the 1959 cars and the final days of legendary design chief Harley Earl.
Thirty years ago, the watchword of the auto industry was downsizing. Driven by high oil prices and ever-increasing emission standards, American automakers were forced to dramatically reduce the size and weight of their cars. Today, with spiraling oil prices and concerns about global warming, a new wave of downsizing can’t be far off. However, downsizing can be risky. Customers have been indoctrinated for decades in the idea that bigger is better, and you have to be careful that smaller size isn’t perceived as poorer value. Do it wrong, and you can end up with a sales disaster that could put you out of business. This week, we take a look at an early example of downsizing that succeeded. This is the history of the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix.
While the Pontiac GTO is often considered the first muscle car, 25 years earlier it was Buick, not Pontiac, that set the pace as America’s leading purveyor of speed and style, offering the fastest production sedan in America: the 1936–1942 Buick Century. This is its story.
Pity the second-generation Chevrolet Camaro. Born late — a delivery fraught with complications — it was nearly snuffed out in adolescence. Although it survived to a ripe old age, the second-gen Camaro has never inspired the same nostalgia as its beloved 1967-1969 predecessor, perhaps because it arrived in the fray of one of the most contentious public debates of the 20th century: the battle over automotive emissions and the use of lead as a gasoline additive. This is the story of the 1970-1981 Chevrolet Camaro and the rise and fall of leaded gasoline.
From the “what tangled webs we weave” department comes this odd tale of how Buick’s efforts to build an economy car in the early 1960s gave birth to the premier British hot rod engine and a V6 that was still powering new GM cars some 45 years after its original demise. This is the story of the 1961–1963 Buick Special and Skylark, the aluminum Buick / Rover V8, and the long-lived GM 3800 V6 engine.
Bill Mitchell, styling chief of General Motors from 1958 to 1977, presided over quite a few hits and a number of duds in his long career. Some of those designs still spark controversy — few as much as this one. Critics were divided on this design when it first appeared and even today, there’s a love-it-or-hate-it attitude toward it. This week, the history of Buick’s infamous 1971–1973 “boattail Riviera.”
NOTE: This article, originally written in 2007, was revised extensively in November 2010 to correct a number of factual errors.
This car’s engine has been much maligned and its muscular styling still conjures up bad memories of gold chains and exposed chest hair, a last gasp of disco-era glory. It was Pontiac’s first turbocharged production car, but it also brought down the curtain on a storied era of unique Pontiac engines. This is the story of the little-loved, often-forgotten Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Turbo.
For more than half of its 80-year history, the Pontiac Division of General Motors has tried, with varying degrees of success, to present itself as the hotshot of the GM line-up, with an advertising tagline proclaiming, “We Build Excitement.” Once upon a time, however, Pontiac was a stolid, sensible, rather dull family car whose claim to fame was that it was “priced just above the lowest.” To see what Pontiac used to be before Bunkie Knudsen went racing and John DeLorean twisted the tail of the Tiger, let’s take a look at the 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Chieftain — the last boring Pontiacs.
What does nearly every car produced anywhere since the days of the Model T have in common? Other than wheels, it’s the inevitability that sometime, somewhere, somebody has stuffed a small-block Chevy V8 into it. We’ve yet to hear of a V8 Prius and there might be a Russian ZiL or two that remains innocent of the Mouse Motor, but everything else from ’32 Fords to RX-7s, has at one time or another had the ubiquitous Chevrolet engine stuffed under the hood — or wherever else it might fit.
The author recent met some of the members of the South Coast CORSA (Corvair Society of America) chapter and had a chance to see some of the cars owned by the members. Aside from Greg Vargas’s cherry black Monza (pictures of which appeared in our recent Corvair article), we also came face to face with a highly unusual example of the Corvair breed: Chuck Rust’s Crown V8 Corvair, a car that is no longer quite a Corvair, but a Corv-8.
From 1958 to 1977, the head of General Motors Styling was William L. (Bill) Mitchell, protégé and anointed successor of the legendary Harley Earl. Mitchell was just as contentious and flamboyant as his mentor, but his tastes were somewhat more restrained, bringing about a new era of crisp, confident styling that was perfectly suited to the prevailing mood of the early 1960s. One of the best designs of Mitchell’s tenure — and one of his personal favorites — was the 1963–1965 Buick Riviera, a stylish coupe that finally put GM on the map in the lucrative personal luxury market. But if things had gone according to plan, the Riviera wouldn’t have been a Buick at all, and it came to market only after a strange and complicated journey of missed opportunities, corporate politicking, and sibling rivalry.
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