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Friday, September 5, 2014

The Cars of Life--April 29, 1963

Life Magazine, April 29, 1963

Last week I highlighted the television war that raged in the pages of a 1957 edition of Life.  You can always be sure to find vibrant, full-page ads in that journal.  You can also get an idea of what the general public was buying at that time.  The more cynical observers out there might suggest that you can see what Madison Avenue wanted the public to buy.  In either case, flipping through an April '63 issue I could not help but notice its emphasis on cars.

In 1961, Ford and Chevrolet were neck in neck in the car production race.  Both of them produced 1.3 million vehicles, with Ford edging out its main rival by only a little more than 20,000 cars and trucks.  But in 1962 Chevrolet seemed ready to lap its rival Ford with a massive jump in sales.  That year saw Chevy streak ahead to 2 million vehicles produced, while Ford only reached 1.47 million.  The last time that had happened, in 1955 (Chevy increased from 1.1 to 1.7 and Ford from 1.1 to 1.4) production numbers fell off the next year.  This cycle is fairly steady in the history of car production.  However, in 1963, after the jump in production, the numbers increased yet again.

I suspect this is largely due to the fact that this was exactly 18 years after the end of World War II.  Baby Boomers were just turning eighteen, getting out of school, or at least getting jobs and beginning to buy cars.  The race had jumped into a different gear.  The car companies knew that even though it wasn't time yet to display next year's models, it was still worth it to push their present cars to the buying public.  And so the top car producers ordered up these full-page ads in the same issue of Life.



Oddly enough, the most luxurious car to enter the race in this issue was the only monochromatic car ad: Imperial's Lebaron four-door.  Since 1955 Chrysler had given its Imperial marque its own line, devoid of the Chrysler name.  And while designer Virgil Exner had made a name for himself with his "forward look", 1963 would be the last year he helmed Imperial's design.  It was the only year that the sloped trim actually wrapped all the way around the back of the body.  And although Imperial was known for its gunsight taillights you can see that the Lebaron did not use them.  It does, however, have the distinctive "Flitesweep Deck Lid", a fake tire bulge (imitating a Continental look) which had been an option from 1957 to 1961, and was brought back for 1963 by popular demand.

But the body styling was not the emphasis in this ad.  The ad-men, instead, pushed the comfort angle along with the "unaccustomed luxuries as standard equipment".  More legroom (due in part to the squared-off steering wheel), inside remote control of the side mirror, front door hidden storage compartments, automatic parking brake release, and a host of other power controls.  This one isn't being marketed for the young kids.  And Imperial only produced a little more than 14,000 cars that year.  This number would peak the very next year at 23,295.  Eventually, in 1976, Imperial was folded back into Chrysler.  Wunderkind Lee Iacocca revived the Imperial name for a short run in the 1980s, but it was never to have its own identity again.


Mercury was launched in 1938 by none other than Edsel Ford.  It was to be an entry-level line of luxury cars, a bridge between Ford and Lincoln.  But Mercury was in danger of being streamlined off the road in the 1960's due to the failure of--yeah, you might have guessed it--the Edsel.  Ford was in a little trouble, and Mercury faced some changes because of it.  Then billed as "Mercury, the man's car", the S-55 Monterey emphasized power.  This two-door sports a Marauder 390 V-8.  I'm not sure kids of today would see this car as a possible vehicle for mountaineering, but the boys at Ford declared that awesome "4-on-the-floor" stick-shift brought "oneness between you and your car...Effortless cornering, passing, and mountaineering."

Mercury was only rolling about 300,000 cars off the production line at this time.  It would peak in 1978 and 1979 above 600,000.  This is significant only to me, since my first car was a 1978 Mercury Monarch, a car I bought in 1988 for $1300.  I don't recall doing any mountaineering in it, but it was powerful and fun to drive.  Mercury's sales fizzled out after the new millennium and it finally died in 2011.


(Disclaimer: I drive a Pontiac, and my anger at GM for shuttering this brand is still at a high-level.)

In 1962, Pontiac overtook its rivals, Plymouth and Rambler, for the number three spot in the race.  It held this spot, just behind the big boys, for the rest of the decade, finally losing out to Plymouth, where Pontiac settled into fourth place for the entirety of the 1970s.  But in 1963 it was feeling pretty good.  Not only were they approaching their fortieth anniversary (in 1966) but they had recently seen the entire line of Pontiac models named as Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine (1959).  Despite this success, however, and the spectacularly ornate designs which included such dazzling features as the twin v-shaped tailfins of the late fifties models, the early sixties models lost some of that glamour.  With more squared roofing and body designs, Pontiac, nevertheless, moved firmly into third place.

This ad, proudly displaying the front-end of a 1963 Catalina "Wide-Track" Station Wagon gives us a view of the split grille, which was first introduced in 1959.  It was dropped for 1960, only to be brought right back the next year.  A variation of this has been on the majority of models for Pontiac, up to and including my own 2005 Grand Am.  It was also in 1959 that the arrowhead emblem with the star in its center became what was ultimately Pontiac's final symbol.  This station wagon is lauded for "all those people-coddling things that wagons should have as standard equipment but often don't."  Pure poetry.

By the 1980s, the Pontiac line was in decline, dropping to fifth and sixth place early in that decade.  However, in 1987 it surged back to third place and held that spot for more than ten years.  In what can only be described as yet another dirty, back-stabbing attack on the Indians, Pontiac's life was snuffed out by GM in an attempt to save their own hide due to terrible management of the entire GM family of cars at the start of the new millennium, finally ending production of this noble fleet of cars in 2009.



I find it interesting that Ford, fighting to get back to number one, ran a truck ad in Life instead of its Galaxie, the high-volume rival to Chevy's Impala and Pontiac's Catalina.  I would expect this truck ad to be in Progressive Farmer or maybe The Saturday Evening Post.  But here we see an F-100, one of Ford's models in their fourth generation of trucks.  This design, restyled in 1961 to be lower and longer than previous generations, only lasted for five years.  The emphasis here is on its durability, despite its smart looks and smooth ride.  Ford copy-writers did want readers to notice that this truck had a "Comfort-Conditioned Custom Cab" with a full five inches of cushion under the driver and 23 pounds of insulation around him.  That's right, I said him.  Don't try to tell me that there were many women driving pickups in 1963.  Maybe Ellie May Clampett did now and then, if Jethro didn't throw a fit.  But not many more than that.

I don't think Ford's decision to push the pickup truck in Life was the right way to chase down Chevy.  They wouldn't overtake Chevy for the lead in the race until 1966, and that was only because they produced a mere 5,776 more vehicles that year.  They wouldn't hold the top spot for two years in a row until 1970-71.


 In 1960, Chevy took a beating from Ford in the small car category.  Chevy was depending on its rear engine Chevrolet Corvair to wow young families, but it was the Ford Falcon that stole the show.  In an unprecedented hurry, Chevy designed and produced the Chevy II in eighteen months.  According to Chevy, it combined "maximum functionalism with thrift."  Sounds to me like wearing socks with sandals.  Maximum ventilation with warmth.  But in this ad, Chevy wants us to ponder another combination: thrift with sport.  Here they are taking this basic, stripped down compact and trying to get the attention of all those young baby-boomers just getting out of school, I suppose.  Let's give their copy-writers a chance to win us young (at-heart) people over to the Chevy II:

"Under the hood you've got a peppery 6-cylinder engine.  Smooth, dependable, eager to do about everything but run through a gallon of gas.  (From the way it nurses the stuff, in fact, you're likely to suspect that it goes around making its own.)...The package comes on either convertible or hardtop.  Either way gives you plenty of ginger--without a lot of needless gingerbread."

Wow.  This car nearly makes its own gasoline.  I'll fall for that.  And then there's all that ginger.  I haven't a clue what ginger is on a car, but I can see this one's got ginger in spades.  Fan-tastic!

The Chevy II, a Nova that eventually dropped the "Chevy II" in its name in 1969, came with a 4-cylinder engine, which could be upgraded to that peppery straight-6.  A third option made this a popular choice for drag-racers: a dealer-installed V-8.  It wasn't until the next year, 1964, in trying to fend off stiff competition from the brand-new Chevelle, that a factory V-8 became available.  That Super Sport option offered in the ad cost $161.40.  But don't forget all that ginger your $161.40 bought.  I don't know what that works out to per pound of ginger, but it can't be too bad.

Nova lived on until 1979 when it was replaced by the underwhelming Chevy Citation.  It could not sustain a short revival in the late eighties, and is now just a memory.

So these were your choices as you read your Life magazine in April of '63.  Which car would you have chosen as a winner?

And since every car needs oil, I'm tossing in the below oil advertisement that was also in this issue.  I'll let the ad speak for itself.


US Automobile Production Figures can be found here.

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