The Early Years
Initially a Joke
Cheap and Cheerful
Fit for a King
The Bug Arrives
BMW Goes Back to Basics
Japan Chimes In
Where's the Love?
Detroit Gets the Memo
Small from Other Countries
Mini, Mini, Mini, Mini ...
An Illicit Introduction
And Then ...
Smaller in the '60s
Sailing into the '70s
No Gas to Guzzle
Getting in the Game
The Koreans Come Over
A Step Down
Getting Even Smaller
But Not Everything Works ...
What's In Store?
- The Early Years
- Initially a Joke
- Whistlin' Dixi
- Postwar Mini-Boom
- Cheap and Cheerful
- Fit for a King
- The Bug Arrives
- BMW Goes Back to...
- Ramblin' Man
- Japan Chimes In
- Datsun, Too
- Where's the Love?
- Getting Smaller
- Detroit Gets the...
- Small from Other...
- Mini, Mini, Mini,...
- Mazda Arrives
- An Illicit...
- And Then ...
- Smaller in the '60s
- Sailing into the...
- OPEC Intervenes
- No Gas to Guzzle
- Getting in the Game
- The Koreans Come...
- A Step Down
- Getting Even Smaller
- But Not...
- What's In Store?
Canadians love compacts. We buy more of them than any other size of car, and we even prefer pint-sized when we buy SUVs. But it wasn’t always that way, and we used to like them big in North America, at least until the oil supply temporarily dried up in the 1970s and the Japanese showed us that bigger isn’t always better. Come with us through the years to see how downsizing became desirable.
The earliest cars were motorized buggies, but it didn’t take long before cars started to get big. Since they tended to be unreliable and there weren’t many roads, they were generally considered to be toys for the wealthy—and if you were going to own a status symbol anyway, you might as well show off. But the first mass-produced cars were relatively smaller ones, and their founders scrapped their big cars to concentrate on them: the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, shown above, and Henry Ford’s Model T.
Throughout the 1920s, cars got bigger. Some high-end manufacturers like Duesenberg needed a long hood to accommodate their inline eight-cylinder engines, and this styling cue caught on with many automakers. Britain’s Austin had been licensing its Austin 7 design to several manufacturers, and in Pennsylvania, it was produced by American Austin. It was pricey, some $5 more than a Ford Model A, but what really hurt sales was that it quickly became the butt of jokes by comedians and cartoonists. It lasted from 1930 to 1934. Renamed Bantam, the company revived from 1938 and produced the winning prototype that would become the Jeep, but folded in 1941.
The Austin 7 showed up in several countries, including Germany, where it was built by a company with the snappy name of Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenbach and called the Dixi. Engine and motorcycle manufacturer BMW bought the company, now known as Dixi-Werke AG, in 1928 and built the Dixi as its first automobile. In 1932, the company dropped the Dixi in favour of its first original design. It too would bulk up its vehicles into luxury liners, and would ultimately depend on a tiny car to save it after the war.
Following the Second World War, there was an uptick in the number of companies making micro cars and Americans buying them. It was an odd little blip and might have been from soldiers who had seen much smaller cars overseas, or people buying whatever they could get, since civilian car production shut down in Canada and the U.S. during the war and there were massive backlogs to fill. One of the most successful was Crosley, built by the radio and refrigerator company.
At a starting price of $325, the Crosley was the least-expensive car in the U.S., and in its earliest days, they were sold at hardware stores. The first ones were introduced in 1939 and used an air-cooled two-cylinder, but went to four cylinders after the war. Crosley built all kinds of models, including convertibles, delivery vans, ice-cream trucks, and even sports cars such as the Crosley Hot Shot and Super Sports, but folded in 1952.
In the 1940s and 1950s, magazines like Popular Mechanics were filled with ads for tiny cars, such as the Cubster, Imp, and Comet. Many were low-speed or intended for children, but among the roadworthy ones, one of the most successful was the King Midget. It was introduced in 1946, sold as a build-it-yourself kit with an air-cooled, single-cylinder engine and manual transmission. It was later also offered preassembled, and eventually went to a slightly larger engine and two-speed automatic transmission. It lasted until 1969, and about 5,000 were sold in total.
While the Volkswagen Beetle would go on to shatter sales records, it got off to a rocky start. Very few were sold to the public before the Second World War, when they were built for military use, and the British occupied the plant until turning over what they thought was a worthless endeavour back over to the Germans. Two were imported into the U.S. in 1949, where their importer discovered that Americans weren’t too keen on anything German so soon after the war. Another 270 were sold in 1950, and the numbers climbed slowly before breaking 1,000 in 1953. But sales grew rapidly starting in 1955, and topped 100,000 in 1959.
After discontinuing the tiny Dixi for its own designs, BMW produced larger and luxurious cars. The company continued to make prestigious six- and eight-cylinder models after the war, but soon found that there was little demand for them as Germans tried to rebuild their lives. On the brink of failure, BMW obtained a license to build the odd little Isetta in 1955 from Iso SpA, its Italian founder. Iso ceased its production of the cars that year, and in an odd twist, BMW would later license the design for Isettas built in Great Britain. BMW would build a four-seater version called the 600 in 1957 (shown above), and would start making midsize cars again in 1962.
Domestic compacts were rare in the 1950s, but the Rambler did okay for itself. It was introduced by Nash at the beginning of the decade. It was $1,800 and sold over 80,000 copies in its first two years. Nash merged with Hudson in 1954 to form American Motors and some Ramblers were also badged as Hudsons. In 1958, American Motors sold all of its models under the Rambler brand name.
Compacts had been the norm overseas, and it was time to move across the pond. The first Toyota Crown arrived in the U.S. in 1958. The brand was named Toyopet, but reverted to Toyota by 1964. The brand got little attention until it debuted the Corona for 1967, its first real sales success in North America.
Not yet named Nissan for this market, Datsun also arrived in the U.S. in 1958 with two models: the 210 sedan and the 220 pickup truck. The following year, the 210 underwent some minor styling changes and emerged as the 1959 Datsun 1000, shown above.
Honda arrived in 1969 (that’s a 1975 in the photo), but like its Japanese predecessors, it also faced an uphill battle. That was partly due to lack of a large dealer network, and also to their tinny, bare-bones construction when North American cars were large and lush. But despite the nostalgic vision we have of the 1950s and 1960s, not everyone wanted a land yacht. Many buyers were getting fed up with lousy fuel consumption, difficulties driving and parking such big beasts, and poor build quality.
While the Detroit Three of Chrysler, GM and Ford kept to their bigger-is-better philosophy, some of the independent manufacturers looking to downsizing. Following the success of the Rambler, Nash joined forces with Austin to create the Metropolitan in 1954, which was built in Britain in both hardtop and convertible configuration.
Finally, by 1960, the big automakers figured out that some buyers didn’t want to drive a football field. All three came out with compact cars—or at least, what were “compact” for the times. Chevrolet had its Corvair, Plymouth brought out the Valiant, and Ford introduced the Falcon. All three sold very well in their first year and continued to do so, although the rear-engined Corvair would become mired in controversy over a rear axle design and exacting tire pressures that could make it prone to rollovers.
Detroit and Japan weren’t the only ones putting smaller cars on North American roads. In addition to Volkswagen, which had finally won over the public with its Beetle and would eventually introduce the Rabbit, you might also see the odd Fiat, Opel, Citroën, or Renault. It’s estimated that by 1960, about 10 per cent of all cars sold in the U.S. were from foreign automakers.
If you’re old enough, you’re now humming the little television ad jingle that introduced Canadians to this mighty mite. As with the Beetle, the Mini was more of a “cult car” than a mainstream model, and as a subcompact, it was dwarfed by the domestics’ compact cars, but many drivers were starting to discover that they didn’t necessarily need acres of sheet metal around them wherever they went.
The company started out making corks, turned to machinery and trucks, and built its first car in 1960. It arrived in North America in 1970, initially sold only in Oregon and Washington. Since Japanese cars came across the Pacific, most brands had their first distribution networks on the west coast. Mazda offered both conventional and Wankel engines, and more than half of all buyers opted for cars with rotary engines.
Subaru had been building cars since 1958, starting with its 360 minicar. Ten years later, it caught the eye of Malcolm Bricklin—yes, the guy who would disastrously try to build a sports car in New Brunswick—who discovered that the 360 was small and light enough that it didn’t qualify as a car under U.S. laws, and so could be imported without any expensive changes to meet regulations. Things fell apart when Consumer Reports branded it the most unsafe car in the country. Bricklin was out and Subaru began bringing in other models itself in 1971, although it took a while to overcome the fallout from the 360.
We’ll temporarily jump ahead to 1985, just to stay on the Bricklin theme. An automaker named Zastava had been making Fiat-based cars in Kragujevac since 1954. In 1981, it began production of a two-door hatchback called the Yugo 45. Enter Malcolm Bricklin, who figured it would be another winner for North America. It arrived in 1986 as the cheapest car in the U.S. at $3,990, and he sold almost 36,000 of them that first year. But it didn’t take long before owners started to complain about mechanical issues, and crash-testing revealed some serious flaws. The last ones were imported in 1991, but the Serbian factory continued building them for domestic sales until 2008.
The success of their first compact cars, as well as those from independents such as the Studebaker Lark, had the Detroit automakers eager for more. While most of their vehicles were still larger models, they introduced a few more downsized ones, such as the Pontiac Tempest, Dodge Dart, and Chevrolet Nova and Chevy II, which were rebadged for Canada-only sales as the Pontiac Beaumont and Acadian.
A few more smaller models emerged with the new decade, including such cars as the AMC Gremlin, Chevrolet Vega, Ford Maverick, and the Ford Pinto, which enjoyed solid sales when it arrived in 1971. It would end its days mired in scandal after several fiery crashes were traced to a design flaw that led to the fuel tank rupturing when the car was hit from behind, and confidential company memos were unearthed that showed Ford analyzed the risk and determined that it was cheaper to pay settlements than to make an $11 improvement to each car built.
The rise of the Japanese brands in North America can be directly traced to October 19, 1973. Earlier that month, Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israel, a conflict that became known as the Yom Kippur War. U.S. president Richard Nixon requested $2.2 billion in emergency aid for Israel. That prompted retaliation by OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which included Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. OPEC cut off oil to the U.S. and then reduced production, which nearly quadrupled world prices.
It was bad enough when fuel prices rose, but as the oil embargo continued, stations started running out of fuel. Long line-ups ensued, with the resulting tight tempers, especially when some stations began limiting how much fuel each person could buy. Some states and municipalities rationed it with alternating “even-odd” days: if the last number of your license plate was even, you could only buy gas on “even” days. Suddenly, small cars looked really good, especially the tinier-than-American-compacts that the Japanese were selling. The oil embargo lifted on March 18, 1974. Honda sold 20,500 cars in the U.S. in 1972. In 1974, it sold 43,119, and a year later, hit 102,389.
As the 1970s came to a close, competition became more fierce. Volkswagen had its Jetta and Rabbit, Toyota was selling the Corolla, and Honda had its Civic and Accord. In 1978, Chrysler came out with two models, the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, that were not only the automaker’s first front-wheel-drive cars, but also the first domestic front-wheel subcompact cars. In 1980, GM would introduce its X-body cars (Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Citation, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix) and a year later, Ford would add the Escort.
Many Canadians didn’t realize that Korea even had an auto industry until the first Hyundai Pony reached its shores in 1983. The Pony was as basic as you could get—it even had a manual choke—but it was inexpensive and turned out to be so popular that it became Canada’s best-selling car when it arrived. The Pony was only sold in Canada. The U.S. became familiar with the brand when the Stellar was launched in 1985, followed by the Excel a year later.
Even though North Americans took to small cars, there was still a tendency to go big. As compacts evolved, they also became bigger: today’s Honda Civic, for example, is 419 mm longer than the 1978 Accord. The solution for many automakers has been to bring in a subcompact that’s even smaller, such as the Honda Fit, Mazda2, Toyota Yaris, or Chevrolet Spark.
Microcars are still rare over here, but in late 2004, Mercedes-Benz made headlines when it brought its tiny two-passenger Smart to Canada. While the Smart stands alone, the German automakers have introduced compact models here, including the BMW 1 and 2 Series, the Audi A3, and Mercedes-Benz B-Class.
The Japanese have also brought over some domestic-market models, with varied success. Toyota brought its iQ over under its Scion brand (for a while, some markets got a gussied-up version under the Aston Martin nameplate) and Mitsubishi sells an electric version of its i-MiEV. But while the Nissan Cube is popular in Japan, it was considered just a little too funky by Canadian buyers, and it’s no longer offered here.
There is a limit to how small you can make a car and still meet safety requirements, as well as customer interest. And no matter where the price of fuel goes, there will always be people who want or need a full-size vehicle. But while they might have been a tough sell at first, there’s no question that little cars are here to stay.