Imports again smash records
A year earlier, imports captured 7.7 percent of total car sales with 354,039 registrations. Both were records at that time.
The U.S. auto industry got a rude wake-up call in 1959. The makers realized they no longer had the American market to themselves. Those funny little foreign cars, as they then were derisively known, had become a powerful force.
There were warnings in 1957 and 1958. In 1957, import-car sales flirted with 200,000, twice as high as ever before. In 1958, deliveries jumped to 354,000.
But 1959 pulled the cork out of the bottle and let the genie escape. Import-car sales exploded to 577,116, up 63 percent from the previous year and equal to 9.6 percent of the total U.S. car market.
Half a million sales? Ten percent of the market? Hey, this was getting serious. A new age had dawned, and the domestic makers were not pleased.
It was a strange import market - more than 99 percent European. The lone interlopers were Datsun with 1,003 sales and Toyopet with 919. They sell considerably more cars today as Nissan and Toyota.
Fifty-three European makes were listed on the 1959 sales chart: 22 from Great Britain, 15 from West Germany, six each from France and Italy, two from Sweden and two from behind the Iron Curtain - Skoda (Czechoslovakia) and Wartburg (East Germany). The Swedish cars were Saab and Volvo, the same as today.
Today's roster has six from Britain, five from Germany, two from Sweden and one from Italy. France is no longer represented in this country.
Few of those 1959 cars became household words in the United States. Recall, if you can, Morris, Metropolitan, Singer, Berkeley, Morgan, Riley and Arnolt-Bristol from Britain. And Taunus (not Taurus), Goliath, BMW Isetta, Lloyd, Goggomobil and Maico from Germany. Do you remember Panhard and Facel Vega from France and Moretti and Vespa from Italy?
A lot of those off-brands were 'fast-buck' cars. A promoter noted Americans' sudden craving for foreign autos and set out to make a fast buck. He shipped cars to this country, slapped together a retail network (certainly not a dealer organization), and sales began. They continued until the public realized the cars were not suited to American roads or lifestyles. It didn't take long.
The Big 3 introduced compact cars - the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant -in fall of 1959. Suddenly America no longer was the promised land for the newcomers. Their sales declined, and so did their representation in this country.
Sales of imported cars fell to 309,000 in 1962. They started upward again, but didn't reach 10 percent of the car market until 1968.
Many imported makes fell by the wayside, but those that survived grew stronger. Especially Volkswagen.