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A spectator at an American sports-car race cannot fail to notice the large number of foreign passenger cars in the parking fields. The European sports cars and the people who show them off have acquired chic and glamor—and even created new styles in clothes.
This sports-car gloss has carried over to the small European sedans. It is reasonable to assume that Volkswagen did not lead the list in 1957 merely because more than 64,000 U.S. buyers wanted an inexpensive car delivering 30 to 40 miles per gallon of gas. They obtained that, to be sure, but they were getting a fashionable car as well, in spite of the droop-snoot appearance and plainness of their mounts.
Beyond that, they were getting a car that had many genuine sports-car qualities: a short wheelbase, quick steering, a useful gearbox, excellent road-holding in fast turns—advantages shared in varying degrees by all the small imports.
If the cars are pinched for passenger and trunk space, underpowered and in some cases awkward to service by American standards, the buyers are not making much fuss about it. Potential VW buyers are waiting up to a year for delivery through regular channels; impatient ones are supporting a brisk bootleg market, paying up to $300 over the normal price, and used-car depreciation is amazingly slight.
The perky Renault Dauphine from France, Volkswagen's top challenger, found more than 22,586 buyers here in 1957, up from less than 2,500 in 1956. Fiat, Italy's largest auto manufacturer, crashed the market last year with its small 1100 and smaller 600 models. Hillman of England more than tripled its 1956 take last year, with sales of 11,124; and Morris of England counted 5,375 buyers against fewer than 500 the year before. Sales of French Simcas rose from 2,006 to 5,766. The Swedish Saab found 1,500 customers, mostly in the Northeast, in its first full year in the U.S. A new Triumph sedan has recently come in from England, following a bang-up year here for the Triumph TR3 sports cars.
These and a few other makes are the ones which most aptly fit the American conception of "the small foreign car." They range in length from 145 to 160 inches, in horsepower from 32 to 45 and in price from just under $1,600 to about $1,900 before state and local taxes at eastern ports of entry. Prices on the West Coast and inland are higher.
Not the least of the foreign cars' appealing features is the wide variety in body styles and engineering features. The VW and the Dauphine are excellent examples of rear-engined cars that have made good. The Saab and the German DKW offer uncommon 3-cylinder engines and front-wheel drive. Fiats are well known for their Italianate zip and racy exhaust note.
For ultimate fuel economy there are the minicars, like the German Isettas and Goggomobils; for silken luxury, the patrician conveyances from Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Facel Vega, Jaguar and the celebrated Italian coachmakers; for admirers of the futuristic, France's Citroen DS 19; for seekers of rarities, the Czechoslovakian Skoda.
All these, and the thriving sports cars, too, will stand in glittering array at the International Show. Jaguar will introduce a new roadster in the XK series; Saab will unveil a new touring car, the 750 Granturismo, which comes equipped with a more powerful engine than the standard 93Bs, a tachometer and a Halda average speed computer.
The automotive year ahead will be momentous, as competition for U.S. dollars among the proliferating foreign-car dealers becomes more intense, as Detroit restudies the European penetration in the light of its immense production and sales apparatus and as the recession runs its rocky course. The auto show arrives at a significant hour.