The foreign automobiles that have provoked so many hurrahs and so many headaches in the United States will be shown under one roof in a few days at a whopping exhibition in New York. From April 5 to 13 they will occupy (along with a few Detroit models) some 200,000 square feet of floor space at the International Automobile Show in Manhattan's Coliseum. There will be passenger cars, elegant and plain, sports cars and minicars—a massive reminder that foreign cars have taken deep root in America.
Three years ago the number sold in the U.S. was trifling. In 1956, however, it jumped to 98,187 and last year to 206,827. That was a healthy 3.5% of the American market. Right now the imports are coming in at an even faster rate than in 1957, and there is every reason to look for a new sales record this year.
This is exceedingly distasteful to the Detroit automobile manufacturers. Every time a Detroit executive hears the Auspuff of a new Volkswagen, he is apt to mutter darkly about "lowered standards of living." His own current sales charts give him no lift, because the 1958 domestic models are off to a slow start. He is worried about the business recession, and the nation is worried about him, since Detroit's ills cause tremors all over the country.
Detroit, then, is concerned about the foreign cars—not primarily because of the volume of sales, but because the upswing shows a measurable preference for cars Detroit does not build. In a good business year Detroit would not be concerned. If the domestic slump is prolonged, however, and the small car market becomes potentially profitable for U.S.-built models, Detroit is sure to act aggressively.
So far, with one minor exception, Detroit has met the European challenge in a practical way only by bringing in cars produced by its foreign subsidiaries. These have done very well. Sales of English-built Fords, for example, more than quadrupled in 1957, reaching 17,062. Sales of American Motors' little English-built Metropolitan increased from 7,145 in 1956 to 11,791 last year. General Motors has recently begun to import its English-built Vauxhall (1,500 a month) and German-built Opel (1,000 a month). Chrysler and Studebaker-Packard have no convenient foreign-made car to exploit, but S-P has taken over U.S. distribution of the distinguished German Mercedes-Benz cars. Chrysler is understandably shy of the small-car field after its sad experiences with a small Plymouth in the early 1950s.
The exception to the general practice is American Motors' revival of its 100-inch-wheelbase Rambler American. But then the dies were already on hand, and the 1958 production schedule calls for only 25,000 cars. The Big Three are not likely to make the $300 million gamble of tooling up for a small car until the potential market becomes a good deal larger.
WAR OF NERVES
Until then Detroit will go its accustomed way, and the minority of buyers who prefer foreign cars will go theirs. In the running war of nerves between Detroit and these dissidents, some automakers choose to label the latter "the narrow-shoulder crowd." Many partisans of the imported cars, in return, are extreme in their verbal barbs at Detroit. This has not prevented Chevrolet from undertaking a crash program to prepare a 1959 model ever larger than 1958's.
Meanwhile, the small-foreign-car buyer is being analyzed extensively. Usually he has an above-average income; still, he says he bought his car primarily for economy of operation or low initial cost. In a large number of cases it is his family's second car; he finds it well-made and easy to maneuver and park; he would buy a small car again.
A point missed by most of the surveys, though, is the close link between the rise of small-passenger-car sales and the growth of the U.S. sports car movement.