This is the story of a $1.5 billion gamble by five men—captains of mighty teams which are competing for one of industry's biggest pots of gold. They have risked the billion and a half in styling and tooling up for the chrome-splashed 1958 U.S. automobile race, biggest, gaudiest, noisiest in history, which is now starting its cross-country course in showrooms, on the printed page and through kinescope tubes. As the pace of styling change speeds up and the market becomes ever more unpredictable, the struggle for the checkered flag, or sometimes merely for survival, intensifies. Still, the rules require the captains to place their glittering bet with an attitude of perfect confidence, and so, once again, they do. The five men behind the wheel are:
Henry Ford II, 40, tall and plumpish grandson of the eccentric genius who started all this assembly-line commotion. Fashionably educated at Hotchkiss and Yale, he proved mettlesome in winning the postwar power struggle for Henry I's crumbling empire, wise in restoring it to financial health.
Harlow Herbert (Red) Curtice, 64, smoothly tailored, suavely aggressive president of General Motors, who pulled Buick from the Depression depths on his way upstairs. His billion-dollar expansion plunge in 1954 steadied U.S. business and gave his annual predictions oracular import. Curtice's challenge: "GM must always lead."
Lester Lum (Tex) Colbert, 52, a husky glad-hander out of Oakwood, Texas ("I'm just a country boy"), who paid for a Texas U. education by speculating in cotton. As president of Chrysler the country boy borrowed $250 million in 1954 to give his company a transfusion and went happily down the road to fins and fortune.
George Romney, 50, a handsome, hard-hitting Mormon, who has, like his colleague (below) in the Little Two, an unfavorable post position. He is pitting his smaller Ramblers against what he calls the "big, gas-guzzling dinosaurs" of the Big Three for a larger share of the prize money in 1958.
Harold Eugene Churchill, 54, "Church" to his Studebaker-Packard employees, who built a tractor for himself at 12 on the family farm and likes do-it-yourself tinkering to this day. Austerity is the rule of S-P as Churchill fights for "a selective share" of the spoils of the race.
The race of races among the automakers this year has been, of course, that between Chevrolet, the passenger-car sales leader for 21 years, and Ford, its historic antagonist. Harlow Curtice has said, "I do not expect to be around on the day Ford beats Chevrolet." Those words may be taken more as an expression of a Detroit chieftain's eternal optimism than as literal intent, but they must taste singularly bitter right now. For in the latest list of sales registrations, for the first eight months of 1957, plus 17 states for September, Ford leads Chewy by a margin of more than 48,000, by 1,045,837 to 997,593. It would take a miracle for Chewy to catch up by December 31 despite brave words from the Chewy camp.
The lesson of 1957 for the Big Three is crystalized in that race: you must have a car as long, low and wide and, beyond that, as new looking as the competition to be thoroughly successful. The 1957 Chevrolet was a sound car and by Detroit standards a joy to drive, but Ford and Plymouth had more persuasive styling. Inasmuch as Detroit works three years in advance, Chevrolet's 1958 line was already determined before the 1957 race began, so it is obvious from the shape of the 1958 Chevvy that its masterminds were hip to the long-low-wide trend. They miscalculated its importance by one year and that was that.
General Motors, still the over-all industry leader despite its dip to 47% of the market in the first eight months of this year (down from 51% in the like 1956 period), moves now to recoup with major changes across the board. The Chevrolet, which should be an extremely tough contender for the 1958 sweepstakes, is nine inches longer, four inches wider and as much as 2½ inches lower; the new prestige Impala model is an inch lower still. An impressive air suspension system (available on all GM cars) that not only smooths the ride but keeps the car level despite unbalanced loading may be had for $115 extra. Dual headlights are standard (as generally throughout the industry), and a host of power-assisted controls are optional (as throughout the industry). Most striking in the styling is a gull-wing effect in the rear, the most spectacular tail a Chevvy ever flicked at its opposition. With a new 280-hp, 348-cu.-in. V-8, Chevrolet now has a range of five V-8s of 185 to 290 hp and a 145-hp six. The new Corvette is changed hardly at all mechanically, but the aluminum-reinforced fiberglass body, reminiscent of the meteoric SS racer, is mint new. A ride with Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Nuvolari of Detroit, left no doubt as to the car's superlative performance.
Pontiac, which adopts an X-frame and rear coil springs (as does Chevvy), goes substantially lower, wider and longer, introduces a new 370-cu.-in. engine and offers 240 to 310 hp depending upon accessories. Oldsmobile and Buick, massive enough for anyone in 1957, are dimension-ally unchanged and their engines are continued, but the bodies are unmistakably new and notably devoid of rear-window dividers. Gone are Buick's famous fender pips. In comes a luxury model called the Limited. Cadillac will have a solid new entry and the solid old mystique going for it.