Economy Car - History - 1945–1970


In anticipation of a repeat of the post First World War economic recession, GM started the "Chevrolet Cadet" project (a compact car intended to sell for less than US$1,000), that ran from 1945 to 1947, to extend the Chevrolet range downwards in the U.S. Chevrolet head of engineering Earle S. MacPherson was in charge of development. It had a unibody structure, an over-square ohv engine, a strut-type front suspension, small-diameter road wheels, a three-speed gearbox, brake and clutch pedals suspended from the bulkhead rather than floor-mounted, and integrated fender/body styling. It was light and technically advanced, but GM's management cancelled it, stating that it was not economically viable. The anticipated post Second World War U.S. car market recession hadn't materialised. The MacPherson strut, probably the world's most common form of independent suspension, evolved in the GM Cadet project by combining long tubular shock absorbers with external coil springs, and locating them in tall towers that directed the vertical travel of the wheels and also formed the "king pin" or "swivel pin axis" around which the front wheels could turn. It was elegantly simple, with just three links holding the wheel in place - the strut itself, the single-piece transverse lower arm, and the anti-roll bar that doubled as a drag link for the wheel hub. MacPherson took his ideas to Ford instead. They were first used in the French 1948 Ford Vedette. Next in the 1950 British Ford Consul and Zephyr (British mid-size cars, the same size as the Cadet), which owed more to the Cadet than just the MacPherson strut suspension, and caused a sensation when they were launched. In 1953, a miniaturised economy car version, the Ford Anglia 100E was launched in Britain.

As Europe and Japan rebuilt from the war, their growing economies led to a steady increase in demand for cheap cars to 'motorise the masses'. Emerging technology allowed economy cars to become more sophisticated. Early post-war economy cars like the VW Beetle, Citroën 2CV, Renault 4CV, and Saab 92 looked extremely minimal; however, they were technologically more advanced than most conventional cars of the time.

The 4CV was designed covertly by Renault engineers during the World War II German occupation of France, when under strict orders to design and produce only commercial and military vehicles. Between 1941 and 1944, Renault was under the Technical Directorship of a francophile German installed former Daimler Benz engineer called Wilhelm von Urach who turned a blind eye to the small, economy car project suitable for the period of post war austerity. The design team went against the wishes of Louis Renault who in 1940 believed that post-war Renault should concentrate on mid-range cars. Only after a row in May 1941 did Louis Renault approve the project. In October 1944 after the liberation, Louis Renault who was imprisoned on charges of collaboration, died in suspicious circumstances. In January 1945, newly nationalised Renault had officially acquired a new boss, the former resistance hero Pierre Lefaucheux, (he had been acting administrator since September 1944). Lefaucheux had been arrested by the Gestapo in June 1944, and deported to Buchenwald concentration camp. The Gestapo transferred him to Metz for interrogation, but the city was deserted because of the advancing allied front, the Germans abandoned their prisoner. In November 1945 the French government invited Ferdinand Porsche to France looking to relocate the Volkswagen project as part of war reparations. On 15 December 1945, Porsche was invited to consult with Renault about the Renault 4CV. Lefaucheux was enraged that anyone should think the almost production-ready Renault 4CV was in any way inspired by the German Volkswagen, and that the politicians should presume to send Porsche to advise on it. The government insisted on nine meetings with Porsche which took place in rapid succession. Lefaucheux insisted that the meetings would have absolutely no influence on the design of the Renault 4CV, and Porsche cautiously went on record saying that the car would be ready for large scale production in a year. Lefaucheux was a man with contacts, as soon as the 4CV project meetings had taken place, Porsche was arrested in connection with war crimes allegations involving the use of forced labour including French in the Volkswagen plant in Germany. Ferdinand Porsche, despite never facing any sort of trial, spent the next twenty months in a Dijon jail. The 760 cc rear-mounted four-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission 4CV was launched at the 1946 Paris Motor Show and went on sale a year later. Volume production with the help of Marshall Plan aid money, was said to have commenced at the company's Parisian Boulogne-Billancourt plant a few weeks before the Paris Motor Show of October 1947, although the cars were in very short supply for the next year or so. On the 4CV's launch, it was nicknamed "La motte de beurre" (the lump of butter); this was due to the combination of its shape and the use of surplus paint from the German Army vehicles of Rommel's Afrika Korps, which were a sand-yellow color.

The VW featured a 1.1-litre, air-cooled flat four, rear engine with rear-wheel drive, all round fully independent suspension, semi monocoque construction and the ability to cruise on the autobahn for long periods reliably. This cruising ability and engine durability was gained by high top gearing, and by restricting the engine breathing and performance to well below its maximum capability. Production was restarted after the war by the British Army Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, under Major Ivan Hirst after it was dismissed as valueless for war reparations by the Western Allies. In 1948 Hirst recruited Heinrich Nordhoff to run Volkswagen GmbH and in 1949 ownership was handed over to the West German government. The Volkswagen Type 1 'Beetle' is the most popular single design of all time.

The 375 cc Citroën 2CV had interconnected all round fully independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, radial tyres and front-wheel drive with an air-cooled flat twin engine and four-speed gearbox. It was some 10 to 15 MPG (Imperial) more fuel efficient than any other economy car of its time – but with restricted performance to match. It was designed to motorise rural communities where speed was not a requirement. The original design brief had been issued before the Second World War in the mid 1930s. It had been completely redesigned three times, as its market and materials costs had changed drastically during its development period. Engine size increased over time; from 1970 it was a still tiny 602 cc. It was in production until 1990.

The Saab 92 had a transversely mounted, water-cooled two-cylinder, two-strokebased on a DKW design, driving the front wheels. It had aircraft derived monocoque construction, with an aerodynamic (drag coefficient) value of 0.30 – not bettered until the 1980s. It was later developed into the Saab 93, Saab 95, and Saab 96. It was produced until 1980. The mechanicals were used in the Saab Sonett sports cars.

Also in the immediate postwar period, the monocoque FR layout Morris Minor was launched in 1948. To reduce costs it initially reused the pre-war side-valve 918 cubic centimetres (56.0 cu in) Morris 8 engine instead of an intended flat-four. Later, after the 1952 formation of British Motor Corporation it had the Austin designed BMC A-Series engine. It had a strong emphasis on good packaging and roadholding, with independent front suspension and rack and pinion steering, and American influenced styling. 1.3 million had been built by the end of production in 1971. It was designed by Alec Issigonis.

The 1947 FR layout Toyota SA was Toyota's first true post war design. Although permission to begin full production of passenger cars in Japan was not granted until 1949, limited numbers of cars were permitted to be built from 1947, and the Toyota SA was one such car. It had a 4-cylinder engine, 4-wheel independent suspension and a smaller, aerodynamic body. The project was driven by Kiichiro Toyoda, but most of the design work was done by Dr Kazuo Kumabe. The two-door body was aerodynamic in a style similar to the Volkswagen Beetle. The doors were hinged at the rear (often called suicide doors). The front window was a single pane of flat glass with a single wiper mounted above the driver. Only right hand drive was offered. Toyota engineers (including Dr Kumabe) had visited Germany before World War II and had studied Porsche and Volkswagen designs (independent suspension, aerodynamic bodies, backbone chassis, rear-mounted air-cooled engines, economical production cost). Many Japanese companies had ties with Germany during the war years. But unlike other Japanese car firms Toyota did not partner with Western companies after the war, so it was free to use German designs. Many features of the prototype Beetle were subsequently put into the SA, although the Beetle's rear-mounted air-cooled engine feature was not used. Later on, Toyota revisited the economic principles exemplified by the Beetle when designing the 1950s successors to the SA and the later Publica and Corolla.

In the post war austerity of the late 1940s, when most of the Japanese population could not afford a car, but could afford a motorcycle, the Japanese codified a legal standard for extremely economical small cars, known as the keicar. The aim was to promote the growth of the car industry, as well as to offer an alternative delivery method to small business and shop owners. Originally limited to a mere 150 cc (100 cc for two-strokes) in 1949, dimensions and engine size limitations were gradually increased (in 1950, 1951, and 1955) to tempt more manufacturers to produce kei cars. It wasn't until the 1955 change to 360 cc as the upper limit for two-strokes as well as four-strokes that the class really began taking off, with cars from Suzuki Suzulight (front-wheel drive based on the German Lloyd with a DKW type engine) and then Subaru 360, finally able to fill people's need for basic transportation without being too severely compromised. Early generation keicars on the market were mostly rear-engined, rear drive RR layout cars. From the end of the 1960s Keicars switched to front-engined, front-wheel-drive FF layout. This market has thrived ever since, with the cars increasing in size and engine capacity, including sports cars such as the Honda Beat and Suzuki Cappuccino, and even miniaturised MPVs.

In 1953, in Japan Hino entered the private car market, by manufacturing the Renault 4CV under licence. Also, in 1953 the Fiat 1100 in Italy was completely redesigned as a compact four-door sedan, with a modern monocoque bodywork and integrated front lights.

While economy cars flourished in Europe and later Japan, the booming postwar American economy combined with the emergence of the suburban and interstate highways in that country led to slow acceptance of small cars. Brief economic recessions saw interest in economical cars wax and wane. During this time, the American auto manufacturers would introduce smaller cars of their own, in 1950 Nash Motors introduced the Rambler designed to be smaller than contemporary cars, yet still accommodate five passengers comfortably. Nash also contracted with British Motor Corporation to build the American designed Metropolitan using existing BMC mechanical components, (the 1.5 Liter engine is a BMC B-Series engine also used in larger sizes in the MG MGA and MG MGB). Imported cars began to appear on the U.S. market during this time to satisfy the demands for true economy cars. An initial late 1940s–early 1950s success in a small way, was the monocoque Morris Minor launched in 1948, with its miniaturized Chevrolet styling. It was underpowered for the long distance roads of the U.S. and especially the freeways that were starting to spread across the country in the 1950s. The first British Motorway did not open until 1959. BMC preferred to develop the higher profit margin MGs for the American market and also worked with Nash and so passed on the opportunity. From the mid-1950s the Volkswagen Beetle using clever and innovative advertising and capitalising on its very high build quality, durability and reliability, was a spectacular success. Having been designed for cruising the autobahns, freeways were no problem for it. It disproved the scepticism of American buyers as to the usefulness of, by their standards, such small cars. Initially the stylish Renault Dauphine derived from the Renault 4CV, looked like it would follow the VWs footsteps, but then was a failure due to mechanical breakdowns and body corrosion. This failure on the U.S. market in the late 1950s, may have harmed the acceptance of small cars generally in America.

In 1955, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry set a goal to all Japanese makers to create what was called a "national car" that was larger than the kei car. This influenced Japanese automobile manufacturers to focus their product development efforts for the smaller kei cars, or the larger "national cars". The concept stipulated that the vehicle be able to maintain a maximum speed over 100 km/h (62 mph), weigh below 400 kg (882 lbs), fuel consumption at 30 km/L (85 mpg; 71 mpg) or more, at an average speed of 60 km/h (37 mph) on a level road, and not require maintenance or significant service for at least 100,000 km (62,000 mi). This established a "compact car" class, that is by far the most popular in Japan due to tax benefits stipulated by Japanese government regulations. One of the first compact cars that met those requirements was the FR layout Toyota Publica with a flat-4 engine, and the RR layout Mitsubishi 500. The Publica and the Mitsubishi 500 were essentially "kei cars" with engines larger than regulations permitted at the time.

In the late 1950s the DDR German Democratic Republic produced its 'peoples car'. The Trabant sold 3 million vehicles in thirty years due to its communist captive market. It had a transverse two-cylinder air-cooled two-stroke engine and front-wheel drive, using DKW technology.

In 1957, Fiat in Italy launched the 479 cc 'Nuovo' Fiat 500 designed by Dante Giacosa. It was the first real city car. It had a rear-mounted air-cooled vertical twin engine, and all round independent suspension. Its target market was Italian scooter riders who had settled down and had a young family, and needed their first car. Fiat had also launched the larger 1955 Fiat 600 with a similar layout but with a water-cooled in-line four-cylinder engine, it even had a six-seater people carrier / MPV / mini-van version called the 'Multipla', even though it was about the same size as a modern supermini.

Car body corrosion was a particular problem from the 1950s to the 1980s when cars moved to monocoque or uni-body construction (starting from the 1930s), from a separate Body-on-frame chassis made from thick steel. This relied on the shaped body panels and box sections, like sills/rockers, providing the integrity of the body-shell rather than a separate frame (vehicle) for strength. A light car was a fast and/or economical car. The introduction of newly available computers for structural analysis from the 1960s, with computers like the IBM 360, the thickness of sheet metal in bodyshells was reduced to the minimum needed for structural integrity. However, corrosion prevention / rustproofing, that had not previously been significant because of the thickness of metal and separate chassis, had not kept pace with this new construction technology. The lightest monocoque economy cars would be the most affected by structural corrosion.

The world's first hatchback, the 1958 FR layout Austin A40 Countryman model that was a co-development of BMC and the Italian design house Pininfarina at a time when this was unusual. It had a lift up rear window and drop down boot lid. It was also sold as a two door saloon. It was built in Italy by Innocenti as well as in the UK. For 1965 Innocenti designed a new single-piece rear door for their Combinata version of the Countryman. This top-hinged door used struts to hold it up over a wide cargo opening and was a true hatchback – a model never developed in the home (United Kingdom) market. The Countryman name has 'estate' type associations, and BMC successor company Rover used the name on estate cars so it is largely forgotten.

The next major advance in small car design was the 1959 848 cc FF layout Austin Mini from the British Motor Corporation, designed by Alec Issigonis as a response to the first oil crisis, the 1956 Suez Crisis, and the boom in bubble cars and Microcars that followed. It was the first front-wheel-drive car with a water-cooled in-line four-cylinder engine mounted transversely - the BMC A-Series engine. This allowed eighty percent of the floor plan for the use of passengers and luggage. The majority of modern cars use this configuration. Its progressive rate rubber sprung independent suspension (Hydrolastic 1964–1971), low centre of gravity, and wheel at each corner with radial tyres, increased the car's grip and handling over all but the most expensive automobiles on the market. The Mini was voted the second most important car of the 20th century after the Ford Model T. Luxury versions with modified bodywork and wood and leather interiors were made under the names of Riley Elf and Wolesely Hornet. Customised versions were made by coach-builders like Harold Radford, and were very popular with the rich and famous of 1960s London. From 1964 a Jeep like version (that had been rejected by British Armed Forces), of the Mini, the Mini Moke was popular with the King's Road / Carnaby Street, Swinging London set. An Estate car / station-wagon (with a non-structural wood frame 'Countryman' version), a Van and Pick-up versions were also successful. In 1962, a slightly larger 1098cc (and later 1256cc) version of the Mini engineering design was launched, as the Austin/Morris 1100. It had front disc brakes as standard. It had Italian styling by Pininfarina and used Hydrolastic suspension. It was available in sporting MG versions, and luxury Riley, Wolesely and Vanden Plas versions. It was for most of the 1960s, the top selling car in Britain, and was sold until the mid 1970s. It was sold as the Austin America in the US, Canada and Switzerland between 1968 and 1972. It was also sold in South Africa - Austin Apache and Spain - Austin Victoria, with Triumph type Michelotti re-styling, built in local factories.

The launch in the 1960s of the Mini Cooper to exploit the exceptional grip and handling of the Austin Mini, along with its success in rallying, (Monte Carlo Rally in particular) and circuit racing, first showed that economy cars could be effective sports cars. It made traditional sports cars like the MG Midget look very old fashioned. The rear-wheel-drive Ford Lotus Cortina and Ford Escort 1300GT and RS1600, along with the Vauxhall Viva GT and Brabham SL/90 HB in the late 1960s opened up this market still further in Britain. Meanwhile, from the 1950s Abarthtuned Fiats and Gordini tuned Renaults did the same in Italy and France.

Also in 1959 the FR layout DAF 600, with a rear-mounted automatic gearbox, was launched in the Netherlands. The 600 was the first car to have a continuously variable transmission (CVT) system – the innovotive DAF Variomatic. It was the first European economy car with an automatic gearbox. The CVT was continued through the 1960s and 1970s by DAF with the DAF Daffodil, DAF 33, DAF 44, DAF 46, DAF 66, and later by Volvo after they merged with the Volvo 340. The 1960s Austin Mini/Austin 1100 compact and innovative automatic gearbox, developed by Automotive Products (with a conventional epicyclic / torque converter coupling) was much less efficient at transmitting drive.

In the 1960s the semi-monocoque/platform chassis 750 cc Renault 4 (arguably the first small five-door hatchback, but viewed as a small estate car or station wagon at the time) was launched in France. It had a very soft but well controlled ride like the Citroën 2CV. In layout, it was essentially an economy car version of the 1930s designed Citroen Traction Avant Commerciale version, but with fully independent rear suspension (the Commerciale used a flexible beam axle, similar to 1970s VW twist-beam rear suspension). The Commerciale had been smaller than an estate car with a horizontally split two-piece rear door before the second world war. When it was relaunched in 1954 it featured a one-piece top-hinged tailgate. Citroen responded with the 2CV-based 1960 602 cc Citroën Ami and hatchback 1967 Citroën Dyane. Also in France, in 1966 Renault launched the midrange Renault 16 - although it was not an economy car, it is widely recognised as the first non-commercial mass-market hatchback car. The hatchback was a leap forward in practicality. It was adopted as a standard feature on most European cars, with saloons declining in popularity apart from at the top of the market over the next twenty years. Small economy cars that were more limited in load carrying ability than larger cars benefited most - long light loads like furniture could be hung out of the back of the car.

In the 1960s the Japanese MITI "national car" class of vehicles, saw the launch of the Isuzu Bellett, Daihatsu Compagno and Mazda Familia in 1963, the Mitsubishi Colt in 1965, and the Nissan Sunny, Subaru 1000, and Toyota Corolla in 1966. Honda introduced their first four-door sedan in 1969, called the Honda 1300. In North America, these cars were classified as subcompact cars. The 1960s Toyota Corolla, Datsun Sunny refined the conventional small rear-wheel-drive economy cars were widely exported from Japan as postwar international competition and trade increased. Japan also instituted the "Shaken" road-worthiness testing regime, that required progressively more expensive maintenance, involving the replacement of entire vehicle systems, that was unnecessary for safety, year on year, to devalue older cars and promote new cars on their home market that were available for low prices. There are very few cars in Japan more than five years old.

In 1962 Fiat introduced the third generation FR layout Fiat 1100, called the 1100D. It was restyled into the 1100R from 1966. The Fiat 1100D was made in India from 1964 onwards. In 1973 (for that model year alone) it was named the Premier President. From 1974 onwards until it was finally discontinued in 2000, it was known as the Premier Padmini.

In 1964 Fiat under the engineering leadership of Dante Giacosa designed the first car with a transverse engine and an end on gearbox (using different length drive shafts) and a hatchback - the Autobianchi Primula, It had Pininfarina styling that bore a resemblance to the Austin 1100. It was put into limited production by Fiat under their Autobianchi brand, (while Fiat still produced the FR layout 1100 of about the same size), so that any potential technical teething problems would not damage the Fiat brand. Primula production ceased in 1970, by which time 74,858 had been built. It was developed into the Autobianchi A112 and Autobianchi A111. They were only sold in mainland Europe, where they were popular into the 1980s (replaced by the Lancia Y10), but unknown in the UK. The French 1967 Simca 1100 (who had previously used Fiat technology under licence), the 1969 Fiat 128, and the 1971 Fiat 127 regarded as the first 'super-mini' brought this development to a wider audience. The 128 was Dante Giacosa's final project. This layout gradually superseded the gearbox in the engine's sump of BMC Austin Morris and later Peugeot PSA X engine, until the only car in production with this transmission layout by the 1990s, was the then long obsolescent Austin (Rover) Mini.

The Simca 1100 was also the first small car, that was designed from the outset, with an angled single piece hatchback tailgate to enter large scale production. The earlier Renault 4 tailgate was near vertical like an estate car, and the Austin A40 originally had a split tailgate. The Simca was successful in France, but less so elsewhere due to 'tappety' engines and body corrosion. A total of 2.2 million cars were produced by 1985. In 1972 Renault introduced the monocoque Renault 5 supermini hatchback, that used the proven and successful Renault 4 mechanicals and suspension. It was made until 1985, when it was replaced by the 'Super Cinq'. American Motors (AMC) marketed a version with sealed-beam headlamps and reinforced bumpers as the 'Le Car' in the U.S. from 1976 to 1983.

In the U.S. market, 1960 brought the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon, and Plymouth Valiant into the market segment dominated by Rambler. These vehicles were lower priced and offered better fuel economy than the standard domestic full-size models. The Corvair, Chevrolet's rear-engined compact car, was originally brought to market to compete directly with the VW Beetle. Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant were conventional, compact six-cylinder sedans that competed directly with the American Rambler. In 1962 Chevrolet introduced the Chevy II line of conventional compacts first offered with 4- and six-cylinder engines. These American vehicles were still much larger than fuel-efficient economy cars popular in Europe and Japan. The Corvair is twenty inches longer, seven inches wider, eight hundred pounds heavier and includes an engine almost twice the size of the Beetle that inspired it. Corvair offered VW's rear engine advantages of traction, light steering, and flat floor with Chevrolet's six-passenger room and six-cylinder power American buyers were accustomed to. Later versions of the Corvair were considered sports cars rather than 'economy' cars including Monza Spyder models, which featured one of the first production car turbocharged engines. The Corvair Monza was followed by the Ford Mustang, introduced in 1964, establishing the "pony car" class which included Corvair's replacement, the Chevrolet Camaro in 1967, expanding the domestic pony car market segment started in mid-1960s.

The 1960s also saw the swan song of the rear-engined rear-wheel-drive car RR layout:
The 874 cc Hillman Imp - UK.
The relatively unsuccessful attempt at diversification of the Volkswagen Type 3, Volkswagen Type 4, and the 583 cc NSU Prinz - West Germany.
The 956–1289 cc Renault 8/10 and 777–1294 cc Simca 1000 - France.
The 2296 cc Chevrolet Corvair - USA.
The first 1960s air-cooled two-stroke in-line twin-engined generation of the 360 cc Keicar class - the 1958 Subaru 360, Mitsubishi 360 1961, Mazda Carol 1962, Daihatsu Fellow 1966, Honda N360 and the Suzuki Fronte 1967 along with the non Keicar, Renault based Hino Motors 4CV was replaced by the 1961 Contessa - Japan.
In Communist Eastern Europe there was the Škoda 1000MB/1100MB that was developed into the 1970s Škoda S100/110 and then the 1970s–1980s Škoda 105/120/125 Estelle - Czechoslovakia.
The poorly regarded Ukrainian-made Zaporozhets - USSR.
The first models designed with this layout in Central Europe before the second world war, had better traction than any other two wheel drive car layout. They were very capable in the mountainous country there, that had lots of unsurfaced roads, just how capable was shown by the performance of the two wheel drive military Kübelwagen version of the VW Beetle. This layout also had better interior space utilisation than front engine rear-wheel-drive cars, and a better ride than those with a live rear beam axle. It was an affordable way to produce a car with all round independent suspension, without the need for expensive constant-velocity joints needed by front-wheel-drive cars, or axle arrangements of FR layout cars. They could have road-holding issues due to unfavorable weight distribution and wheel camber changes (rear wheel tuck under), of the lower-cost swing axle rear suspension design. These were highlighted and a little exaggerated by Ralph Nader. These problems were ameliorated on later Beetles and were eliminated on the second-generation Chevrolet Corvair with the switch to a four-link, fully independent rear suspension.

Read more about this topic:  Economy Car, History

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