Concierge's Corner: Forgotten Favorites



November 17, 2011

They may have fallen off the radar for most historic vehicle enthusiasts, but HVA’s Answer Man, Glenn Arlt, says these great cars deserve a second look.  Check out five of Arlt’s forgotten favorites and look for more in the months to come.         

Why do some historic cars achieve iconic status while others seem to fall by the wayside?  Glenn Arlt can only guess.

“Maybe it’s because people tend to remember the more popular cars of their youth,” he says.  “But there are many vehicles out there that I call ‘one year wonders’—great cars with unique design features that, for whatever reason, did not catch on with the buying public.  Other makes and models were solid sellers with years in production even without high-dollar advertising budgets.�

Here are Arlt’s top picks of the most undervalued and under-appreciated historic vehicles from the last 50 years.  Check it out and then head on over to the HVA’s Facebook page and tell us:

What is your favorite “forgotten” historic vehicle?  Post a picture or log a comment. While you’re there, please click on the “like” button and tell your friends to do the same.

1950-1951 Fraser Manhattan

The ultra-rare 4-door convertible or the more common 4-door sedan, the Fraser Manhattan was priced alongside the upper middle-class Buicks of the day.  That made them well enough received by the buying public to be profitable for the company building them (a joint effort of George Washington Fraser and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser).

Having a relatively low-powered, flat head, in-line six was a drawback, but it was one shared by the popular Chrysler brand, DeSoto, and at least made for easy and inexpensive servicing, which had to be done on a near monthly basis back in the day.

The Manhattan was praised by engineers of the day for its rigidity, relative lightness, strength, stability, handling, and overall ride.  But a boardroom argument between Fraser and Kaiser meant the end of this great car.

1958 Pontiac

These A-bodied cars (as the mother ship General Motors referred to them) were a “one-year wonder” owning to a huge and costly blunder—GM had built these cars way too “tall” and with “the wrong look,” according to critics.  The public seemed to agree and in 1957 and 1958, sales of Chrysler and Ford products left GM in the dust.  This resulted in a rushed job to introduce new, lower 1959 A-bodied cars done in an emergency basis (read “very expensive”).

In fact, most of the 1958 GM cars—attempting to sell in a recession year where the economy contracted some 30 percent—were an unprecedented flop, at least as far as GM executives were concerned.

The 1958 Pontiac was the first year of the super-high performance and new fuel injection option on the new Bonneville series. Today Bonnevilles are often considered the most collectible of the 1958 Pontiacs, but these made up a tiny fraction of all Pontiacs built that year.  It must also be mentioned that, in Canada, both the Chevrolet and Pontiac cars were one-year wonders, and this must have cost GM-Canada dearly as well.

1960 Meteor Montcalm (Canadian special)

This is a little-known and little-remembered car based on the beautiful one-year body 1960 Ford line, built in both the US and Canada.  Unique about these vehicles are the exterior bodies.  Being in excess of 80-inches wide and illegal for use on roadways, the car had to be entirely redone in 1961.  Meteor cars were so popular in Canada from their inception (1948) to the end (1961) that they “nailed” 4th place in sales 9 out of 13 years!  In essence, they were sold by Mercury-Meteor dealers as a lower priced variant, and were based on same-year Ford cars (but always with Canada-only grill and trim differences).  Built for the Canadian market, the 1960 Meteors are almost unknown outside the country and, therefore, extremely rare in the U.S. today.

1974-1975-1976-1977-1978 AMC Matador coupes

American Motors, the perennial underdog for some 12 years after falling off the Number 3 sales perch ahead of Plymouth in 1962, knew it had a major problem.  Mid-sized cars were the most popular in America at the time and fully 50 percent of mid-sized cars were two-door hardtops.  Even so, car buyers largely ignored the AMC Matador hardtops as much as they had the preceding Rebel hardtops.

Something had to be done and so AMC’s styling honcho Richard A. Teague had his small crew come up with a car that would not share any external sheet metal with the carried-over sedans and wagons.  In fact, AMC had been on somewhat of a revival, with an all-new and popular compact Hornet for 1970, the first American “sub-compact” the Gremlin, introduced on April Fools Day 1970, the hugely popular Hornet Sportabout wagon (the only US compact wagon on the market), and then the extremely popular Hornet hatchback.

Having the smaller car market well covered meant they had time and money to tackle this project, and the all-new 1974 Matador coupes were extremely well received by the car testing press and sold very well…for one year.

The slippery new shape was even a boon for racing, and Roger Penske’s prepared NASCAR Matadors did well with drivers Mark Donohue and Bobby Allison.  Then 1975 came along and Chrysler introduced their hugely popular new “formal hardtop” Dodge Charger and Chrysler Cordoba twins, and the fickle finger of fate pointed AMC’s way.  AMC simply could not afford to redesign and retool to make the Matador line competitive in the marketplace.  This was compounded by the first “oil crisis” of October 1973 to March 1974, which saw gas prices increase almost 45 percent overnight.  These factors put the final nail in the coffin of the performance cars in America for that era, and the result today is that the Matador is often unknown outside AMC enthusiast circles.

1963-1964-1965-1966 Rambler Ambassador

AMC’s 1963 car line was made up of the compact American: a line of all-new, six cylinder Classic family cars, plus the all-new V8 powered luxury Ambassador line that featured highly competitive 250 and 270 horsepower Rambler 327 cubic inch V8 engines.  Motor Trend gave AMC “Car of the Year” props for the 1963 Ambassador and hopes were high in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that AMC would regain the Number 3 sales spot ahead of Plymouth as they had in 1961.

It didn’t happen that way.

AMC sales languished in 1963 and fell even more in 1964, despite a new, two-door hardtop body style, which was added to their two-door and four-door sedan, plus popular station wagon body styles.  What caused this scenario?  It was probably due to the introduction of Ford’s new “Small-Mid-Sized” Fairlane in 1962 and, even more catastrophically for AMC, the introduction of behemoth GM’s Chevrolet “Mid-Sized” Chevelle and Malibu lines for 1964.  Suddenly, the Ambassador wasn’t the only real luxury car in its class.

The vast majority of Americans equated “luxury” with “size” in those days.  It surely didn’t help that AMC’s plebeian six cylinder Classic economy car line shared the same sheet metal as the up-market Ambassador.  So AMC developed a longer “front clip,” distinctive front styling, and optional front disc brakes for the 1965-1966 Ambassador.  In a bid to compete against the larger full-sized Chevrolet Impala and 1966 Caprice up-market cars, AMC increased the wheelbase 4 inches.  Needless to say, these Ambassadors, restyled on a budget and “falling between two stools” size-wise, fell flat on the market and didn’t help AMC’s fortunes at all.  So today, almost nobody remembers any of these cars, despite their decent economy, good handling, excellent performance, and rust-proofing (an extra value and novelty for the time).

 

Comments

  1. paul anderson michigan

    Probably good reason they forgot about those cars !

  2. Bill McKivor Seattle, Wa

    Glen is right on with his "why they are not popular"---but added to that are a few other things. Of course, the biggest reason is what was popular then is remembered and popular now. Parts for some of the common stuff are available, and many shy away from the lesser known makes as they do not have the backup in the marketplace. Also, the dealer network for the smaller companies was much smaller back then, and the cost per unit more, so they cost more, in the public perception, than the common makes in what you got for the money. This was not always true. I have always been an "odd ball" you might say, currently I have a Kaiser and two 51 Frazer cars, both the Vagabond hatchback wagons with wood interiors, super fun to own and at a show, you have the only one---possibly in the state, but certainly at the show. Lots to say for the odd ball cars, they actually draw huge attention at shows. I find that nearly NO one of any age can remember seeing a 51 Frazer Vagabond Wagon. To me, it is lots more fun than owning one of the eight 57 Chevs on display.

  3. ALBERT REED Maryland

    Great article on the 1958 Pontiac Benneville,very well written,However I the fuel injection option was introduced on the 1957 Bonneville,all 630 were fuel injected and are considered the most desireable Pontiac of all models. I am a life long Pontiac owner/collector and thought I should pass along this bit of Pontiac trivia.

  4. Jerry Matthews Georgia, USA

    I would like all the information you have on 1959 Edsel, e-mailed to me

  5. Daniel rose Michigan

    Right on with the 1964 Rambler. A lady on my paper route had one in 1972. I admired that car every time I walked by her garage. Sweet lines, subtle curves. Not considered cool at all - except by a 12-year old paperboy. Thirty nine years later, still sweet. Nice to see one other person in the world appreciates that car.

  6. Noel North Carolina

    I own 2 underrated cars. 1968 AMC Rebel 770 2 door hard top, and 1974 AMC Matador. I was at Daytona in July of 1974 when Penske brought the new Matador with Bobby Allison at the wheel. I was 14 years old and never forgot the jokes and ridicule circulating around the track about that car. Then it went out and qualified on the outside pole which raised alot of eyebrows. It didn't win the race, but it ran up front all day and perplexed the heck out of alot of people who seemed to have a difficult time digesting all that crow they had to eat. My dad raced Pontiacs so he was one of those folks. That day at the track cultivated a fond appreciation of those who don't follow the crowd. Me and my wife have more fun at shows and cruise-ins by reactions to our cars than any car I could imagine owning.

  7. Scott SoCal

    A man of impeccable taste! As the owner of a 65 Ambassador, 74 Matador Coupe, and a 60 Meteor Montcalm, I may suffer the same prejudice.....