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Cars in the 1960s

During the 1960s, motoring took on a new outlook as the Freeway system (in the US) and the Motorway system (in the UK) spread.

In Britain, this had begun in 1958 with an eight-mile Preston by-pass, and then the first section of the M1 in late 1959. By 1969, 622 miles of motorway had been constructed across the British Isles, and by-passes had been built to ease the traffic jams which were beginning to appear in major towns.

But the big event was the invention in August 1959 of the Austin and Morris Mini cars. Designed by Alec Issigonis in response to the need for a small and fuel-efficient car. The surprisingly spacious four-seater car had an engine that was mounted sideways at the front with a capacity of 850 cc which powered the lightweight car to a top speed of 70 mph. it was not an immediate success, however, even priced at just under £500.

What saved it was adoption by trendy Londoners who saw it as the answer to their parking problems – Lord Snowdon, Peter Sellers and Twiggy all had one – and when Paddy Hopkirk won the Monte Carlo Rally of 1964 in a Mini Cooper, sales rapidly accelerated.

Other new British cars of the 1960s included the Capri (1962), Consul Cortina (1963) and Ford Escort (1968) which replaced the Anglia.

By 1960, everyone in the United States who really needed a car had already bought one, so the automobile companies realised that if they were to keep up the sales figures they would have to change their styling more often. The great idea was to use design features so extreme that they would date quickly.

American automobile manufacturers came out with new models every year – usually in September. The unveiling of the new models was exciting and the concept was extremely successful.

“There’s nothing like a new car for enchantment” promised an ad for the latest line of Oldsmobiles in 1960, but it was beginning to seem like Detroit was running out of new ideas. Having produced miles of chrome and tailfins over the past five years, it now looked like car makers were heading in the other direction.

Buick’s ‘clean look’ emphasized sleekness over ornamentation while Dodge’s 1961 Polara and 1961 Dart swapped fins for rounded, pod-like tail fixtures.

Chrysler’s “new direction in automotive styling” featured streamlined rears and low, flat roofs, although the 1961 Newport was allowed to keep its boldly angled fins. Major US automakers seemed hell-bent on making their cars as unattractive as possible – The 1962 Chevrolets (the ones “with Jet-Smooth ride”) were flatter and boxier than in previous years.

The E-Type Jaguar encapsulated the needs of the male driver in 1961 – a streamlined body with the fastest speed of any production car – up to 150 mph. The car caused a stir when it was unveiled at the Geneva car show – The audience was stunned at the £2,196 price tag, making it about half the cost of its competitors.

Chevy’s 1962 Corvair, which was advertised as “built for budget-minded people who go for sports car driving”, featured a rear-mounted engine, but precious little else of note.

Chrysler released 1962 models that were similar to their 1961 counterparts, only without fins. Plymouth’s1962 models were all downsized by up to eight inches in length, which proved a big mistake at a time when ads for the Oldsmobile 98 were urging buyers to “relax in luxury-lounge interiors fashioned in the tones and textures of modern living”.

European cars were still selling slowly, but their competitive prices in the US – $1,675 for a Volkswagen Beetle, $1,585 for a Renault Dauphine, and only $1,398 for a Fiat 600 – indicated that Detroit would soon have a serious battle on its hands.

With fuel economy in mind, the Mini Hornet and Riley Elf all made their mark in Britain. In 1962 the Austin 1100 and Morris 1100 were launched; hydrolastic fluid suspension gave a smooth ride.

In April 1964 Ford launched the Mustang ‘pony’ car, aimed squarely at the hip young consumer. After a short but intensive TV advertising campaign, Ford sold 22,000 Mustangs on the first day. Over 400,000 were on the road within a year.

From 1965 onward, Japanese cars began to sell internationally in large quantities, pioneered by the Toyota Corona, the first Japanese car to fully penetrate the US market. Interestingly, the imports of foreign goods into Britain produced a series of patriotic campaigns such as the ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign of 1967/1968.

In 1966, the reverberations of the Ford Mustang continued to be felt throughout the US auto industry. Mercury introduced the Cougar (essentially an upscale version of the Mustang), while Dodge weighed in with the Charger fastback.

Even Cadillac got in on the act; although not technically a sports car, the new four-wheel-drive El Dorado was definitely aimed at a younger, hipper demographic. Most successful of all the Mustang clones was Chevy’s new Camaro, a sporty four-seater with a base price of $2,466.

Pontiac GTOs were featured in a number of TV shows in the 1960s, but perhaps the most famous was the 1967 Pontiac GTO Monkeemobile. Created by famed Los Angeles car customiser Dean Jeffries (George Barris was rumoured to have had a hand in the design) this wild creation

In Britain in 1967, a 70 mph speed limit was introduced in an attempt to cut down on car accidents. In the same year, stiff penalties were introduced for drinking and driving, and the breathalyzer was introduced to help the police detect drunken drivers.

Although General Motors had been producing Holden cars in Australia since 1948, it was not until 1968 (the month John Gorton was sworn in as Prime Minister) that the word ‘Kingswood‘ became part of the Australian vocabulary with the launch of the new HK model.

The Kingswood would survive nine years, seven model changes and five Prime Ministers, beginning with the mildly facelifted HT, which followed the HK in May 1969.

PS: A gallon of gas cost about 25 cents in the US in the mid-60s.