One of the most common American car stereotypes is about the size. In fact, for decades, the majority of American-made automobiles were full-size sedans, wagons or SUVs. For the better part of the last 100 years, domestic car manufacturers insisted that bigger is better. They made land yachts with big engines and comfortable interiors that could turn circles around a warship.
However, the recession of the early ’70s and the offensive the Japanese and European car brands launched showed that not all customers wanted big sedans or wagons. Actually, some are perfectly happy with those small, fuel-efficient and peppy cars. The first American compact cars emerged in the late ’50s. Almost all of them enjoyed success, showing the market had a big potential.
But in most cases, American compact cars were just scaled down versions of bigger sedans. And that was perfectly fine since it gave customers the same performance and technology, yet on a smaller scale. Still, those U.S. compacts were still significantly bigger, better equipped and faster than the European ones, like the Volkswagen Beetle.
This list is all about those classic American compact cars. These are the models that defined the compact segment, well before the Japanese and European invasion. All these cars have their place in the history of the American car industry as well as the hearts of millions of buyers.
Most of these vehicles are from the ’60s when the compact car class began, but some were children of the ’70s and ’80s when U.S. brands had to make cars like their Japanese or European competitors. Here are the most interesting classic American compacts, cars car fans have loved, hated and missed.
In the early ’60s, all the major U.S. car makers introduced compact models. Chevrolet had the Corvair, Ford had the Falcon, Plymouth had the Valiant, and Pontiac presented the Tempest. In most cases, those compact models were just smaller versions of bigger cars, sharing design cues and mechanicals. But Pontiac went a different route and presented one of the most advanced and interesting American cars of the era, the Tempest.
The new Tempest had an independent suspension at a time when all cars used a live rear axle. Also, it featured an economical four-cylinder engine which was a cut down V8, when all competitors had six cylinders. The third thing is the most interesting because the Tempest used a rear mounted gearbox and transaxle design, which was unheard of at the time. Today, only the most expensive Gran Turismo Coupes like Aston Martin or Ferrari use this system.
So, in the ’60s, Pontiac was the only production model with this solution. Also, the Tempest didn`t have a conventional drive shaft to connect the engine in the front with the transmission in the back. Instead, it used a torque tube with the cable inside. This layout gave the little Tempest an almost ideal weight distribution and perfect handling. Better yet, it had enough room for six passengers since there wasn`t any transmission tunnel in the cabin.
Pontiac sold over 200,000 Tempests, making this model a solid success. However, in 1964, the company introduced a bigger, more conventional Tempest. Despite its revolutionary mechanics, perfect driving dynamics and even some motorsport success, the first-generation Tempest was soon forgotten. Today it is only diehard Pontiac fans remember it. Today, you will rarely see them at car shows and the parts are scarce.