Home Cars 20 Most Interesting Classic American Compact Cars Ever Made

20 Most Interesting Classic American Compact Cars Ever Made

Vukasin Herbez October 14, 2018

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.

  1. Pontiac Tempest

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.

  1. AMC Gremlin

AMC introduced the Gremlin in 1970 on April 1st and to most people, the car looked like an April`s fool joke. The competitors laughed at its compact dimensions, funny rear end and diminutive engines, but soon, the AMC was smiling all the way to the bank. The Gremlin proved to be a sales success as well as the first American subcompact car.

In the late `60s, American manufacturers had mostly big, heavy models but the sales of compact imports like the Toyota Corolla or VW Beetle started to rise. AMC noticed the trend and started developing a small, subcompact model. It would be affordable and simple, but offer lots of room inside as well as decent driving dynamics.

When they presented the car it received with mixed reviews but soon, it became quite popular especially with the younger audience. In fact, in a decade of platform shoes, The Eagles and shag carpets, the Gremlin was one of the symbols of the generation. And, it was an influential model that inspired other American manufacturers to offer small, economy cars.

  1. Chevrolet Citation X-11

Although Chevrolet had several compacts before the Citation X-11, this car is highly critically acclaimed for its unusual performance and handling. The Chevrolet Citation X-11 is an interesting car. It is a compact front-wheel drive hatchback Chevy produced from 1980 to 1985, yet it had a relatively powerful V6 engine and muscle car looks.

It would be best to describe the X-11 as a fine line between an American hot hatch and a late model muscle car since it featured aspects of both segments. The Citation was a modern model Chevrolet needed to fight the imports, and it came in a wide arrange of flavors. The X-11 featured a 2.8-liter V6 engine and 135 HP. Despite the fact it doesn’t sound impressive today, it was solid power for the time.

The X-11 had a few more tricks up its sleeves, such as a sports tuned suspension, sharper steering and better brakes. From the outside, the X-11 has a distinctive bulged hood and trim details. The magazine testers of the day spoke highly of the X-11 as much more than just a stronger engine and appearance package. Unfortunately, this model was lost in the corridors of time and forgotten by all except die-hard Chevrolet fans.

  1. Ford Pinto

In the 70s, domestic car manufacturers answered the changing market climate and rising popularity of compact cars with several homegrown models. One of those cars was Ford Pinto, which didn’t become famous because it sold in millions. It became famous because it was downright dangerous and notoriously bad. Ford introduced it in the early ’70s, and the Pinto was popular due to its low price, fairly nice design and a long list of options.

They equipped it with economical four and six-cylinder engines and the overall quality of the car was decent. So, what was the problem? While engineering the car, Ford left out any protection to its rear-mounted fuel tank. The fuel tank was located below the trunk and just behind the rear bumper. On most cars, there is a strong cross member to protect the fuel tank in case of a crash.

However, the Pinto lacked this feature, which became apparent when people started getting killed in fiery crashes caused by leaking fuel tanks. The families of people killed or hurt in such incidents sued Ford and eventually, the company spent millions settling the court cases. Despite improving the design of the Pinto afterward, they soon discontinued the model and the Pinto went into history books as the “car of death.”

  1. Chevrolet Corvair

In the late `50s, Chevrolet presented the Corvair, a revolutionary compact car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled, flat six engine. This was a big step for Chevrolet since the Corvair featured a different concept, technology and design. It was a compact car when compact cars were rare and mostly produced by foreign brands. Also, it had the engine in the back rather than in the front like other domestic vehicles and it was a six-cylinder flat engine, not a straight six or V8 as everybody expected.

All in all, it was a bold and unusual move by the conservative Chevrolet. However, the most interesting model was the Corvair Monza, a two-door coupe or convertible. It was a performance car featuring one of most unusual power plants Detroit ever produced – a turbocharged boxer engine. The result was 150 HP, and despite the fact it isn`t a big number, the small weight of the Corvair Monza produced a lively performance.

Sales were good until the book, Unsafe at Any Speed, hit the bookstores, causing big problems for GM. The author, Ralph Nader, was a consumer advocate who came in possession of classified documents showing the Corvair was responsible for many car accidents, some even with fatal outcomes. Apparently, the engine in the back caused the Corvair to have problems with handling. Although Chevrolet was aware of that, they didn`t want to invest money in additional stabilizer bars and suspension modifications.

Soon, the book gained publicity and the public demanded answers, while people kept reporting crashes with the Corvair. Chevrolet was involved in government hearings, admitting that its executives knew something about the matter. They ended up paying the settlement and promising to invest money in safety research. In 1969, Corvair sales were slashed and they discontinued the model.

  1. Dodge Omni

Back in 1977, the American car industry was rapidly changing. The decade of fuel shortages, tightening emissions, safety standards and import cars claiming a big percentage of the U.S. market was about to end. Domestic manufacturers were forced to adapt to the new conditions and gone were big, thirsty V8 powered cruisers of the ’50s and the ’60s.

The new models were front-wheel drive, small, with four-cylinder engines and far better fuel economy. Dodge Omni was exactly that, a popular compact model, which was the right car for the late ’70s and the changing economic climate. However, Consumer Reports claimed the Dodge Omni was unsafe for driving. First, for its vague steering, and second for its bad brakes and poor road holding.

Consumer Reports even claimed the car was dangerous to drive since the steering was so bad, the driver was not sure what the car was doing. From this distance, this could be a little too harsh from the experts, but it didn`t affect the popularity of the Omni.

In the 13 years it spent on the market, Dodge sold over three million of these compact and practical cars with bad steering and potentially dangerous road holding. But this just shows that not all bad cars are failures. Sometimes, they are strong sellers despite the flaws.

  1. Ford Falcon

Seeing those compact cars, domestic and imported, were having an increasingly bigger market share made the Ford Motor Company rethink its stand on small vehicles. So, in 1960, they presented the Falcon. In those days, Ford was nervous about presenting a new model in a new class since the Edsel debacle was painful for their accountants. However, with strong backing from Ford`s top managers, the Falcon project got the green light.

The immediate success and strong sales proved that Ford hit a home run with the compact yet roomy Falcon. But the car was nothing special or innovative in terms of design or technology. It had unibody construction, leaf spring suspension in the back, drum brakes and standard three-speed manual transmission. The secret of the Falcon success was its affordability and a long list of options.

Even though the standard model only had a 2.4-liter 90 HP engine, you could get a bigger six cylinder or a 260 V8. Also, the Falcon was available in several body styles including convertible, sedan delivery and a three or five-door station wagon, which broadened its appeal. In 1964, the Falcon received its first redesign and in the same year, Ford unveiled the Mustang which they based on the Falcon’s underpinnings.

The automotive press called the Mustang, “A well-dressed Falcon” when the car first arrived. However, the Falcon was still a strong seller on the American market as the most affordable Ford product. The death of the Falcon came in 1970, at least on the American market. In Australia, the Falcon nameplate is still in production. The last U.S.-built Falcons were bigger, heavier cars, more like those mid-sized models than compact cars as Ford originally conceived them.

  1. Chevrolet Vega

By the late ‘60s, Chevrolet experienced a lot of negative publicity and problems regarding its compact cars program and the Corvair model. The production of the Corvair ended in 1969, but much before that date, Chevy started working on a next-generation small car. It would be more conventional, but better in every aspect. So, in late 1970, they presented the new Chevrolet Vega as a 1971 model.

The Vega was a compact but modernly styled model with three basic body styles – two-door coupe, two-door sedan and practical three-door wagon. The front end closely resembled the design of the 1971 Camaro with a similar grille, headlights and bumper. However, the most interesting detail was the engine. It was a 2.3-liter four-cylinder available in two power levels, 90 and 110 HP for 1970.

Both units had a lightweight construction and decent performance regarding its size and class. In 1975, Chevrolet even introduced the interesting although not so successful Vega Cosworth. It featured a high revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin cam motor with 110 HP. Although it wasn’t particularly fast or strong, the Vega Cosworth was attractive with an interesting black and gold paint job and unique wheels.

Despite the strong sales, the Vega had some quality problems with the engines and was notorious for its rust issues. The production ended in 1977 after the sold more than two million cars worldwide.

  1. Plymouth Valiant

One of the most interesting classic American compact cars was the legendary Plymouth Valiant. They presented the car in 1960, but its development started in early 1957. Chrysler realized they needed a small model to compete with the VW Beetle and American Motors Rambler. So, the company decided to invest time and money into a new project, and the result was interesting in every way.

They revealed the new car to the public in late 1959 at the London Motor Show with flamboyant styling, smaller dimensions and engines, and low price. Interestingly, Chrysler deliberately presented the car in Europe hoping to sell a lot of cars there. They styled the Valiant after many of the Chrysler concept cars from the late ’50s. It looked much more expensive and upscale than the rest of the compact car market in those days.

The car had a unibody construction and standard suspension that included front A-arms and leaf springs in the back. Under the hood was the slant six engine that was new for 1960. It later became one of the most durable engines Chrysler has ever built. In the Valiant, it was available in two forms, 170 and 225 cubic inches. The slant six characteristics became one of the Valiant’s biggest selling points.

The car delivered a decent performance and good fuel economy, even by today’s standards. The Valiant nameplate stayed in production until the late ‘70s. However, the first generation between 1960 and 1962 remained the most sought after for its design and appearance, as well as great driving characteristics. Compared to the Ford Falcon, the Valiant looked much bigger despite a similar performance. It also had more power and equipment.

  1. Studebaker Lark

The Studebaker car company was one of the biggest car companies in America. As an independent manufacturer, Studebaker wasn’t a part of GM, Mopar or Ford, but a sole player on the automotive scene. For decades, Studebaker was a popular economy car choice. However, after World War II, things started to change.

The popularity of the company started to fade and eventually, the “Stude” was forced to close its doors in 1966. But before that, the company produced two interesting models. One is the Avanti, a futuristic-looking coupe with big ambitions. The other was the Lark, a compact economy model with cute styling, a wide arrange of body styles and engines.

They built the Lark from 1959 to 1966 in three generations. Most of the cars featured straight six engines, but V8 power was also available. Today, the Lark is forgotten as a model. But, not only it was one of the first compact cars from a domestic car company, it was one of the most successful cars for a while.

  1. Dodge Dart

Dodge used the Dart name on several cars over the years. However, the most popular was the compact model they introduced in 1963. Before that, the Dart was just a mid-size model. Although the Dodge Dart was similar to the Plymouth Valiant and other Chrysler products, it featured more restrained styling and a slightly lower price.

However, the fourth generation Dodge they introduced in 1966 and sold until 1976 proved to be the most popular and influential. The Dart was still a compact car, but available in several versions, body styles and trim choices. So, it proved to be a great basis for muscle car conversions and even drag racing.

  1. 1979 Oldsmobile 442

The lowest point in the 442’s evolution came in 1978 when they offered it as an option on a smaller Oldsmobile model, the compact Cutlass. The tragedy is that the 442 option was available on a V6 and 305 V8 model with a four-barrel carburetor. The max power was 160 HP for 1978 and 170 HP for 1979.

That was only about a third of what a true Oldsmobile 442 would generate back in the day. The other shocking fact is that the 442 option came in a hatchback body style, which was absurd. Fortunately, in the early ’80s, the 442 returned as a more serious performance machine. However, those 1978 to 1979 models were the lowest point in the history of this legendary muscle car.

  1. Pontiac Sunbird

The Sunbird was the typical hatchback-type GM compact of the ’70s and was almost identical to Buick Skylark or Chevrolet Monza. However, in the Pontiac version, the Sunbird had an interesting muscle model they called the Formula with an optional V8 under the hood.

Pontiac borrowed the name, “Formula,” from the Firebird lineup, which marked the model they equipped with a V8 engine. If you chose the Formula, you could get a 305 V8 engine with 165 HP and a hint of performance. Since the Sunbird was relatively light, you could call this Pontiac somewhat of a muscle car.

  1. Chevrolet Cobalt SS

Although Chevy discontinued it, the Cobalt SS will be remembered as one of the best, most powerful American compact cars. Available as a supercharged, turbocharged or naturally aspirated model, the best SS was the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder they introduced in 2008.

The engine delivered 260 HP, which was astonishing by the standards of the day and more than any of the competitors. Also, the Cobalt SS had big tuning potential, so it is easy to get even more power from this engine.

  1. Dodge Neon

By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, American manufacturers had nothing on imports in terms of compact cars, But then Chrysler introduced the Neon in 1995, almost single-handedly reintroducing domestic brands to the compact class. And soon, it became a bestseller.

The Neon was a compact front wheel drive model available in a two and four-door configuration. The power was not big, but it was sufficient since its purpose was primarily to be a commuter car. Under the hood was a 1.8 or 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Also, buyers had the option of three-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. The Dodge Neon even sold well in other countries.

  1. Mercury Capri 1991

Over the years, Mercury sold numerous models under the Capri name. First, it was just a trim level on a regular Mercury sedan and then it was a re-badged Ford Capri from Europe. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was the Mercury version of a Fox-bodied Mustang. However, in 1991, it was a new and separate model.

Mercury wanted a compact convertible/roadster, and this little car was exactly that. They assembled the 1991 to 1994 Mercury Capri in Australia on the Mazda 323 base and sold it in the U.S. The cool looking two-seater roadster had 1.6-liter engine and front wheel drive. Despite being a decent car in all aspects, it failed to gain significant popularity, so they withdrew it from the market in 1994.

  1. AMC Pacer

The Pacer is a car that drivers equally love and hate. However, it is legendary and widely recognizable. It was AMC’s effort to produce a compact car. But it turned out to be less compact than its competitors, and with numerous flaws. However, the design and the legend that revolves around its charm makes it one of the most quirky and iconic ’70s legends.

Emerging in the early ’70s, it was one of the symbols of America’s shifting to more compact and fuel-efficient cars. The Pacer is remembered for its crazy styling, six-cylinder engine and curved rear glass. Nobody will ever say it was a good-looking car, but everybody remembers this legendary American compact.

  1. Cadillac Cimarron

Today, almost all luxury brands have downsized its lineup of models, offering more affordable and compact versions of their big sedans. But, back in the early ’80s, this move was something unheard of and hard to understand. In those days, Cadillac was having an identity crisis. They sought a way to reinvent itself to fight their foreign competitors.

After long meetings with their product development managers, they decided to introduce a small Cadillac with a lower price to attract more customers. The problem was the Cadillac didn’t have a small platform. So, they turned to Chevrolet to borrow the modest Cavalier chassis, along with the small, slow four-cylinder engine.

Although Cadillac dressed the Cavalier with a unique trim, new colors and new name, the Cimarron, it wasn’t enough. The sales were poor, and Cadillac was under fire from brand loyalists for ruining their image. Still, most car fans remember the Cimarron today.

  1. Mercury Comet

Mercury has used the name, “Comet,” in their history a few times. First, it was Mercury’s version of the compact Ford Falcon. Next, it was on an intermediate model and finally, they produced the Comet based on the compact Ford Maverick. Mercury presented the Comet in 1971, originally selling it as a two-door semi-fastback on a smaller chassis shared with the Maverick, Pinto and later, the Mustang II.

The base engine was a 100 HP 170 straight six. But demanding customers could get a 302 V8, turning the compact Comet into a ’70s muscle car. Although practically the same as the Maverick, the Comet had a bit more options, a higher price and a more upscale appearance.

  1. Mercury Bobcat Wagon

Downsizing was the name of the game in the mid-70s, but Mercury went a step further to introduce a model they based on the ill-fated Ford Pinto. They called it the Bobcat, and presented it in 1974, selling it until 1980.

The car was practically the same as the Pinto. However, there was one interesting version Mercury named the Bobcat Wagon. It was a compact three-door station wagon with upscale features, better equipment and a woodgrain panel option. The Bobcat Wagon was a perfect little urban runabout with compact dimensions, but a lot of usable space.

So, did you find your favorite in this list of the 20 most interesting classic American compact cars ever made? With all the choices, it is hard to decide which one is the most interesting of all. Hopefully, the one you chose is easy to find and affordable, too.

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