Home Cars Diamonds In The Rough: The Most Underrated Cars Of The 1960s

Diamonds In The Rough: The Most Underrated Cars Of The 1960s

Vukasin Herbez February 22, 2023

In the classic car world, numerous cars are landmark models that lots of auto fans covet. Cars like classic Ferraris, luxury Mercedes, and sporty Porsches are all over social media as they achieve high prices on the marketplace. However, what about the forgotten, underrated cars from that era that can provide you with the same levels of performance for far less money?

So today we’re going to look at a selection of classic 1960s cars that flew under the radar of many enthusiasts. These cars may not be as well-known as the true classics from this Golden Era of cars, but they have enough power and features to warrant a look for any car collector. Find out which models made the grade right here.

Photo Credit: GM

Pontiac Tempest

In the early ’60s, all major US carmakers introduced compact models. Chevrolet had the Corvair, Ford had the Falcon, and Pontiac presented the Tempest. The new Tempest had independent suspension at a time when all cars used live rear axles. Then 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 and Tempest used a rear-mounted gearbox, the 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. In the ’60s, Pontiac was the only production model with this solution (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: GM

The Tempest didn’t have a conventional drive shaft connecting the engine in the front with the transmission in the back. Instead, it used a torque tube with a cable inside. This layout gave the Tempest perfect handling and enough room for six passengers since there wasn’t any transmission tunnel in the cabin. Compared to the rest of the compact car field, the 1962 and 1963 Pontiac Tempest was from another planet. During its lifespan, Pontiac sold over 200,000, making this model a solid success. But in 1964, the company introduced the bigger and much 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 remembered by diehard Pontiac fans. The Tempest is rare at car shows and the parts are scarce.

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1969 AMC Ambassador

AMC was always an economy car manufacturer which produced inexpensive but dull models and constantly flirted with bankruptcy. In the late ’60s, AMC was in one of their better periods with solid sales, a relatively significant market share in the economy class, and even some interesting and exciting cars like the Javelin or AMX. However, they also entered a full-size sedan market with the new 1969 Ambassador (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

The new AMC Ambassador was one of the better attempts to attract the customers’ attention in 1969. New and improved styling, comfort space, and a standard air conditioning system were new and pretty impressive features for the day’s standards. The engine lineup started with a modest 283 straight-six unit and went all the way up to a powerful 401 V8.

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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 sat opposite the company’s other vehicles and featured different concepts and design. The American car industry was intrigued when Chevrolet presented the Corvair. It was a compact car in a time when compact cars were rare on U.S. soil and produced mainly by foreign brands. It had the engine in the back rather than in the front as all other domestic vehicles had. The Corvair was also a six-cylinder boxer, not a straight six or V8 as everybody expected. All in all, it was a bold and unusual move by conservative Chevrolet (via Corvair).

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However, the most exciting model was the Corvair Monza, a two-door coupe or convertible, which was a performance car in the Corvair lineup. It featured one of the most unusual power plants Detroit has ever produced – a turbocharged boxer engine. Think of it as Chevrolet’s four-seat Porsche 911 Turbo 15 years before Porsche even thought of the idea. The heart of the car was the 2.4-liter, flat-six engine with the turbocharger mounted. The result was 150 HP, and despite the fact it isn’t a big number, the small weight of the Corvair Monza helped produce some lively performance. Well, at least for standards of the compact car class.

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1966 Pontiac Bonneville

The GTO’s success affected the Pontiac range, and all of a sudden, all Pontiacs became sportier, more powerful, and more aggressive. Even the four-door sedans become performance machines, and the biggest and most luxurious Bonneville is the best example (via Concept Carz).

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The Bonneville got a new design in 1965 but in 1966 design matured and evolved into a very elegant, low, and sleek form which was perfect for this performance sedan. Bonneville came as a hard top with Pontiac’s signature wide-track design, split grille, and nine-bolt wheels. The customers could get a lot of optional equipment and powerful engines. The 389 V8 with 325 HP was standard, but you could also get a mighty 421 V8 with the famed Tri-Power option, which delivered 360 HP.

Photo Credit: Renault

Renault Floride/Caravelle

You might see other cars from our list in the traffic, and all of them are pretty standard street décor in America. But you will have to dig deep to find Renault Caravelle on your daily commute and not in car shows or museums. It was pretty popular, and Renault managed to sell 117,000 of them. Based on the mechanics of Renault’s economy 4CV model, the Floride/Caravelle was a cool-looking roadster with a rear-mounted four-cylinder engine and a 2+2 seating configuration (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: Renault

Renault intended to call the car Floride for sale in the USA but decided to call the model Caravelle for U.S. buyers and Floride for the rest of the world. Interestingly, most of the production did end up here, although the British roadster invasions of the ’60s made Renault look outdated and slow. Despite looking elegant, the Caravelle was pretty slow since the biggest engine was a 1.1-liter four-cylinder with 55 HP. You can find them for around $10,000, which is affordable for such a rare model.

Photo Credit: Ford

Ford Falcon

Seeing compact cars had an increasingly significant market share made Ford rethink its stance on small vehicles. So the Falcon was introduced in 1960. In those days, Ford was very nervous about presenting the new model in the new class since the Edsel debacle was very painful for the company’s accountants. However, with solid backing from Ford’s top managers, the Falcon project was approved. The immediate success proved that Ford hit a home run with a compact yet roomy Falcon. The car was nothing unique or innovative in terms of design or technology. It had unibody construction, leaf spring suspension in the back, drum brakes, and a standard three-speed manual transmission (via Classic Industries).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The secret of the Falcon’s 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 power plant with six cylinders and 260 V8. Also, the Falcon was available in several body styles, including the convertible, sedan delivery, and three or 5-door station wagon, which broadened its appeal. In 1964, the Falcon received its first redesign. And in the same year, the Mustang was introduced, which was based totally on Falcon’s underpinnings. The automotive press called the Mustang “The 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.

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Plymouth Valiant

One of the best and most interesting classic American compact cars was the legendary Plymouth Valiant. The car debuted in 1960, but its development started in early 1957. It arrived after Chrysler realized it needed a small model to compete with the VW Beetle or American Motor Rambler. The company decided to invest a lot of time and money into a new project. And the result was interesting in every way. With striking styling, smaller dimensions and engines, and a low price, Chrysler deliberately presented the car in Europe, hoping to sell a lot of cars there (via Valiant).

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The Valiant was styled after many Chrysler concept cars from the late ’50s. It looked much more expensive and upscale compared to the rest of the compact car market in those days. The vehicle had a unibody construction and standard suspension. Under the hood was the Slant Six engine, which was new in 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 characteristic became one of Valiant’s most significant selling points. It had decent performance and good fuel economy, even by today’s standards. The Valiant nameplate stayed in production until the late ’70s.

Photo Credit: Hemmings

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 G.M., Mopar, or Ford, but a sole player on the automotive scene. For decades, Studebaker was a popular economy car choice. Still, after World War II, things started to change, the popularity of the company began to fade, and eventually, “Stude” was forced to close its doors in 1966 (via How Stuff Works).

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But before that, the company produced two exciting models. One was the Avanti, a futuristic-looking coupe with big ambitions, and the other was the Lark. It was a compact economy model with a wide range of body styles and engines. Today, the Lark is forgotten as a model. But not only was it one of the first compact cars from a domestic car company, but it was also one of the most successful cars for a while. The Lark was built from 1959 to 1966 in three generations. Most of the cars featured straight six engines, but a V8 was also available.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Sunbeam Alpine/Tiger

Classic roadsters are always lovely cars to have since you can enjoy open-air driving and the analog feel of a vintage car. That’s why most classic roadsters are pretty expensive and prices aren’t going down. One of the most exciting but forgotten models is Sunbeam Alpine, an English two-seater convertible from 1959 to 1968. Sunbeam is a classic English brand, long gone from the market and remembered by only a handful of enthusiasts. But the Alpine is a very nice looking car with reliable and conventional mechanicals and a small 1.5 or 1.7-liter four-cylinder (via Supercars).

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Over the years, Sunbeam built over 60,000 Alpine roadsters, so finding one should be easy. For under $20,000, you can find a nice example of this exciting car. However, if you’re looking for a more serious machine, look for the Sunbeam Tiger. This model seems identical to the Alpine but packs a 260 or 289 Ford V8 engine under the hood giving it much better performance and soundtrack. The legendary Carroll Shelby designed this model before he worked for Ford. The Tiger is significantly more expensive and rarer (7000 left the factory), but its history and performance are worth the investment.

Photo Credit: FoMoCo

1963 Mercury Monterey Breezeway

Even though Mercury is now discontinued and gone, for decades, it was Ford’s affordable luxury division, placed between inexpensive Ford products and high-class Lincolns. During the ’60s, this brand offered much class and style for reasonable prices. It was a formidable opponent to Oldsmobile, Buick, and Chrysler (via We Love Mercury Past, Present, And Future).

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Learning from the Continental, Mercury offered something new to the customers hoping to raise sales numbers. In 1963, it introduced an innovative and very interesting Breezeway option on its top model. This was a reverse C pillar design with a concave profile of the car and tilted rear glass, which was retractable. It was an innovative solution that resulted in more space in the interior and cool looking design. However, it proved impractical since the passengers could smell the exhaust fumes at low speeds. Mercury kept the Breezeway option for selected models until the 1968 model year after it was retired. Despite not being so popular or influential, the Breezeway still is one of the coolest U.S. sedans of the ’60s.

Photo Credit: Petrolicious

Lancia Fulvia

Today, Lancia is a forgotten company. They are still active but offer nothing interesting in their lineup besides selling rebadged Chryslers. But, back in the ’60s, Lancia was an independent luxury manufacturer with highly respected cars with unique designs and technical solutions. So, when the company presented the Fulvia Coupe in 1965, the car world noticed (via FCA Heritage).

Photo Credit: Lancia

The Fulvia Coupe was a little 2+2 two-door car with a narrow-angle V4 in the front powering the front wheels. This unique layout handled fantastically, and with the small weight, it presented an awesome performance. Despite having only 85 to 115 HP, the Lancia Fulvia Coupe was a rally champion. It was also an extremely rewarding car to drive fast on winding roads. You can still find decent Fulvia Coupes starting at around $20,000. They imported the Fulvia Coupe to the U.S. when it was new so you can find dozens for sale now.

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Studebaker Avanti

Once very successful and popular, Studebaker is now a long-forgotten American brand. Studebaker closed its doors in 1966 after suffering poor sales for over a decade and losing ground to Detroit’s Big Three. However, just before this legendary brand left the market, it produced one very interesting and sought-after luxury model with muscle car credentials – the Studebaker Avanti R2 (via Motor Trend).

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In the early ’60s, Studebaker management decided to invest in a luxury coupe to fight poor sales. They thought that a new and fancy upscale model would attract customers and turn the attention of the automotive public back to Studebaker. So in 1962, a very sleek and modern-looking Avanti was introduced. The innovative design, construction, and technology were very interesting, and the car received praise from the motoring press. The base version could have been more powerful, but soon Studebaker introduced a supercharged R2 option that delivered 289 HP. Unfortunately, the Avanti didn’t pull Studebaker out of financial troubles, but it remained one of the most iconic American cars from the ’60s and a true modern classic.

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Renault R4

By the early ’60s, the French and European markets had recovered from World War II. The average customer needed a bigger and somewhat more capable machine than Citroen 2CV. Renault realized buyers loved the utilitarian character of the 2CV. But wanted more space and power. After a string of successful but pretty ordinary economy cars, Renault decided to introduce a more modern, bigger, and practical model with an unusual station wagon-like body in the form of Renault 4, presented in 1961 (via ML Free).

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Immediately, the car was a success and buyers loved it since it was more capable and modern than Citroen 2CV and since it also offered more space and practicality. The power was diminutive with a base 700 ccm four-cylinder engine (45 CID), which powered the front wheels. Eventually, the power grew to 1.1-liter (67 CID), but its performance was weak. Renault 4 was a globally successful car, being sold and assembled all over the world. Production ended in 1994 after 33 years and over 8 million examples.

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1968 Oldsmobile 98

Lots of people forget how good and respected the Oldsmobile models were. This company which is now unfortunately long gone was one of General Motors’ most valuable brands in the ’60s. Oldsmobile models were always a conservative luxury, but at a reasonable price with powerful engines. So, it’s natural that Oldsmobile had many good sedans, and the 98 was the top of the range (via Classic Auto Mall).

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Oldsmobile 98 was always the best Olds available which had the power, style, and luxury to rival even the Cadillacs. The 1968 Oldsmobile 98 was arguably the best year since it featured a new design, numerous creature comforts, and an enormous 455 Rocket engine. The power output of this big block was 365 HP which guaranteed excellent performance.

Photo Credit: Jeep

Jeep Gladiator

A direct descendant of the legendary Willys Jeep Pickup, the Gladiator was introduced in 1963. With fresh new styling and great new features. The most important was the independent front suspension, the same as on the Chevrolet C/K. Jeep wasn’t the first with this, but the first four-wheel drive truck featured that kind of front suspension (via Motor Biscuit).

Photo Credit: Mecum

It was easy to mount a double wishbone suspension or A-arms with coil springs to a truck’s front end, which Chevy did in 1960. It was hard to do the same with the front axle going through suspension components and powering the front wheels. As an all-wheel drive and off-road authority, Jeep made it work. The company presented the first truck with an independent front and 4×4 drivetrain, which was quite an achievement. The Gladiator immediately became the best off-road truck on the market, and even the U.S. Army used unique versions for various duties. Combined with powerful six-cylinder and V8 engines, the Gladiator was one of the era’s best and most versatile trucks.

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