The Year the American Auto Industry First Hit One Million in Inventory

The American auto industry hit the million mark in inventory for the first time in 1960. This story about the new record appeared in March of that year:

Although this article tries to paint a rosy picture, the country was on the precipice of a recession caused in part by industrial overexpansion to meet post-war demand. Another reason for the high inventories in the auto industry was the record output of compact cars which were surging in popularity. During the first week of March, it was reported that the six compact cars accounted for 25.1 percent of the total output for the week. In addition to the AMC Rambler and the Studebaker Lark, the Big Three were offering the Ford Falcon, the Mercury Comet, the Plymouth Valiant, and the Chevrolet Corvair. Chevrolet was outpacing everyone in terms of both production and sales.

Automobile inventories have been in the news regularly for the past few years, due mainly to the lack thereof. It was downright spooky to drive by the empty dealership lots, barren wastelands caused, at least in part, by production cuts during the pandemic and global microchip shortages. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently published this visual depiction of the fluctuation in domestic auto inventories since 1994.

Domestic Auto Inventories (AUINSA) | FRED | St. Louis Fed ( U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Domestic Auto Inventories [AUINSA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;, June 17, 2024.

As you can see from the chart, inventories have started to rebound from the depths plummeted to in February of 2022. Even so, those unpleasant sky-high prices do not appear to be coming down anytime soon.

For comparison purposes, you could buy a new Chevy Biscayne in 1960 for around $2,300. For a couple hundred dollars more, you could get yourself a new Bel Air two-door hardtop Sport Coupe.

That is roughly equivalent in purchasing power to $26,000 today. There are still some new car options under $30,000 in 2024, but none will give you the same thrill you would get from cruising around in that ’60 Sport Coupe. Let’s hope improving production numbers and rising inventories translate into lower prices and better access for today’s buyers, but even if inventories return to that million mark, buyers will never again have access to the fine and diverse automobiles available the first time it happened:

A Seldom-Seen Buick Light

Do you recognize this interesting and hard-to-find light we picked up the other day?

It is a reverse light for some 1958 Buick models, and it would have been found in the back bumper, directly under the tail light, as seen here on a Roadmaster 75:

Photo credit: Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My Dad always referred to 1958 Oldsmobiles as “Christmas trees” due to all of the chrome ornamentation, but the Buicks of the same year are similarly bedecked. Just check out this beautiful chromed-up Buick station wagon:

Photo credit: CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz — photo credit is required if this image is used anywhere other than Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ’58 Buicks had dual headlights and an incredibly unique grille:

Photo credit: Lars-Göran Lindgren Sweden, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was described as consisting of chrome squares, like jewels, set in four rows that extended all the way across the front to the outer extremities of the car, accentuating the lowness and breadth. Each chrome square was composed of four triangular surfaces designed to reflect maximum light. I have heard it called a “drawer pull” grille, but I see what Buick was going for; it does remind me of a diamond tennis bracelet.

Believe it or not, the Roadmaster wasn’t even the Buick with the most sparkle that year; that honor went to the extra-long and luxurious Limited which was adorned with 15 vertical louvers on each rear fender. The Limited was nearly 19 feet long and weighed around 4700 pounds.

All ’58 models, the Roadmaster and Limited (as well as the Century, Special, and Super) were powered by a 364ci V-8. All series except the Special had a Quadrajet carburetor. Powertrain options included the Flight Pitch Dynaflow, standard on both the Roadmaster 75 and the Limited. Marketing focused on flight (it was the rocket age after all) and used phrases like, “It looks and feels like flight on wheels,” and, “The air born B-58 Buick.”

If it seems like something is missing, despite all of the dazzling chrome trim, your mind may be registering the lack of ventiports. That feature, practically synonymous with the Buick, was absent in 1958 and 1959. Ventiports reappeared in 1960, this time with the Electra being the top-of-the-line model and sporting four on each side.

This 1960 Electra was graced with four ventiports to distinguish it from other models.

Fallout’s Kaiser Darrin

We finally got around to watching Fallout and enjoyed it much more than I thought we would. Having just finished watching the Justified series for about the seventh time, it is nice to have another opportunity to watch Walton Goggins finesse the fine art of scene stealing. The show has a unique, vintage aesthetic, and it was a wonderful surprise to see Goggin’s character “Cooper Howard” tooling around in a Kaiser Darrin during the flashback sequences. We published this post about the Darrin many years ago, but here it is again for those who missed it the first time:

This unusual front end belongs to a rare automobile, a 1954 Kaiser Darrin:

1954 Kaiser Darrin (Classic Car Collection, Kearney, Nebraska)

The brochure for this unique machine boasts that it was designed by “Darrin of Paris,” also known as Howard “Dutch” Darrin.  Darrin was an interesting character who flew combat missions over France as a member of the U.S. Air Service during World War I.  He designed luxury automobiles for movie stars like Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, and his gravestone in Santa Monica simply reads “AUTOMOTIVE ARCHITECT.”  A thoroughly interesting 3-part article about his life was written by Richard Langworth and can be read here.  Although Darrin had some successes designing automobiles, the Kaiser Darrin wasn’t one of them and only 435 were produced.

The Darrin was a product of the struggling Kaiser Motors Corporation, and it just beat the Corvette to be the first car with a fiberglass body.  It also featured sliding doors that retracted into the front fenders when opened as seen in this picture from the sales brochure:

The grille has been said to look like pursed lips, but I think it looks more like Tweety Bird.  Think about it.

Design preferences aside, the Darrin was not cheap.  It was priced at $3,668 (compared to $2,774 for a Corvette) and, although it cost more, its 90-hp engine was completely out-classed by the Vette’s 150 horses.

Another problem may have been the sales pitch for the Darrin.  This is an excerpt from an article dated February 13, 1954, that featured an interview with a model, Pat Matteson, who had been hired to demonstrate the Darrin at the International Sports Show in New York City:

Cars with plastic bodies are still a mystery to most motorists.  They want to know if the plastic will dent if people lean on it, whether snow will melt the plastic, whether hot water will make a hole in it, or whether insects will become permanently embedded in it.

“No. . .No. . .No. . .No,” says Pat.  “But a motorist can repair a fender dent in the same way he’d patch a tire.  And he can fix it so it doesn’t show.

“If a lady wants to change the color of the plastic body to match her hat, gloves or a new dress, she can do so by spraying on a new paint with a vacuum cleaner.  But it would take her three hours.”