25 March 2015

Enter Here: Five Entry-Level Cars from Five Decades

If Henry Ford were alive today, he might find the $14,000 Ford Fiesta a bit too luxurious for his tastes. What’s this – brakes on each wheel? Heat? Safety systems? Such extravagances! No, the old man liked to keep things simple in a car “for the great multitude.”

Since then, carmakers have wrestled with costs and competition to attract “entry-level” customers. Along the way they’ve produced a multitude of models, some of which stand out for design, innovation or just plain weirdness. Each of the five on this list offers a snapshot of American society.

Ford Model A, 1928

As Henry Ford’s long-held opposition to replacing the hopelessly archaic Model T drove more and more buyers to Chevrolet, his people – including his own son, Edsel – finally persuaded him to finally replace it with the far more modern Model A for 1928.

A safety glass windshield, four-wheel brakes and a water pump for the engine were among the new car’s numerous advances over the T. Conventional floor pedals and a shifter for the 3-speed manual transmission, along with up to nine body-style and many trim choices brought Ford into the modern car age. Prices starting under $500 helped sales reach nearly 5 million in the Model A’s four years of production. Its success certainly taught old Henry a lesson about low-priced cars: the 1932 replacement model debuted a V-8.

Crosley, 1939 and 1946

How more “entry level” could you get than a car marketed for $300 in an appliance store? Powell Crosley, Jr. figured shoppers might like to pick up a car while buying one of his refrigerators. His tiny automobile, introduced in 1939 with a 12-hp 2-cylinder engine, looked like a giant kiddie car.

The post-war version looked a bit more like a real car, but in two-thirds scale. It was just 12 feet long and weighed 1,200 pounds. There was innovation here, including the single overhead-cam four-cylinder engine built from sheetmetal rather than castings (though a conventional cast iron block came later). The 44 cubic-inch engine monster made a tire-ripping 26.5 horsepower.

The tiny-car concept was intriguing, but at $900 the Crosley was just $200 less than the cheapest Chevy. The Chevy, though, gave you 1,800 pounds more car. After just 75,000 were built through 1952, the Crosley disappeared. Americans liked tiny prices, but not tiny cars.

Henry J, 1951

Kaiser-Frazer was a new postwar marque in 1947, with a focus on big, well-appointed cars. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser then got the urge to go after the “basic transportation” market with a compact named for him, the Henry J. Just 175 inches long on a 100-inch wheelbase and with a choice of four-cylinder or six-cylinder Willys engines, the bulbous Henry J should have been the kind of car to head off the burgeoning Volkswagen Beetle invasion. Indeed, things looked bright the first year, with some 81,000 sold.

But sales plummeted to 23,000 the second year and 17,500 the third. The public found the Henry J was too small and too stark for its $1,300-$1,500 price. Early models didn't even have an opening trunk lid. The Henry J was also marketed as the Allstate by some Sears stores in 1952 and 1953, but sales were only in the hundreds. The Henry J disappeared after a brief run of cars tagged as 1954s.

(Plymouth) Valiant, 1960

Just as AMC’s nearly 10-year old Rambler crested 90,000 annual sales in 1959, the Big Three released their first compacts that fall: Chevy Corvair, Ford Falcon and Chrysler’s Valiant (which was sold by Plymouth but not branded as such until 1961). With nearly 200,000 sold, the 1960 Valiant was a hit with its $2,033 base price, unibody construction, roomy cabin seven-dip rustproofing, 12-volt electrics and new 101 hp 170-cu. in. “Slant Six” engine. A station wagon model offered a third-row seat.

Chrysler’s torsion-bar front suspension gave the Valiant solid handling, and there was even a performance upgrade, the Hyper Pack with 4-barrel carb and 148 hp. The V-200 upgrade trim was the biggest seller, accounting for three quarters of sales. A Dodge Lancer companion model arrived for 1962.

Perhaps most significant about the Valiant is that the basic platform continued until 1976 and underpinned a string of successful models, including the Dodge Dart and Demon and Plymouth Barracuda and Duster. The platform was robust enough to spawn several junior V8 muscle cars, too.

AMC Gremlin, 1970

Another decade brought another wave of American entry-level cars, and this time, AMC beat Ford and Chevy to market with a subcompact -- the utterly unique Gremlin. The Gremlin demonstrated the underdog company’s ability to slice and dice its platforms and parts to create something new. To make the Gremlin, AMC chopped a foot from the compact Hornet model’s 108-inch wheelbase and 20 inches form its length.

The Gremlin used the Hornet’s front structure, but the wedge-of-cheese rear design was unique. A base model had just two seats. Unique for the class was a standard six-cylinder engine, and in 1972, an optional 304 V8 made the Gremlin a 2,800-pound hotrod.

A sporty Gremlin X package was popular, and perhaps most interesting was the Levi’s package that debuted for 1973. Spun nylon upholstery stood in for cotton denim blue jeans fabric. A standard VW/Audi 4-cylinder engine arrived for 1977, but for 1979, a more conventional-looking restyle turned the Gremlin into the Spirit.

39 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Dan Parnas Danville, CA March 25, 2015 at 16:21
    Wow, never thought I'd see a 1960 Plymouth Valiant here. That is so awesome. That was one of my dad's cars that I'll never forget. The wheel imprint on the rear trunk. All the push buttons on the dash and the tail fins. And it was the ugliest green color, but we loved it. My brother drove it as his first car, but by the time I was old enough to drive it was gone. My dad moved on to an MGB GT with a sliding cloth top and wire wheels and that was where my love affair with European cars began. I wrote a blog about cars and paid tribute to my dad's cars there at http://dparnas.blog.com/passion-for-cars/
  • 2
    Richard Duoos Chelan Falls, WA March 25, 2015 at 16:22
    There is no such thing as a 1960 Plymouth Valiant. In 1960, Valiant was its own division. It was adopted by Plymouth in 1961.
  • 3
    brians356 Reno, NV March 25, 2015 at 16:24
    Heck, the Model T didn't even have a fuel pump. One had to back up long steep hills, lest the gravity feed system starve the engine.
  • 4
    J. Kraft somewhere March 25, 2015 at 16:36
    Forgot to mention the 1970 Ford Maverick for just $1995.00
  • 5
    Don Meluzio Pennsylvania March 25, 2015 at 17:07
    My first car was a 1962 Dodge Lancer, I painted it Daffodil Yellow. The first time I ran it at the Drags, the announcer said, "that Yellow Dodge just turned a 19.62, sounds more like a year than a time!" I got back to my Pit area and everyone was laughing their tails off! I loved that car.
  • 6
    Al Hatch Grand blanc, Mi. March 25, 2015 at 18:07
    It is nice to see an article that addresses 'entry level' cars. Most of the time the articles are about the top ten collector cars that all of us should collect. That list typically includes a couple of Ferrais, Mercedes 300 Gullwings, Duesenbergs, Bugatti, etc. Obviously very desirable but all have one thing in common that being built in very low numbers and with that serves a very low number of collectors. On the other hand, the'entrylevel' cars fuels the hobby and keeps it going.
  • 7
    Al Hatch Grand blanc, Mi. March 25, 2015 at 18:08
    It is nice to see an article that addresses 'entry level' cars. Most of the time the articles are about the top ten collector cars that all of us should collect. That list typically includes a couple of Ferrais, Mercedes 300 Gullwings, Duesenbergs, Bugatti, etc. Obviously very desirable but all have one thing in common that being built in very low numbers and with that serves a very low number of collectors. On the other hand, the'entrylevel' cars fuels the hobby and keeps it going.
  • 8
    David Zornig Skokie Illinois March 25, 2015 at 19:26
    One correction on the Valiant paragraph. The Dodge Lancer companion model was introduced in 1961, and was discontinued after the 1962 model year. Thus only ran two years. The Dodge Dart essentially replaced Lancer as it's compact model for `63. Valiant was also restyled for 1963. All 1960 model Valiant's were 4 doors including the wagons. 2 door models, both hardtop and post sedans, did not arrive until `61 when it became a Plymouth model.
  • 9
    MICHAEL KOHEL Westchester, N.Y. March 25, 2015 at 19:47
    My first regular driver was my parents 64' Valiant Signet, two door with bucket seats, 225 slant 6, push button tranny. Fun, sporty and could eat up small block V8 Mustangs. Plymouth had the right idea.
  • 10
    ronald hermann warminster pa. March 25, 2015 at 19:50
    I own a 64/1/2 mustang convertible I have owned since it was built . the tires are 50 years old it has 17000 miles on it. It was invited into the library of congress. This car has never been touched.It was in a heated garage for 50 years.
  • 11
    robert stout dennis, ma. March 25, 2015 at 20:03
    Gremlin - too short, too fat and with huge fixed glass in the rear compartment you could almost fry in the summertime !
  • 12
    Brad Asheville, NC March 25, 2015 at 20:22
    Hands-down, Mercedes-Benz w108 chassis vehicles! I own a 1968 250s that is a pristine, overengineered piece of art, and they can be bought for a song....head-turner extraordinaire and a real pleasure to drive and enjoy!
  • 13
    Gurdon Hornor Belle Mead, NJ March 25, 2015 at 20:46
    None of the recommendations particularly stir my soul, design wise nor in terms of driving pleasure. I would heartily recommend a Corvair for an entry level enthusiast. Not only are they affordable, but one can purchase one in fair to good condition for $6-8,000 and in excellent condition for a few thousand more. Easy to work on and the 2nd generation from 65-69 is quite pleasing to the eye.
  • 14
    Lyn NC March 25, 2015 at 21:07
    You couldn't have picked 5 uglier cars if you tried....well, you could have added the AMC PACER to the "top" list.
  • 15
    Christian Texas March 25, 2015 at 21:09
    Interesting take on some affordable cars...
  • 16
    Shilo Florida March 25, 2015 at 22:14
    Some cool ones here. But oh uh I just don't like the 1960 Valiant. My uncle had one and I was but a 6 year old child but already was very aware of cars. I refused to ride with my uncle in the Valiant for any reason. Nothing could change my mind it was just too funny looking for me. My family drove mainstream Buicks and Chevys that Valiant looked like a pig to me and to be honest still does It is my leas favorite car ever.
  • 17
    George Pa March 25, 2015 at 22:20
    Dodger Lancer came out in 61 and lasted 2 years till the Dart became an A body
  • 18
    Amy Atlanta March 26, 2015 at 13:34
    I miss my '73 Gremlin!!!! Best car I ever had, until those oversize doors pulled loose from the hinges :) Loved the Levi's!
  • 19
    bill boston March 26, 2015 at 16:28
    This is a boring list. How about entry level sports cars like the MG TD, Austin Healey Sprite and MG Midget? Entry level sports sedans like the BMW 1600 Ford Cortina or Datsun 510? And where are the entry level Chevys? How many Novas did Chevy sell?
  • 20
    ROY RICHIE jefferson texas March 26, 2015 at 16:55
    the title on my 66 reads 1966 plymouth valiant baracuda
  • 21
    Jerry & Tudie. Atlanta March 26, 2015 at 20:17
    Bought Glacier blue 1961 Dodge Lancer in Nov.'60 as first car. 770 trim, push button auto,white walls all for $2278 drive out. Rust,rust,rust. Replaced with '64 T-Bird which we have recently restored!
  • 22
    Vincent Fama United States March 26, 2015 at 08:32
    i bought a 1970 gremlin in the late 70's from a girlfriends cheap father who refused to replace the alternator, then $85. he made his wife charge it every morning. i paid $50 for the car who's fenders were so rotten, my cousin fashioned sheetmetal & pop riveted it so that the spray from rain wouldn't overwhelm the vacuum operated windshield wipers. i drove the car for over 3 years, & besides the alternator, did almost no maintenance besides oil changes , & occasional tune ups. the hatch was permanently broken, yet i drove into NYC nearly every weekend, parking in all sorts of neighborhoods, yet the car remained unmolested.in 1980 i moved to los angeles w/ a canvas roof carrier & things popping out of the hatch like the beverly hillbillies. i finally succumed to california car culture & sold the car for $250 a decision i regret to this day. i still have dreams about it, & occasionally look to replace it, but no dice. all the 70's & 71's seemed to have faded away. love letter to rambler, indeed
  • 23
    RSekel Atlanta March 26, 2015 at 08:49
    Sporty Gremlin Package...didn't really do much for the car. But Retro it is!
  • 24
    Ray Hull Albany, NY March 26, 2015 at 09:00
    That pictured Valiant is "loaded" to wit: Chrome wheel rings, front fender chrome darts on top, chrome vertical bumper guards...that's all I can pick out. It's been about 50 years since I thought about them as the son of C-P dealer. Two recollections: My father grousing about these compact cars which packed only a 15% (!!!) margin. And I had a silver V100 with 3 on the floor (very European) that I took to college and wailed on it. Compared to Ford or GM, they handled very well and were indestructible.
  • 25
    Louis Gelbert United States March 26, 2015 at 21:25
    What was unique with the 1960 Valiant was not its "12 volt electrics." By that time, all American cars had that. Instead, it was the alternator, which was soon copied by the rest of the industry. The Dodge Lancer appeared first as a 1961 model, not 1962, as mentioned in the article.
  • 26
    Bob Austin United States March 26, 2015 at 21:42
    what does it mean when you have really wanted every one of these cars at some point during your automotive history? While my real passion is for V-8 powered sports cars.....show me a Crosley and I just have to see if it's for sale! A clean slant-6 Valiant? I would love one....but just try finding one. Great fun cars that most people have just plain never heard of. Nice piece of writing Jim.
  • 27
    paul wakaruk barrie ont March 26, 2015 at 10:49
    I have a 1978 mustang 2 I have not seen another one a round.If someone has one i would like to know.
  • 28
    Art Wegweiser Allison Park, PA March 26, 2015 at 12:02
    Hudson Jet? Willys Aero (especially the Eagle)?
  • 29
    Art Wegweiser allison park, pa March 26, 2015 at 12:18
  • 30
    Car Collector Chronicles http:\\www.scribd.com/D_Yaros March 26, 2015 at 12:26
    As for the Valiant, evidently "seven-dip rustproofing" turned out to be one dip short as rust was a chronic problem for these rides. A 1973 Gremlin was the very first "brand, spanking new" car I was ever able to buy. I was surprised, and probably should not have been, at all the parts and components from other auto manufacturers that went into the making of a Gremlin. Those very same parts could/ would change depending on what was available as the car rolled down the factory assembly line!
  • 31
    Steve Tulsa March 26, 2015 at 12:31
    My first street car, a hand-me-down from my folks: 1961 Plymouth Valiant, fire-engine red, featured a "slant-6" engine and one of the first modern-day autos with a return-to-floor three-speed stick...
  • 32
    Tom Nashville, TN March 26, 2015 at 12:41
    Nice story but one small correction. The very good looking Dodge Lancer debuted in 1961, not 1962.
  • 33
    Damon New York March 27, 2015 at 10:07
    Actually several issues here. Number one the Lancer came out in 1961 not 62 as stated in the article and for some reason it is never mentioned that you could get a Valiant with a small Perkins Diesel. Number two Robert S. it was the Pacer not the Gremlin with the large back glass. Kinda like a rolling terrarium.Number three wonder why they used a picture of a Valiant with a dented door and what appears to be rust on the lower door and rocker? There are better examples around. Number four of course is the fact that many people feel slighted that there favorite entry level car is not on this list. Don't feel bad they only listed five get over it.
  • 34
    George Pa March 27, 2015 at 12:26
    Dodger Lancer came out in 61 and lasted 2 years till the Dart became an A body
  • 35
    Fred Hubler Bethel PA March 28, 2015 at 17:24
    I got my first A last Spring & it certainly is a great "entry level" collector car! Almost every piece of it is available in good quality & at a reasonable price and the average hobbyist can work on it with the average hand tools. It is a truly wonderful collector car experience-unless you in a hurry! But, every now & then I have the satisfaction of passing an Amish buggy!
  • 36
    dave orgovan arizona March 28, 2015 at 17:38
    the henry-j.as a kid,of 13 in the early 70s.I found myself tangled under a chain link fence ,at the bottom of a snow covered hill ,in Klamath falls oregon .my house was up the hill and were I crashed my sled was at a gas station at the bottom of the hill .ripped and torn jacket and blood,the station attendant cut the wire and freed me.not long after ,I was allways hanging around the gas station,sweeping their lot,and stuff just to hang-out.I was deeply into cars ,building models ,and drawing cars.one day while hanging -out ,a car came pulling in to the pumps.the rumble ,was so intence I could feel the vibrations ,on the walls out side the station.Holley ,"crap" its a hot rod,henry-j .I knew enouph to recognize most cars of the time.any way the station attendant and the driver I could tell had a few words,the next thing I knew was the "rod" was pouring smoke out and down the road ,as far as I could see, and the rubber dinger was still flapping around the pumps.Ive seen only two in person since that day . and would love to see that one again."in my garage"
  • 37
    Steve Iowa March 30, 2015 at 13:35
    In 1970 I turned 16 and got my first car. It was a 61 Valiant, 4 door, 318 auto. It was ULGY GREEN with a painted white top. It wasn't much to look at but if I pushed the 1 button for first gear only, it would chirp the tires every time I mashed it, backed off, mashed it, backed off....................then I broke the right rear leaf.
  • 38
    brian pawlak howell.mi April 4, 2015 at 12:03
    Amc models had bad transmissions, Valiant had good slant 6, Henry J built too cheaply, Model A Ford worth every penny. All had corrosion issues, todays cars are the best ever. I have sold all these cars, I know.
  • 39
    George Victor, NY April 5, 2015 at 15:00
    I bought a 1974 Gremlin X used in 1976 and it was a clean basic car with a few trim level details that made it stand out. However with 60% of the weight over the front wheels it was horrible in upstate New York winters, frequently landing me in a ditch, and rusted out within four years.

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