On September 2, 1959, at a news conference broadcast to viewers in 21 cities on closed-circuit television, Henry Ford II introduces his company’s newest car–the 90-horsepower, 30 miles-per-gallon Falcon. The Falcon, dubbed “the small car with the big car feel,” was an overnight success. It went on sale that October 8 and by October 9, dealers had snapped up every one of the 97,000 cars in the first production run.
In 1959, each one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers began to sell a smaller, zippier, lower-priced car: Ford had the Falcon, while General Motors had the Corvair and Chevrolet had the Valiant. After years of building huge, gas-guzzling, lavishly be-finned cars, American companies entered the small-car market because European carmakers like Volkswagen, Fiat, and Renault were selling their little cars to American buyers by the thousands. (Foreign-car sales in the United States had jumped 1,060 percent since 1954 and accounted for about 10 percent of the nation’s new-car sales.) Executives in Detroit hoped that cars like the Falcon would “drive the imports back to their shores.”
Mostly, people liked these smaller cars because they were inexpensive. The Falcon cost about $1,900 (about $14,029 in today’s dollars)–still much more expensive than even the priciest of the European imports (the Triumph and the Simca sold for about $1,600, while a Fiat, the cheapest car you could buy, cost about $1,000), but more affordable than any other American car. In addition, more fuel-efficient cars like the Falcon also saved their drivers money on gas.
Many people believed that the introduction of American compact cars would permanently transform the automobile industry. The “desire of American car buyers for sensible automobiles,” one industry executive told a reporter, would soon make big, inefficient cars obsolete. Unfortunately, though the Falcon was an immediate sensation–Ford sold more than a million of them in the car’s first two years on the market, and its design went on to inspire the iconic Ford Mustang–this did not prove to be the case. Today, small cars account for less than 20 percent of new-car sales.