Analyzing the last 60 years of automotive trends, some very interesting data can be found among the specific and ever-changing car models Americans chose to buy the most of each year since 1949.
(See slide show at end of article for pictures and advertisements of the best selling cars)
AVERAGE SELLING PRICE OF THE NUMBER ONE SELLING CAR (IN TODAY’S DOLLARS, ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION)
The typical out-the-door price of the best-selling car in 1949 was $14,000*. As America settled into prosperity the following decade, cars became better equipped and more costly as a whole, averaging between $18,000* to $19,000* from the late ’50s through 1978.
The 1979-83 Olds Cutlass Supreme best-seller dropped the average to between $15,000* and $16,000* and economy cars in the ’80s fluctuated around $12,000* to $13,000*. With the Ford Taurus ascending to number one in 1989, prices jumped to $23,000* and have remained steady there since. (* = adjusted for inflation)
THE BEST-SELLERS THEMSELVES
- With the exception of three years (1957, 1970, and 1976), the full-size Chevrolet Bel Air / Impala / Caprice had a four decade span in the number one position from 1949 through 1978. Ford borrowed the title in 1957 with their comparatively sized Fairlaine model, beating Chevrolet by 28,000 units. However, that was only a 2% victory when considering the larger volume each of them commanded at the time. A two-month United Auto Workers strike against General Motors in 1970 cost Chevrolet over 250,000 Impala sales and the number one title that year.
- In 1976, the mid-size Oldsmobile Cutlass overtook the full-size Impala/Caprice due to growing sales to single baby-boomers in their late twenties. Full-size Chevrolets recaptured the title the next two years after a downsizing redesign for ’77 made them into trimmer, more sensible family cars.
- Fast-forward three years, and a downsized Olds Cutlass put that nameplate back on top again for 1979, ’80, ’81, and ’83 – edged out in 1982 by the newly introduced Ford Escort compact. Recession and skyrocketing fuel prices had caused an increase in demand for smaller, more economical cars. Even though Honda, Toyota, Datsun, and Volkswagen had been building a fan base with multiple small car offerings in the ’70s, Ford’s offering of only one subcompact resulted in a high enough number of sales of it to achieve the number one position. GM sold more total small car units than the Ford Escort that year – however because those sales were spread over nine different models, none of them individually could top the Escort.
- 1984 and 1985 were dominated by the Chevrolet Cavalier, one of GM’s most direct competitors to the Ford Escort. The mid-size Chevrolet Celebrity captured the flag in 1986, and the Ford Escort (still basically unchanged from its 1981 design) regained the number one sport for 1987 and ’88. With the exception of 1991 when the Honda Accord won the sales race, Ford’s own Taurus was the best seller from 1989 through 1996.
- From 1997 through 2011, the Toyota Camry has been the number-one seller every year, except 2001 when it was beaten by the Honda Accord.
NUMBER OF UNITS SOLD BY NUMBER ONE BEST-SELLERS IN THE U.S.
Things used to be much easier for General Motors and Ford. Fewer models of cars from fewer carmakers overall left buyers with fewer choices, and with virtually no foreign competition best-sellers typically sold in excess of 1.8 million units in the 1950s. Even as the total number of all cars sold in the U.S. had steadily increased, market share of each has decreased steadily since peaking in the 1950s. The 1971 Impala was the last number-one to reach over 1 million sales, and by 1980 the number was half that. From 1985 on, best-sellers have remained constant at around the 400,000 units mark.
AVERAGE WEIGHT OF THE NUMBER ONE SELLING CAR IN THE U.S.
Average weight of the number one car in 1949 (Chevrolet) was 3,100 pounds, growing to 3,600 by 1959 (Chevrolet) and to 3,750 by 1969 (Chevrolet). As the best-selling Impala reached its longest and widest point after a 1971 redesign, average weight peaked at 4,250 pounds through 1975. Being one size smaller, both the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme of 1976 and the downsized Impalas of 1977-78 tipped the scales at around 3,750 pounds. With exception of the Ford Escort, Chevy Cavalier and Celebrity (all at or below 2,500 pounds), average weight of best-selling cars since 1979 has been a steady 3,200 pounds.
SIZE AND HORSEPOWER OF ENGINES MOST OFTEN EQUIPPED IN NUMBER-ONE SELLING CARS IN THE U.S.
The most popular engine actually fitted into the majority of number-one sellers rose steadily from 3.6 liters to 5.0 liters in 1970. It reached its largest point from 1971-75 at 5.7 liters, when all full-size Chevrolets featured a 350-cubic-inch (5.7 liter) V8 standard. And while larger engines were offered optionally, the majority of 1976, 1979 and 1980 Olds Cutlass Supremes rolled out of the factory equipped with smaller 4.3-liter V8s. Downsized 1977-78 Chevrolet Impalas / Caprices most often had 5.0-liter V8s. From the early 1980s until today, most popular engine choices have been four-cylinders averaging 2.5-liters in size (with 3.8-liter V6s reigning supreme in the years the Ford Taurus was on top).
Horsepower (calculated by post-1971 measuring standards) crept steadily upward from 1949, doubling by its peak in the early 1970s of about 200 and dropping to 150 for the late ’70s. During the 1980s, horsepower averaged a weaker 100 horsepower until the 1989 Taurus brought the number back to the 150 mark, where it’s remained since.
For more info: see Motor Trend, March 2010 issue.