For reasons I’ve never been able to explain to those who might ask, I have a deep interest in automotive sales numbers. When I discovered by accident a copy of the weekly automotive trade journal Automotive News in the MSU library back in my days as an undergrad, I was hooked. That first issue had monthly auto sales tallies, year to date tallies and more. To this day the publication each week is full of graphs showing sales figures of all the autos being sold in the U.S., and there are countless articles written about all the brands, commenting on either their success or failure in the marketplace. I’ve read those pages each week since the 1960s.
Occasionally I get asked how well a particular vehicles is selling. Usually the question is posed by an acquaintance who is looking to buy a new car or truck or they’ve read an article about a vehicle and wonder how well its doing in the marketplace. I usually come up with a sales figure that is fairly accurate.
I’m thinking readers might be interested in a few of the cars that were the best-selling of all time. It’s a fascinating subject for me and and I want to share some statistics with you. For this article I have to confess that I did not do all the research in finding the sales figures of the best selling cars. I give credit to the editors of Hemmings Classic Car magazine, who back many years ago wrote a column about “Brand Champions.” I enjoyed reading the column when it first came out and recently I read it again and wanted to share their findings.
Just by following the news of the last few years, we know that GM’s Buick division has hit on tough times here in the U.S. I say here in the U.S. because the near-luxury brand is a huge success for GM in China. For reasons I outlined in a column some time back, the Chinese have a fondness for the Buick brand that has existed since the 1920s. Nowadays Buick struggles to reach sales of 200,000 in North America, yet in China they sell over a million cars, vans and crossovers. The present Buick Envision was designed and is imported from China. So what has been the most popular Buick ever? It was the 1955 Buick Special. Sales reached a record of 738,814 for Buick overall, and 381,946 for the lowest-priced Special nameplate. My uncle lived across the road from my family and he owned a 1955 Buick. I loved seeing the Special 4-door sedan in his driveway the three years he owned it until he bought a finned 1959 model.
It just so happens that Rambler’s most popular model happened to be my first car – a 1960 Rambler Six. I bought it as a senior at MSU so I could have wheels when I student taught in the winter of 1965. American Motors Corp. was on a roll in the late 1950s and early ’60s and the pretty, dependable 1960 Rambler Six, available as a four-door sedan and wagon in three trim levels, sold 297,368 units.
My first new car was a 1966 Chevy Corvair (the Rambler was the trade-in vehicle.) My Monza definitely was not the best-selling Chevy by a long shot but its divisional cousin, the Impala, had just made history the year before in 1965 when the Bow Tie brand sold an amazing 1,046,514 Impalas. Only Ford’s Model T sold more cars in a single year. I recall with pleasure being able to depart the church after my marriage in 1966 in my best man’s 1965 Impala convertible in Evening Orchid with a white top. The Impala was all-new in 1965 and its handsome sedans, hardtops, wagons and convertibles looked just right and sold like hotcakes.
Most readers, when I mention the Dodge Dart, will recall either the recently departed compact 4-door sedan introduced in 2013 or maybe the compact Darts sold from 1963 to 1976. The best-selling Dodge Dart was neither of those cars. It was the first full-size Dodge Dart introduced for the 1960 model year and was the sister offering priced similarly to corporate sibling Plymouth. Plymouth’s styling was rather kooky looking and sales crashed, but Dart looked mainstream and attractive. As a result, Dodge dealers sold an amazing 306,603 units in its first year. Those round double tail lights topped by a modest fin looked just right.
Ford Motor’s Mercury was around for 73 years. It’s best sales year may surprise you. Remember the post-war Mercury that was a favorite of hotrodders (lead sleds, anyone?). Even though it was in its final year of a three-year styling cycle, the 1951 model was Mercury’s most popular in its history. Offered in one model but in five body styles, the low and wide-looking cruiser sold 310,385 sedans, coupes, convertibles and wagons.
Another automaker had a record model just after World War II, and it was South Bend’s Studebaker Corporation. One of the first automakers to introduce an all-new car after the war, the stylish Champion series hit its peak in 1950. With an snazzy new bullet nose grille, innovative independent front suspension and a Studebaker-built automatic transmission, the car rode the post war seller’s market to a record level of 270,604 units sold. It was a record the company would never seriously challenge again.
I’ve run out of room for commenting on all the cars with records. But I’ll whet your appetite by listing a few more models/brands and include the number sold: 1972 Cadillac/194,811 DeVilles; 1968 Chrysler/182,099 Newports; 1941 DeSoto Six/99,999; 1928 Super Six Essex/229,887; 1923 Ford Model T/2,092,789; 1947 Frazer Standard/36,120; 1929 Hudson Super Six/109,840; 1964 Imperial Crown/20,336; 1948 Kaiser Special Six/90,588; 1972 Lincoln Mark IV/48,591; 1951 Packard Model 200/71,362; 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook/586,547 and 1953 Pontiac Chieftain Eight/379,705.
I was surprised by some of the best sellers. It certainly can be said that a number of the automakers were doing well in the immediate post-war years. With the proliferation of models today it is doubtful, with the exception of full-size U.S. pick-up models, that any automaker can beat either the Ford Model T or Chevy Impala records.