For the automotive industry, the 60s were a very dynamic period. The entire world economy was booming. Aerodynamics as a science was coming of age. Electronic engine controls were a new thing. The thirst for pure speed and performance was greater than ever. Most importantly, the sixties were a time where anything was possible. New ideas, no matter how radical, were welcome. As often happens though, it wasn't always the best or most innovative ideas that garnered enough attention and press to survive. Here are some of the lesser-known or remembered vehicles that took to the road during the 60s. Some were ahead of their time; some too quirky to survive and many simply overshadowed by their contemporaries but they all deserve to be remembered.
Continue scrolling to keep reading
Click the button below to start article in quick view
Featuring a more angular body style and a new 1500cc engine design, the 1500 Karmann Ghia was the fastest VW created to that point in time and at twice the price of a Beetle, the most expensive. It had more interior space than any other Ghias and such creature comforts as an electric clock, long padded armrests, three luggage areas, round taillights, built-in fog lights, upper and lower dash pads, and door pads. In fact, until the VW-Porsche 914 was released, it was the most luxurious car the company had produced.
The American Motors Corporation’s entry into the muscle ranks was a compromise vehicle that delivered, for the most part, more than the sum of its parts. It only came in a two-door semi-fastback design, but depending on the package chosen could be an economical pony car or a high-performance dragstrip beast. In its go configuration, it was the first of the pony car genre to be adopted by police departments for interceptor duties on the nation’s highways.
One of the most unusual car designs to come out of Detroit, one of the saddest stories in automotive history and a prime example of the power of the press, is the Chevrolet Corvair. It was and still is the only mass-produced rear-engine, air-cooled passenger car ever developed in the United States. The downfall of the Corvair was it being singled out as unsafe in consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed.” The claims were unfounded and later proven incorrect but nevertheless doomed the car’s future.
It seems that everyone remembers that the Mustang started the pony car craze, but for some reason when you say GTO, people’s minds jump to later models like “The Judge” that hit the streets in 1969. The facts are that the original Muscle car was the 1964 GTO, and at that time, it wasn’t even a stand-alone badge; it was a new variant of the Pontiac Tempest that had been in production since 1961. How many remember the Tempest at all?
There is nothing like taking the best of all possible options and combining them to create something that surpasses all expectations. That is exactly what happened in 1962 when Carroll Shelby decide to take near obsolete but lightweight car bodies from the British design house AC Ace and merge them with Ford’s V-8 engines creating the Shelby Cobra. Never satisfied, Shelby kept upping the ante until in 1966 he created what he called the "Cobra to end all Cobras” the Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake, a 12 second, twin-supercharged, 800 hp beast that was completely street legal.
Many times, when a car company starts tinkering with the looks of a successful car, they find out that some things are better left alone, but that didn’t happen with the 1968 Dodge Charger. When Chrysler decided to do away with the first gen’s split grill, hide the headlights, and round the taillights, they expected to sell about 35,000 units, but the first of the second-generation Chargers actually sold 96,100, and that was without winning a NASCAR race.
In the late 60s as other manufacturers started losing sight of what a muscle car was and began adding features like power-robbing air-conditioning and heavy adjustable seats to their cars Plymouth decided to take American Muscle back to its roots with a cheap, light, inexpensive vehicle with power to spare; The Roadrunner. Short on creature comforts and styling but coming stock with your choice of engine, it had the muscle that gave this class of cars their name.
Considered by many to be the ultimate pony car, the Plymouth Barracuda has been celebrated in song and legion almost from its inception and for some very good reasons. With a curb weight of only 3,100 pounds and had dynamic engine options with one of the sweetest hp/lbs ratios to ever hit the street. The fact that it came in a wide array of body styles, including a drop-top was only sauce for the goose.
The last of the first-generation Camaros, the 1969 version is considered by many to be the purest form of this pony car ever developed. Coming from the 1968 model year it was given the deep-V grill, inset headlights and lower wider stance that came to embody the aggressive Camaro look.
Mustangs are legendary among car buffs around the world, but deserving special attention is the 1969 if for no other reason than most have forgotten just how many changes occurred and the wide variety of models that were offered in that banner year. 1969 saw the introduction of the Mach I Fastback body style, but hardtop and convertible models were also offered along with nine engine and three transmission options. Most notable for many Ford fans is the fact that this was the first year a luxury Mustang was offered complete with 55 pounds of soundproofing.
Volkswagen literally translates to people’s car, and that was what Ferdinand Porsche intended it to be when he first laid down its design in 1938, a car everyone could afford. Unfortunately, dying in 1951, he didn’t live long enough to see that dreamed completed. By the sixties, the Bug had become the most produced car in history and a cultural icon around the globe. Cheap to buy and operate, easy to work on, and so customizable that it was ridiculous Ferdi’s dream car became the rolling symbol of the love generation.
The forerunner of all modern passenger and panel vans the Type 2 Volkswagen truly came of age in the 1960s. While it had been doing duty as a commercial vehicle and ambulance in its homeland for decades, it exploded when it came to American shores. Variations, including pop-top campers, were ideal for a generation on the move and looking for an economical way to get around and not caring if they got there fast or not.
With a family history of building vehicles going back to at least 1798, the story of the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company is one of the saddest in auto history. Known for building high quality and innovative automobiles like the Avanti sports car and Lark compact, the company’s reputation wasn’t enough to save it from poor management decisions and a slowing economy. The thing that makes the 1966 Cruiser such a special car is that it was the last vehicle to wear the Studebaker nameplate.
What the Mustang was to Pony cars the Pontiac Grand Prix was to the Luxury Coupe Muscle segment. Featuring bucket seats, folding armrests, carpeted floors, and door panels and advanced sound systems, it was long on creature comfort and style, but unlike its Bonneville brother, you didn’t have to sacrifice performance in order to achieve luxury. Under the hood of the longest nose ever seen on an American built car, you would find engines ranging from respectable 389 cu in mills to 390 hp 428 cu in monsters.