Car Shopping in the 1960s
Question: Hi Greg and first I want to thank you for your nostalgic car columns I read every week in my newspaper here in Medford, Oregon. You once mentioned years ago that you and your father went car shopping and that you settled on a nice 1961 Chevy.
I had similar experiences with my dad as I was born in 1948 and we, too, went car shopping late in 1961 for a 1962 Chevy. We settled on a nice 1962 Chevy Impala with the 283 V8 engine and automatic transmission. Buying a car back in the 1960s was a lot different than it is today and the marketing was so much fun with the new model year dealership “new car celebrations”. Albert L., Medford, OR
Answer: Albert thanks for your written letter and also for recalling your car shopping days with your dad. You are correct that back in that era, new car introductions were major undertakings, and the dealerships all held “new car model extravaganzas.” The new models were delivered to the dealerships fully covered by large tarps so that no one could see them on the highways.
On television and in newspapers, the manufacturers would run “teaser” ads showing a certain part of the new car, many times using subliminal split-second photos of the car to whet prospective consumer appetites. I remember the 1959 Chevrolet tail fin ads that Chevy ran on the major TV stations (I think there were only three stations back then!). If you were already a customer, you received a special invitation to a dealership and even a special prize if you attended.
The dealerships went all out during new car week and it was a really big deal. From morning to night, prospective car buyers were greeted with donuts and coffee/tea in the mornings to hot dogs and cokes in the afternoon/evening. The new brochures were handed out and coincided with the usual full-page advertisements to visit the dealership and see the new cars.
Many dealers gave away 1/24 scale models of the new cars, usually produced by Jo-Han Model Cars, a big name in built and unbuilt models back then. These 1/24 dealer promo cars were so neat that I admit I still have a few in my lifelong collection of cars and model kits. These were some of the aforementioned “special gifts” if you were a current customer or, in some cases, available on a “just ask a salesman” promotion (see ad).
As for remembering shopping with my dad, I was only 11-years-old in late 1960 when we went to the grand opening new car week and it ended with my dad purchasing his first ever brand new car from Yank Chevrolet in Vineland, New Jersey.
My father allowed my input as, by that time, it was totally clear that I was going to be a lifelong car crazy person. So, I was involved in that decision as my father took me to all the places he was looking for a new car. We hit the Chevrolet, Dodge and Plymouth dealers the most and for whatever reason, not one Ford dealer! (My dad never owned a Ford in his 77-year life. He was a Chevy/Dodge guy, but I do recall a used 1950 Mercury when I was really young, so I guess he did own a Ford product.
The final decision came down between two Chevrolets, a dealer demo all black ’61 Impala four-door that was not an SS or a brand new 1961 Bel Air two-door.
Although I liked the Impala because it had a 283 V8 engine and was really much nicer than the Bel Air, my dad and I settled on the brand new “Seafoam Green” 1961 Chevy Bel Air two door. It came with the “Stovebolt” straight six-cylinder engine hooked to a Powerglide transmission. I liked the looks of the ’61 Bel Air two door mainly because it was similar to the 1961 Biscayne two-door that my drag racing hero, Dave Strickler, was racing back then with the new 409 engine out of Ammon R. Smith Chevy in York, PA.
The Bel Air and Biscayne two-doors featured a lip on the back window (see Chevy ad), unlike the “bubble top,” no B-pillar Impala two-door models. So, 1961 was a big year in my young life as my dad was a proud brand-new car owner. (In 1962, the “bubble top” was only available in the Bel Air line and the drag racers bought them up.)
Thanks much Albert for your letter and bringing back good memories car shopping with our fathers.