Compact Cars: Which Were First Foreign Or Domestic?

Greg Zyla
Q: Greg we enjoy reading your nostalgia columns here in St. Johns, Florida in our group of collector car enthusiasts from the Jacksonville area. We pretty much agree with your first American Hatchback being the Kaiser/Frazer, but would like to know what your opinion is of the first American made compact car and the first foreign compact car to come to America?
We all know there were compact cars before the Ford Falcon as they were on the highways in the early 1950s and many were foreign cars. Can you comment and not include sports cars like the MG or Bugeye Sprite as compact cars? Thank you, Jim S., retired Air Force veteran, St. Johns, Florida.
A: Jim thanks for your letter and kind words and I’m happy to oblige.
To get to the first non sports car, American-built compact car question, there are surely those who would agree that the Nash Rambler was the first American manufacturer to promote its new compact car models. Beginning in 1950, Nash sold its Rambler as a compact car, officially christened “compact” by George Romney, he a noted auto executive and then politician. Romney went on to head the former American Motors Corporation (AMC) .
Of course just because Romney came up with the wording “compact car,” which he felt was any car with a wheelbase of 100-inches or less, there were already cars out there that fit the wheelbase criteria. Notable were the Ohio-built two-seater King Midget, which was a very short wheelbase blend of go-kart and actual passenger vehicle and totally legal on the nation’s highways.
However, I am going to give Nash’s 1950 Rambler the “first American-built compact” nod of approval. Nash always promoted its Rambler models as smaller, economy friendly cars that were within easy reach of the average American worker’s salary. However, when it came to big cars, the 1950 Nash Ambassador and Statesman were full-size behemoth “bathtub” style cars, completely different from sibling little Nash Rambler. So Nash was also building really big cars, too.(See attached advertisement).
Soon after the compact Rambler success, Henry Kaiser countered with his first compact called Henry J, which debuted in 1951 and was also available at select Sears & Roebuck stores badged as an Allstate. Other American compacts I remember in the 1950s were the Willys Aero, Hudson Jet and just getting in under the wire in 1959 was the Studebaker Lark.
As for the "fist foreign compact car in America," the 1949 VW Beetle receives that honor. The Beetle was a rear engine design, and not what the American population would come to recognize as a compact car ala the American-built, front engine 1950 decade compacts of the day. Still, it did appear first and had been around since 1938 in Germany known as “the people’s car.” Also, cars like the German Opel (sold at Buick dealers) and the British Vauxhall (sold at Pontiac dealers) showed up in the mid to late 1950s and were also considered compacts.
Other foreign compacts to come along included the 1956 Renault Dauphine, 1955 Saab 93 and 1955 Volvo PV “humpback,” all which were considered decent, fun to drive cars popular with domestic car buyers.
Then in 1960, the compact car revolution took hold and solidified smaller economy cars as popular choices for consumers of all ages. The Ford Falcon you note, along with Mercury Comet, Chevy Corvair, Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Lancer all made initial dealer showroom appearances. Along with high-dollar newspaper, television, and radio marketing campaigns (and lots of free hot dogs, coffee and donuts at the dealers to attract floor traffic), consumers bought into the compact car craze. The ensuing sales success became pivotal to manufacturer profits, and compact cars have been around and growing in popularity ever since.
I’ll end with what I feel is the first ever sub-compact, namely the 1954 through 1962 Nash/Hudson/Rambler called the Metropolitan. It was originally built in England for Nash by Austin Motors and way ahead of its time. The Metropolitan could surely be classified the first “sub compact,” as the King Midget is just too much of a go-kart on steroids in my opinion. Another notable sub-compact on the American highways included the ’57 Isetta 300, produced by BMW and introduced during the darkest of days of BMW. The German company was near bankruptcy but luckily, the Isetta 300 and BMW motorcycle sales helped pull them through some very rough times.
Thanks for the question Jim and I hope this all helps. 
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