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Detroit Quality - 1965


Feb 8, 2004
I'm a firm believer in "you don't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been".

When my dad passed away I cleaned out his house and discovered what a pack rat he was. Among the findings in the basement were old copies of Consumer Reports (CU) going as far back as 1953 which I decided to keep.

The other day, while looking for a 1965 Galaxy 500 review for a friend who owns one, I for the first time, opened and read the CU review of the quality of the 1965 Detroit cars.

I learned something that day.

Detroit quality was terrible - inexcusable. I would like to share some of these key findings from the April 1965 Consumer Reports issue to give some perspective on why Detroit got into trouble. I always heard about poor Detroit quality back then, but here is a very factual source.

The Industry's Sloppiness Is Beginning To Irk Long-Suffering Buyers

"The condition of the 1965 cars CU has bought for test is about the worst, so far as sloppiness in production goes, in the whole 10-year stretch of deterioration that began in 1955, the first year in which U.S. new car sales first approached eight million. (That was also the year in which a heavy emphasis on credit sales raised car output by nearly 2.5 million over the 1954 level and increased consumer indebtedness for autos more than 40%.) Complaint in the trade about the condition of the cars as delivered began to get bitter then and it has continued to be bitter ever since. "Overproduction has resulted in poorly engineered and poorly built cars," wrote one dealer, in a letter submitted to a Congressional hearing in 1961. "We in the retail business," he continued, "have all experienced the exorbitant new car 'get ready' cost and owner dissatisfaction with some of the creations dreamed up by the factories and then thrown together..."
CU also heard from dissatisfied new-car owners throughout these years. In 1963, as production once again approached the eight million target, things seemed to get worse. In that year, for example, CU's auto consultants noted that 32 out of 32 cars bought for testing showed troubles within the first 5000 miles of driving - most of the troubles were minor, some were major, but all were troubles that should have been caught at the factory (see CONSUMER REPORTS, October 1963). In 1964, as the eight million goal was finally hit, new-car troubles continued to plague dealers and consumers. Then came the 1965s. For this model year, on top of their heavy production schedule, auto manufacturers levied two speed-ups: to stock up before last fall's strike, and to catch up after the strike.
It was apparently during the pre-strike speed-up that the troubles with some early Ford and Mercury and Plymouth, Dodge, and Chrysler cars occurred (see CONSUMER REPORTS, January 1965). The involvements were serious - a rear suspension arm attachment that might break loose on the two Ford cars and take them out of control, and a steering gear support on the three Chrysler cars which needed inspection to determine if rewelding was necessary. Cars from later production showed no such faults. And CU's examination of the 1965s actually bought for test revealed no other problems so serious; no problems, for that matter, were found with the basic mechanisms of any of the cars. They were simply incredibly sloppy. The things wrong with them were minor, multiple and annoying (see the list on page 175). And they all foretold unhappy owners who would be seeking satisfaction under those new-car warranties which are so highly touted by car salesmen from coast to coast."

April 1965
p. 173

I'll post that list from page 175. It is an education.

"...Last year, in addition to calculating the average incidence of dissatisfaction, CU studied the warranty experiences of 48,000 respondents who had purchased 1963 and 1964 cars.....Around a fourth of the 1963 and 1964 U.S. cars bought by CU respondents were not in a satisfactory condition when delivered. those who had bought 1964 Chrysler cars, reported less than a fifth of them in unsatisfactory shape on delivery, while more than a quarter of the owners of 1964 General Motors cars reported dissatisfaction. Ford and American Motors came in the middle with the difference between them not statistically significant, and GM's lag behind American Motors was also not significant. For the 1963s, the line-up was Chrysler ahead, with about 16% unsatisfactory as delivered, General Motors and Ford next with about one quarter, and American Motors significantly below the other three. thus, the record of Chrysler cars for both years was better than that achieved by other American makes. But the Chryslers were not up to the Volkswagen, which shamed the whole domestic industry. Ninety per cent of these cars were reported OK on delivery.

April 1965
p. 174

I recall autos of that era which were pretty much declined in value after 60,000 miles. A car with 100,000 was not worth much. That gave the US industry big problems for a long time.

In the 1970's, the OPEC oil export shutdown and auto imports with better mileage sold well and people began seeing better quality from imports. Longer life, less maintenance. Japanese, German mainly.

Its taken Detroit decades to recover. They sort of have and sort of have not even today. I have two USA full size trucks and they are a real mixed bag for care. My made in Japan auto does much better.

We still have a lot to learn.
Back in the early 70's, I owned a lot of those late 50's, and 60's cars.
And while they looked great, and went fast when they went, CU has it about right.
A car with 100,000 miles on it was considered worn out- I know, I bought at least a dozen of em for $500 or less, several for $100- and these were all less than ten years old.
And for just reason.
Brakes might last 20,000 miles. Tuneups were common, even though parts were cheap. Oil leaked. Engine rebuild shops were on every corner- guess why? Yup, it was cheap to rebuild a simple old 289 or or 302. And the reason why was because so many of em needed rebuilding every year.
I had cars that I personally put 2, and 3 starters, or generators in, or redid the clutch or radiator, or had the tranny rebuilt at 100,000 miles or less.

Contrast that with the worst american car today- heck even a Dodge Ram with a 5 speed lasts longer. And compared to modern japanese cars, or, made in america japanese owned cars, which routinely go 200,000 miles with merely a battery and couple of brake jobs, change the plugs ONCE- well we have indeed come a long way.

Sure, I wish I still had that Desoto Firedome Convertible that cost $165. Or the Ranchero, or the Comet Convertible. But its easy to forget those rainy nights in the middle of nowhere when they broke down. The time I hitchiked 50 miles to Davis after sleeping in the backseat to buy a new fuel pump. Sure, it only cost $12- but I would have prefered to actually have gotten to LA instead.
My wife had a totally rebuilt 62 T Bird convertible a few years ago- and even with all new parts, the car, while a joy to look at, broke down unexpectedly pretty often- for silly stuff that just NEVER goes wrong on a Honda. She finally sold it, as she found she seldom had the time to let it warm up for ten minutes, so it would run right, and after the second unexpected breakdown.

Not all change is bad.
The single greatest asset foreign car makers had (have) to increase their sales was the American made car.

Somehow we never realized it's more economical to retain a satisfied customer than to try to convince a new customer.

The big 3 never learned.
Could a couple of you guys be more specific that understand what the quality issues stemed from? I am curious what the basic problem was. The article leads me to believe that it was because the companys priority was getting cars out the door. Not getting good cars out the door.
Some of it was no doubt labor related- my dad worked in a Studebaker factory, and a steel mill in Gary Indiana, during summers while he went to college- and the stories he told about workers who hated their jobs, and acted accordingly, were pretty funny if you didnt have to buy the products they made. Show up hungover, drink at lunch (ever seen old pictures of the rows of bars outside 50's auto plants?) slack off as much as you can. In the steel mill, the first thing the old hands showed him was the safe places to sleep. In the auto factory, he was on a line, so sleeping wasnt an option, but every trick known to man to slow the line down was common knowledge.

Some of it was design related- we just know a lot more now about metallurgy, fatigue cycles, computer modelling, and how to make things better.

Some of it was technology related- its a lot harder to keep a 50's V8 in perfect tune than it is to let an ECM do it. Fuel injection means no more carburator rebuilds, ever. Most parts of a modern car are made smarter and better and are longer lasting. Auto transmissions routinely last 200k- and tighter manufacturing tolerances account for a lot of that. CNC mills, for example.
I had a 72 Mazda RX-2, and while the little rotary went like spit, they just didnt have the tech to make the seals work, so the lifespan was very short. New rotaries, I am told, last up to 4 times as many miles.

And some of it was the way companies like GM and Ford were run- from the top down, "we dont make no mistakes so shutup" style. Say what you will about the Japanese, but their reject rates, their quality assurance, their breakdowns, while certainly not non-existant, have revolutionised the auto building industry, and we are still playing catchup.
Also, gas was cheap, cars were cheap, the country was making money- so people bought new cars every couple of years, it was a money machine. So what if your 62 wasnt running quite right- the 65's looked totally different, and you NEEDED one.
I am curious what the basic problem was.


A bunch of moronic people, the kind that get MBA's, thought up something called planned obsolescence. The theory is that you design failure into the product. You design and build a car that will fall apart after 50k miles.

Management is happy, they get to sell more cars. Union is happy, their members get to make more cars. Buyer, unhappy, is stuck with the bill.

I drank with guys that worked in the assembly plant the next town over. Half of them somehow derived a sense of false pride for the job they were doing, the other half seemed to enjoy sabotaging the product (stick it to GM) they were working on, with obvious effects on quality. It remains a big mystery why that plant closed.

I get a chuckle when "buy american" pops up in some thread. I got burned on a bunch of american made crap in the 70's and 80's. I associate american made with junk. Sing with me, "Look for, the union label....", then run.

Worked as an auto mechanic in the 70's so I had to repair the garbage detroit produced. Which I guess gave me work. (another benefit)
"Could a couple of you guys be more specific that understand what the quality issues stemed from?"


I always thought internal machined finish and tolerance were the reason older cars didn't last long. Common oil change interval was 2,000 miles with detergent oil & engines ran dirty. I bought a 1962 truck from the Forest Service and the guy doing the maintenance said they use non-detergent, change at 1,000 miles. Plus for decades Detroit really had no competition putting longer life autos in front of people so they didn't need to.

I had a 1964 V8 truck which broke the engine crankshaft at 90,000mi. When I tore it down one piston & rod were installed backwards. That was also the point of failure on the crankshaft. Unhappy employee, long lunch break, or?
Could a couple of you guys be more specific that understand what the quality issues stemed from?

I remember reading somewhere that Ford, for example, didn't care when a customer bought a lemon and swore never to buy another Ford because they knew that for every customer they lost, there was another guy swearing to never buy another Chevy. So, they traded unhappy customers and didn't care.

That all changed when the well made Japanese cars began to hit our shores in significant numbers and we had a choice. The really interesting part is that it was an American, Edward Deming, who taught the Japanese about the importance and benefits of quality manufacturing.

There were alternatives to the crappy US made cars of the day, but they were all small and we'd been conditioned to think of small as cheap and undesirable. One of the advantages the Japanese had was that their cars were small and all they made were small cars so they took pride in them. For years, American manufacturers looked at their small cars as a cheap alternative to their main product, the more profitable big cars. So, the small US cars were cheap and poorly made.

The biggest problem was the emphasis on marketing over substance and Detroit executives thought they could sell us anything with a good marketing campaign. They didn't think they actually had to make a good car and that we'd buy whatever they sold us with their expensive marketing campaigns. I think Detroit to some extent still suffers from that attitude.
I watched an interesting presentation last weekend by a reproduction car part salesman.

He had a Dynacorn (made in Taiwan) 67 camaro convertible and was comparing build quality with a factory GM car.

The difference between the two was pretty stark. They taiwanese panels fit better, weld quality was far superior, overall fit and finish was as good as any new car today. When you measured up the GM made car - it was out by significant fractions of an inch.

Amazing really that a asian made reproduction camaro convertible body would outshine a factory original.
The other amazing thing about the Dynacorn stuff is that the bare metal half body sells for much more than the whole original car cost.
I paid $500 for my 54 GMC pickup, way back when, and I am guessing it didnt cost more than around three times that, new, in 54. But a new body only, no fenders, glass, chassis or bed, is now $9,000.

I love the looks, feel, and the looks you get when driving a great old american car. Unfortunately, I dont make enough money right now to be able to afford one. If I was retired, and had a pension (ha- never happen, I have been self employed all my life) I could see it as a great hobby. But I guess that Avanti, or Dodge Power Wagon, or giant 60's Buick Vista Cruiser wagon with the wood on the sides, and the "cabin cruiser" styled windows on the roof, or the 66 Toronado, or the 72 Eldo- they are just not in the cards for me.
Some of you guys have your comparisons wrong. Do not compare cars that are not within a 5 year span of each other. Every thing we know about cars has improved so much even the junk sticks around longer to torment us.

Langanobob mentioned the difference. Deming. He taught them how to do it right. Japan was destroyed so there was no "that's not the way we do it here". And he was from far away, so no one doubted his credentials as an expert.

From what I recall, the first Japanese cars were disasters also. The difference was the Japanese actually cared, and worked hard to improve.

Detroit, like much of American industry, is driven by short term outlooks. Keep those assembly lines running no matter what. There isn't time to do it right, but there is always time to do it over.
The Ford my dad bought in 1970 has so many problems that it was at the dealer 4 of 5 times in the first month. Some of the things made you scratch your head and say "how did that happen", like the fact that the name of the car was missing from the hood (LTD).

The heat didn't work, and when we got that fixed, the A/C didn't work. Constant problems. Rust? When it was about 5 years old, we couldn't sit in the dual facing rear seats because the floor was gone. We had to leave the spare in the back of the wagon because the floor where that was stored was gone.

One day, while accellerating to get on the highway, we discovered that there was no safety latch on the hood as the hood popped up, folded back and almost hit the windshield. Ever notice that on a lot of LTD hoods were curled up at the rear corners?

We never had problems like that with the 1964 Rambler it replaced, nor the 1960's VW or Triumph we had at the same time. Those were contemporaries.

The only American car my dad has bought since 1970 is a 1931 Ford Model A.

CU's test cars: 100% trouble

"In anything as complicated as a car, pure chance will play a part in the presence or absence of troubles. But something more than chance is at work when 32 out of 32 cars chosen at random for testing show troubles of one kind or another in the first few thousand miles....And CU's automotive consultants know what that 'something other than chance' is - it's bad quality control in the automobile industry."

So wrote CU, speaking of the 1963 models it had tested (CONSUMER REPORTS, October 1963). In 1964 things were slightly better; two or three of the 35 cars purchased for testing didn't develop troubles at least in the first 3000 miles. This year it looks as though things are back to normal again - that is, all fouled up - in the output of Detroit.

Here's a list of some troubles (of all kinds, not all major but all annoying and some hazardous) that CU has found on the 25 models for 1965 it has so far bought for testing. Some of the troubles (improperly aimed headlights for example) have shown up on most cars; other troubles (malfunctioning directional signals, for example), have shown up on almost all; no car has been purchased which has not exhibited some trouble.

Front window glass out of channel.
Trim panel on front door not attached.
Poor welds in floor pan.
Wiring harness loose - ignition and lights went out.
Left stoplight and directional signal inoperative.
Transmission fluid leaking.
Water leaking from heater core.
Air flow through defroster blocked.
Oil leaking from rear axle housing.
Engine would not start in Park position - transmission had to be torn down.
Fan belt loose; slipped and squeaked when engine was speeded up.
Steering column loose at dashboard, steering wheel loose on column.
Front seat adjuster stuck on passenger's side.
Ignition timing off specifications.
Hand brake not connected, warning light not working.
Hand brake light stayed on at all times.
Directional signals would not cancel.
Car slipped out of Park position.
Front door hinge off at bottom.
Wheel alignment off specifications.
Doors not properly adjusted, hard to close or open.
Heater fan blades hit heater housing.
Windshield washer pump inoperative.
Both front wheel bearings loose.
Dash warning light read "Hot!" when car was cold.
Engine noisy, had to be pulled down.
Headlights improperly aimed.
Choke stuck open when car was cold; car wouldn't start.
Choke would not open as car warmed up; engine stalled.

April 1965
p. 175

When I read this list for 25 randomly purchased cars, my eyes were opened as to how bad Detroit had gotten.

I have the 1967 CU review for the Barracuda, Camaro, Cougar, Firebird, Mustang road tests.
Not any better than the 1965 car reviews, even after these kinds of scathing reviews from CU.

I can't imagine putting my name on a product with this kind of quality.

My 1969 Camaro went 355,000 miles without a single valve job or engine work of any kind. Had several sets of alternator bearings and brushes, one new timing chain (at 300,000 miles when the old one became so loose it gnawed through the side of the cover, and the oil drained out like a cow pissing on a flat rock when I stopped the engine!), three clutches and one rear axle when I stupidly drove over some railroad tracks too hard. When I sold it, it had NEVER been in a garage or under cover, and had not a single crack in the upholstery, even with a black dash down in the south Texas heat. OTOH, my 1968 T-bird would wear the tops of every valve stem within 50,000 miles after a valve job! I loved the T-bird and hated that stinkin' bright orange Camaro.

My first car (worked in a restaurant and saved up all my minimum wage pay checks) and at the tender age of 17, bought my 1974 Pontiac Trans Am, 400 4 speed. Within a year, with only 27,000 miles on it, the 10-bolt rear end leaked out all of the oil and fried the entire guts of the differential. Oh well, it was my excuse to go get the 12-bolt 4.56 posi rear end in that I really wanted. My dad was not impressed.

I think the car that really put the nails in the coffin of GM was the Vega, and they've been at death's door ever since. Damn thing left a bad taste in the mouths of young first-time GM buyers because the car would not last as long as the 5-year low-down-payment loan financing it. Buyer left with no car and substantial balance left to pay. These people never bought another American car.

Vegas had painting problems leading to rust and also unsleeved cylinders in an aluminum block. They were relying on an unproven technology of casting silicon (quartz) beads into the cylinder walls to resist the wear of the rings. It worked in the lab, but not in mass production.

Then, after really pissing off a whole generation of first-time buyers, they did almost as badly on their second try with the Chevette / T-1000.

I currently own and drive daily TWO 1987 RWD Olds Cutlasses. The only major problem I've had since I bought them used is that one of them needed a transmission rebuild at about 120,000. I expect that both will need water pumps soon, and also alternator work. The water pump on an Olds RWD lasts about 75,000 miles, so perhaps they were replaced before I bought these cars. I don't consider a water pump replacement to be a major repair except that there are these pesky dowel pins in the block which can be a devil to remove if you don't have the special tool.

Say what you want about the old cars, you could repair them yourself except for the automatic transmission. Remember the "Shade Tree Rebuild?"
The Vega was a disaster.

I had a 1972 Pinto with a 4 cylinder, 4speed. The starter went out and I could not get the stupid thing past the frame. My mechanic buddy told me to undo one motor mount and jack up the engine to make clearance. It worked. But what a stupid design. A car as simple as the Pinto 4 cylinder - and there wasn't much under the hood - and Ford still couldn't design it to get a starter out without jacking the engine. Sorry, Every other car I owned - most with V-8's - and the starter came out without jacking the engine. Poor design.

The Japanese put four wheels on their Super 90 cc motorbikes during a gas crunch and became heroes.
No one cares to remember they were true rattle traps that didn't last long and dissolved into piles of rust in a few short years.
No one cares to remember that they were also dirt cheap and were being sold at a loss by the Japanese just to corner market share. Anti-dumping laws fixed that but too little too late. We were brain-washed.
I'm not saying the American junk of the '70's was any great stuff or that the Big Three with their bean-counter CEO's were any great shakes but c'mon, let's not revise hiostory TOO much! We had loads of junky cars coming in from all over the world during that era.

Can anyone here tell me who has the largest. most expensive, safety related auto recall in all U.S. automotive history?
"...it was an American, Edward Deming, who taught the Japanese about the importance and benefits of quality manufacturing."

Think "prophet without honor in his own country"...