In 1965, pioneering consumer advocate Ralph Nader first gained national attention, with his book Unsafe at Any Speed. The controversial best-seller offered convincing evidence that auto manufacturers, in many cases, built cars with appalling designed-in dangers.
Some viewed the book as a shocking commentary on an arrogant industry too long unchecked by regulatory agencies. Others saw it as an unfair cheapshot at an important American institution. Regardless, Nader’s efforts launched a movement that over the next decade would radically alter the ground rules of automotive engineering and design.
But the cars introduced for 1965 were conceived several years before then, in some cases originating in the late Fifties. Thus, Detroit’s ’65 offerings were a product of the same unfettered environment that had characterized the industry for decades. Designers and engineers were free to follow their whims with little meddling or constraint from the government or anyone else, aside from corporate accountants.
Adding fuel to automakers’ boldness during this time was a public hungrier than ever for a wider variety of models, greater luxury, and better performance. And average folks now had the money to pay for such pleasures — the U.S. economy was flying higher than ever, and unemployment was at record lows.
What resulted from this rare mix were among the most viscerally appealing cars of any era. Stylists had moved beyond the outrageous one-upmanship and chrome-dipped excess of the Fifties, into an era in which clean, tasteful designs reigned supreme. At the same time, engineers were proving that these cars’ simple, Fifties-era V-8 engines had plenty of room for development. Feeding buyers’ nearly insatiable appetite for better performance, automakers steadily boosted power. Some, by 1965, were offering engines with more than double the output of those available ten years prior.
Nader and his followers vehemently pointed out that, like those of decades earlier, 1965 cars weren’t very responsible in their use of materials, consumption of fuel, or protection of their occupants. And, in hindsight, those are points well worth noting.
But perhaps that devil-may-care attitude is what makes these machines so special. The 1965 model year was the beginning of the end for a time in which manufacturers were free to build the most tantalizing cars possible, without being restrained by the staggering array of obstacles that appeared in the years to come.
Those limitations, including tougher governmental regulations, brutal inflation, and several fuel crises would conspire to end this swaggering, adventuresome period for Detroit. But the excitement and passion of the cars produced in that era will forever echo throughout the automotive landscape.
Welcome to the final act of the Golden Age.