The Cars of 1964

A Look Back at 50 Years Ago

Bob Stevens - January 09, 2014 10:00 AM


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When the calendar pages turned to 1964, the country was still getting past the assassination of its president six weeks earlier.

American Motors

Although production dropped more than 70,000 units, AMC was still in its black zone, since a break-even point of 300,000 units was traditionally forecast. Ambassador output dropped to 18,679 and the top-selling Classic fell more than 100,000 units to 211,519. On the other hand, American production soared to 163,661.

Richard A. Teague was director of styling. His claim to fame for ’64 was a fully restyled Rambler American, while the Classic got a new grille and the Ambassador got even fancier grille work. The engine line-up consisted of four sixes and three V-8s, the most potent of which was a 327ci eight with a single quad rated at 270 hp and available only in the Ambassador.


This division of General Motors created 288,320 Buicks in 1964. On the product front, Buick’s cars got a little bigger, a little heavier, and a little fancier. The Invicta was replaced by an ever-growing Special line with emphasis on the Skylark. GM Styling Chief Bill Mitchell was partial to the Riviera, and it remained pretty much untouched for its second year on the market. The Riv received a new powerplant, a 425ci V-8. A dual-quad set-up ran an extra $150 and hiked the power rating by 20 horsepower.


GM’s luxury division broke the previous year’s record with 165,959 produced. Styling changes were minimal. Cadillac had become the leading automotive air conditioning retailer, achieving its 500,000th installation in 1964. A new option for ’64 was automatic heating and A/C with the motorist simply setting the desired temperature. Seat belts, not mandated by federal decree until the 1965 model year, were made standard on all 1964 Cadillacs.


Chevrolet production rose to 2,326,736. The big news was an all-new model, the intermediate Chevelle, which slipped in between the full-size models and the Chevy II. Initially, the Chevelle was presented as more of an economy car, but would go on to become a major muscle machine. The Corvette broke the old production record with output hitting 22,229. The Corvair returned for its final year of the first generation of the unorthodox compact; the exciting Spyder boasted a new turbocharged 164ci six that produced 150 hp. The top powerplant for the full-size Chevys was still the dual-quad 409ci V-8 rated at 425 hp, followed by a single four-barrel 409 pumping out 400 hp.


The company had made major styling and engineering changes in 1963. The Imperial got a complete new look. Chrysler output soared to 131,129 from 118,862, the best in years, and Imperial production rocketed to 23,285 from 14,108. The Imperial continued on a 129-inch wheelbase, while all three Chrysler series used a much smaller 122-inch wheelbase. Chrysler’s most collectible model was once again its 300 letter series, the 300-K, which packed a wallop with its 360hp, 413ci V-8 and came as a two-door hardtop at $4,056 and a convertible at $4,522.


It was the golden anniversary year, with production hitting 475,672 and all three of its main series were up, including Dodge, Dart and the 880. Dodge’s biggest and best contribution to the 1964 automotive scene was its V-8 engine line-up with two top dogs, the Ramcharger 426 in two versions, a single-four-barrel model rated at 415 hp at 5,600 rpm and a dual-four engine that produced 425 hp at 4,600 rpm. Dodge’s 426 dominated stock car racing and drag racing. A Dodge Ramcharger 426 won NHRA Top Eliminator honors at both the NHRA Summer and Winter Nationals, and one set an NHRA record of 190.26 mph at a strip in Hudson, Connecticut.


The big news at Ford for ’64 was the arrival of the all-new Mustang, introduced on April 17 with the first one rolling off the assembly line on March 9. It would become the success story of the year, selling 263,434 by the end of the calendar year. Overall, 1964 model year production ended up at 1,715,445, up substantially from 1,598,464 in 1963. The Mustang, which paced Indy that year, offered several engines, the most potent being a very healthy High Performance Challenger 289 V-8 with 271 hp on tap. Full-size Fords and T-birds came with optional V-8s as big as a 390 with 300 or 330 hp or a gargantuan 427ci mill delivering either 410 or 425 hp with one or two four-barrel carbs, respectively. The Thunderbird set an all-time record with 92,465 produced in 1964. 


A new grille and numerous trim changes highlighted the Lincoln line for 1964. Wheelbase was extended to 126 inches and its overall length was stretched. The 430ci V-8 rated at 320 hp used in 1963 was again standard, and the only engine available. By the end of the model year, Lincoln had posted a major gain with production at 36,297, up from 31,233 in the year-earlier period.


Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Mercury offered 18 models in five distinct series: Monterey, Montclair, Park Lane and station wagons, plus the compact Comet. The full-size Mercury models were down a bit, dropping to 110,342, but the Comet line snared 189,672 units on the 1964 production schedule, way ahead of 1963’s 134,623. The big Merc V-8 engine family for 1964 included a quartet of 390ci engines rated at 250, 266, 300, and 330 hp, plus a duo of 427 powerplants, a Marauder 427 with a single quad delivering 410 hp and a Marauder Super 427 with twin four-barrel carbs tagged at 425 hp. Even the compact Comet became muscular, offering several V-8s ranging from a 164hp 260 and 210hp 289 up to a 271hp 289. Mercury triumphed in five NASCAR events in 1964, and a foursome of Comets broke more than 100 endurance and speed records during special NASCAR sanctioned runs at Daytona.


The country’s oldest surviving automaker at the time saw an increase in production and sales, several new series and models, and lots of new options. Production hit 546,112, up from 476,129 in 1963. Olds still had its headquarters and main plant in Lansing, Michigan, where it employed some 15,000. The F-85/Cutlass group of cars led the division in sales for 1964. The large cars got two new models for ’64, the Jetstar 88 and the Jetstar I. The rarest and most expensive full-size Olds was the Starfire convertible. Only 2,410 were made. The big news out of Lansing was the introduction of the 4-4-2, whose name represented the combination of a four-barrel carburetor, four-speed on the floor and two exhaust pipes (dual exhaust). The little-known but soon to be famous 4-4-2 package on the F85 and Cutlass boosted horsepower to 310 from theregular 290.


Plymouth scored major gains over 1963, as production rose to 499,934 from 442,794. The total included 225,245 Valiants. One of the year’s most important entries, the sporty new Barracuda fastback in the Valiant series, didn’t appear until around the first of April. It accounted for 23,443 units in its shortened model year. Plymouth offered a couple of big-block V-8s, including the Commando 426 wedge with one four-barrel, 10.3:1 compression, 426 cubic inches, and 365 hp at 4,800 rpm, and, introducing at midyear, the Super-Commando 426 Hemi with 426 ci, single quad, 12.5:1 compression, and 400 hp at 5,600 rpm. The latter engine was also offered in two competition engines fitted with dual-four carburetion and rated at 415 and 425 hp at 6,000 rpm, but again producing something closer to

600 hp. Another Plymouth mill for the serious competitor was the Super Stock 426, a dual-quad edition of the wedge engine with short ram intake, 11.0:1 compression and 415 hp at 5,600 rpm, or 425 hp at 5,600 rpm with 12.5:1 compression. These “serious” engines did some fine work on the racetracks and dragstrips, winning numerous titles, such as the NHRA Winternationals Championship and AHRA Top Stock Eliminator, won by two 1964 Plymouths powered by Super Stock 426 mills, the super engine that won everything except the Mobil Economy Run.


According to many experts, the muscle car era was officially launched with the introduction of the GTO by Pontiac in 1964. As an option on the Tempest LeMans, the first GTO was a big-time hit with the youth market. Pontiac would end up selling 715,261cars, representing 125,000 more than 1963. The big Pontiacs got a facelift, the Tempest line was expanded two ways with a larger body and more models, and the sport-luxury Grand Prix remained in the line with numerous improvements. Priced at $295, the GTO option included a 389-cube V-8 unleashing 325 horses, high-output 421 cylinder heads, special cam with hydraulic lifters, Carter four-barrel carb, dual exhausts, high-rate springs, special shocks, longer rear stabilizer bars, 18-inch seven-blade fan, six-inch-wide wheels wrapped in red-stripe nylon tires, six GTO emblems, twin simulated hood scoops, and bucket seats.


Studebaker’s steadily declining dealer network was still active and earnest, even though they were splitting up a smaller piece of the pie in ’64 with production nose-diving to 33,150 from 76,145. Studebaker still fielded two of the industry’s gems, the sporty and stylish Gran Turismo Hawk and the exotic Avanti. The fact that the South Bend, Indiana, automaker even continued the restyled Hawk in 1962 and then introduced the limited edition Avanti in 1963 reflected its bold character and innovative spirit as one of the last pioneering independents. The 1964 model year would be the last one with a convertible in the line-up (the Daytona convertible), the famous Hawk sport coupe, and the fashionable and futuristic Avanti, leaving the product cupboard pretty bare for the South Bend manufacturer’s final two seasons in 1965-’66.

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