Look At How Big An American 'Compact Car' Was 40-Odd Years Ago

One of the reasons why I like going carspotting is the juxtapositions you find completely by chance. In this case, here are two green American “compact cars” parked right next to each other in Manhattan’s East Village with four decades between them: a 2010s Ford Fiesta and a 1970s Plymouth Valiant. Let’s look at how wildly different these two cars doing the same job are.

In these days of the Dodge Challenger, it’s hard to remember that there used to be American automobiles from the 1960s that weren’t muscle cars. But there were indeed family cars, sports cars, trucks, vans, and even compact cars. This Plymouth Valiant does represent a standard of American compacts, coming from the class of 1960 that gave the world the Ford Falcon (which would later give a rib to become the Ford Mustang) and the Chevy Corvair (which would later get barred from entering the promised land for striking a rock with a staff so that water would come out, or get canceled while the Chevy II/Nova took its place along with the Camaro, to continue torturing biblical metaphors).


The Valiant does not have a lot of traits that we associate with compact cars these days. It came with straight six and V8 engines. Today, we see a straight-six as such a sports car/luxury car feature that Toyota went and partnered with BMW just to get one in the new Supra. In the 1960s, it was just what you got if you didn’t want even a small V8.

It’s the same story with rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission, with an optional automatic. We think of this as muscle car, sports car kind of stuff. Back then it was so standard that you literally called using a stick shift as driving a standard. (Saying you could drive a “five-speed” was years away from normal when the Valiant came out. It got a long-throw three-speed, as Mopar super-site AllPar notes.)


There’s a lot to say about the Valiant that I shouldn’t get into, like that it started as its own sub-brand like Scion or Edsel, but the main takeaway was that it was big. Big by the standards of 2019.

This 1975 model here is a good two feet longer than the Ford Fiesta beside it (16 and a half feet or 199 inches for the Plymouth, 14 and a half for the Ford) but that’s all hood and trunk. The Fiesta’s trunk only extends a few inches past the rear window, trying to make as much interior room as possible. The Plymouth is dead set on making as much space outside the car as it can get away with. Plymouth was assuming, I guess, that you’d rather have space for luggage than friends or children. Amazingly, headroom is about the same on both cars.

What’s most interesting, though, is that the Valiant is still on the road and in good shape. Some of that has to be down to so many of these cars getting made back in the day. That and Valiants and A-Body twin Dodge Darts were made with little changes for so long, all the way to 1976. You have to also account for the simple and easy-to-maintain design. In my heart, though, I know a big reason for this car’s survival has to be down to that paint. You don’t just junk something in this lovely mint. It’s too good.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.



Not as dramatic as what “full sized” trucks looked like 20 years ago versus today... as in today’s full size trucks make my grandad’s 80's F-150 look like a compact.