Everyone knows that weight is the enemy of car design, and yet oddly, in the 1970s, American automakers actually bragged about their vehicles being heavier than the competition. The whole thing is unbelievably idiotic and serves as just another reminder of the sad state of American cars during that era.
At Chrysler, where I used to work, folks would often talk about “Vehicle Demand Energy,” or the energy needed to move a vehicle down the road at a given speed and in different conditions. Things that affect VDE are aerodynamics, rolling resistance, and weight.
Minimizing VDE was the goal of damn near everyone in the company while I was working there. Make the car slippery, reduce drivetrain friction, and for god’s sake, keep all the unnecessary weight out. Do this, and you can maximize not only fuel economy but acceleration and handling performance. As long as you do it in a strategic way that doesn’t significantly affect NVH, crash performance, or overall cost, these moves were a win for everyone.
That’s why it’s so utterly baffling to me that automakers used to brag about their cars being heavier. That’s like saying “Our car is less efficient than it could be, handles worse than it could, and accelerates worse than it could. But that’s somehow a good thing.”
Back in the mid-1960s, Chrysler was showing off its newly-revised small “A-body” sedan, the Plymouth Valiant. This car was hot stuff, with its cool styling, push-button automatic transmission, “Torsion Air” front suspension, optional V8 (a slant six was standard), and low asking price.
The video above shows how Chrysler trained its dealers to sell the Valiant to customers, noting its advantages over a key competitor, the Rambler American. You can see at the end of the film (see screenshot above) that Chrysler also mentions the Valiant’s larger sibling, the Plymouth Fury, saying:
Plymouth Fury has a longer wheelbase than Rambler Ambassador, is longer overall as well, heavier, and has greater horsepower throughout the entire range of V8 engines.
Image: American Motors Corporation
The dealer training video also brags that the Belvedere is heavier than the Rambler Classic; you can see in the ad above how proud Chrysler was of its intermediate sedan’s girth. (In the 1960s, Chrysler called mid-size cars “intermediates.”)
AMC was even more ridiculous than Chrysler when it came to touting vehicle heft as a positive. In the ad above, which compares the Rambler American to the VW Beetle, AMC brags: “It outweighs the VW by 800 pounds.”
Eight hundred pounds of extra heft to lug around. That any automaker could brag about that is just hilarious.
And AMC did this a ton (hehe). Just look at this AMC Gremlin ad from 1970, which includes the weirdest flex of all time:
“It is... 765 pounds heavier than a VW, which means a smoother more stable ride. And its 128 hp engine goes from 0 to 60 in 15.3 seconds.”
Clearly, all of this is absurd to us living in 2022, but maybe we can forgive some of these ads if we put them into the context of their time. After all, in the 1960s and 1970s, economy cars were a fairly new concept, and folks were worried they’d have a “tinny” feel to them. Telling customers that a car weighs more might make them think that they’re not getting a cheap rattletrap. The odd thing is that AMC’s rival, the Beetle, wasn’t a cheap rattletrap, as my colleague Jason Torchinsky — a VW Beetle expert — explains:
The Beetle was small and inexpensive, sure, but it wasn’t cheap. The car was spartan and minimalistic, but what was there was built like they meant it. The car was famously air-tight, so much so that it would float, as seen in ads. Nothing rattled in a new Beetle, nothing was falling off, and those doors closed with a satisfying thonk, and even that was easier if you opened a window because, again, it was built so well it was freaking air-tight.
The Beetle’s ride quality was idiosyncratic, I guess. The torsion springs were a bit on the stiffer side, maybe due to its Teutonic origins, but it wasn’t really bouncy. The wheelbase was long enough so it wasn’t pitchy, and while it was noisy, most of the noise was behind you. Crosswinds would definitely affect it, as it had a pretty tall profile.
I spoke with Joe Ligo, one of the world’s foremost AMC experts who runs an amazing YouTube channel called Automoments, and he gave a bit more context behind why AMC would tout its cars’ high curb weights. Highway stability, and Americans’ hesitance in downsizing were probably significant factors. From Ligo:
So this begs the question, why did AMC feel the need to brag about their cars’ weights, when that seems so silly today?
I think for a lot of buyers who were downsizing from traditional American cars, imports like the VW Bug seemed not only too small but too light. People weren’t used to how smaller cars handled, and they probably had legitimate fears regarding safety. The extra weight of the American and Gremlin probably made them more stable, especially at highway speeds.
When the Rambler American was introduced, it was basically the smallest mainstream car Americans could buy. But once smaller imports started appearing, AMC shifted their marketing to present it as a practical alternative to imports, rather than an economical alternative to full-size cars. They hoped that the American would be a happy medium, with most of the advantages of a small car, while still providing a familiar driving experience to U.S. consumers.
This strategy continued with the Gremlin. Unlike the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega, which were dedicated subcompacts, the Gremlin was based on the larger AMC Hornet, which was technically a regular compact. This made the Gremlin a bit of a “tweener,” in terms of size and weight. AMC tried to spin the extra weight as an advantage, once again claiming it provided better stability and a smoother ride. I think drivers were genuinely worried about small cars being buffeted around on the highway and that they were unsafe to drive. (Not unlike people who buy SUVs today)
Of course, all that talk quickly stopped when the oil crisis hit. The Gremlin’s extra heft became a huge disadvantage as shoppers flocked to the highest MPG cars possible. AMC found itself in the awkward position of being known as an economy car company whose cars weren’t all that economical. Although, they did make some serious attempts at weight reduction to help improve gas mileage. A former AMC/Jeep engineer told me how difficult it was to convince other departments that fuel economy was everybody’s job, not just engineering’s. He said interior designers were surprised when they were told to cut weight from seat designs to help improve gas mileage.
While bragging about extra weight seems silly today, I don’t think things have changed that much. The word “weight” has a negative connotation, so marketing has shifted to emphasize words like “solid” and “strong,” without saying “heavy.” And, drivers in the U.S. still like heavy vehicles because of how they feel on the road and the perceived safety that comes with that extra weight.
Personally, I think AMC bragging about their cars’ weights is both a good way to address a legitimate customer concern but also kind of a weak attempt to spin a disadvantage into a selling point. Either way, I get the appeal.
Joe makes some strong points here; it is true that American automakers have even recently been bragging about their vehicles’ weights, but in a less obvious way. Chevrolet’s anti-aluminum commercials come to mind.
Back in 2016, I wrote the article: “Chevrolet’s Shit-Talking Aluminum Truck Ads Will Bite Them In The Ass Someday.” Here’s the headline and topshot:
This story was in reference to two of the dumbest car commercials of the modern era:
Chevrolet also made a commercial that focused on its steel bed and how it compares to the Ford F-150's aluminum bed. That one I find just fine, but the commercials above aren’t a dig on specific applications of aluminum where steel might be better — they’re digs at aluminum itself. And that’s just stupidity, especially since Chevrolet later adopted heavy aluminum use in its own pickups.
In the aforementioned article, I wrote: “What GM doesn’t realize is that when their trucks inevitably adopt aluminum in some form or fashion too, this campaign is going to come back to haunt them.” I don’t know if that’s proven to be true, but I can tell you that the videos I embedded into my article are nowhere to be found. Interesting:
Even if I find all of these automakers’ “Heavier equals tougher/better built” ads dumb, I understand them to some degree. If you’re selling economy cars, and you know people are concerned about small, lightweight cars being tinny and unstable, then sure, maybe it makes sense. If you’re selling a pickup truck — a vehicle whose image hinges largely on its durability, specifically in terms of how well its truck bed holds up to abuse — then I could see how you might entice some buyers into liking your heavier steel truck.
The Belvedere and Fury, two family cars? Well, marketing their weight really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Maybe these bigger cars were trying to exude a cushy “bank vault” vibe, and buyers didn’t really give a damn about fuel economy, handling, or acceleration. I could see that.
But there are some “heavier equals better” ads that make absolutely zero sense to me. Look at this:
This is an advertisement for a “Sporty” car called the Gremlin X. There’s mention of bucket seats, wide tires, and more horsepower than the competition. AMC billed the Gremlin X as a performance car, and yet the company included this quote in its ad:
[The Gremlin X] gives you up to 25 miles to the gallon. And it is heavier, with wider front and rear tracks than any of the other four [competitors].
In the context of a tinny shitbox, I can maybe understand trying to convince buyers that more weight is an advantage. In the context of a pickup truck, I could maybe see how you could compel people to think more weight (in certain areas) is an advantage. Even in a larger, comfort-oriented car, I could understand trying to communicate a bank vault-esque vibe. But when advertising a “sporty car?” It makes absolutely no sense.
But oh, it gets worse:
This is perhaps the silliest car ad ever made. AMC expert Joe Ligo wrote in his comment that I quoted before: “Of course, all that talk quickly stopped when the oil crisis hit.” But when I showed him the ad above, he himself couldn’t help but express surprise, saying: “Huh, you’re right! That’s wild.”
This 1974 advertisement’s main goal is to communicate the AMC Gremlin’s fuel economy in the face of the oil crisis that had sprung up the previous year. Anybody who knows anything understands that weight is the enemy of fuel economy. And yet, AMC still brags in the ad’s text:
Yet for all its engine, the car is very easy on gas. Averages over 18 mph, depending upon the way you drive. And Gremlin still out-accelerates, weighs more, has a wider track, wider front seat, and wider back seat than any other car in its class.
I can appreciate that the ad mentions that the car gets decent fuel economy while weighing a lot, but to advertise the weight as an advantage — especially in a freaking fuel economy-focused ad — is utterly absurd.
Honestly, all of these ads are absurd when looked at through the lens of today’s automotive industry, in which pretty much every single automaker — whether showing off a new car, truck, or SUV — touts weight savings as the greatest vehicle feature since Corinthian Leather.