Sixty years is a long time in motor manufacturing, but some models have stood the test of time better than others. Here are Hagerty’s pick of the Class of 1956.
Originally intended to be badged as 'Corvette', the Dauphine offered drivers a heater, automatic choke and twin horns plus fuel economy of ‘a penny farthing a mile’ plus the chance to ‘travel in style’; the small Renault the first car to be advertised on ITV. British market models were initially assembled in the company’s Acton plant between 1957 and 1961 and the 1957 Gordini came with a 4-speed gearbox and a 38-bhp engine. Famous owners included Brigitte Bardot and HM The Queen, the pastel paint options were undeniably chic and despite the chronic oversteer, the Dauphine won the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally. It also enjoyed a brief vogue in the USA.
Heinkel Kabine/Trojan 200
Unlike its principal rival, the BMW Isetta, the Kabine had a fixed steering column and a vestigial rear seat. Early versions had a 1 cylinder 174cc engine and Heinkel intended that the sunshine roof would also serve as an escape hatch, although this seldom reassured drivers or passengers. The Kabine was available in three or four-wheel form and was also made in the UK as the Trojan 200 until as recently as 1965. The sales copy claimed that the Heinkel/Trojan was ‘almost as cheap as breathing’ and one famously appeared in Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s as transport for George Cole’s Flash Harry; one of the finest examples of cinematic product placement.
Volvo 120 ‘Amazon’
A prime example of the right product launched at the right time, the Amazon consolidated the success of the PV444 and, in 1958, became the first Volvo to be imported into the UK. The styling was influenced by the many American cars on Swedish roads at that time and the company’s managing director at the time complained that it had ‘too much of the pin-up about it’. But this is partially what sold the new Volvo to young Swedish professionals - and over the next 15 years, the Amazon demonstrated to motorists around the world that durable and reliable transport need not be boring or mundane. As owners of thousands of surviving 120s would doubtlessly agree.
No car could really be compared with the T603. The rear mounted air cooled engine, backbone chassis and independent swing axles were familiar Tatra design tropes by 1956 but the T603 boasted an air cooled 2.5 litre V8 that could achieve a top speed of nearly 100 mph. The central headlamp of the original T603-1 moved in unison with the steering and the Tatra had excellent weight distribution but this sublime car was mainly available to senior party officials, diplomats and the secret police. However, Tatra did consider a few export markets; watch the splendid 1962 T603 sales film The Happy Journey and be prepared to be amazed!
The A35 remains an object lesson in how to refine and develop a highly popular car without destroying its raison d’etre. All of the elements that made the A30 so successful were present and correct but the Austin A35 now had better visibility and flashing amber indicators fore and aft – unusual fittings in a small British car at that time. Meanwhile, enthusiastic drivers noted the larger 948cc engine and much-improved gear ratios. It is fair to say that the A35 is one of the most delightful Austins in the history of Longbridge and a car that will be forever associated with a young Graham Hill. Not to mention Wallace and Gromit…
The ‘1957 Chevrolets’
Or the definitive Eisenhower/rock and roll era Chevrolet. The ’57 Chevys’ debuted in late 1956 with the promise of a GM car that was ‘so glamourous to be seen in’. Even a junior salesman travelling the back roads of Swamp County, Arkansas could dream of being a jet pilot when at the wheel of his One-Fifty and the range-topping Bel Air offering Cadillac verve at a fraction of the price. Who could resist the lure of the 4.6 litre V8s with ‘Super Turbo-Fire’ four-barrel carburettor or the Beauville, which remains one of the most handsome station wagons in Detroit history? Cue a re-watch of American Graffiti (infinitely superior to Grease) …
The 507 was intended to be BMW’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, using the modified chassis from the 503 and the 3,168cc OHV V8 engine from the imposing ‘Baroque Angel’ 3.2 Litre saloons. Production began in November 1956 but ceased only three years later. Fortunately, over 70% of the 252 examples made are believed to survive and if the 507 was a somewhat of a misadventure - BMW was heading towards bankruptcy by the end of the decade - its handcrafted aluminium coachwork defined the word ‘exquisite’. Indeed, it was said that no two 507s were quite the same…
Studebaker Golden Hawk
The Golden Hawk is now regarded as an early form of American muscle car, combining Raymond Lowey’s coachwork with an altered roofline, GRP tail fins and a new radiator grille. Power was from a 275 bhp 5.8 litre Packard-sourced V8 engine and the result was not cheap - $3,061 was a fair sum of money for a US motorist and this was after Studebaker put ‘safety padded sun visors’ and direction indicators on the optional extras list (!) in order to keep the price as low as possible. The Golden Hawk was also nose-heavy but at its best, it was a magnificent 125 mph 4-seater grand tourer.
In 1956 there was much interest from press and private car owners alike in a Big Healey powered by a 6-cylinder engine. The new plant was based on the 2.6 litre BMC C-Series engine as fitted to the Austin A95/A105 Westminster but the early 100-6s were actually slower than their predecessor; one problem was that the inlet manifold was cast into the head, which made for a rather inefficient unit. This was rectified in 1957, allowing the 100-6 to realise its potential as the perfect transport for anyone who could wear a cravat – and a Leslie Phillips moustache – with verve and aplomb.
Singer Gazelle Series 1
Or the car that denoted the end of the independence of a famous marque. Singer had been acquired by Rootes in 1956 and although the first version of the Gazelle was powered by their well-known 1.5 litre OHC engine, the body was that of the ‘Audax’ series Minx. To distinguish the Singer from its cheaper Hillman stablemate – and to justify its £898 7s price tag- there was a walnut veneered dashboard, extra sound deadening and pile carpeting. The convertible version, in particular, epitomised the dreams of respectable suburban motorists to speed past Consuls and Oxfords on a sunny day in Egham…