The last time American car companies were the undisputed world leaders cranking out globally coveted products was the late 1950s, a time of tailfins and chrome bullet-bumpers. The most iconic design of that era was probably the 1957 Chevy Bel-Air; the clean lines, cohesive styling and muscular shape screamed of American competitiveness, competence and pure industrial might in a way no U.S. product has since.
But a fascinating article in the Times points out an interesting fact: in terms of sales, the '57 Chevy was a dog. Selling far better at the time were Chrysler's "Forward Look" cars (concept cars slated for 1960 that were pushed into actual production three years early) and Ford's Skyliner and Thunderbird, all considered exciting new products at the time.
So why did the '57 Chevy endure? Better construction. "Chevys were so well built they literally outlasted the '57 Fords and Plymouths," Jeffrey I. Godshall, a Chrysler designer, reveals to the Times. And so an American icon, a piece of design history, comes down to the fact that the factory engineers did a better job than the competition.