What are Seven Classic Cars with Bench Seats?
There are probably many cars or even trucks we could select for a list, but we felt these vehicles were worth making the list.
1957 Chevrolet BelAir
The first ‘57 Bel Air departed from the older Chevrolets that many parents had been driving. Deciding to move beyond the decent but average inline sixes the company had used for years, Chevrolet introduced the new optional 283 V8 cubic inch Super Turbo-fire with fuel injection that had never been in vehicles before. The result was a significantly improved engine performance by mechanically controlling fuel's continuous flow into the chambers' interior. With the advent of technology, like the inventions of the television, kitchen appliances, and the arrival of electricity in many homes, Americans were growing to expect these innovations and began demanding that car companies keep up, which they were more than happy to do.
But the 57 Bel Air wasn’t just a technological icon. The car's lines were unlike anything their parents had even imagined driving. Body lines were lengthened and straightened with aerodynamic wings sporting a stylish and refined quality. The public could choose from various paint combinations (there were over 460 combinations - Americans loved having choices). Other options like air conditioning, auto-dimming headlights, and upgraded radios with surround speakers gave many a feeling of finesse. It earned the nickname “Baby Cadillac” due to the styling cues it stole from the more upscale Cadillacs on the road.
The bench seat was offered as a cushioned vinyl which made for easier maintenance and cleaning. The car was popular, selling nearly 750,000 units in 1957. The car continues to be one of the most popular vehicles today.
1963 Ford Galaxie Sedan
We could pick lots of cars from the early 60s that came with classic bench seats, but I want to start with one of our personal favorites. Every one of us can remember our father's first car. For my father, it was a Galaxie that he drove right out of college. This Ford was the car I broke my teeth on as a child, and it has lasting memories for me as a child.
The Galaxie first appeared in 1959 as an homage to the space race. When President Kennedy directly challenged NASA to get a man on the moon, Ford designers began to envision a car to capitalize on the hype surrounding the race for the stars. Shortly afterward, John Glenn circumvented the earth as the first American in space, and Ford knew that they had something on their hands. The Galaxie 500 was born, redesigned with recessed round headlights, several options for V8 engines, and over 20 different two-tone paint combinations. The parking brake was moved to a pedal on the floorboard, and the two-speed Ford-o-Matic transmission gave operators just enough low-speed torque that the car could just about go anywhere.
Early brochures touted the car as having a ride with a new suspension system: "over highway, byway, or boulevard, the Galaxie glides silent, smooth, serene.” Appealing to younger urban adults who were just starting to develop their own families, the car trumpeted that the Galaxie required maintenance twice yearly (oil changes every 6k miles). Interior options included standard vinyl seats, an AM-FM radio with push button presets, and a swing-away steering wheel that moved to the right to ease the vehicle's entrance and exit. The Galaxie continued in one form until 1974, undergoing a couple of more generations of redesign.
1969 El Camino SS
A few high-powered muscle cars could have qualified for bench seat honors, namely the Chevelle and big-barreled Olds 442. Still, one of the best muscle cars to claim an era was the El Camino SS. Chevy produced the original El Camino in 1962 to compete against the Ford Ranchero, which came out in 1959. Hoping to capitalize on the West Coast vibe (the name El Camino, meaning “The Way”). Yet, it wasn’t until the third generation of the El Camino (1968 - 1974) that has become a highly desired piece of car memorabilia and ingrained in the American conscience.
The 69 El Camino SS was built on the Chevelle platform, equipped with three different versions of a V8 396, a four-barrel Holley carb, and enough power to outperform many muscle cars on the road. Interior cues from the Chevelle and other Chevrolet sedans helped to make the El Camino a strong rider that could contend on the highway or the drag strip. The car/truck could motor down the strip in around 15 seconds which was just a bit slower than the Hemi Cuda or Ford Mustang 428 Cobra. During most of the mid-sixties, the sales numbers for the El Camino had been increasing, and in 1969, sales topped 48,385 units.
1972 Cadillac Deville
Out of deference to large luxury cars, like the Olds 98, Cadillac made a name for itself by producing some of the finest vehicles on the road. The Deville nameplate had been in existence since 1949, up until 2004. Over that period, Cadillac dominated the luxury market, making limousines and luxury vehicles appealing to the rich and famous everywhere.
To recapture slagging sales due to economic downturns in the country, GM completely redesigned all their full-sized models for 1971. The times were hard as Americans were becoming more ad more polarized over the VietNam war, and much of the nation became divided between the wealthy and those who were socially disadvantaged.
Headlights were set farther apart but moved closer to the front without the recess of front fenders. The V-shaped grille was not as intricate but protected with a full chrome front bumper, complete with vertical bumper guards. As the V grille flowed over the hood to the edges of the entire windshield, the front of the car had an intimidating appearance. A V-shaped grille and elongated hood gave a more flowing appearance and intimidating look. The rear wheels disappeared under fender skirts and blended into the body so that there was one continuous flow on the side of the car from the front to the tail.
The standard engine was still the 472 V8 which was tweaked to run on unleaded fuel. Horsepower was still significant at 345 horsepower, and the interior was upgraded to include optimal leather and gold plated accents on many knobs and push buttons. The bench seats were generally a bench with a fold-down middle allowing for the ability to carry three passengers or just a driver and passenger. The car was tremendous with a growing affluent public who began to feel that their hard work during the last couple of decades was starting to pay off. In 1972, 194,811 units were sold, which was a sales record.
1981 Plymouth Reliant K
As energy crises began to plague the nation in the 70s, Americans grew intolerant of their gas-guzzling vehicles in favor of emerging fuel-efficient imports. The resulting rejection of large V8 engines forced American automakers to develop cars that would compete with the savings of more straightforward, smaller cars producing better mpg. To help address the situation, Chrysler hired a new chairman, Lee Iacocca, who became not just the head of the company but its primary pitch person.
Chrysler was forced to face radical redos of their entire lineups. The result was an economical, smaller four-cylinder engine built on a front-wheeled drivetrain called the “K” platform. The three car manufacturers also instituted weight-reduction programs, substituting plastic for metal components. The advantage of the K cars was that the cars fit with front bench seats, allowing just enough room to haul six passengers, which Iacocca recognized that many Americans still needed. The Reliant and other cars were offered as a coupe, sedan, and station wagon. During the next decade, from 1981 to 1989, sales were over 2 million units every year but in 1989. There can be no question that the introduction of the K concept cars brought Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge out of financial ruin.
Most of the decade's success can be attributed to the dynamic personality of Ioccoca himself. Facing inevitable financial collapse and looking to the government for help to stay afloat, Chairman Lee Ioccoa took over the company's reins. Over the next few years, he made impassioned pleas on national television spots, encouraging Americans to give Chrysler and Plymouth another chance to win their business. (In fact, he directly challenged Americans to search for a better-built car, and if they could find one, encouraged them to buy it).
1973 Chevrolet C/K
All right, you caught us trying to sneak a truck in, but many baby boomers grew up driving trucks with bench seats. For those of us who grew up in rural areas (which was a lot of us), an homage to a classic truck with a bench seat.
Chevy started its third generation of these classic C/K trucks in 1973, and for the next 18 model years, it would continue to crank them out. The series is the third-longest model of pickup ever built, where it was replaced in 1991.
Introduced into the 1973 model year, Chevy offered a new crew-cab four-door pickup for the first time to take advantage of growing farm families who needed extra space to haul hands or family. In addition, a dual rear wheel version, nicknamed the “Big Dooley, was offered and proved to be hit for construction and agricultural uses that needed to pull heavy loads, farm equipment, and horse trailers. A naturally aspirated 5.7 V8 engine producing a reasonably respectable 160 horsepower was the standard fare, but owners could pay additional for other V8 options.
What made these trucks stand out was the tremendous loads that they could carry and the interior amenities offered. Ventilation and an instrument panel silhouette by a decorative wood panel were installed, improving comfort and aesthetics. This was the first year that a serious attempt by Chevy was made to improve the amenities of comfort and convenience in their cabins.
1971 Ford LTD Country Squire Wagon
In homage to the countless vacations I took in a large station wagon, I included the iconic wood-grained lined Ford LTD Country Squire Wagon.
1971 brought an entire new facelift to this eighth station wagon generation built by Ford. The Country Squire was fashioned to look more like the LTD sedan and powered with a 402 cu V8 which was enough power to pull small campers and trailers that many American families were taking out onto the road. Sales were an industry-leading number (over 130,000 for 1971 MY alone).
The back tailgate was modified to open three ways, either as a fold-down or even more convenient as a regular fifth door, unlocking and opening like a regular passenger door. This was convenient for families who needed to load excess kids into the back. Several models were configured with fold-down seats in the back cargo area, just in case extra passengers needed to be hauled.
While growing pressures for more fuel-efficient vehicles began to move consumers toward lighter and less powerful vehicles, this station wagon was the last rallying cry of a generation who longed to explore the open road. The LTD Station Wagon held on to 1991, while Chevrolet Caprice Estate Wagon and the Buick Roadmaster wagons were similar counterparts and tried to continue to produce for another few years. Unfortunately, by the 90s, Americans were turning to Sports Utility Vehicles and Minivans, which provided more power based on the truck platforms they built.