I may not have been born in the aftermath of World War II to understand the magnitude of the 1950s. Let alone the decade being considered the greatest era of American automobiles.
The 1950s lifted this victorious country out of austerity and rationing. We had to do so in order to survive a massive war fought on two major fronts. Once our troops came home, our country began to climb out of this period and into overdrive. We were optimistic of the future thanks to our victory in the war.
The economy began to take off, thanks to our returning veterans, their G.I. Bills, and newfound opportunities they created for themselves. The nation was hungry for new homes and transportation. They were hungry for the trappings of prosperity.
The post-World War II era in the automotive industry gave us hope. They showed us a new era of modernity that included convenience, comfort, and the ability to dream. There was no limit as to what this country can do to meet our needs and wants head on.
After all weapons ceased to be utilized, automotive plants scrambled to transition back to making cars and trucks again for the general public. They had no choice but to take the old dies and tooling and build pre-war vehicles with new grilles and details. Your 1946 car looked like a 1942 one, except for some appearance changes.
General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker were up and running again. Willys-Overland went on to build civilian versions of their war hero – the Jeep.
Postwar design began to take shape as early as 1946. Most of these designs were on the drawing board before Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Yet, they had to hold on to them in case they had to go back to civilian production again. Still, a design that was first considered in 1940 would take almost an entire decade to make its way to consumers.
Studebaker became the "first by far with a post-war car." The 1947 Starlight coupe shocked everyone with its wraparound rear window design that began from the B-pillar back. Virgil Exner drew this design up and Studebaker took a chance to demonstrate that this is worth going into production. The car also featured many postwar design tenets by integrating fenders well into the body. The design also extended the trunk further out towards the rear, which was well ahead of its time. As time went on, the design would evolve to include a hardtop version, a convertible, and a four-door model.
The Starlight would soon be joined by a new automotive company in the postwar design race. A joint effort between automotive executive George Frazier and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser took the old assets of Graham-Paige to form the new company. They also purchased the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan as their production base. The result was two radically designed automobiles, each bearing the names of their founders. The 1947 Kaiser and Frazier were highly successful for the reason that postwar consumers simply wanted something new. And, that was what they got.
The new designs of 1947 would spur on postwar designs from the rest of the automobile industry. Cadillac began to grow tailfins from their 1948 models, while Oldsmobile worked on a hardtop coupe design that eliminated the hard door pillar that gave a convertible-like appearance with a steel roof. Most of these postwar designs were mostly created form a clean sheet of paper that saw fender integration, wider grilles, and sharpened interiors all around.
The fall of 1948 would be one of the most memorable in automotive history. By this time, every American automaker introduced their own postwar design for the 1949 model year. It would herald a new decade of automotive innovation.
Design was one piece of the 1950s. Engineering played a major part in creating more convenience for the postwar driver. For example, fully automatic transmissions took center stage during the decade. GM and Packard came up with three different transmissions for the new decade. The Hydramatic from Oldsmobile was also installed in Cadillacs to match their high compression overhead-valve V8s. This design would be proven as the most durable and reliable transmission of its kind in the decades to come.
Buick had their own automatic transmission designed for their in-line eight-cylinder engines, the Dynaflow. In contrast to Oldsmobile and Cadillac’s driveline, the Dynaflow was hampered by the old eight-cylinder design in terms of efficiency in operation and overall economy. Both engine and transmission would not survive the decade.
The lost leader of the early automatic transmission was Packard’s Ultramatic. It was a superb design that was as durable and reliable as GM's Hydramatic – if not more so. The problem with this transmission was the engine it was bolted onto – Packard's aging in-line eight-cylinder. There was a train of thought that put the blame on Packard’s decline on the old engine while extolling the virtues of the Ultramatic transmission.
In the next few years, Ford and Chrysler would have their own fully automatic transmissions. Names, such as TorqueFlite, Fordomatic, Merc-O-Matic, Cruise-O-Matic, and so forth would join in the chorus of those looking for more convenience and ease of operation over the tried, tested, and true three-on-a-tree manual gearbox.
While we lament the smaller number of manual gearboxes available to consumers today, they continued to sell in the majority during the 1950s. Consider that thought, if you will.
With the push towards making automobiles easier to use and operate, we saw the proliferation of features designed towards making driving less engaging and more convenient. The expanded use of power-assisted steering, vacuum-assisted brakes, electric windows, and air conditioning systems was seen as blessings and curses for the American automobile.
These systems made driving perhaps too simple. Instead of muscling the steering wheel, a single finger would help make a routine right turn easy. Brakes did not need half the pedal force to stop a car that has grown in weight and stature. These two features would end up being adopted on many automobiles several decades later, but with highly improved and efficient advances to them.
There were some engineering advances that had mixed results. Chrysler worked on a front torsion-bar suspension system for their Forward Look cars from the mid-1950s. The design was seen as too advanced for the era. That criticism was proven correct when the execution of this design began to fail on many Chrysler products throughout the mid-to-late 1950s. Build quality on these new suspensions was fair-to-poor causing many failures of the torsion bar system.
By 1955, American automotive design took a more advanced turn. Cars were seen as too upright for the future. Designers were playing with concepts that saw the automobile made lower, longer, sleeker, and faster. By 1955, all of the American manufacturers redesigned their vehicles with these design ideas in place.
Chrysler’s "Forward Look" took shape for 1955 as they separated Imperial from the Chrysler division as a brand onto itself, while the latter produced the most powerful car sold in the USA – the C-300. The name was apt since it represented how much horsepower its HEMI V8 put out. The result was an icon among premium American cars.
General Motors, Ford, American Motors, and Studebaker-Packard also had lower, leaner cars to sell by mid-decade. But, they weren’t done with making their cars more fashion- and future-forward.
Before we talk about that, let’s talk about a new kind of American car. The decade saw that the European automotive industry was not just being resurrected, they also took on different forms that veterans remembered from their time in the war. Volkswagen was a curious German car, with its rear-mounted, air-cooled engine and its quirky "beetle"-like shape. They found an audience of those who still want the trappings of mid-century life but wanted to save on fuel and space for their car.
The sports car also made an impression upon ex-GIs back in Europe. The British were the first to turn Americans on to two-seat roadsters, with the Italians enticing veterans to its sensual shapes and temperamental mechanicals. Some American automakers considered the idea that they can design and build sports cars, too.
In 1951, Nash collaborated with a British sports car specialist Donald Healey to create the Nash-Healey. Up front, it looked like a Nash Rambler. It was even powered by an in-line six-cylinder engine straight out of a Nash Ambassador. But, the rest is a pure roadster, not unlike contemporary Jaguars of the early 1950s. This collaboration ended in 1954 when Nash and Hudson merged to form American Motors.
In 1953, General Motors conceived their own sports car. They took a smaller chassis, kept a Blue Flame in-line six-cylinder engine around to place it underneath its fiberglass roadster body. This car was sent to Chevrolet dealers as the Corvette. It did not take long for this soon-to-be icon to establish itself as one of the greatest vehicles of its era in this country.
It also spurned on some competition. Kaiser’s automotive arm worked with coachbuilder and designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin on a roadster that was unique and stylish in a European manner. It only lasted a single model year – 1954 – with only 435 built for sale.
Then, Ford came up with an answer to the Corvette. They took another chassis, shortened it, added a Mercury Y-8, and let it fly like a bird. The Ford Thunderbird sparked debates as to which volume-produced two-seater was the best of its time. By the end of the 1957 model year, Ford would bow out of this race, leaving the two-seat sports car market to Chevrolet.
The 1957 model year also heralded an era of even lower, longer, wider, sleeker, more powerful, more advanced, and brash American automobiles. Tail fins became a must-have design signature, as they scaled up to the heavens in size and significance. Chrysler took their "Forward Look" another level with its lineup of sleek cars across its five divisions. Ford also took their three car lines into vogue with their interpretation of the late 1950s look.
Compared to Ford and Chrysler, General Motors did not lower the height of most of their vehicles. They were seen as chunky next to a sleeker Ford or Chrysler model. They would learn this lesson in due time.
The one thing we saw a lot of from the 1957 model year was the increase of the amount of chromed finishes around and inside of the car. Chrome was seen as a status symbol – the more you have, the more you can show off.
However, the tailfins and chrome finishes were about to face an abrupt about-face. The year was 1958 and the country went into a recession. Job growth and profits dipped for the first time since the end of World War II. This reflected on sales of new automobiles. The 13-year-long sock-hop was about to end.
Or, did it? The recession was a deep slow down of the American economy. But, it did not deter the automobile industry from moving forward. The future would be dictated by a toning down of design and the introduction of a new generation of smaller, more efficient American cars.
American automakers did toy with "compact cars" as a way to meet the new imports from a resurrected post-World War II Europe. Crossley was an automaker that specialized in small cars. However, they were simply too small to fit the needs of the American consumer – let alone what they really wanted in a car.
It would be the Nash Rambler that would set the bar for small cars in this country. Introduced for 1950, the smaller Rambler complimented the larger Nash models by giving American customers an efficient car in terms of size and performance. They took the postwar "bathtub" body design of their “senior” models and scaled it down onto a 100-inch wheelbase and put their in-line six-cylinder engine underneath its hood. The result is one of the most advanced cars of its time.
Kaiser-Frazier, Willys-Overland, and Hudson had their own smaller cars to meet the Rambler and the imports. They did not last past 1954. The Rambler would become the sole model for the combined American Motors lineup after they shelved Nash and Hudson in 1957. The compact Rambler platform would yield a new small car – the American. In 1959, the Rambler American would be one of the first of a new wave of small cars.
Another compact car that became a byproduct of a merger came from Studebaker-Packard. In 1958, the Packard name was sent off into the sunset, while Studebaker was developing a new small car. The Lark took a shortened frame and created a modern design on top of it. The car arrived for the 1959 model year taking a major step in showing what Studebaker can do to help frame a new class of automobile.
By the end of 1959, GM, Ford, and Chrysler would join American Motors and Studebaker in offering an American compact car for the masses. The Valiant offered exuberant styling as a way to extend Chrysler’s “Forward Look” onto its smallest vehicle. The Corvair took their cue from the Europeans by putting an air-cooled six-cylinder engine in the rear. The result was an engineering nightmare that compromised front-end handling, as pointed out by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
The most conventional offering came from Ford. The Falcon was a humble design that would have a life outside of North America. The Australian unit of Ford went on to build a version of this Falcon as their own, while North Americans saw it as the precursor of one of the greatest vehicle introductions of the 1960s – the Mustang.
If one particular piece of motoring history would sum up the 1950s, it would be the hardtop roof. It was a signature of confidence in automotive design enabled a car to feel like a convertible by opening up the side glasshouse. Automakers relied on the strength of the roof without the support of a B-pillar for further structural integrity.
However, the hardtop roof evoked the most romantic names for the cars they were built on. Names, such as Holiday, Riviera, Catalina, Hollywood, Country Club, Victoria, Newport, Mayfair, and Starliner – to name a few. These names took on a life of their own aside from which car or trim level they wore.
Each pillarless hardtop model was an experience onto its own. They were the epitome of 1950s American society in providing a sense of open-air freedom without having to work a retractable cloth roof.
This was part of the optimism of postwar America. We aspired to be great by living great. The cars of the 1950s reflected this post-victory mentality that we conquered the roots of evil by showing what we’re made. It was audacity, optimism, and arrogance shaped by metal, rubber, and nylon.