Imagine if I lived in the 1950s.
In some ways, it was a time for a nation to celebrate its greatest victory, despite a militaristic detour in Korea. It was a time when everyone was supposed to happy and free. A few of us had televisions, but we knew that was the future.
The 1950s provided a glimpse into the future. The Soviets blasted off into space, which was inconceivable at the time. We were flying in faster jet-powered airliners, plugging in guitars, basses and everything else in our music. We even saw a nation that could possibly be integrated and united.
Yet, in that era – I would be classified with an illness, or a few. Homosexuality was considered an extreme form of deviancy that required being removed from general society (in fact, some people still think exactly that way). I better stop there…
What really made that decade were the automobiles. The Post-World War II swagger of the U.S.A. made it clear who were the top dogs on the motoring world. This swagger was despite the fact that Europe and Japan were able to attempt to equal the big victors of the war. The 1950s were full of compelling vehicles – some successful, others not so much.
Technology was not as prevalent as design. However, advances in engine performance, suspension design and the wide use of hydraulics marked the 1950s in terms of automotive advances.
What if I actually lived in the 1950s? Albeit closeted or locked up, if I lived the shiny, happy American life in Reseda, what would I drive then? You might not be surprised by what I came up with…or, would you be?
1955 OLDSMOBILE NINETY-EIGHT: If you know my personal history, you may be aware that I arrived from the hospital in a 1955 Ninety-Eight Starfire convertible by my mother. The 1955 Oldsmobile were lovely cars, but if it were me – I would rather have a roof over my head. My pick would be a Ninety-Eight, but a Holiday Coupe. Holidays were the pillarless hardtop submodel of the Oldsmobile line. A 5.3-liter Rocket V8 lurked under the hood to propel the big Olds on the highway or down the street. If I could not imagine being taken home as a baby in one of these, imagine driving one.
1951-54 HUDSON HORNET: In the early days of NASCAR, they truly went by the motto "race (or win) in Sunday, sell on Monday." One of the early champions of the circuit came from a company that needed a jumpstart in its fortunes. Hudson has always been a good upscale car from an independent manufacturer. The Hornet propelled them to a special place in automotive history. Using streamlining as the driver for its design, the step-down look turned heads as it moved across the tarmac. When it hit the track, the power from the 5.0-liter "H-145" in-line six-cylinder engine made easy work on the dirt tracks of NASCAR. It dominated NASCAR from 1951 to 1954.
1957 FORD THUNDERBIRD: A Corvette? Yeah, the name survives today as one of two American sports/supercars. But, if I were to pick one of the two-seat roadsters sold in the mid-1950s, I would go with the Thunderbird. Ford outsold Chevrolet in the American roadster market because the T-Bird was more practical and accessible – plain and simple. By 1957, Ford got the formula right though they were after a different clientele than Chevy. The Y-block 5.1-liter V8 was easily connected to a Ford-O-Matic as it propelled the little bird into cultural icon status. Of all the enlarged 1957s, why the T-Bird? It was understated and handsome. As fins grew to the heavens, the T-Bird represented some level of sanity in automotive design of the era (despite the arguments by Corvette aficionados). Ford got this one right.
1951-54 PACKARD: It was once the foil of Cadillac – an independent automaker that concentrated on the luxury market with a cast iron, side-valve in-line eight cylinder engine that was smoother than anything on the road. It was the first independent American automaker with a fully automatic gearbox, the Ultramatic. In all, you drove a Packard to waft about – as in today's Rolls-Royce Phantom and Bentley Mulsanne. Behind the scenes were turmoil and an impending merger (or two) that would eventually euthanize the old luxury brand. Yet, Packard still made good premium product in the post-Bathtub body days. For example, the 1953 Caribbean was a custom made convertible that brought exclusivity back to the red hexagon. Only 750 were made for 1953 – remaining examples yield six-figure values.
1955 CHRYSLER C-300: This was the SRT8 of its time. The 5.4-liter Firepower HEMI V8 had 300 horsepower to play with – a rare level of performance for its time. The 300 itself was a mash-up of three Chryslers: An Imperial, a New Yorker and a Windsor. The result was one of the most desired cars of its time. Only 1,725 were produced of this model – strictly a two-door hardtop model available only in three colors. It had a huge hand in NASCAR winning key races and supplanting the Hudson Hornet to the back of the pack. Consider that you could not get air conditioning in a C-300 and it was devoid of many telltale signs of other Chrysler models. If you imagine what an SRT8 would be like in the mid-1950s – this was it.
1950-59 CADILLAC: As the reigning “Standard of The World,” the Clark Avenue plant in Detroit provided its clientele the right to boast accordingly. The 1950s saw Cadillac strengthen their position as the best-selling luxury car brand in America by diving deep into their bag of tricks and extending their lead. It helped that Packard would be reduced to rubble by 1958 and that Lincoln and Imperial would become a threat by the end of the decade. Their cars throughout the 1950s were bold statements on wheels. You simply had the world in your hands with impressive power, extensive luxury engineering, and built-in gumption that needs to be driven all of the time.
1952-56 DE SOTO: In the mid-priced field, Chrysler Corporation gave you two choices. If you chose the De Soto, then you have a car that was unique in its special way. Dodge matched up with Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Mercury. Chrysler had Buick to contend with. De Soto would match up with practically everyone in the mid-priced field, and it would do so with the Firedome HEMI V8. The HEMI would be the blueprint for Chrysler Corporation’s dominance in performance for the next 2-3 decades. It all started with a brand that would soon fade away by 1961. The HEMI was the legacy it left behind.
All photos by Randy Stern