Name the best year for the automobile – ever?
Yes, it is a loaded question. It is with historical context, however. It was ten years removed from a war that should have ended all wars. Unfortunately, a spat between Korean partisans turned into an international affair splitting the peninsula in half. The same trouble was brewing in Vietnam, a soon-to-be former French colony. Even those within the Soviet Bloc weren’t buying into the new world order as envisioned by Karl Marx. Hungary was a year away from challenging Moscow on whether it should be their superpower or not.
In the meantime, the idea of colonialism and imperialism began to wane. Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent, African states began to claim independence from their European overseers. The new African states would soon be joined by other new nations worldwide.
Then, there was the United States of America. If there was an ultimate winner in World War II, it would be big nation in the middle of North America. The spoils of the victors came with abundant new housing in vast new land tracts, a slew of jobs for returning veterans, cheap petrol and a lifestyle change that became more consumptive than ever. That is, of course, if you were Caucasian, heterosexual and male. Yet, that paradigm of the status quo was about to change as well…
As the world changed from a post-war rebuilding of the universe to a forward-thinking society, transportation has changed along with the times. American auto makers were enjoying the rewards of our victory over the Axis powers through thriving sales of their wares. While General Motors, Ford and Chrysler welcomed new consumers at their showrooms, changes were happening outside of the Big Three. Hudson and Nash merged into American Motors. Studebaker and Packard became a single entity. Willys-Overland would also become part of Kaiser, bringing a war hero along – Jeep.
If you guessed that I was referring to 1955 through all of this mish-mash of history and veiled commentary, then you’re a winner! If there was a time when confidence – real or imagined – was overflowing in the automotive industry, you looked no further than the White House and former General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike embodied the spoils of victory – a war hero, master leader, playing golf on the White House lawn with an eye of Nikita Khrushchev.
To celebrate that wonderful year, I devised up a My Favorites listing of automobiles that made the year what it was. I'm certain there are no surprises amongst these five. After all, it remains a very memorable year (despite my not being born for another nine years afterwards).
CHRYSLER C-300: No one ever created such a fast American car for its time. The idea of speed was the fantasy of hot rodders and their modified Fords from the 1920s and 1930s. The question had to be asked: What if you took the notion of speed and performance and put it into a mainstream production car? There were plenty of attempts to do so, but nothing as successful as the original Chrysler 300. Under the hood was a 5.4litre FirePower Hemi V8 with two four-barrel carburetors that delivered 300HP – a figure never heard of before in series production. The body may have been a mash-up of a New Yorker hardtop coupe, a Windsor rear end and an Imperial front end; it gave the C-300 a fearless stance on the track and on the road. It ruled NASCAR's top series that year. From that point, the Letter Series elevated the original C-300 to new levels of performance with each year/letter. Think of it as the original SRT model – a study in superlatives in a time when they were welcomed wholeheartedly.
CHEVROLET: There is a battle with history where the Chevrolet faithful would rather have us love the 1957 version above any other from the 1950s. True, the 1957 yielded record sales for the brand and offered some design and performance benchmarks to boot. Yet, the '57's chassis, basic design and engineering came from the 1955 model. To explain, General Motors redesigned all of their vehicles for 1955. The basic shell and chassis were modified greatly, but continued to accommodate engines and transmissions from each different brand. Windows wrapped around the front for better vision, meeting an upright A-pillar. The structure was strengthened for a series of hardtop (without a B-pillar) 4-door sedans. In Chevrolet's case, the brand introduced its first high-compression V8. You can get a Chevy in three flavors, but the most desirable one was the Bel Air with its available two-tone color combinations, chrome trim and overall swagger. You can only get the convertible in the Bel Air trim. The '55 started everything for Chevrolet's success in the mid-1950s – the iconic 1957 model included.
FORD THUNDERBIRD: Two years earlier, the Chevrolet Corvette was introduced as America’s answer to the European sports car. Though the fiberglass body was an advance for the time, customers were disappointed by the overall size, the Blue Flame six and the Powerglide automatic underneath the hood. Though it took a couple of years to get it right, Ford came out fighting with its answer to the Corvette and the Europeans. The T-Bird offered V8s and a manual gearbox right at the beginning. It also came in a hardtop and convertible, just the Corvette of the time. Though it emphasized luxury, its lighter weight and tracking gave Ford a slight advantage on a vastly improving Corvette. Sadly, the two-seat T-Bird only lasted through 1957 – giving way to a four-seat personal luxury coupe. It was fun while it lasted…
CITROEN DS: The Americans weren't the only ones rolling out new metal for 1955. Technically, this would be a 1956 model year product since it debuted at the Paris Auto Show in October. Since I’m dealing with details, the DS were full of them. While Citroen already had a handle on front-wheel-drive, it began adding more advances that would simply challenge conventional thinking. Hydraulic systems were expanded for suspension dampening, clutch and gearbox operation. Though the hydropneumatic suspension system was introduced a year before, its standardized and integrated use in the DS drew attention to what the advanced Citroen could do. Further to the point, no one has ever seen an automobile quite like it before. It was not just a design leader, but a point of architectural reference. Heads of state, executives and the well-to-do found this comfortable car to their liking. Production continued well into the 1970s with production points on three continents.
PACKARD: Before World War II, Packard was on equal footing with Cadillac, Lincoln and the Chrysler Imperial in terms of prestige and luxury. The introduction of the Clipper was seen as a "cheapening" of the brand and would affect Packard's ability to regain footing in the prestige market. By the mid-1950s, Packards were compared to Buicks, DeSotos, Chryslers and the Lincoln Capri. Before the merger with Studebaker, a new Packard was on the drawing board to join the multitude of newly designed and engineered automobiles for that year. Instead of melding itself to Studebaker's lineup, Packard released the new Clipper and Senior models (400 and Patrician) from their Detroit assembly line. Their designs were more modern to match the needs of mid-1950s America – sleeker than before. Still, there was carryover from the previous generation, though deftly masked with a wraparound window. Still the new Packard could not save the brand from eventual oblivion. By 1958, Studebaker simply let the old luxury brand die on the vine. It, too, would be history by 1966. Before it did keel over, Packard left an intriguing legacy behind with its 1955 redesign.