American Cars of the Fifties

By Elton Camp Archie and Edith Bunker recalled better days when “girls were girls and men were men” as well as their belief that their “old LaSalle ran great.” That reflected a love affair the American public had with the automobile, starting with the Model T Ford in 1904, and growing tremendously over the decades that followed. Of particular emphasis here are the cars of the fifties, a unique, or some might say grotesque, period in the history of the American automobile. Some, like me, recall it with fondness. The Second World War put a temporary end to automobile production. The factories that had made them turned out tanks and army vehicles for the duration of the conflict. The period of prosperity that followed the end of the war resulted in an unprecedented call for automobiles. Enabling the demand was the fact that many wives had gone to work outside the home. Rather than returning to their former roles as stay-athome wives and mothers when the war ended, many continued to work. Two-income families were created as their husbands reentered the workforce. Not only could people afford vehicles, but also the ones in operation were old and about worn out. A car of those days was typically at the end of its useful life at about 60,000 miles, often sooner. In the entire decade of the 1950s, virtually all cars sold in the United States were American made. By their practices and the choices they made, the manufacturers laid the justified foundation for the perception of the public that they turned out inferior products that couldn’t be trusted. The flood of poorly engineered automobiles were, for the most part, high maintenance and unreliable. Workmanship in assembly was slovenly and uncaring by assembly line workers who sometimes seemed to regard their employer as an enemy to be hurt in any way open to them. Gas mileage was dismal and became even worse as the “horsepower” race took hold. Nevertheless, despite grumbling, few truly cared because fuel was cheap and readily available. Despite multiple defects in the cars, recalls were rare, done mainly when the makers determined fixing a problem would be less costly than paying customers injured or killed by their dangerous machines. That nefarious practice continued far beyond the fifties. “The Big Three” made most of them. General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler Corporation ruled as kings. “The low priced three,” the ones that accounted for most sales, were Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth. Consumers bought them because of their affordability although they had about as much prestige value as an old pair of shoes. People aspired to own the middle priced, or even the high priced makes. To “keep up with the Joneses” was the order of the day. A car was a public statement of one’s success or the lack thereof. General Motors manufactured Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC trucks. The offerings were designed to lead consumers progressively through

the series over the years as income and status increased. Cadillac, the luxury model, billed itself as “The Standard of the World.” Ford Motor Company featured fewer models with Ford, Thunderbird, Mercury, and Lincoln filling the low, medium, and high priced desires of its customers. The twoseater Thunderbird was a sports model during 1955-57, but sold slowly due to cost and lack of quality and dependability. It was also impractical for family causing Ford to enlarge it to a sedan seating four or five. That change destroyed its distinctive styling and any claim to being a sports car. Chrysler Corporation had a similar plan with Plymouth, Dodge, Desoto, Chrysler, and in many years, the majestic Imperial, that aspired to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln. Adding to the mix were the even more inferior offerings of Rambler, Nash, and Hudson. These merged businesses as well as names in a futile attempt to survive. Advertisements appeared for Nash Rambler and Hudson Rambler and just plain Rambler.

Hudson Rambler Henry J. Kaiser contributed makes such as the tiny Henry J, the Kaiser, and it’s brother, the Fraizer. Willis and Jeep added their offerings to the transportation mix.

Henry J was a Small, Inexpensive Car

Kaiser-Fraizer Were Separate Makes, but Merged

Studebaker, a former wagon maker, issued a line of strangely styled vehicles. Some models appeared to have two “front ends.” Some, like my Grandfather Morris, swore by them, while others swore at them. The company ultimately failed.

1952 Studebaker “Ask the man who drives one,” boasted Packard, a long-established luxury vehicle. The last “real” Packard came out in 1956. After that, the company was forced to merge with the also-failing Studebaker and put out a few ridiculous cars reviled by the public as Packard-Bakers. They were nothing but Studebakers with fancy trim, luxury options, and the name Packard placed prominently across the front in shining chrome. It was a sad end to a distinguished car.

1956 Packard Despite the serious shortcomings of the various American-made vehicles, the public snapped up the more popular brands at a furious rate. Styling outweighed all else in the buyers’ eyes. Those “in the know” generally regarded the vehicles of Chrysler Corporation as being the best engineered and most reliable of what was available, but the boxy cars had little styling until the 1955 models and so sold sluggishly. Most all spoke well of them, but few bought them. Many consumers routinely purchased a new car every three years, partly to a manufacturing ploy known as “planned obsolescence.” Styling changed, sometimes dramatically, every two to three years. It was obvious who was driving the older vehicles. Status was threatened. By the time a car was paid off, it was time to buy a new one. Few items were “standard equipment” on any but luxury models. Even such basics as a heater, radio, turn signals, and backup lights were extra cost options and not always present. Windshield wipers were based on compression from the engine rather than being electric. As such, they slowed and stopped in a heavy downpour when the car came to a crawl. Power steering and power brakes were uncommon to the extent that the words were often engraved on the center of the steering wheel and across the brake pad both as a boast and as a warning. Chrome words on the back of a car might inform jealous onlookers of the presence of such luxury accessories as “Hydra-Matic,” “Ford-O-

Matic,” or “Dynaflow,” or “Level Air,” a new type of suspension that replaced springs. A conspicuous “V” centered on the trunk might announce the presence of a V-8 engine. Dual exhaust pipes carried enough cache that a few individual car owners bolted a nonfunctional extra piece of exhaust pipe of the side opposite the real one, making sure that it extended enough beyond the bumper that it could be seen. A styling feature shared by virtually all American cars from the mid to late 1950s was the wraparound or panoramic windshield. It was a gimmick, but wildly popular with the public. Few liked the banged knees that resulted from a hasty entry to the front seat. Yet, the couple of cars that didn’t have the feature took drastic sales hits. The 1955 Studebaker was forced to modify production midyear to add it. The 1955 Lincoln saw its sales plummet. Potential buyers moved to competing models and cited as the reason “It doesn’t have a wraparound windshield.”

Panoramic Windshield, a Styling Gimmick of the Mid 50s Ford Motor Company was the oldest of the American manufacturers. The Ford and Chevrolet remained in fierce competition to be the best selling car. To win carried bragging rights and great advertising value. At that time the most expensive American car by far was the 1955 Continental that cost a jaw-dropping $10,000. The two-door vehicle was out of reach of all but the wealthiest people. Ford sold only a handful of them. Hides for the leather seats were accepted only from cattle raised where barbed wire fences weren’t found. No imperfections could be in the upholstery. They were personalized with the owner’s nameplate and shipped in a fleece-lined bag. Despite the unprecedented price and extreme luxury features, they weren’t dependable.

1955 Continental The 1955 and 1956 Mercury Montclair were fine looking cars in the medium-price field, especially the two-door models with a clear roof over the front seat. Norma Jean,

Aunt Georgia’s daughter, had one parked behind their country store. I enjoyed looking at it and was disappointed that she never invited me to sit inside it.

1956 Mercury Montclair My all-time favorite is the 1956 Lincoln Premier sedan. It was a totally new style with virtually no resemblance to the pervious year. I still think it’s the most beautiful car ever made with its long, low, sleek lines and conservative use of chrome. If I were rich, I’d buy one just for the styling if I could find it. The first example I ever saw was at the Lincoln dealer in South Town in Guntersville. There it was in all its glory. It was a white four-door sedan with a dark blue top. I walked around and around it to take in all I could without being able to get inside. The doors were locked. I knew. I tried each one. To be seated in that car would’ve been a major thrill. In fact, I never learned what it looked like from the inside. I’d still like to sit in one, even if only for a couple of minutes. Doyle Harris, a high school classmate of my father, who operated the cleaners in North Town bought that very car, so I was able to enjoy seeing it parked in front of his business for years afterward. Doyle’s son bought a red Lincoln Premier convertible, but I thought the sedan was the classier vehicle.

1956 Lincoln Sedan Even with an auto of such exorbitant cost (about $6000), Ford Motor Company continued its practice of turning out lemons and doing nothing about it. Clytie McDaniel rode with another teacher who owned a 1956 Lincoln. I often watched as they struggled to crank it each day at the end of school. After about ten minutes, the motor would sputter into action and they drove away uneasily. The dealer said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but the car’s no good. It won’t last more than a few thousand miles.” Ford Motor Company, like General Motors and Chrysler, typically tried to avoid assuming responsibility for its mistakes. Lincoln didn’t stand behind that one despite it being practically new and a luxury model. That pattern continued into the sixties, seventies, eighties, and even into the nineties to some extent. It’s little wonder that those

companies, as of 2009, face either bankruptcy or great financial difficulty due to declining sales. Lincoln ruined the car, as far as I was concerned, with the 1957 model. Instead of the magnificent flowing lines, they installed an ugly fake air scoop on the side. The only one I saw up close was at the high school. Some big shot came there to visit and left his chauffeur at the wheel of his sedan. The boys gathered around the car and induced the man to demonstrate its many elegant features. That was the first time I’d seen a power antenna and power vent windows in operation. It impressed me enough that I still remember that day in detail all these years later. I didn’t know any car could be that fancy.

1957 Lincoln General Motors was such a behemoth that it was sometimes claimed, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” It was a debatable assertion. Chevrolet underwent a metamorphosis in styling with the 1955 model and improved in appearance until the emergence of the 1957 Bel Air coupe, the darling of collectors of vintage cars. It was beautiful and roomy. Teenage boys could reasonably dream of owning one due to its relatively modest cost.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible At that time, Buick was selling at a brisk pace. It rose, in 1955, to third place in sales after Chevrolet and Ford. Buick’s appeal was based mainly on styling and garish color combinations that caught the public fancy. Two-tone cars were common, but Buick did the industry one better with three tones. Some of the color combinations clashed. They sold rapidly which was the only standard that mattered to General Motors. Inferior engineering and sloppy assembly made them troublesome gas-guzzlers. The Dynaflow transmission shifted imperceptively, but was subject to premature failure. The assembly line problems came to be so severe that savvy consumers checked the date of manufacture and refused any car of any model put together on a Monday.

Compounding the problem, Buicks of the mid fifties required significantly more costly premium fuel. The Buick models in increasing order of cost and luxury were: Special, Century, Super, and Roadmaster. The Special and Century had the same body, but the Century shared the huge motor of the two larger models, making it extremely powerful. The Century had a far more elegant interior than the plain Jane Special that we owned. It included elegant metal strips from side to side across the headliner. Those strips were a hallmark of a nice car. The Super and Roadmaster shared the same body, but the top model had a more luxurious interior and the golden word, “Roadmaster” inserted into its grille. My favorite Buick was the Roadmaster, especially the sedan. Madge Kennamer in Guntersville had a 1955 model, white with a light green top. I thought it one of the most beautiful cars I’d ever seen. Decades later that car lay rusting and decaying in a junkyard in Guntersville and still looked majestic even in its debased condition.

1955 Buick Roadmaster I liked the 1955 Pontiac, although not as much as the Buick. Sylvia Cochran drove a green and cream model to school and Ed Howard had a red convertible. I got to sit in the convertible a few times when we were on break at the high school, but rode in it since Ed got a new car every few months and soon had an even nicer model. The 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight was a beautiful car, specially the four-door hardtop. A hardtop was a model that had no post at the side of the roof so that it looked a bit like a convertible. The first cars to be built that way with four doors were the smaller Buicks and the Oldsmobiles.

1955 Oldsmobile Hardtop The hardtop feature also caught on with the public and quickly spread to most models. It made them less safe in a rollover accident. Squeaks, leaks, and rattles often accompanied the lack of a center support. None of that mattered. Styling was everything. Consumer advocates protested and mocked, but the buying public had the final say.

When we were on break at the high school we often sat outside. I watched for a light blue and white 1955 Ninety-Eight Olds to pull out of the driveway of a house across the street. I not only liked the car, but it was the first time I’d seen power windows in operation. Cars of that time rarely had air conditioning. The man who owned it buzzed all four windows down each time as he backed out of his driveway. I thought the automatic operation really elegant. Miss Kitty, the long-time history and Latin teacher, drove a 1955 Olds, but it was the cheaper Super 88, an ugly two-tone gray, and no special features. It was an old person’s car. She parked in the same spot alongside the drive every morning. General Motors cars that I liked included the 1955 and 1956 Cadillac, especially the Fleetwood, Coupe DeVille and Sedan DeVille. Little difference existed between those two years. At that time, Cadillac was really distinctive and not many could afford to buy them. To own one was a mark of financial success. The make advertised itself as “The standard of the world” which had been distorted from its original meaning to mean “the very best.” The assertion was incorrect, but it was an elegant, instantly recognizable vehicle.

1955 Cadillac Fleetwood Mrs. Bray, wife of one of the local doctors, drove a white1954 Cadillac convertible that had similar styling to the 1955 model. Every day I watched her come with the top down and pick up her kids at school. I thought that was the height of luxury and class. Today, the use of an open vehicle with no seat belts or air bags to transport children would be considered irresponsible. In 1953 one of the first top-of –the-line Cadillac sedans seen in Albertville belonged to Mrs. Doctor Rogers. In that day, the wife of a doctor was always designated in that manner. “Mrs.” went in front of the professional title and last name of her husband. Such women might even introduce themselves with those pompous words. Females were frequently defined in terms of their husbands, especially if the husband was prominent or wealthy. Today, such usage would be laughed at as ridiculous sexism.

1953 Cadillac

At times their chauffeur drove the massive vehicle, but Mrs. Rogers herself often was at the wheel. It was a blue four-door Fleetwood. The car cost over $4000 in 1953, making it the talk of the town to the extent that it embarrassed Mrs. Rogers. Mouths dropped agape even more, a couple of years later, when Dr. Rogers added a 1955 Buick Roadmaster coupe as his personal vehicle. The couple could well afford the luxury models, but that didn’t prevent wagging tongues in the small town. The example of the Cadillac shows how much costs of cars have changed over the years. Of course, incomes increased along with them. As to Chrysler Corporation, I didn’t like their cars nearly as well. While their engineering was above the industry standard, they lacked pleasing styling despite a major effort in 1956 with “the 100 Million Dollar Look.” The 1955 Chrysler New Yorker caught my eye partly because my favorite teacher, Mrs. Weathers, drove one to school. Charles McPherson’s family also bought one, but it was an ugly yellow and green.

1955 Chrysler New Yorker Patsy Williams’ family drove a gold 1955 Chrysler Imperial that was the talk of the town, mainly because of its color. The next year they bought a 1966 Chrysler New Yorker, red and white two-door hardtop, but also kept the Imperial. I thought they were rich and they probably were. Certainly, they had more than we did, by far.

1955 Imperial DeSoto sold fairly well, but the only one I liked was the 1957 model which is the one featured in the comic strip “Shoe,” currently appearing in the newspaper. It was a behemoth, characteristic of the bizarre tastes of that time.

1957 DeSoto

DeSoto was the sponsor of the popular TV show, You Bet Your Life, starring Groucho Marx. The ads adapted a song to say, “Groucho sent me and I love to drive the new DeSoto. Groucho sent me and I love to drive this car. You can tell at a glance that that swell car is far in advance. Its great big engine murmuring low, raring to go. It’s delightful, it’s delovely, it’s DeSoto.” In reality, the car was essentially a cheaper version of the Chrysler. It wasn’t needed at the time or later, and ultimately was quietly discontinued due to low sales. Until well into the fifties, relatively few cars had air conditioning. As far back as the late forties, units were available, but they were ungainly contraptions mounted in plain view on the outside of the car. They worked poorly and weren’t popular.

1949 Hudson With External Air Conditioner The first car I personally saw with air conditioning was a 1955 Dodge sedan. The vehicle had outside air scoops. The air conditioner took up a big part of the trunk and the cooled air reached the passenger compartment through two clear plastic sleeves that arose from behind the back seat. It belonged to the Holders in Albertville. The Holders were an older couple who’d been unable to have children, but in relatively old age, they adopted a girl they named Rebecca. Mother had Rebecca in class. At Christmas, the girl gave her a tiny model of the U.S. Capitol. Her comment was, “I know you’ll never get to see it, so I gave you this.” Actually Mother had already visited the capitol twice and went back another time some years after that. A car of that period could never have too much chrome nor be too long. In the later part of the 1950s, tail fins sprouted and grew to absurd extremes. The most laughable example was the 1959 Cadillac. The ultimate in chrome appeared in the 1958 Buick. After that, customer tastes changed and more sensible styling prevailed.

Ridiculous Tail Fins on 1959 Cadillac

Garish Chrome of 1958 Buick My most intense personal interest was confined to the 55, 56, and 57 models. After that, details of automobiles seemed increasingly trivial and boring. I still look, with nostalgia, at models of those years. Sometimes I watch old movies from that period, mainly to see the cars I recall so fondly from teenage years. If it were somehow possible to have a brand-new car from the mid fifties, it would doubtless be a disappointment as soon as the thrill wore off. They drove poorly, shook, rattled, and swayed as they aimed uncertainly down the roadway. Many things are better confined to idealized versions created by the fickle thing called memory. I can enjoy those old vehicles anytime I please, even as I am doing right now. It’s best kept that way.