Classic Cars: Rock and Rolling Through the Decades

General Motors exhibit at Century 21 Exposition, 1962
1950s "Jet Age" concept car at General Motors exhibit, Century 21, Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

The other day, while driving, I heard the absolutely wonderful early ’50s sound of a Bo Diddley song. It was unique to its times with its driving African rhythm and made me realize how much we’ve changed from the early days of the ’50s.

Cars of the early ’50s were rather conservative post-WWII designs, and many of them were powered by prewar engines that were certainly sturdy studies in practical and safe engineering. Most Chrysler and Ford products still ran flathead cast-iron cylinder heads, and Chevrolet still had its trusty old “stovebolt six” powering its products. GM was starting to get frisky with overhead valve V-8 engines with their higher priced offerings, the Oldsmobile and Cadillac, but they were still in postwar chassis and bodies.

In 1953, Chevrolet stunned the automotive world when it introduced the new Corvette. It was a beautiful sports car made out of a new space-age plastic called fiberglass. The future was around the corner. For Detroit, 1955 was a pivotal year. Chevrolet introduced a new V-8 engine (whose basic design is still in production today). Ford wowed everyone with its new two- seat Thunderbird, and Chrysler showed the world it could produce the most powerful car in America, the Chrysler 300.

All the cars of 1955 were so different from the early cars of the ’50s. They almost, like a lightning bolt of change, hit all the design studios of every manufacturer at the same time. It was truly amazing and the world took notice. Soon, Detroit products were watched by every car manufacturer in the world. Detroit inspired wraparound windshields, which appeared on many cars in Europe. One big trend, of course, was the tail fin that first appeared as a modest appendage on the 1949 Cadillac. Ten years later, the tail fin morphed into the stupendously tall tail fins of the 1959 Cadillac. Why this design element caught on has always been a mystery, but eventually, virtually every car had tail fins. Why, even the staid British Bentley grew a small pair.

We also forget how many wild two-tone paint jobs were offered on cars as the ’50s wore on. Pink and white was fairly popular. So was chartreuse. Another common silly visual design detail on late ’50s iron was an over abundance of chrome. It was everywhere. On dashboards, around windows, and festooned over the bodywork. There were especially large chrome bumpers that were so big they could have worked as a cow catcher. In my memory, the grand champion of chrome and fat bumpers was the 1958 Oldsmobile. On a sunny day, you not only had to wear sunglasses to drive an Olds convertible, but you needed to protect your eyes from sun glare to just look at one.

As the ’50s wore on, cars got crazier and louder with highway presence—twin radio antennas, prominent dual exhausts poking through bumpers, gas caps hidden under taillights or behind license plates and super size whitewalls. Some details were even silly, like metal wire curb feelers jutting off the passenger side lower bodywork to tell dummy drivers when they were close to the curb during parking.

The only problem with the “jet age” modern look of all these cars is that most of them were still running on old prewar chassis. Most ’50s American cars had primitive solid rear axles, and many still had drum brakes. Plus they all rode on bias ply tires designed in the late 1920s. To sum up, they looked great, but the handling was lousy. The ’50s started with Diddley and ended with Elvis. The ’60s were around the corner and so were the Beatles. Automobile design calmed down and has improved ever since. I wish I could say the same about the music.

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