We kids of the 50s loved cars. We could hardly wait to see what Detroit had produced in innovative designs and mechanical marvels.
Are the new ones out this year? I haven’t heard much about them. Perhaps they’re already on the road. Without much fanfare these days, the recent arrivals take their places in traffic.
For we who were kids in the 1950s, the introduction of new cars in the fall was an exciting event. We considered it truly “neat” when the shiny new steel and chrome creations were presented in a flurry of banners, bands and advertising hyperbole. The automobile manufacturers added a lot of suspense to their presentation. No one was allowed to peek at the fresh design until the appointed hour.
The mystery was heightened when we walked past a showroom and saw only a vague shape of the new car hidden under a huge canvas, awaiting a ceremonious unveiling.
Every kid on the block knew all the different models. We could tell a ’49 Ford from a ’50 Ford, although they appeared identical to the untrained eye (the door handle was the give-away.) At 100 yards, we could distinguish a Chevy Biscayne from a Bel-Air. Dodges and DeSotos looked a lot alike, but we knew which was which.
The Pontiacs were easy, with their Indian chief on the hood. Sedan, station wagon, coupe, hardtop, convertible – we could name them all. We knew what was coming out of the Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler factories. We knew our Studebakers, Hudsons, Kaisers, and Ramblers, too.
Each car had its distinctive body style and, in a glance, you could tell one from another. With Buicks, you didn’t even have to see them to know them. You could close your eyes and name the Buick by the unmistakable whine of its Dyna-Flow transmission.
Car designers must have had fun in those days. Today every car seems to require the same aerodynamic shape, but in the ‘50s massive grills and high roofs and protruding fins were allowed.
The cars of that era had personalities. A little two-door green Plymouth stood for conservative values. Cadillacs and Lincolns meant wealth and prestige. The Studebaker was futuristic and a little radical. The sporty Corvette and Thunderbird came along in the 50s, too, and they meant youth and adventure. Some were a little strange: The funny-looking Henry-J, the tiny Crosley, and the bathtub Nash. The Ford Edsel, premiered in 1957, became a symbol for failure in all areas of endeavor.
I kept up with all the cars until the early ‘60s. My expertise seems to end with the first Ford Mustang. After that, I got busy with other things and, it seems to me, the car business became more confusing. Models came and went with greater frequency and they all began to conform to a basic shape. I can still tell a Honda from a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes still looks more impressive than a Geo Storm, but most of the cars in between are pretty nondescript.
These days, as I drive the modern road, I occasionally see a 1953 Buick Special or a ’55 Ford Fairlane or a ’56 Packer Clipper. Each one seems like an old friend from childhood days.
We 50's Kids Knew Our Cars