Cars Of The 1950s: Space-Age Fins And Chrome Everything
1957 Ford Thunderbird. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
In 1950, there were about 40 million cars on the road, nationwide. By the end of the decade, that number almost doubled. Having a car in the driveway was just one piece of the “American Dream” puzzle. Having a car became synonymous with success. Post-World II America boasted new automobiles that the consumers fell in love with.
Unlike cars of today, cars of the 50’s were enormous. You could get the entire family, Grandma included, in one car. They also had big motors that guzzled gas like crazy
European car manufacturers were turning out small, sub-compact cars and even sports cars. American car manufacturers didn’t want anything to do with those “foreign” cars.
The “Big Three” car manufacturers battled each other for years. General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation were the top American car manufacturers. The three did their best to stay one step ahead of the other two and fought, tooth and nail, to maintain their top status. The Big Three had some stiff competition in automobile manufacturing in the 50’s.
Crosley, Hudson, Kraiser-Frazer, Nash, Packard, Studebaker and Willys were all competitors of the top three sellers. They managed to considerably water down market share for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. More importantly, they brought important innovations and great new features to consumers.
Car buyers wanted their cars dripping with chrome -- the flashier, the better.
Everyone was excited when the new car models were introduced in the 50’s. For days leading up to the big reveal the dealers would paper their showroom windows to hide the new car models until they were ready for the grand opening type event. It was a big deal! Everyone talked cars, discussed the new models and knew the specifics like horsepower, cubic inches, features and of course, the cost.
The automobile industry in the United States, established in 1950, boasted a new, all-time production of 7,987,000 vehicles.
Henry Ford introduced America to the automobile, but Detroit gave it style, splendor and pizzazz. No decade in history ever matched the 50’s in the automobile industry.
While the style and construction of the day represented conformity, the American car screamed out the Country’s optimism. It was an enthusiastic decade of hope. Detroit’s car manufacturers looked at conformity as an alien concept and did everything in their power to excite buyers to flock to their new car showrooms.
Tailfins on cars during this era somewhat resembled deep-sea creatures.
Crosley Motors ended up throwing in the towel in 1952. Unfortunately, they had misread the market for compact cars. America just wasn’t ready for it. Hudson, who had been making cars since 1910, was compelled to merge with Nash Motors by the end of 1953. The end result of the merger was the formation of American Motors Company (AMC).
Kaiser-Frazer after having phased out Frazer models by the end of 1951 acquires Willys Overland Motors in 1953 but succumbs to market pressure and moves its operations to Argentina where it continues to sell cars.
It was announced that air conditioning was available as “optional equipment” on at least three 1953 cars.
Power steering was only available on one car in 1951. That number increased to five models in1952 models. Also coming out in 1951 were power brakes which were available on two models by 1952. Air conditioning was available in cars, starting in 1953.
With all of the new advances and options available when purchasing an automobile, prices began to climb. That being said, taxes rose even higher. It was estimated that out of the average price of $2,000 paid for a new automobile, about one third, went to taxes.
Studebaker, having one of the most state-of-the-art designs of its time, merged with Packard Motor Company in 1954. This was a strategic move to join forces to compete with the “Big Three.” Packard all but disappeared by 1957. Studebaker survived the decade with a revival in sales in 1959 and continued to make cars until 1966. Unfortunately, the company was never again a serious competitor.
Ford’s Motor Company’s Edsel fiasco will go down in history, but that’s another story, altogether. These days, cars are smaller, sleeker, more fuel efficient and practical. Cars in the 1950’s were the exact opposite. They weren’t economical, environmentally friendly or even particularly safe, with no seat belts, but they sure were something else!
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