1950s mark the emergence of all things American and cars lead the way.
There were brilliant colors — yellow, turquoise, and coral — and soaring tail fins -- Cadillac and DeSoto ended up with the largest. Grinning, wide-mouthed grilles on Buick Roadmasters and Desoto Fireflights tore up the country's pristine superhighways. Cars were seen as an indicator of prosperity and coolness. Distinctive cars of the fifties came in several styles — 2-door and 4-door sedans, 2-door hardtop coupes, convertibles, and station wagons—from several manufacturers. Chevrolet Bel Air convertibles, Ford Country Squire station wagons, and Dodge Lancers dotted the parking lots of new suburban shopping malls.
Fantasy in Chrome, Stainless Steel, and Tail Fins
In the 1950s, sleek, chromed and finned, low-priced cars were introduced to the mass market and the industry sharpened their sales pitches to persuade customers to change their models every year or two. Status symbolism was important and consumers were prepared to accept and enjoy stylistic obsolescence as inevitable. By the early 1950s, brightly polished chrome on bumpers, door handles, head light surrounds, and body trim had become the main means through which automobiles expressed their individuality. Their pressed steel bodies provided a canvas upon which imagination could be portrayed.
The main development in American automobile styling of the 1950s was the influence of jet fighter-plane styling and the emergence of wraparound windshields and tail fins. They were expressions of the power, speed, and image of the future. General Motors designer, Harley Earl, moved beyond the curved aerodynamic streamlined look, a heritage from the prewar period, and adopted a suggestion of tail-fins. The tail-fin took on increasingly dramatic proportions, often incorporating tail lights within it. Designer, Virgil Exner, created ‘motion while standing still’ with his ‘Forward Look’ for Chrysler. Three-tone paint schemes, especially at Dodge and Desoto, brought striking new colors to the showrooms. The automakers and their designers created the classic cars that are instantly associated with the 1950s.
1950s Cars -- Longer, Lower, and More Powerful
The automobile industry was booming. The country was optimistic about Detroit’s futuristic styling of graceful, hardtop coupes and convertibles. In 1955 alone, American’s produced more than 7,000,000 cars with longer1, wider, and lower2styling, updated interiors, and powerful engines. The average car was over six feet wide, eighteen feet long and weighed 4,000 pounds. Bigger cars meant bigger profits. Motivational research reported that consumers craved bigness, and there was a postwar emphasis on material goods as a measure of success. The side profile of the car became lower and lower, offset by the heavy styling of the front, which emphasized weight, a necessary quality of the new luxury status symbol. These commercial symbols of achievement looked luxurious but they were available to everybody. They became essential appendages of the American suburban lifestyle, representing the aspirations of a mass market, which valued, in this area of its life at least, the twin concepts of dynamism and modernity. Flamboyant styling was explored and serious engine performance developed. Horsepower ratings reached new highs with figures approaching 300. Speedometers registered up to 120 miles an hour even though speed limits were capped at 75-80mph.
1. Between 1946 and 1955 cars stretched 6 inches longer and added another 6 inches by the decade’s end. 2. Between 1946 and 1955 car height was reduced from nearly 6 feet high to less than 5 feet high.
Car makers sold automobiles and small trucks under a range of different brand names, each aimed at a different sector of the market:
#1 General Motors (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC trucks) sold nearly four million cars and trucks in 1955.
#2 Ford (Ford, Thunderbird, Edsel, Mercury, Lincoln, Continental) sold more than two million cars and trucks in 1955. [Ford took over second place in 1952 from Chrysler]
#3 Chrysler (Plymouth, Desoto, Dodge, Chrysler, Imperial) sold more than a million cars and trucks in 1955.
#4 Studebaker / Packard, the world’s 4th largest full-line producer of cars and trucks was created in 1954 when Studebaker and Packard combined. In 1955 they sold nearly 200,000 units.
#5 American Motors (Rambler, Hudson, Nash) sold more than 150,000 cars in 1955.
Smaller companies, Willys, Kaiser,and Checker, sold less than 5,000 cars each.
Total Units sold in 1955:
General Motors 3,989,987 - Ford 2,240,661 - Chrysler 1,370,736 Studebaker/Packard 181,397 - American Motors 161,790 - Willys 4,778 - Kaiser 1,021