- The 1957 Chevy Bel Air, one of the most famous examples of 1950's American design

1950's America. The Cars, the Designs. (Part 1)

And four reasons why I'm absolutely in love with them.

The Introduction

I love 50's cars, that is just fact, I love almost everything about them, the design, the performance, the comfort, almost every aspect. But what is my reasoning behind this, and why do I think they are so good? I shall explain in four different articles about different aspects of American cars of the 1950's that I find to make them appealing over most other cars.

The massive fins of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, a classic American icon known for its amazing styling.

The massive fins of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, a classic American icon known for its amazing styling.

Styling-

One of the things that sets American cars of the 50's apart from any other car, of any other era, is one thing, the design. In the late 40's, Americans were coming back from WW2, recovering, and since a massive influx of GI's from the war happened, public tastes began to change, especially since there were plenty of jobs to go around. The introduction of the highway also changed American culture, as now the days of trundling through mud and dirt roads were over, and cars didn't need to be as focused on navigating difficult terrain. One very important revolution that took hold in the late 40's and early 50's was eliminating a cars "center cube," if you're wandering what the center cube is, it was seen on most cars of any point up until around the mid-forties, almost every car, except for a few VERY expensive ones, had the "center cube" design. This design was born out of necessity more than anything, to fit passengers and luggage in the space of the car.

The "center cube" was still visible even on some cars in the 1940's.

The "center cube" was still visible even on some cars in the 1940's.

The Model T Ford is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the center cube.

The Model T Ford is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the center cube.

But around 1938, a man named Harley Earl created the world's first concept car, the Buick Y job. The Y job was a revolutionary concept, as it eliminated the "center cube" and replaced it with a streamlined body, it also had pop-up headlights, and an excess of chrome trim (actual chrome, not that fake plastic chrome imitation) and power seats and windows. This concept car would go on to influence body styling in the 50's. But, in 1951, Harley Earl designed another spectacular concept car, arguably one that changed automotive styling through most of the 19th century, the General Motors Le Sabre.

The Le Sabre would go on to influence most design of the 50's with large fins, excess chrome, and bullet nose and bullet taillights.

The Le Sabre would go on to influence most design of the 50's with large fins, excess chrome, and bullet nose and bullet taillights.

As you can see, the Le Sabre looks like a conglomeration of many different styles of the 50's mixed together (specifically GM styles). It pioneered the massive chrome bullet noses of Cadillacs of the 50's, the massive fins that would be seen on almost every car, and the excess of chrome. Speaking of fins, that is one of the most important and most distinguishing features of a car from the 1950's. The tailfins started to pop up in the late 40's and gradually began to grow larger and larger, reaching above and beyond their "practical limit" a great example of this is the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, which holds the record for largest fins put on a production car. The inspiration behind these massive tailfins was fighter jets and spaceships, the 1950's were a time of great technological strides, so naturally, designers leaned to take inspiration from jet fighter aircraft by making them seem fast and futuristic with the fins (and they did succeed in that aspect.) Fins were popular for most of the 50's, reaching their greatest heights in 1959, before starting to become smaller and smaller each passing year, to where only a handful of companies even retained the slightest hint of fins (Cadillac), bringing the glorious tailfins to an end.

The massive 1959 Cadillac and its tailfins in full glory, also showing off its iconic bullet taillights.

The massive 1959 Cadillac and its tailfins in full glory, also showing off its iconic bullet taillights.

One of the very key pieces of a 50's car is chrome, lots of it, now when I say "lots of chrome" most people think of the hideous monstrosities of American cars now, with tons and tons of fake shiny plastic spread all over the car. One particular example about how to NOT use chrome is the Chevy Silverado, as its entire grille is covered in the fake chrome (without the chrome it actually looks decent.) Now, back to 50's chrome, first off, it wasn't the fake plastic "chrome" that we see on some modern cars, but actual gleaming chrome, giving the car a very rich and welcoming look. The chrome is spread evenly throughout the design, lots on the front and back, and some more usually on the fins. Now, this is just my personal preference, some people love chrome, some people hate it, so how good these cars look to you is, well, up to you.

The massiveness of the cars of the 50's put into perspective.

The massiveness of the cars of the 50's put into perspective.

Moving on to the final part about the styling, the size and personality. Cars from this era were huge, it may not be as easy to tell from a picture, but once you really get up close, you can see how they really are behemoths, with the door spanning from the front to rear seats, the hood stretching out far in front, and the rear fins shooting out (almost as long as the hood). Overall, these cars are MASSIVE, not only in actual size, but also in personality, every one of these cars seems to just command respect, eating up the entire road, sun reflecting off the chrome, and a big burly V8 roaring to top it all off. Being inside one is a entirely different story however, as I recently got the privilege to sit and look around the interior of a 1959 Cadillac at the Concours in Cincinnati (thanks to the owner!) But when I swung the door open, it was quite the spectacle, as there were large bench seats in the front and back (very comfortable), the steering wheel was absolutely massive, all the instruments were adorned in chrome, almost ever aspect of the interior screamed luxury. But being inside a car like that is very different from any other, mainly because the car is actually very low, so the headroom isn't as much as a modern car, but it almost forces you to recline in a relaxed state to drive the car, which is a very interesting experience. As for the ride, I asked the owner, and he said that it was like riding on a cloud. I also asked him what it was like to drive fast in one of those massive car, and he said that a buddy had got up to about 110 MPH, and the car "started to seem like it was floating and slowly bouncing down the road." This was mainly due to the extra squishy suspension that was fitted to absorb almost every bump.

But that does it! This concludes the first part of the 3 to 4 part article series about 50's American cars, make sure to complete the poll, or just tell your thoughts about 50's cars in the comments!

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Comments (3)

  • I saw this gorgeous 1953 Packard yesterday. Absolutely beautiful car!

      1 month ago
  • I have had a few 50s cars over the years. 59 Elcamino,56 Thunderbird, 56 Star Chief, 57 Bel Air. All fun cars. Wish I still had the Elcamino.

      1 month ago
  • Never see these in blue very nice.

      20 days ago
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