Top 10 1950s cars: Rocking and Rolling with the best motors of the decade
Inspired by rockets, rocked by Elvis and shaking off the blues of War, Fifties got fun for cars!
Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
The world was recovering from a brutal WWII, the greatest weapon's scientists were being retargeted at space exploration, music got risqué as women passed out at the sight of Elvis' gyrating hips, and the good old wireless started making way for glowing cathode ray tubes in our front rooms. Yep, TV was becoming a thing.
For cars it was a transitionary period in which they finally moved forward from the stagnant era of the 40s during which motor manufacturing had mostly given way to making war machines. The car had seen little advancement in terms of design, engineering and innovation (aside from the Jeep and dare I say the Beetle?). As such, they were still inspired by the notion of mechanically-pulled carriages – tall, upright, ungainly, featuring skirting boards, protruding fenders and ornamental headlights.
That was all about to change as the jet-age took hold of imaginations and gave birth to a more streamlined and low-slung vehicle design that still dictates the automotive styling conventions we are familiar with today. To contemporary motorists, automobiles of the 1950s are recognisable and relatable.
It was also a time of much experimentation as car designers and engineers started having fun. There were numerous still-born one-hit-wonder car makers vying for attention with the remnants of the coach building industry deploying interesting, unique or sometimes pointless one-offs.
To catalogue all would require many more gigabytes of DriveTribe server space, so instead I've focused here on some of the most iconic cars, with an obtuse oddity thrown in here and there, whilst picking my top car of each year. That of course doesn't stop you posting your favourite fifties cars in the comments below!
1950 – Volkswagen Type 2
Call it the Type 2, Transporter, Kombi, Microbus, Camper or whatever, the question is how did this humble and rather utilitarian Volkswagen minivan gain a cult following amongst hippies and hipsters that endures to this day? The answer probably lies somewhere in the conundrum of combining simplicity and style.
Another car that's endured is the Morgan Plus 4 introduced in this year and still brilliant fun in its almost unchanged modern iteration. Also worthy of a mention is America's first successful compact car the Nash Rambler (later the Rambler American). But it was the Chevrolet Bel Air which signified a sign of things to come.
1951 – Toyota BJ
The story goes that when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941, they found a US Army Jeep and reverse-engineered it. This later became the Toyota BJ – bigger and more powerful than the Jeep with a 3-cylinder engine. This car signifies the origin of the all-conquering Land Cruiser and as such should be on the same pedestal as the Jeep and Land Rover Series 1. And possibly also the Nissan Patrol, also birthing this year as the 4W60 and again following the same routine of copying the legendary Willys Jeep.
Jaguar introduced the XK120-based C-Type which promptly won Le Mans – twice. The Hudson Hornet was introduced and also became an unlikely motorsports hero, thanks to a lower centre of gravity than its contemporaries, giving it better handling.
Meanwhile the fastest car in the world came from Spain – the 151mph Pegaso Z-102. The first new post-war BMW, the 501, was significant but not as radically new or sporty as you might think.
1952 – Cadillac Eldorado
The Eldorado was to be the flagship Cadillac and ran for 12 generations, in its earliest form setting the standards for luxury, comfort and innovation that the rest of the world struggled to compete with. It offered power windows, a windscreen washer and a signal seeking radio.
Over in Britain they got the Austin A40 Somerset with 'transatlantic' styling, and Lotus produced its first production car, the Mark VI available as a kit in which you could install your own choice of engine and gearbox.
Bentley moved to Crewe and resumed production with the Continental coupe – bodies by Mulliner. Special mention for the pretty Siata 208 CS Italian V8 aluminium-bodied coupe, especially as it had pop-up lights!
1953 – Chevrolet Corvette
The iconic Chevrolet Corvette was inspired by European sports cars aimed at returning US servicemen whose appetites had been whetted in Europe by the likes of Jaguars and Alfa Romeos. The body was made out of fibreglass.
More sports cars arrived in the form of the AC Ace (later evolving into the monstrous AC Cobra), Austin-Healey 100 (signifying it could do 100mph) and the Triumph TR2, loved by Americans and Triumph's biggest earner. Porsche built the race-winning mid-engine 550 Spyder – most famously known as the 'Little Bastard' in which actor James Dean was killed in 1955.
Nash followed up the Rambler's success with the even smaller Metropolitan looking like it belonged in a Loony Tunes cartoon. The Skylark was Buick's version of the Eldorado; Mercedes made the word 'Ponton' famous with the 180 (W120) setting the style for models to come; Ford did something similar with the rounded Prefect (also know for bestowing its name to a lead character in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
Meanwhile Italy gave us the adorable and lovable little egg-shaped three-wheeled Isetta 'Bubble car'.
1954 – Mercedes 300 SL
Once voted 'Sports Car of the Century' and known usually as simply the Gullwing Mercedes, models of these have long formed the subject of flying car fantasies for many a child (including yours truly) who persistently believed the secret it hid from adults was its ability to take off on opening the doors.
It was based on the W194 race car and aimed at American enthusiasts. The doors, alas, did not endow it with flight, but were merely because the aerodynamic bodywork didn't allow for conventional doors. Yeah, sure!
Of course there were other cars this year: the aforementioned Toyota got its FJ Land Cruiser designation and began conquering Africa, Australia and the Middle East; the 6/90 is regarded as the last proper Wolseley luxury car; the beautiful Alfa Romeo Giulietta family of cars brought style to the masses; the Buick Roadmaster was ginormous but elegant; the Jaguar XK140 arrived with rack and pinion steering, better brakes and modern suspension; and France gave us the exquisite Facel Vega powered by Chrysler V8.
And then there's the rare, extraordinary and remarkably modern Kaiser Darrin – regarded as the first American debuting (although the Corvette went into production first) with a fibreglass body. Even more amazing – it had doors that opened by sliding forward into the huge front fenders. Sadly less that 450 were built.
1955 – Citroen DS
It looked like nothing else, it drove like nothing else, it rode like nothing else. It set new standards in virtually every area and famously boasted hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension. It's won numerous accolades over the years, and could very well be crowned the car of the decade.
And this in an era of some great sedans: the magnificent Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and Bentley S1, Chrysler's extravagant Imperial (although they'd dropped the 'Chrysler' bit), Volkswagen's cool Karmann Ghia, the sensational Studebaker Speedster, and the rockin Chevrolet Bel Air – no other car looks better at an American-style diner.
The first generation Ford Thunderbird is still the best version of the car and we had sporty little numbers like Triumph TR2, MG MGA and a more accessible version of the Mercedes 300 SL – the 190 SL.
1956 – BMW 507
The automotive decade was really in its stride by mid-50s and whilst the most beautiful BMW ever might also have been one of the company's biggest failures, it was good enough for the King – Elvis Presley that is.
The Lincoln Continental was America's most expensive car (rivalling the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud) and vied with the Studebaker Hawk series to be the champion of elegance. Meanwhile Ford brought some of that American cool to this side of the Atlantic with the Zephyr Mk II, and Austin thought it was doing the same with the little A35 – it wasn't but it's still kinda nice.
From Eastern Europe came the extraordinary Tatra 603 – which looked like an upturned airship for the road. And the Swedes gave us not one but two solid vehicles: the bulbous Saab 93 and the indestructible Volvo Amazon – the first car to offer seat belts as standard.
1957 – Fiat 500
Until the Mini arrived was there ever a more incredible little car that was fashionable, fun and entirely functional at the same time? Talk about enduring, you still see them being driven in Italy as daily drivers. If it wasn't for this diminutive little car, 57's title would have gone to the Ferrari 250 series, in particular the GT California – made famous in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. To think it's now one of the most valuable cars on the planet and yet to recall how it was treated in the movie – don't worry, that was a replica!
Maserati offered the similarly stylish, but less well known 3500 GT, Jaguar evolved the XK into the 150, Lotus conceived the eponymous Seven and also gave us the Elite, and then there was the plastic bodied Trabant which is often denounced as horribly basic and antiquated, but to be fair had a transverse mounted engine driving the front wheels with independent suspension.
1958 – Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato
Aston Martin's DB4 maybe most famous for being mistaken as James Bond's favourite car – that was actually the DB5 that succeeded it – but it should also be noted for being famously rebodied by Zagato. The voluptuous and seemingly engorged DB4 GT Zagato is perhaps a precursor to the sex-appeal styling of the 60s, and is about the only Zagato bodied car that truly turns me on.
The menacing Plymouth Fury rightfully got its 15-minutes of fame as 'Christine' in the Stephen King horror novel. This along with the Chevrolet Impala and Edsel Pacer proved the Yanks made the coolest and most imposing cars.
Having said that, the ministerial Rover P5 is automotive aristocracy, whilst at the other end, the cheeky Austin-Healey 'Frogeye' Sprite is a delight. The Alfa Romeo 2000 should get a mention, as should India's favourite car – the Hindustan Ambassador (Morris Oxford-based) – and TVR's first sportscar, the Grantura.
1959 – Jaguar Mk 2
There were some really stand-out cars to bridge us into the next decade, such as the sharp-edged Buick LeSabre, the iconic Cadillac DeVille series and the Mercedes W111 series – an S-Class progenitor.
The Triumph Herald benefited from Italian design, though they obviously still kept the best for themselves with things like the smooth and sleek Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale. Meanwhile the Austin-Healey 3000 got muscley and went to America a lot, whilst the Daimler 'Dart' SP250 got muscley (with a V8) and became a firm favourite of the British police who needed something quick to catch 'cafe racers' (bikes).
Talking of the cops, the one thing that both sides of the law found themselves agreeing on most this year was that the Jaguar Mark 2 was the car to have. Particularly in 3.8-litre guise, as 220bhp provided 0-60mph acceleration in just 8.5 seconds and a top speed of 125mph (extraordinary for the day).
Note - to those who would have been expecting the Mini to win 1959, technically you would be correct, but I already cheated a bit and made it my 1960 champion in the 10 best car of the 1960s feature - click here to read that now!