Automobiles of the Fifties
Who could have believed that once the 1950s began, cars, which were by and large driven by low-compression sixes that needed tetraethyl lead for upper cylinder head lubrication, unless you used a light machine oil, and which looked much like ladder-frame bodies with fenders and quarter panels hung off them, would’ve ended as it did?
By the end of the fifties, there were automobiles such as the Chevrolet Bel Air that used a small-block V-8 that was available and the Caddy was the “King of the Road,” as they say, as it sported a big-block V-8 that produced more than 300 horsepower. For fans of American classic cars, these 1950s vehicles typified the beauty and optimism of the era.
Corvette Hits the Road
The big changes came when Chevrolet unveiled the ‘Vette in 1953 and clay mockups of newer models like the Ford Thunderbird were going around the design studios of Detroit.
The 1955/56 T-Bird became one of the more exciting cars of the 50s and while it was really nothing special at heart (a Ford Custom 6 chassis), it still looked wonderful and yes it was just the thing the marketing divisions had ordered. Certainly, it answered the request by many customers for 2-seaters, in addition to family roadsters. The need for the 2-seat was established by the number of vets who came back from Europe with thoughts of coupes filling their desires.
The Corvette and the T-Bird, though, led to another call and that would be a requirement for speed. Not only did people want automobiles that looked as though they were looked exciting but additionally, they desired cars that could perform. Few individuals probably understand that while the first modern V8 engine was the 1932 Ford V-8, the well known Chrysler hemi (hemispherical combustion chamber) made its debut in 1951 and stayed in the lineup until ’58.
It was the engine of the popular 300M of the time. In fact, Chrysler and Dodge were rivals for Ford and General Motors and they really did hold their own.
Initially, in the 50s, the motor industry was playing catch-up, the latter half, they were developing cars that people did actually want. Features were transforming as quad front lights first appeared on the 1957/8 Cadillac and enormous fins, reminiscent of the rudders and tails of the jet planes that were a modern marvel, thus you had the 1958/9 Caddy with its huge fins. Chevy tried having single fin and later in the decade turned the fin horizontal for the introduction of the 1959s, but by ’60, the fin had gone the way of the Dodo bird, it was about extinct – well the large fin was – smaller fins continued making their appearances right through the sixties and there were even a few small tries in the seventies.
The Late 50s
Perhaps the biggest change of course in design, and with it a fresh school of designers, was shown by the ’58 Chevy BelAir. The quad lights were apparent as was the 289 small block, and they were the minor changes. The key modifications came in the lines where the rear of the car became a smooth deck with taillights that weren’t just an add-on. Yes, Chevrolet did an admirable job with the 1956 Bel Air/Nomad but the 1958 showed the shape of things to come – smooth lines, quad headlights and rounded fenders and rear quaters.
Talk about a decade of changes: from a small six that turned into a monster 8 and from autos where things were just hung on by committee to designs that were real, the 1950s was quite a decade.