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A READER'S JOURNAL
Cars of the Fabulous '50s
James M. Flammang, etal
A Decade of High Style and Good Times
Published by Publications Ints/IL in 2001
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004
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As a teenager in the 1950s (beginning in the middle of 1953) I was entranced by automobiles of every kind. I knew the model names for each year and could distinguish a Pontiac from a Chevrolet, a DeSoto from a Dodge, a Mercury from a Lincoln, a Kaiser from a Frazer, a Henry J from a Studebaker, etc. But memory is like balls in a juggler's hands — as one adds more balls with the passing years, a few balls will fall out of the cascade — so I bought this book at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant Shop in order to refresh my memories and to bring back many refreshing memories of a simpler time in America. A time when America's automakers ruled the streets and highways of America. By the time the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was announced, a curious breed of small cars, Datsuns, Volvos, and VW's was speeding around America's roads.
About fifteen years ago I met Ed Manning who worked on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the immediate postwar Japan. He told me an interesting story about ball-bearings which bears repeating here as we talk about the beautiful cars which grace this book. It seems that the Japanese people kept coming to the Supreme Commander's office to ask questions like, "How many washing machines should we make?", "How many automobiles?", "How many ball-bearings?", and so on. Soon MacArthur gave up trying to having his staff guess at what numbers to establish for every item and told the manufacturers, "You decide." With that began the miracle of Japanese reconstruction which lasts until this day.
But I mentioned ball-bearings twice — what was the deal with ball-bearings? I'm no expert on ball-bearings, so I'll relate to you the story Ed Manning told me about how ball-bearings were so essential to the recovery and subsequent success of Japanese industry after World-War II. Ball-bearings are essential to making any machinery that has rotating parts. The parts must be lubricated and the ball-bearings keep the moving parts from wearing against each other. Ball-bearing came in grades from 1 to 10 with ten being the highest and most expensive grade. If you wanted to make an piece of machinery that lasted a long time, you used the highest grade you could afford to buy. Automakers use a lot of ball-bearings in the manufacture of cars. If you bought ball-bearings of, say, Grade 6, from an American manufacturer, you would get an assortment of bearings from Grade 4 up to a few Grade 7s. If you bought ball-bearings from a Japanese manufacturer of Grade 6, you would get only Grade 6 and higher. Thus, Japanese automakers were designing and building automobiles after WWII that were smoother running, dripped less oil, and lasted longer than their US equivalents. All because of ball-bearings and tight control of the quality and strict attention to Grade specs.
Maybe I didn't know about ball-bearings as a teenager, but I saw the huge oil leaks that were a common sight on driveways in the 1950s. Few people could afford more than two strips of concrete for their driveways, so the oil simply dripped into the grass median strip. But those strange named foreign autos all seemed to last longer and soon the American automakers had to change. That change, however, didn't start until the 1960s so for a full decade, the American models reigned supreme in the driveways, streets, and highways of this country. (For proof that American cars leaked back, take a look at the TEXACO ad which proudly proclaims that your oil reservoir "Stays FULL Longer". When the last time you worried about if your oil reservoir was full? Thank the Japanese ball-bearings for that.)
This book catalogs these beautiful automobiles by year — like a High School yearbook catalogs the students for each year. Color, black & white photos of all the models, with special photos of advanced concept "Cars of the Future" — and many of those designs can be seen on a typical highway today.
As we go up the decade from 1950 to 1959, I'd like to share my personal memories of the automobiles from that year as I recall them. The first car in the Table of Contents is the 1950 Studebaker, but 1950 for me is memorable because I drove a 1950 Plymouth when I got married in 1961. It was a Black Special DeLuxe complete with extra striping and a built-in car radio.
The next car shown at left is the 1951 Kaiser, which is the car my dad drove about 1952 or so. We lived across the street from Paul's Motor's in Westwego which had a showroom and sold Kaisers, Henry Js, and later Willys. Dad worked there from time to time and probably got a good deal on a used Kaiser. It was that Kaiser that, when I nearly cut my left thumb off while trimming wood block tiles on a circular saw, my dad drove 85 miles an hour 20 miles down Hwy 90 to get me to a doctor. It was also the car into which he piled a full Eleven-and-Under Little League baseball team on the weekends.
Next is the 1952 Lincoln which was out of our league. The book says about 1952, "Despite production cutbacks by almost all automakers in the face of the Korean War, sales begin to slump and cars pile up at dealers."
In 1953 Chevy came out with the Corvette to try to capture the sports car market from foreign automakers whose sports cars were shipped to the States by returning GI's or brought over later by GI's who had driven them "over there" while helping to keep the peace in post-war Germany. By 1955 my dad had bought a 1953 Chevrolet Bel-Air, 2-Dr. He obviously needed a 4-Dr for his 4 boys and a girl, but he got a good deal on it from a guy at Lion Oil where he worked, so that was our family car for the rest of the decade. I maybe drove it once or twice locally.
What I drove mostly was my boss's car, a 1953 or so Buick, a big, black sedan. Driving a large sedan like a Buick over the narrow Model-A lanes of the Huey P. Long Bridge was a rite of passage for New Orleans teenagers, especially if you could pass an 18-wheeler on the bridge! After the bridge the driver's license test was a snap.
When I began dating the gal who would become my wife, her dad, Henry, had a 1954 Chevy 4-door which he let me drive on A Date with Judy. The 4-doors came in handy on double-dates to the "Do" Drive-In where some of the girls "Did." That '54 Chevy became my work car later in the late Sixties when I drove it every day from Kenner to Taft at the Union Carbide Chemical Plant where I implemented process-control, real-time computers systems.
Then came the 1955 hardtops. The one shown below is a red '55 Plymouth, which was a big hit, along with new designs for the Chevy and Ford, and the Big Three prospered while the independents withered and some died. Packard had record sales this year, but next year would be its last (See Beige 1956 Packard). Kaisers and Frazers were soon gone. Hudsons and DeSotos were on the endangered list, but few knew. The 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air Hardtop and Convertible was the sexiest car of the year, maybe the decade. It was the babe-magnet of the '50s, and everyone knew it. Well, unless you could afford a Corvette, or one of the new Thunderbirds just introduced by Fords. Soon T-Birds meant two-seater heaven for American sports car buffs and while everyone in the South was a solid Democrat, it was fifty-fifty between the Vette and the T-Bird among sports car lovers.
In 1956, Plymouth introduces the tailfins and in later years other automakers add them also. The V-8s in the Chevy were awesome power machines. Corvette added rollup windows and gained an edge on the foreign cheesy side-curtained sports cars. The Chrysler Imperial (See blue 1957 Imperial tail fin) and the Lincoln Continental were the top-line automobiles alongside the Cadillacs which sold more luxury cars than all the other luxury makes combined.
1957 brought the boat-tailed Eldorado convertibles with the shark-like fins sticking up. I drove my uncle's 1957 Chevy Hardtop with V-8 and I can testify that it was a speed demon along Bayou Terrebonne. It just got warmed up where my dad's stodgy '53 topped out. But it was ride in a 1957 Plymouth Convertible a couple of years later that I recall the most. I was hitching a ride from LSU in Baton Rouge to New Orleans and got picked up a student heading in that direction. He had a record player in his glove box and we rode at 100 mph down the Airline Hwy listening to records with the top down.
The year of the Edsel introduction was 1958 (See red Edsel) - they came and they went — gone after 1959 model year. But the sexiest and most popular car was the '58 Chevy Impala Sports Coupe and Convertible. Equipped with fuel-injection and behind a trusty team of 290 horses, it could fly like the wind. I remember the Pontiac Bonneville Tri-Power engine, 330 hp, because I got picked up by the Fisher boys whose furniture company dad had bought his sons one. They demonstrated the car for me by nosing it up to 85, slamming down the accelerator pedal, and burning rubber! I have never seen that done before or since. To spin a car's rear wheels so that they would squeal while going 85! I think I closed my eyes after that and didn't want to cast my 17-year-old eyes on the speedometer.
Not much memorable about 1959 models, I was busy studying physics and didn't pay much attention to the new cars. The tailfins moved to a more horizontal position as in the Mercury shown at the bottom of the '50s cars.
That was my quick trip down memory lane through the 1950s riding on the images of the cars of the decade. If you have fond memories of the cars of a particular decade, I heartily recommend you add one or two of these fine books to your library. Glossy paper, 416 pages, mostly color photos, five to ten photos a page, of American automobiles back in a time and place which can only exist in our fondest memories: the Decade of the 1950s, when teenagers were learning to rock on the dance floor and roll on the highways.
Received from Good Reader Kevin Dann of Vermont on July 16, 2002:
What a wild ride! I put the top down and let the wind stream through my hair. . . But that opening section on the turning of the twentieth century upon Grade 6 bearings was pure Bobby brilliance! And it made me think of my dad's Ford station wagon, which leaked oil like a sieve. Dad had a sheet metal pan filled with sand in the garage under the car, and then once every couple of months he would ask me or my brother to help him load it into the back of the station wagon, and we'd drive around to some little patch of woods and dump the waste oil and then jump in the car and drive off, environmental bandits of the worst stripe. Dad would reward us by taking us to Terwilleger & Wakefield dairy for a pistachio ice cream cone. So to this very day whenever I eat pistachio ice cream I think of my early career as a polluter. . .
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