Friday, March 7, 2014

Cars from the 1950s and 1960s, What They Tell Us

Jim and I just concluded his second eye surgery. On our way home, I asked him which blog entry he liked best so far.  He said the styles because it took him back to the time he was growing up. He liked being back in the day. With that answer, I asked myself what else people defined themselves by in those times besides clothes and hair. Cars was the immediate answer. So today we will look at the cars from the 1950s and 1960s, the decades when we were coming of age. The first three images are from the 1950s and the last three are from the 1960s.

To me these 1950s car images clearly show the anticipated four member family. They get right down to dating and marrying in this era. I had forgotten the white wall tires until I saw the picture of the couple working on the whitewalls with the SOS pads. We always had one car which was a convertible so these images are very nostalgic. Cars were sure good looking then too.  An enormous amount of talent went into making them look great and exemplify a fun lifestyle of beaches, swimming pools, parties, weddings and all the other regular community rites and rituals. As we now know, they were deficient in safety features and durability but we didn't know that then. I didn't know anyone with a travel trailer but it sure looks hilarious here.

These images show the family aspect with the members all in one car. I remember the station wagons, especially the wood paneled ones. We also see several generations in the car. At this time most families only had one car. We had two cars because my parents were both real estate brokers. In my suburb, it was very easy for the fathers to grab public transit and head downtown while the wife used the car with the family at home. So we were not the norm with the two cars but that changed quickly. People did use buses and the rapid transit to go downtown though which greatly affected car use. I discovered that the reason people switched from detached to attached garages is that their perspective switched about cars. When garages were first built, cars were perceived as dangerous machines so were placed away from the main house. As people grew attached to their cars and began thinking of them as members of the family, they pulled them in closer to themselves, to the attached garage (hang the danger).

There was a glamour end to the 1950s as well. People were upwardly mobile, fascinated by the fairy tale marriage of Grace Kelly to royalty, and prone to dress up and attend swank events and places. The mothers all had furs. We had one of these cadillac convertibles with the fins and it was gorgeous. These adults all had known how to dance too so going out to dinners which involved dancing was a regular thing to do. Everyone had the clothes necessary for dressed up dining, dancing, theater going and the like so that they fit right in with their sleek and stylish cars.

In the 1960s, I found car ad after car ad which only featured adults. The children were missing. Also, the mood straight across the board was a lot more sophisticated. This was a very prosperous era with full employment. The cars' fins are mostly gone but those long sleek lines are still present. The cars are associated very much with sophisticated downtown areas, country clubs, travel and a sense of romance. For those of us watching Mad Men, these ads almost shriek Don Draper, the head ad man in the 1960s. He could be the model in the ads.

There was also an introduction to futuristic cars then. As you can see, they thought a 2000+ car would look like a plane on wheels. They had no idea that oil availability would become such a problem by now. All those extra stylistic gizmos added drag onto the car which would work against fuel economy so they never transpired. This is why all the added length for sleekness would disappear as well. There was a beginning move towards smaller cars and some people even began buying foreign cars. American cars still ruled the roost in the 1960s though.

People bought cars a lot more frequently then. Trading in your car for a fancier, more stylish, more escapist car was done by many Americans. As the '60s wore on, families had that second car as well. When you went to buy a car you never asked about fuel economy nor was such rated for the car. There were no safety features so you didn't ask about those either. It was entirely acceptable that the car fit your short term needs and was a dream machine.  Thus, it was also advertised that way almost exclusively.

To me it seems looking back that cars were more akin to couture gowns back in these eras. Cars filled a practical function but the aesthetic design element was huge, just like it is for making couture clothing collections. Today we have such weighty concerns caused by the oil depletion and related factors that almost all design effort goes into conserving fuel or even running a car on alternative fuel. Many people call today's cars about as interesting design wise as a moving shoe box. Our fuel problem only seems to get worse so I don't see that changing any time soon. Another factor is that lawsuits against manufacturers were relatively unknown then.  As product liability, wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits came of age after the 1960s against car manufacturers, safety features became a huge design aspect to limit their liability. Beauty in car design has not been the key factor for quite some time as it was in those earlier decades. It shows but we are stuck with it.

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