October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
A tribute to the brash confections our car makers offered the world during a decade when not one American in a thousand had even heard the name Toyota
America swaggered off the World War II battlefields like a heavyweight champion who had just scored a first-round knockout. Our losses were tragic—292,000 dead—but they were a relative bloody nose compared with the slashings and renderings of millions upon millions of other people caught up in the carnage. Moreover, our civilian population had been spared the terror bombings, occupations, and huge displacements so commonplace elsewhere. But most important to the massive prosperity that was to define the next two decades, America’s industrial powerhouse survived not only undamaged but infinitely more muscular than when we entered the war.
The echo of gunfire had barely dissipated before Detroit was planning new automobiles for a lustful public. The war years had seen four million cars disappear through age and accidents, and millions more were in desperate need of replacement.
Situated in the only truly prosperous market on an otherwise ravaged planet, and unthreatened by even the suggestion of overseas competition or government control, the American automobile industry planned to supply its customers with the most extravagant, outrageous, and excessive machines its stylists and engineers could imagine.
The leader of this new, outré school of design was a former California car customizer named Harley J. Earl. He had come to General Motors in 1927, and his so-called GM art and color section was the mother lode of the breakthroughs in styling that were to startle the nation. It was Earl’s fascination with the radical, twin-tailed Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane that triggered the splashy, swooping designs of the postwar era.
Harley J. Earl best articulated the brash philosophy behind all 1950s automobiles when he instructed his staff to “go all the way, then back off.” His aircraft themes—first seen in the audacious tail fins on the 1948 Cadillacs—blossomed into madcap propellerlike grilles, zoomy trim spears, glittering spinner hubcaps, garish three-tone pastel paintwork, and sufficient gobs of chrome brightwork to prompt one shocked observer of a mid-fifties Oldsmobile to ask, “Where do you put the nickel to make it light up and play?”
Yet not all of the 1950s revolution came at the hands of the stylists. The technology created during the war years helped inspire a generation of powerful, lightweight, high-compression V-8 engines. These offered sufficient surpluses of horsepower to activate power seats, windows, steering, and brakes and a plethora of superfluous gadgetry.
This hedonism on wheels distressed many social observers, who saw in the 1950s automobile the manifestation of Thorstein Veblen’s warnings about a smug, bloated, and indulgent leisure class.
But thanks to the nation’s confidence—and its access to the cheapest gasoline on earth—there was no stopping the creation of the biggest, fastest, heaviest, flashiest cars that Earl and his associates could spread out on the drawing boards. There were no government pressures, no environmental concerns, no serious cries for safety, no motivation for fuel economy—no restraints whatever on what has to stand as the last hour that the great automotive dinosaurs roamed the earth. Ironically, the source of their destruction had already appeared. It was a tiny, beetle-shaped machine from Germany that was the antithesis of all that its big rivals stood for. Simple, Spartan, bog-slow, and cheap, it was ugly and unchromed to the point of absurdity. Yet this little machine, called the Volkswagen, heralded a new automotive consciousness that was to consign the great road arks of the 1950s to the junkyard.
But not forever. The object of scorn in the years immediately following their demise, the cars of the 1950s are now being avidly collected by people who see in their swagger and solidity the embodiment of a confident age. This portfolio of photographs is the work of the late Bruce Wrighton, who painstakingly shot the subject cars in carefully selected surroundings along the southern tier of New York State. I am sorry to say that the abundantly talented Mr. Wrighton died, at age thirty-eight, shortly after this work was completed.