Can you imagine how much Americans wanted to buy new cars after the privations of the war years? It took a few years for an industry geared up to make tanks and planes to get back to the business of wowing the public with new cars, but the Big Three eventually came back to life — and ruled the American road at least until the mid-'70s. Consider the lines snaking around the corner because of the Arab oil embargo as a sign of big changes for Detroit. Here are some momentos of the glory years.
1949 Ford: Modern America on Wheels. Understandably, auto design remained stuck in amber during World War II. A 1941 Chevy looks a lot like a 1947. Cars were big and bulky, with large external fenders enclosing the wheels. There were sometimes running boards, too, giving a clear nod to the 1930s. Cars were thirsty, heavy to steer, and would need an engine rebuild after 50,000 miles. On the plus side, there was tons of rear legroom. The 1949 Ford was a clear break from the past, though it did owe a debt to another groundbreaker, the ’47 Studebaker Champion. The new car had what quickly became known as “slab” sides, with fenders integrated into the side of the body and the beltline near the top of the windows. This was revolutionary, and it perfectly met the still-potent unmet demand for new cars. Ford tells us, “The '49 Ford gave Ford Motor Company the momentum it needed and Ford sold approximately 807,000 cars bringing profits up to $177 million from $94 million in the previous year. This marked the highest volume of vehicles sold since 1929.” My parents brought me home from the hospital in a maroon ’49 Ford. It was our first family car.
1956 Lincoln Mark II: Purity in Motion. The first Continental, with a rumbling V-12 engine, was a brilliant design, too, but it was dated by the time Ford pulled the plug in 1948. To succeed it, Edsel Ford (Henry’s only son) spearheaded production of a no-compromise successor, with few available options. The resulting car proved that luxury cars didn’t have to be loaded down with chrome and unnecessary design touches. The V-8-powered two-door car was as clean a design as Detroit ever produced. Even European automakers admired it. You couldn’t get a sedan, or a convertible, or even two-tone paint. But the quality was there: The paint was hand-sanded and hand-buffed. It got extreme: “Similar care was lavished in places where most customers would never think to look,” says HowStuff Works. “Chrome plating exceeded SAE specification by a factor of three. Nuts and bolts were near-aircraft quality, and some were chromed.” The problem was that it was extremely expensive to build, and sold for a fortune in 1956 dollars. Frank Sinatra and the Shah of Iran bought one, but at $8,500 not many mere mortals. Still, the car was influential, and it presaged the 2+2 “personal luxury” cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s. None of them had nearly the style of the Continental Mark II, which is a highly prized collectible today.
1955 Chevrolet: At the Hop. Just compare the 1954 and 1955 Chevys! The ’54 was a dated grandpa car, but the ’55 was perfect family wheels for the brand-new suburbs America was moving to in record numbers. Admittedly, it applied the lessons of the ’49 Ford six years later, but it was proof that General Motors could get with it. Reports the San Francisco Chronicle, “In the context of the company's recent models, the new ‘55 Chevy arrives on the scene like a thoroughbred galloping past a team of Clydesdales. The matronly lines of the ‘54 models give way to a look that’s long, low and lean, establishing a well-defined border between yesterday and tomorrow….It represented a complete break with Chevy’s stodgy past.” Indeed it did. It was cleanly designed and good looking, and people loved it. The 210 sold 805,000, and the Bel Air 773,000. In the model year, 1.7 million were sold. Sales were so good that the ’56 had only minor trim differences.
1960 Ford Falcon: A Compact Outlook. We had one of these, too, a plain-jane four-door sedan. Radio? Nope. Wheel covers? Nope? Carpets? Nope. Come to think of it, my old man (an engineer) must have had a good eye for trends. And we thought he was such a square! The ’60 Falcon was a real departure, and like the others in this series considerably understated. There’s hardly any chrome on this import fighter. It could have been an Opel. Instead, it was all-American, and it led directly to the Chevy II Nova (1962) and the all-new Dodge Dart of 1963, an example of which graces my garage. Introduced in the fall of 1959, the Falcon (later the platform for the Mustang) quickly became a bestseller and outsold its competition. Perhaps learning its lesson from the Lincoln Mark II, Ford made the Falcon available in a bewildering array of body styles, from both two- and four-door sedans, to wagons (some with fake wood), hardtops, convertibles, a sedan delivery and a Ranchero pick-up truck. In all its variants, it outsold the Model T.
1963 Buick Riviera: A Bold Boulevardier. I think I first saw one of these in, of all places, Egypt. And I was stunned: It looked so right from every angle. Yet again, we’re talking about a luxury car that (like the ’56 Lincoln) stripped away the fins, the chrome, the needless ornamentation and brought cars back to basic good looks. “No two ways about it,” says Automobile. “The Riv was, and is, a scene-stealer of the highest order….Inspiration apparently struck style chief Bill Mitchell one foggy night in London town—a coach-built Rolls sliced through the mist, Bill flashed, and the Riv was born.” That makes a romantic story, but you can see a bit of the clean Rolls lines from the period in the unadorned Riviera. The Riviera was in some ways a response to the Ford Thunderbird, yet another one of the “personal luxury” cars. Cadillac didn’t want to go up against Ford, but Buick did. The bet worked out, because the basic Riviera shape survived for three years, and Buick sold 112,244 of them, giving the ‘Bird a good run. Frankly, this is the car that Dan Draper should have bought, instead of the Cadillac he squires around in.