Some of the Detroit Iron manufactured after WWII until about 1980 can be considered Rolling Art. Several Companies like Packard, Hudson and Studebaker ceased building cars for one reason or another during the early part of this span, but they and the traditional big 3, Ford, GM and Chrysler did turn out some masterpieces.
As a kid just old enough to think about getting a drivers license, I would sit in my tree house and fantasize about the latest crop of finned behemoths pictured in the car magazines of the time. After careful consideration I would rank them according to style and features that I could really relate to and desired to possess. Always decisions. Should I have twin rear antennas and dual spotlights or would one of each do. Wire wheels were really neat as were the two and three tone paint jobs. I ended up choosing the most streamlined and elegant looking as my favorites always deferring to clean rather than clutter. I wasn’t one for fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror, instead preferring power windows and air conditioning. Of course I always opted for the biggest V8 option and always dual exhaust both for easy engine breathing and the sound.
The late 1940’s and early 50s saw the transition from stodgy, subdued and functional to a more sleek and powerful motif which, year after year during the 1950’s, became a size, power and chrome enhancement race.
While some models went overboard with various excesses making their designs overburdened or clumsy, others managed to integrate fins, masses of chrome and color schemes that were a delight. All the manufacturers had their winners and losers but American cars of the period were all individually identifiable and definitely distinct and could roll down a super highway without a care.
The straight 6 and 8 motors of earlier periods soon gave way in the more deluxe models to V8’s, which couldn’t pull stumps like the old high torque low rpm straight eights, but could more lithely move a couple of tons of iron, glass and plastic down the road. By the mid 1950’s all American cars had settled on 12 volt electrical systems, 14 or 15 inch wheels, wrap around windshields, and with the V8 motor now the entrenched favorite.
It was a time in American history when each new car year was greeted with excitement and anticipation as each model sought to capture the limelight with its own distinct identity. Priorities were simple if not naive. Dazzle the customer with great expanses of sheet metal and chrome, brilliant colors and lots of buttons to push. Although mundane items like seat belts were introduced as selling features from time to time, the consumer wanted none of that as it didn’t add any value as a status symbol.
Slowly technological improvements did advance along with convenience and power options. Radial tires were a big plus adding smoothness, safety and longevity replacing thumping, rapid tread wear and numerous flats. Disc brakes were a definite safety advantage replacing the inferior drum and shoe method that could fade in emergency situations. Automatic transmissions became the option of choice and then ultimately became standard equipment. And of course, radios evolved.
In the mid fifties, signal seek or ‘wonderbar’ AM radios were introduced, followed soon thereafter by the transistor models which allowed for ‘instant on’ instead of waiting for the tubes to warm up. In the sixties, FM radio appeared, and at first offered ad and DJ free programming. That of course didn’t last long once the bandwidth became entrenched. By the seventies there were 8 track tape players which in fairly short order gave way to cassettes.
1959 marked the pinnacle of the auto as jet sporting gigantic rear fins, the ultimate appearing on the 1959 Cadillac with the 1959-60 Chrysler and DeSoto not far behind. In another year the DeSoto would disappear from showrooms and go the way of the Packard, Hudson and Nash. A sobriety of sorts gripped automakers after the fin and chrome extravaganza passed. Some really classy designs were introduced in the early sixties like the 1960 Pontiac, 1961 Buick, 1962 Cadillac and classic 1964 Ford.
Chrysler Corporation would, from time to time, introduce industry leading stratagems. Their Hemi (hemispherical head) Motor during the fifties was pure muscle and reliability as was their Torqueflight transmission. They introduced the ‘Forward Look’ in the later fifties which lead styling trends for awhile. Then again in 1965 they offered some really sturdy and classy cars that towards the end of that decade lead to the innovative fuselage cars. These were large sleek machines with an air frame sculptured look that I found quite attractive. Unfortunately Chrysler quality control started slipping badly during this period and didn’t recover for many years.
By the late seventies things started going downhill in Detroit. Automakers, paying little attention to quality control and mechanical efficiencies found themselves mandated by legislation to clean up their act, literally. As a result, all manner of schemes were employed to reduce engine emissions, most, in the early days, a maze of vacuum lines and fuel injection designs that were cumbersome and mostly ill conceived, leading to a myriad of problems and customer dissatisfaction.
It wasn’t long thereafter that the Japanese stepped in to fill the void and things have never returned to the days of American auto manufacturing preeminence.
Granted American cars eventually improved dramatically but market share by then was fragmented. I personally lost interest in Detroit around the mid eighties although some really nice cars have been produced since. Now, I am afraid, because of the fickle nature of Americans, demanding SUV’s and consuming a hugely disproportional amount of the worlds resources, the twin failings of overindulgence and lack of foresight in the face of world realignment, has pushed MoTown automakers to the brink of insolvency.
The 1950s through the seventies saw the apex and beginning of decline of the American auto as a distinct form of rolling art. A combination of art deco and modern gave way to downsizing and competition from abroad. Complacent management also failed to embrace, in a timely fashion, new concepts of quality control, preferring to market their vehicles through planned obsolescence.
No doubt, some of the greatest American masterpieces in rolling art were created during the 1920s and 30s, however, the height of Auto Americana, where form and function took on whole new dimensions of vim and verve, the 1950s, seems to have marked the peak of empire as well as one of its most distinctive products.