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Chrome and Color: Cars of the 1950s

Monday, 03 October 2016 12:14
1950 Chrysler Town & Country Newport 1950 Chrysler Town & Country Newport

By Steve Statham

Few products so thoroughly define their decades like the American cars of the 1950s.

The distinct styling of Detroit’s mass-produced chariots color every memory of the period. Often, a rounded and be-chromed car is the first thing that comes to mind when the 1950s is mentioned.1950 Chrysler Town Country Interior Picmonkey1950 Chrysler Town Country Interior

In the evolutionary timeline of the automobile, the 1950s can be classified as the period when styling drove the industry. Stylists became more influential than ever before, and by decade’s end, annual design changes became the norm. Harley Earl, head of design at General Motors in the ’50s, probably influenced the looks of the decade’s cars more than anyone. Inspired by the tail of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane of WWII, Earl incorporated tailfins on the 1948 Cadillac, and the trend only grew in the 1950s as other stylists ‒ like Virgil Exner at Chrysler ‒ took the idea and ran with it. Earl also created the first interior design studio at GM, and before long most automakers were lavishing as much design attention on the interior as the exterior.

The mid-century American cars are known worldwide for their bright, confident colors, two-tone (and even three-tone) paint schemes, wrap-around windshields and plentiful chrome. The examples shown here, offered for No Reserve at the upcoming Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas Auction, are a great cross-section of the divergent styles that spawned so many classics.

1959 Cadillac Series 62 Conv Picmonkey1959 Cadillac Series 62 ConvertibleTo really get a feel for the distance styling traveled in the 1950s, it helps first to examine a car from the beginning of the decade and one from the end. The metallic green 2-door 1950 Chrysler Town & Country Newport has one foot in the 1940s and one in the ’50s. The “Woody” body style was once common, but faded away as the 1950s rolled on (1950 was the last year Chrysler offered a genuine wood-trimmed car). Unlike the simulated woodgrain vinyl of later cars, the real wood on the Town & Country conveys a sense of hand-built craftsmanship.

It maintains its original 324ci, 135hp inline 8-cylinder engine and 3-speed Fluid Drive transmission with synchromesh gears. The car is semi-restored, with 65,300 original miles and its original wood panels. The interior is like new and the car is an excellent driver.

Fast-forward to the close of the decade. True Woodys were long gone, and the era of the tailfin reached its apex with the 1959 Cadillac. Even among its 1950s cohort, the dramatic styling of the ’59 Caddy stood out. And it would be hard to get more ’50s than with a pink 1959 Cadillac Series 62 convertible (Lot #759). The one headed across the block in Las Vegas has been treated to a full frame-on restoration. It still has its factory 390ci engine, with automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes. The black and white interior is a perfect complement to the extroverted exterior. The car has 53,000 original miles, and only 6,000 since its restoration.

1954 Chevrolet Corvette 235 150 Picmonkey1954 Chevrolet Corvette 235 150

Among the automotive stars born in the 1950s was the Chevrolet Corvette. The Corvette was one of Harley Earl’s pet projects, and what started as a simple and straightforward sports car soon became much more. Few people have had the opportunity to own one of the cars that launched the Corvette legend, making the sale of this 1954 Chevrolet Corvette 235/150 convertible so noteworthy. This documented car is one of the four black 1954 Corvettes built, and the original black paint shows well for its age. It’s an early-production car, number 702.

The Corvette has the original matching-numbers 235/150hp 6-cylinder and automatic transmission, with fewer than 500 miles since a rebuild. The top, seats and carpet have been replaced, as has the windshield, although the original comes with the car. The original side curtains are included in the trunk. New parts include 15-inch wheels and whitewall tires. With 92,000 original miles on the odometer, this is a great representative of the first-generation Corvettes.

1954 Packard Rear 3 4 Web Picmonkey1954 Packard Caribbean Convertible

The Corvette went on to a long and varied life, but the 1954 Packard Caribbean convertible had a brief time in the sun, as the model was only produced from 1953-56. The Caribbean convertible was Packard’s top of the line, a direct challenge to the Cadillacs and Buicks of the day. It was known as a premium automobile when new, and the Caribbean reputation remains intact among collectors today. The Caribbean offered in Las Vegas recently left California’s top Packard restoration shop with a clean bill of health, and has been driven only 2,500 miles since restoration. The car has been correctly restored with original colors of Chariot Red over Sahara Sand, with new red and white leather interior and white top. The 359ci straight-8 with automatic transmission makes for a very pleasant driving experience. Only 400 such Caribbeans were built in 1954.

This striking 1958 Pontiac Star Chief custom hardtop combines 1950s style with the best of modern technology.

As the 1950s progressed, talented customizers made their mark on the automotive scene, creating a whole new subculture. That legacy continues with the1958 Pontiac Star Chief custom hardtop shown here. This striking cruiser combines 1950s style with the best of modern technology. The car is powered by a fuel-injected LS1 Corvette V8 engine and 6-speed automatic. Ride and handling are enhanced with a modern suspension and rack & pinion steering.1958 Pontiac Star Chief PicmonkeyMildly customized 1958 Pontiac Star Chief

In the tradition of the customizers of the 1950s, this Star Chief has been subtly cleaned of excess exterior trim. The engine bay, however, is a showroom of customization, with chromed accents and smoothed sheet metal at every turn. The interior also shows the customizer’s touch, with beautiful white leather upholstery and detailing. It takes real skill to preserve the look and feel of a classic while upgrading it in every way, and this Pontiac shows what can be done by gearheads with vision.

In history lessons and pop culture, the decade of the 1950s often gets painted with a broad brush. But the reality is that there was an incredible variety of cars available, many of which don’t fit within comfortable stereotypes. It was a time of great advancement in the automotive field, as these examples to be offered at Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas so well illustrate.


Editor’s note: Independent automotive writer Steve Statham has turned his thoughts to cars of America’s 1950s in highlighting a few of the beauties to be auctioned this month by Barrett-Jackson in Las Vegas. For detailed information on this event and the full catalogue of cars click here

Last modified on Saturday, 08 October 2016 13:47


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