Post War American Car Guide

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Culver Cadet
The Culver Aircraft Company hoped Americans would adopt
the aeroplane as their choice of personal transport after the war...
The lives of those who survived World War 2 had, to a great extent, radically changed. The real impact of this change wasn't to take place, however, until the following decade. The 'Fifties brought television, pastel-coloured telephones, air-conditioning for everyone, and cars which suited the new US life style. Just precisely what this life style was no one seemed to really know. It was a placid period in history in which everybody appeared to be going nowhere.

On the 14th August 1945 New York's Times square was crowded as it had never been crowded before; there was hardly room for the mounted policemen's horses to move, bells rang, sirens wailed, people laughed, cheered, wept for joy and probably would have danced in the streets had there been adequate space. Ever more people converged on this carefree core of humanity. Newsreel cameras purred and radio commentators shouted into the microphones of their portable units.

It was V-J Day (Victory over Japan). World War 2 was over. In Europe, Germany had surrendered three months previously on May, and although Japan's formal surrender wasn't to be officially sealed until September, aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the greatest human conflagration the world had ever witnessed was over. Finished. A thing of the past to be forgotten.

From 1939 until that humid day in August in Times Square, the world had been at war. For America, the conflict had begun on an ominous Sunday morning on December 1941, as Japanese dive and torpedo bombers swooped low over Pearl Harbor. Now it was all a thing of the past. Millions of lives had been squandered along the way, millions of individual human destinies altered, hopes crushed, careers interrupted. V-J Day meant an end to food and gasoline rationing, a change from uniforms back to civilian clothing, a time to spend all the money saved when it was of little use, since luxuries had been almost unavailable.

The Culver Aircraft Company, whose little 'Cadet' had only been produced in olive drab, had run a stand-by advertisement for many months in American aviation periodicals, showing a uniformed service-man and his sweetheart longingly gazing at a 'Cadet' disappearing in a glowing sunset. The caption read: 'Worth waiting for.' In the peaceful world of tomorrow, it was commonly believed, everyone would be airborne. Although general aviation had grown by leaps and bounds, the Culver ad was to remain a dream.

Reality in America - as far as individual transport was concerned - possessed four wheels, a six- or eight-cylinder in-line or V8 engine front-mounted, rear-wheel drive, and was definitely earth-bound. America had long ago graduated to the emancipation of the individual to go from 'A' to 'B' free and unfettered whenever he or she felt the desire to do so - whether 'B' was 3 miles or 3,000 distant from 'A'. America was a motorized nation. And Americans enjoyed that unique luxury which had in many ways already become a necessity.
'What's good for General Motors, is good for America', was the adage, but it also included Ford, Chrysler, and the independent manufaccturers: Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard. Manufacture of automobiles had petered out abruptly during the first few months of 1942, as America's automobile industry had converted to war-time production. Then, in the sultry summer of 1945, in August, production lines reconverted. The run on new models was on. However, the 1946 cars being anxiously awaited by an impatient populace were little more than slightly altered 1942 versions. It was a seller’s market and, as long as the car was new, whatever Detroit could produce was eagerly bought.
The 1950's
As is the case today, there are few things more alluring
than a well designed car - almost...
There had been no time for retooling to bring totally new designs, so the pre-war models were re-tailored, or 'face-lifted', as the technique was commonly called, the main feature common to all marques being the horizontal-grille theme. Gone from the still towering front-ends were the vertical louvers of the '42 models, but otherwise, the basic body designs remained identical, with individual fenders front and rear, split VW type windshields, high, tapered engine covers and bulbous 'streamlining' so popular during the late 1930s. The streamlining was little more than the rounding off of the square-rigged automotive styling of the earlier part of that decade.

In many ways the immediate predecessors of the '46 models presented a cleaner, neater and more subtle appearance, a minimum but effective use of chrome having accentuated rather than overburdened their lines. Post-war abundance brought heavy chrome mouldings and the generally graceful curves of the '42 types were blunted off, resulting in a heavy-handed styling of what had been basically sound and trim lines.

Major body proportions differed little from those of fifteen years previously, the cars still high and narrow on their wheels. 'Liberty Ship' builder Henry J. Kaiser, allied with Joseph Washington Frazer, chairman of Graham-Paige, would drastically alter the dimension of the post-war American car. The Kaiser-Frazer concern, with which Graham-Paige had merged, bought up the giant ex-Ford Willow Run plant from the U.S. government, where B-24 Liberator bombers had been built, and commenced to turn a new page in the styling of American cars.

Howard Darrin was responsible for the design, and production at Willow Run which began in June, 1946. The lower priced Kaiser and the more expensive and luxurious Frazer were basically similar, with a wide slab-sided envelope body. All vestiges of fenders were gone, the windshield, despite the modern concept, was still a split t 'V' and, all in all, the relatively large cars presented an altogether clean and compact appearance despite their size, and were devoid of superfluous chrome trim. It was all new to the American car-buying public and a Kaiser or Frazer stood out among the '46 U.S. automobiles as very different from the run-of-the-mill.

Next to bring out an envelope body-albeit with fender lines still accentuated, was Studebaker, when the 1947 models were presented in the Fall of '46. Those new Studebakers weren't as wide and as low as the Kaiser- Frazer cars, but they possessed a revolutionary styling concept nonetheless, with their wrap-around rear windows and crisp, uncluttered lines. The design, a portent of future styling, may be credited to an at-the-time relatively unknown designer, Virgil M. Exner, although Raymond Loewy was often incorrectly connected with its development. While the 'Big Three', G.M., Ford and Chrysler, still clung to pre-war lines heavily loaded with chrome mouldings, a newcomer to the automotive scene, one of the smaller independents, had stolen the show and started a new trend.
Slowly the 'Big Three' followed. The Cadillac Division of General Motors Corporation restyled their '48 cars with front fenders flowing smoothly into their rear counterparts, immediately below the belt line. What was to become a major styling element t over the following years also first appeared on the 1948 Cadillac: tail fins. Very small, no more than an upsweep at the tips of the rear fenders, terminating in the tail lights; but fins nevertheless. Though there was still a vertical separation bar at the centre of the windshield, the glass was curved-another innovation. The '48 Cadillac was a perfect synthesis of past and future styling, uncluttered and well-proportioned, It was, and will always be a handsome automobile.
Buick fender-lines also flowed into each other but in less extreme fashion than Cadillac’s, the metal sculpturing of the front fenders dropping in a low arc to blend into the front curves of the rear fenders. The other G.M. divisions still retained their pre-war appearance, until envelope bodies were adopted across the board in 1949. A major breakthrough had occurred during 1948 in new styling advances, once again pioneered by an independent manufacturer. Hudson introduced its 'Step-Down Design'. The occupants were cradled between the frame rails and the '48 Hudson was the first of the new breed of wider, lower-built American cars, needless to say, also with an envelope-type body and no separate fenders.
Ford-Mercury-Lincoln were next, in 1949, to field new-concept envelope bodies, and Nash-not then merged with Hudson also introduced that type of coachwork design together with a fully-curved windshield with no centre separation. Both front and rear wheels were enclosed, and ash gave the new line a distinctive new name: Airflyte. Instruments were enclosed within a Uniscope cluster around the wheel. Chrysler Corporation also provided envelope bodies for their '49 Plymouths, Dodges, DeSotos and Chryslers, and although rather bulbous and massive, they were, as usual, soundly engineered. Packard's version was conservative but smooth, with gracefully flowing fenders and well proportioned overall dimensions. Old elegance in modern trim, as befitted the image of the marque. It was to be the swan song of Packard elegance, however. Crosley's buzzing little mini-cars, with their tiny O.H.C. four-cylinder engines, also possessed envelope bodies.

Clearly the new styling trend was there to stay and the universal acceptance of the envelope body was perhaps the most significant achievement of the decade. Most European manufacturers still clung to separate body and fenders at that time and the American marques were a step ahead. As far as other styling elements were concerned, curved windshields, tail fins, the more extensive employment of heavy chrome trim and the move towards lower bodies had all been made evident. The real pioneers of the decade had been Kaiser-Frazer, Studebaker and Hudson; newcomers and smaller independents.

The Fifties

The 'Fifties were to bring even more drastic changes. America, as never before, moved out on the open road. New highway systems were conceived and constructed, bringing main cities and all states nearer to one another - and Americans, thanks to the freedom the automobile provided, began to discover their own country. Vacation trips became longer in actual distances covered and that meant more time spent in the family car. Interior comfort came to be of prime importance.

Due to general speed limits, active driving was never a major requirement, and underneath the then new sheet metal was a suspension system of the Nineteen-Thirties, with live-axle leaf-spring rear suspension, soft springing and damping. Seats didn't need to provide lateral support for fast cornering speeds since no one ever thought of cornering rapidly. They had, however, to be extremely comfortable. The 'Fifties witnessed a further revolution: that of interior design. If the buyer could afford it, all effort other than directing and stopping the car could be handled automatically. Electric power windows moved silently up and down at the touch of a button, six-way power seats could be adjusted for height, rake and reach automatically, and the inside temperature was cool during the hottest, most humid weather conditions if an air-conditioning unit was fitted.

Big, new V8 engines with an excess of power and torque made it all possible, and power steering and braking further reduced physical effort, encapsulating driver and occupants in a silent, smoothly curved envelope body. At moderate speeds the American cars of the Fifties were predestined for day-long journeys on smooth roads. Since technical development concerned itself more with comfort and straight-line acceleration from traffic lights-and also with a good acceleration potential when feeding onto a divided highway-a large portion of time and budgeted money could be spent on styling.
1950 American Car Spotters Guide

1951 American Car Spotters Guide

1952 American Car Spotters Guide

1953 American Car Spotters Guide

1954 American Car Spotters Guide

1955 American Car Spotters Guide

1956 American Car Spotters Guide

1957 American Car Spotters Guide

1958 American Car Spotters Guide

Detroit styling departments came into their own during the 'Fifties. That was also the decade of the G.M. 'Motoramas', Bill Mitchell having taken over the helm of G.M..styling from Harley Earl. Trend-setting dream cars such as Chevrolet's Corvette I made their appearances in these wandering car shows combined with staged song dance numbers, testing public opinion throughout the United States. The Ford styling section also created a line of future-orientated 'one-off special bodies, while Chrysler left the realization of their dream-car schemes to Ghia, in Turin. During January, 1950, a little two-seater toured the country to test public reaction to an interesting design. It was Nash Motors' NXI (for Nash Experimental International). The car met with success and was to become the prototype for the Austin A powered Metropolitan of 1954, sharing a fender-less envelope body and one-piece curved wind shield with its larger relations from Kenosha.
Nash pioneered another new car type in 1950, the compact Rambler, on a 100-inch (254 cm) wheelbase. Apart from the Crossley, it was America's first post-war compact car and unique in that it was initially offered as a convertible sedan, i.e. with fixed side-window frames. Success of the Rambler prompted Kaiser's small-car introduction, the 'Henry J' in 1951 and Hudson's Jet early during 1953. Clearly, Americans-at least some-began to think small. However, despite the ever increasing boom in even smaller-sized imports the 'Fifties' trend to lower, wider, longer cars couldn't be stopped. It was this decade which gave birth to the so-called 'full-sized car'.

Previously, lower-priced marques had produced smaller-sized cars, while the higher a marque's price and the greater its prestige, the longer its wheelbase had been. It had all been logical. Not so anymore, for even the low-priced makes such as Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth offered grown-up models with long wheelbases at the tops of their lines: 'full-sized cars'. And big they were! They were too large and heavy to be comfortably parked without the benefits of power-steering, or to be stopped easily without the use of servo-assisted brakes. Large expanses of sheet steel stretched before the driver's eyes, covering the engine compartment, and even greater was the rear overhang, providing huge luggage compartments, which invariably failed to keep their suggested promise ,of cavernous stowage space.

Low build, badly conceived location of the spare wheel and intrusion of the fuel tank all combined to keep luggage space much more limited than optically implied. Yes, the American car had grown up during the Nineteen Fifties-for better or for worse. Life was easy, money plentiful, jobs provided security for all and the thought of fuel shortages was just a wild figment of a science-fiction writer's imagination. An entire generation was rocking instead of jitterbugging and swooning to the sounds of jazz bands and crooners, and gentleness and genteelness gave way to uncompromising garishness. It was all mirrored in the coachwork of the 'Fifties cars.

Three-colour paint combinations in black, cream and raspberry red; wrap-around windshields which bumped knees and distorted vision; tail fins which grew to gigantic dimensions; hideous and tasteless gobs of chrome-plated trim at the sides and on toothy grilles and outrageously long tail ends; fake air scoops; fake louvers; fake spare wheel covers; fake wire-spoke hub caps. It was all a gigantic put-on, a horrible cornucopia growing more outrageous year by year, perpetrated upon a relatively mild-mannered generation of car buyers which had lost all touch with automotive style. Cars didn't really look like cars any more in the America of the 'Fifties. They were big, broad, multi-hued barges which attempted more to look like rockets and jet planes than mundane automobiles. America, growing ever closer to the ideal of personal transportation the automobile embodied, drifted ever farther away from the ideals of good automotive design.

There were some bright spots, though. A well styled 1951 Kaiser replaced the original design, while a sparkling and clean-cut Chevrolet Corvette introduced for the 1953 model year started the 'personal-car' trend. Although advertised as a sports car, these early Corvettes didn't quite live up to the image-but first-class personal cars they certainly were, with well proportioned glass-fibre bodywork and two-speed 'Powerglide' automatic transmission to take the strain out of stop-and-go driving. Ford followed with its Thunderbird two-seater in 1955, which grew into a four seater three years later, never quite capturing the cachet of the original smaller version but growing into an eminently popular personal car-while the Corvette turned into America's only true sports car after all.

The cleanest-looking and best-styled car of the 'Fifties was undoubtedly the original Raymond Loewy-styled Studebaker coupe of1953, known either as 'Starlight' or 'Starliner'. With the passing years, through, the basic design became ever more cluttered and bogged down with needless chrome and ill-fitting exterior trim. Studebaker's merger with Packard didn't help financially, so face-lift followed face-lift, while the once-renowned Packard turned into a bulbous envelope, which nevertheless covered flawless mechanical components. Even the Caribbean convertible looked more like a foundering whale than a graceful open-air conveyance for which the grand old marrque had long been a styling leader before the war.

Lincoln introduced a clean-cut Continental Mk II to continue its pre-war heritage, but despite the simple and good looking lines it never recaptured the charm of the original Continental coupe of the 'Thirties. All in all, the Nineteen Fifties represented the absolute nadir in American automotive styling to that date, with the few exceptions mentioned previously. The original Corvette and Thunderbird, and the 1953 Studebaker 'Starlight' and 'Starliner' coupes looked right then, and they still command respect today. Automotive collectors being collectors, cars of the 'Fifties are making a comeback. When bad taste stands alone in a stylish world, it isn't bad-just extravagant.

The Sixties

A new decade brought a new size of car from the three major manufacturers. The 'compact', having been pioneered years previously by Nash, was here to stay. Chevrolet introduced its revolutionary 'flat-six', rear-engined Corvair in 1960, Ford its Falcon and Plymouth the Valiant. The Corvair's styling with its flat engine cover and rear-deck lid, the flaring metal-sculptured contour-line running from front to rear just underneath the belt, gave it a distinctive appearance which was copied across the Atlantic by NSU (Prinz), Simca (1100) and Fiat (1300/1500), indicating the soundness of its design. As we have witnessed, apart from a few trend-setting designs, the over-all styling concept generally follows a diverse course. During the 'Sixties, the road led towards a boxy looking package covering running gear.

Chrome trim was more sparsely applied than during the previous decade, while the body lines became neater and trimmer in general and cars of all makes began to look more similar to each other than had been the case during past decades. Apparently it was decided by the industry that what sold well should be copied. The trend to cleanly designed automobile coachwork was making a comeback, and good taste began to be catered for once again-but the result  was uniformity and it tended to be boring. Not that there weren't some crisp-looking individual designs, for there always are, even during the dullest of periods. The first was Ford's Mustang, an instant hit at its introduction in April, 1964. It was the marketing department's greatest success story to date, and Plymouth followed with its Barracuda in 1965, Chevrolet made it with the Camaro for the '67 model year. America had discovered a new body style-the 'sporty car'-and liked it.

The Pontiac Firebird, a Camaro derivative, the Mercury Cougar, developed from the Mustang and AMC's AMX rounded out the 'Sixties 'sporty car' scene. The basic theme was a long engine cover and close-cropped rear-end styling. Those cars looked powerful but with the smaller engines available could be sheep in wolves' clothing. It wasn't the performance that mattered so much when driving to the local supermarket; it was the implied cachet. Grandma felt years younger and Junior was Mr Universe in person behind the wheel of such a car. They did and they still do look good since the second generation and, in the case of the Barracuda the third,' improved their looks imperceptibly but surely.

Imperceptibly is the correct term, since the basic lines remained while the styling was cleaned up little by little over the passing years. The 'sporty car' had been a good idea from the Styling point of view. The 'personal-car' theme received strong support from Oldsmobile's front drive Toronado in 1966, with Cadillac's companion car, the Eldorado, following a year later. Clean styling again and crisp, uncluttered, chrome less lines with metal sculpturing. The Toronado’s wide lips over the wheel arches were copied by many makes over the next years.

Those cars, then, were the trend the pacemakers of the 'Sixties. During that decade of general similarity among various U.S. marques those designs stood out with a distinctive appearance and demonstrated that individual styling was still applicable. Combined with the return to clean design themes, the road to the 'Seventies had been clearly defined. Just as the 'Fifties had left us with quadruple headlights, the 'Sixties were to provide us with the vinyl-covered car top, both items which were copied across the Atlantic and are still with us to date. The commencement of the new decade saw cars in America being regarded as automobiles once again, as distinct entities with a definite purpose. A new scheme of things was in the process of development-away from the space-age rocket and jet, towards the space-age transportation module modelled upon the classic automobile proportions.

The Seventies, and the 1973 Oil Crisis

And with a huge variety of sizes and categories to suit all requirements. Suddenly disaster struck. Overnight, the oil crisis of 1973 conjured up visions of fuel rationing while emission controls and safety regulations did their part to influence overall car design in general. Viewed in retrospect, it was all very positive. When things appear bleak; when the situation seems hopeless, humanity rolls up its sleeves and rallies for the necessary effort. Automotive engineers and designers are no different in that respect. The American automobile industry felt betrayed by government agencies at the time of its greatest need during the oil crisis. The answer was the same as always in mankind’s turbulent history: take a risk! Massive investments were made-greater than at any time before, during the course of the automobile's development. The new breed of cars was to be smaller and, above all, lighter and more efficient. Clean design was not to be sacrificed-as if that was possible under the circumstances!

The American automobile industry relearned an old lesson: functionality of concept brings simplicity of design. It had been there at the beginnings and during the 'Twenties and 'Thirties, when American cars had been splendid in appearance, ranking in looks with the world's best. The lesson had been lost in the 'Fifties, completely and totally, as D.S. car design had run amok. Groping back to reality during the 'Sixties, the 'Seventies became a rebirth of good styling, of purposeful automotive design in America. Hard times make for difficult solutions and call for drastic measures. The shape of the Nineteen Eighties is already taking form. Crisp and clearly defined lines, good color-keyed exteriors and interiors with new and pleasing color combinations, the greater use of plastics and lightweight materials with better utilization of space. By shrinking, the American car of the outgoing 'Seventies and the approaching 'Eighties had grown in stature.
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