Ultimate Guide to Cars of the 1950s

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The 1950s is one of the most memorable periods in history, as it brought fashion, toy, and movie trends that are timeless, like the poodle skirt, the hula hoop, and movies that you can watch with 3D glasses. However, the 50s is also the era where the automobile industry transformed into a profitable platform where the biggest manufacturers mass-produce reliable and beautiful vehicles. While big manufacturers finally became much bigger in the 50s, the independent automakers are becoming obsolete during the period, as mass-produced cars are starting to get cheaper, thus making the novelty of independently-built cars lose its value.

Besides the rise of big manufacturers, particularly Ford, General Motors, and Audi, the 1950s is also the period where many innovations were created for automobiles. These innovations include air conditioning, power brakes, power steering, durable seat belts, and automatic transmissions. However, the greatest invention that has come out of the 50s is the overhead-valve V8 engine, which is still quite popular even in the 21st century. To learn more about the happenings in the automobile industry and the popular cars during the said era, here is the ultimate guide to the cars of the 1950s.

Consolidation of the Automobile Industry

In the 1950s, the US automobile industry was dominated by the Big Three, namely General Motors (GM), Ford, and Chrysler. These three companies have bought out several independent and mid-level companies in order to become conglomerates by the middle of the era.  By 1955, the Big Three was able to claim at least 94 percent of the sales within the United States.

Automobile Innovations in the 50s

Many of the innovations that were created in the 1950s are still being used today, which is proof that the 50s is one of the most influential eras for the automobile industry. Besides innovations, cars are also becoming quite affordable during the said period, so many people are getting access to cars that are durable, reliable, and have great features. Here is a list of the greatest automobile innovations in the 50s.

Power Windows

Power windows are a type of automobile window that can be lowered or raised using several buttons found on the dashboard. So, with power windows, you don’t need to use the unreliable and often fragile crank handle to raise or lower the windows of your car. While power windows are common in the 21st century, they are actually an innovation in the 1950s. Power windows were developed by the American automobile company Packard during the 1940s. Packard first produced power windows to be installed in luxury vehicles, but when the parts for the windows eventually became affordable in the 1950s, they began to be installed in American passenger cars as well.

Seat Belts

While seat belts have already existed since the 1940s, it was only in the 50s when they became common in vehicles made by several automobile companies around the world. Nash Motors Company was the first American automobile manufacturer that utilized seat belts on their production models in 1949. According to reports, Nash was able to produce 40,000 units with seat belts, but because the seat belts were poorly received, with many customers wanting the seat belt to be removed, Nash was only able to sell 1,000 sets of seat belts with the vehicles.

The modern three-point seat belt that is now used today in almost all vehicles was patented in 1995 by American inventors Hugh DeHaven and Roger W. Griswold. The seat belt that they made was then improved upon by Swedish inventor Nils Bohlin, who worked for Volvo in the 50s. Because of the effectiveness of Bohlin’s design in preventing casualties in road accidents, American car manufacturers then started incorporating the same design for their vehicles’ seat belts. After the 50s, seat belts then became common in the automobile industry.

Air Conditioning

air conditioning controls in a car

Another great invention for automobiles that have come out of the 50s is air conditioning, which was first used in a production model by Chrysler for the 1953 Chrysler Imperial. However, prototypes for automobile air conditioning were already worked on by Packard in 1940 and Cadillac in 1941. In a secret race to see who will first incorporate air conditioning into production models, Chrysler was able to beat Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile as they successfully created mass production air conditioning in 1953. The first modern “underhood” design for air conditioning was developed by Pontiac for their Star Chief car in 1954.

Automatic Transmission

The first automatic transmission system for vehicles was developed by General Motors during the 1930s, but it was only introduced and showcased to the public in 1940 when the Oldsmobile made in the same year was advertised to have a “Hydra-Matic” transmission. Before they were used for passenger cars, automatic transmission systems were first installed in tanks built by General Motors, which were utilized during World War II. Because of the success of the system in the war, General Motors marketed it as being “battle-tested,” which helped them promote the transmission as durable and reliable for passenger cars.

It was in the 1950s when automatic transmission became popular for mass-produced vehicles, with General Motors being at the helm of the trend through their invention of the GM Powerglide, a two-speed automatic transmission system that can be installed in affordable vehicles. The Powerglide would be in production from 1950 to 1973. By the end of the 70s, more than 50% of cars manufactured within the United States had an automatic transmission.

Overhead-Valve V8 Engine

The overhead-valve V8 engine, also known as the OHV V8, was introduced in 1949 by Cadillac and Oldsmobile to serve as a more affordable version of the original V8 engine. But, before Cadillac and Oldsmobile introduced the new engine, another manufacturer called Studebaker was already working an OHV V8 engine in 1947. However, Studebaker was only able to incorporate their engine on their production models in 1950. Following the success of Cadillac’s OHV V8 engine, other car manufacturers like Ford and Chevrolet would develop their own overhead-valve V8 engines during the 1950s.

Most Popular Cars of the 1950s

There have been hundreds of different models that have been produced during the 1950s by various car manufacturers, but there are only a few that truly stood the test of time and are still considered as some of the most beautiful vehicles ever made. Here are the most popular cars of the 1950s.

Chevrolet Corvette C1

1958 Chevrolet Corvette C1

First on the list is the Chevrolet Corvette C1, which is a two-door and two-passenger sports car that was introduced at the General Motors Motorama in 1953. The Corvette C1 is the first generation in the long line of Corvette models, as it has been in production from the 1950s up to the present time (2021).  

As for its name, several GM executives once held a meeting to determine the name of their new sports cars. During that meeting, the then-Public Relations assistant director Myron Scott suggested the name “Corvette,” which is derived from a small warship of the same name. The C1 was originally manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri, and Flint, Michigan, but the production for the Corvette was moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1981, just three years before the introduction of the C4 model.

Cadillac Coupe DeVille

Cadillac DeVille

The Cadillac Coupe DeVille is originally a 2-door hardtop vehicle with a front engine and a GM C Platform automobile chassis. The DeVille was originally a trim version of the Cadillac Series 62 that was made in the 1940s, but it eventually became a distinct model because of its popularity. 

The first generation of the Coupe DeVille, which was made from 1959 to 1960, is considered as one of the most highly-sought after DeVille models in the resale market. The 1959 DeVille featured a 6.4-liter V8 engine that was able to produce 325 horsepower.

Ford Thunderbird

Ford Thunderbird

The Ford Thunderbird, also known by collectors as the T-Bird, is a personal luxury vehicle that was manufactured or produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1955 to 1997 and had a reissue from 2002 to 2005. The Thunderbird was first introduced as a two-seat convertible, although Ford later offered other versions and body configurations, such as a four-seat convertible, a five-seat convertible, a four-seat hardtop couple, and more.

This 1950s model from Ford is credited for starting a new line called “personal luxury car,” which is supposed to have a sporty look with features that are more focused on comfort instead of performance.

Hudson Hornet

Hudson Hornet

The Hudson Hornet is a full-sized vehicle that was manufactured in Detroit, Michigan, by the Hudson Motor Company from 1951 to 1954. The Hornet is primarily known for its “step-down” design that features a dropped floorpan that makes the wheels look like they are at a higher height and a chassis that has a lower center of gravity. Because of the vehicle’s design that makes it looks like its bottom part is about to reach the floor, the rear wheels of the Hornet are almost hidden from plain view.

When Hudson merged with the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation in 1954 to form the American Motors Corporation or AMC, the production of the Hornet was briefly halted before it returned in 1955 under American Motors. To continue selling the Hornet, American motors restyled older Nash automobile units and rebadged them with Hornet bodies. The last units of the Hudson Hornet were manufactured and sold in 1957.

Buick Roadmaster

Although the Buick Roadmaster has already been in production since 1935, its most popular iteration came in 1952, which was a year before the fifth generation was discontinued. The fifth generation of the Buick Roadmaster was introduced in 1949 as a major restyling of the Roadmaster line. The fifth generation of the model was so heavily restyled that it doesn’t look like the previous Roadmaster models at all.

One of the new features that were incorporated to the Roadmaster during the 50s was the “VentiPorts,” which is a ventilation system that is effective in cooling down the vehicle’s engine. The 1952 Buick Roadmaster is considered the most popular iteration of the model not only because of its looks or appearance but also because of its upgraded engine that can give the car up to 170 horsepower.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL is a two-seat sports car that is manufactured in two versions. The first version is the more expensive gull-winged coupe that was produced from 1954 to 1957, while the second version is a streamlined roadster that is made from 1957 to 1963. The gull-winged coupe is known for having its iconic gull-wing doors that open upwards. In addition, the 300 SL was also quite popular in the 50s because of its unbelievable speed, as it can go for up to 263 kilometers per hour or 163 miles per hour, thus making the 300 SL the fastest production car during its era of production.

Unfortunately, because of its relatively steep price, the gull-winged 300 SL is not particularly successful in terms of sales. So, Mercedes-Benz decided to produce a roadster version of the 300 SL in 1957, which is more affordable, lighter, and more streamlined. The company would continue making roadster units until 1963. There were about 1,400 gull-winged coupe units made until 1957, while there were 1,858 roadster units that were manufactured in the late-50s and mid-60s.

Lincoln Continental Mark II

The Lincoln Continental Mark II is an ultra-luxury car that is manufactured and sold by the Continental Division (formerly Lincoln Division) of the Ford Motor Company. The Mark II is the only model that was marketed under the Continental Division, as the group would eventually use the Lincoln brand name again after the end of Mark II’s production in 1957.

The Mark II was the most expensive American-manufactured vehicle during the mid-50s and was supposed to be a direct competitor to the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. The Continental vehicle was a two-door hardtop coupe that utilized several parts or components that were a staple to Lincoln cars, like the Y-block V8 engine and the automatic transmission system. Because all of the units were hand-assembled at the Ford factory, the Mark II was also quite expensive to make, and it led to Ford losing thousands of money for just producing one unit. The Mark II would be discontinued in 1957, but the line would eventually be upgraded to the Mark III line in 1969.

Porsche 550 Spyder

Porsche 550 Spyder

The Porsche 550 Spyder is the second version of the 2-door coupe 550 that was manufactured by Porsche from 1953 to 1956. The Porsche 550 Spyder was introduced at the Paris Auto Show in 1953 and was an instant hit among car enthusiasts that attended the event. Since it was a racing model, the 550 Spyder saw more action in the race tracks rather than the road during the 50s.

The 550 is famous for being one of late actor James Dean’s favorite vehicles. In fact, one of the first 90 550 Spyders ever made was owned by James Dean, which was numbered 130 (VIN 550-0055). On September 21, 1955, during the filming of Dean’s movie, “Giant,” the actor unexpectedly traded his beloved 356 Super Speedster for a new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder at Competition Motors. The trade occurred because Dean wanted to drive a new car and enter the Salinas Road Race event that will be held on October 1 and 2 of the same year. Unfortunately, while test-driving the 550, James dear crashed it at CA Rte. 46/41 Cholame Junction on September 30, 1955. The crash resulted in James Dean’s untimely death.

Ford Fairlane

Ford Fairlane

Another popular Ford model during the 50s is the Ford Fairlane, a sedan that was originally a full-size four-door vehicle that was manufactured from 1955 to 1970. The Ford Fairlane series had seven generations throughout its production, but its most well-known iteration is the 1956 version that is a four-door hardtop.

When Ford introduced the new Ford Galaxie, the Fairlane was repackaged as a mid-size car starting in 1962. The Fairlane would then be dropped by the company in 1970 in favor of expanding the Ford Torino line.

Studebaker Starlight Coupe

Studebaker Starlight Coupe

Considered a 50s classic by many car enthusiasts, the Studebaker Starlight coupe was a two-door vehicle that was produced by the Studebaker Corporation from 1947 to 1952. The Starlight coupe was designed by Virgil Exner, who previously worked for Raymond Loewy in the 40s.

In 1950 and 1951, the Starlight Coupe received major upgrades when it comes to its looks. A “bullet nose” front sheet metal design was added to the front of the vehicle to make it look like a fighter plane, while the other parts of the car were given a futuristic and sophisticated design to set it apart from other cars in the early 50s.

The 1950s was truly a period for innovation in the automobile industry, as some of the inventions that were created during that era are still being used today. Without the changes made to automobiles in the 50s, our cars wouldn’t look and function the way they are now.

Popular Car Manufacturers in the 50s

The Best Cars and Most Popular Cars

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