Facts About 50s Cars

by Rob Wagner

The postwar years in the American automotive industry was an era of unprecedented growth as General Motors, Chrysler and Ford made significant headway in automotive design and technology. More powerful cars, with Chrysler leading the way with the Hemi engine, and a culture that valued flamboyant, chrome-laden body designs prevailed in 1950s cars.

Long Transition

The 1951 Chrysler Windsor Deluxe sedan typified styling carried over from prewar designs.

It took the automotive industry a decade after the end of World War II to offer completely redesigned cars that shed prewar styling, with Chevrolet introducing the Bel Air series and Chrysler the 300 letter series in 1955.

Planned Obsolescence

General Motors' 1953 Buick displays a large quantity of chrome.

GM chief designer Harley Earl implemented his "planned obsolescence" scheme that changed car body styles every three to five years to induce the public to buy a new model.

Fins

Many car buyers believed the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado exceeded good taste.

Earl's marketing plan affected the design of rear tail fins on cars, which were modest in early 1950s Cadillacs, but grew larger and more flamboyant by the time 1959 Cadillacs debuted.

Forward Look

The 1955 Chrysler C-300 exemplifies Virgil Exner's

From 1955 to 1961, Chrysler's chief stylist, Virgil Exner, focused on a futuristic aerodynamic look on Chryslers, Dodges and Plymouths, making aerodynamic styling an industry standard.

Fin Casualties

The lowly rear-engine Corvair built in 1959 for 1960 signaled a new direction in design.

Earl and Exner became victims of the fin wars when the public grew weary of exaggerated designs in the late 1950s, with Earl forced into retirement in 1958 and Exner leaving Chrysler in 1962.

The Best

The 1957 Ford Fairlaine 500 featured a motorized retractable hardtop.

The brightest stars of the 1950s were the 1955 through 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, the 1955 Chrysler 300 letter series and the 1957 Ford Retractable Hardtop (see Resources).

About the Author

Rob Wagner is a journalist with over 35 years experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines. His experience ranges from legal affairs reporting to covering the Middle East. He served stints as a newspaper and magazine editor in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Wagner attended California State University, Los Angeles, and has a degree in journalism.

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Chrysler LLC