History of 1950s Cars

by Kim Kenney
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Immediately following World War II, most American automakers were producing the same old thing they had been selling before the war. In 1947 Studebaker came out with the first new car design. The rest of the automotive world would soon follow, creating some of the most distinctive car designs in history. It was indeed a "golden age" for the automotive industry.

Economic Boom

In the prosperous postwar years, Americans had money to spend and they wanted to buy something with it. As soldiers returned home from war and moved their sweethearts out to the suburbs, the car became a necessity rather than a luxury. By 1950 there were almost 40 million cars on the road---a 40 percent increase from 1941. Three out of five families now owned a car.


In the 1950s, car dealerships made a spectacle out of unveiling the latest models. Paper covered windows until it was time for the "big reveal." Most automakers made enough changes to a model from year to year to create something entirely different to get excited about. Because there were so few mechanical changes in the new models in 1955, advertising stressed cosmetic modifications and price. Color and option possibilities overwhelmed car buyers when they stepped into the showroom, causing some dealers to complain that they couldn't stock enough cars to give everyone exactly what they wanted right off the lot.


Americans wanted big cars, which continued to sell well for most of the decade. Many cars in the 1950s were covered in chrome trim. Three-tone paint jobs became more popular. Tail fins appeared in the beginning of the decade and grew to outlandish proportions by 1959. The design grew out of America's obsession with rockets and space.


By 1953, car sales had slowed a bit. Ford and Chevrolet started a price war that eventually drove many smaller car makers, like Kaiser and Willys, out of business. A new market emerged for "used" cars as people who could afford to, traded in cars regularly for the latest and greatest models. In 1957 more than two-thirds of cars were purchased on credit.


Cars in the 1950s featured some flashy options, including power steering, automatic dimming headlights, automatic transmissions, fuel injection and retractable hardtop convertibles.


The greatest failure in automotive history was Ford's Edsel. By the end of the 1950s, a recession limited the sale of mid-priced cars. Despite Ford's high hopes, the Edsel did not sell well. By the end of the 1950s, the Edsel had become synonymous with failure.

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