History of 1950s Carsby Kim KenneyUpdated August 06, 2023
Immediately following World War II, most American automakers were producing the same old thing they had been selling before the war. In 1947, however, Studebaker came out with the first new car design. The rest of the automotive world would soon follow. In the post-World War II era, the automotive industry in America witnessed a remarkable transformation, particularly in the 1950s. It marked a golden age for American cars, with distinct car designs, an economic boom, and a surge in car ownership. Let's explore the history of 1950s cars, delving into key aspects and influential car manufacturers of the time.
Economic Boom and Car Ownership
During the prosperous postwar years, the American economy thrived, and people had money to spend. As soldiers returned home, they sought a suburban lifestyle, and owning a car became a necessity rather than a luxury. By 1950, the number of cars on the road surged, with nearly 40 million cars, indicating a 40 percent increase from 1941. Car ownership became more widespread, with three out of five families owning a car.
Distinctive Styling and Marketing
The 1950s were characterized by automotive manufacturers unveiling new models with great fanfare. Car dealerships turned the unveiling into a spectacle, keeping the designs under wraps with paper-covered windows until the "big reveal." The manufacturers made significant cosmetic modifications and price changes to create excitement among car buyers. With the emphasis on cosmetic modifications, the showrooms dazzled prospective buyers with an array of color and option possibilities.
Styling Trends and Innovations
American car culture of the early 1950s celebrated big cars adorned with elaborate chrome trims and eye-catching three-tone paint jobs. The decade also witnessed the advent of tail fins, which grew in extravagant proportions by 1959, inspired by America's fascination with rockets and space exploration. Innovations during this period included power steering, automatic dimming headlights, automatic transmissions, fuel injection, and retractable hardtop convertibles, adding to the allure of luxury cars.
The Rise of Credit and Pricing Battles
As car sales slowed in 1953, Ford and Chevrolet engaged in a price war, leading to the downfall of smaller car makers like Kaiser and Willys. However, a new market emerged for "used" cars as financially capable consumers traded their cars frequently for the latest models. During this time, over two-thirds of cars were purchased on credit, making car ownership more accessible to a broader audience.
Ford's Edsel and Its Fall
Despite the successes of the 1950s automotive industry — like Chevy and Chrysler, among others — not all ventures were prosperous. Ford's Edsel was one such example of failure. Introduced with high hopes, the Edsel faced a recession in the late 1950s, leading to limited sales of mid-priced cars. Ultimately, the Edsel became synonymous with failure in the automotive world.
Car Manufacturers and Icons of the 1950s
During the 1950s, various American car manufacturers thrived, including Chrysler, Buick, Cadillac, Dodge, Chevrolet, Hudson, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Imperial, among others. General Motors (GM) played a dominant role, with Chevrolet Bel Air and the iconic Ford Thunderbird becoming symbols of American car culture. European sports car brands like Porsche and BMW also began to make an impact on the American market during this time.
Car Culture and Legacy
The 1950s left a lasting legacy on American car culture. Classic cars from this era, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, continue to be revered and sought after by automotive enthusiasts worldwide. The era's innovations, such as seat belts and air conditioning, have become integral safety and comfort features in modern vehicles.
As we look back at the cars of the 1950s, we see a time of growth and creativity in the automobile industry, a time that birthed icons and shaped the automotive landscape for decades to come.
I have been a professional historian, museum curator, and author for more than a decade. I have served as the Museums Editor at BellaOnline since 2004. I am qualified to serve as an expert in a variety of historical topics. My expertise includes the Victorian Age and McKinley's presidency, the Roaring Twenties, the 1950s, the flu, museum studies, material culture, architecture, and more. I have a BA in history and an MA in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Please see my bio on my employer's website for more: http://www.mckinleymuseum.org/speakers_bureau/speaker/2