Car design has been a key part of automotive history since the very first series of carriages was built for royalty. Though not a car per se, these first carriages offered visual delight to onlookers. Painted and gold-leafed, often with family crests and other pageantry, the carriage evolved from buggy to Edwardian opulence and then finally as an appliance in the form of the durable and efficient Model T. After the Second World War, though, we would forever see the shape of our cars evolve regularly through the use of technology, metallurgy, materials development and aerodynamics. Most impressively, through coachbuilders in the European traditions and “Big Three” car studios, significant show cars and concept cars would spark the imagination of buyers and dreamers forever. So much of that drama continues today in the hands of collectors who buy, race and restore these wonderful pieces of sculpture as a reminder of those prosperous and often flamboyant times.
The 1953-1959 time period was an era of profound transformation. The cars of the early ’50s were really little more than evolutionary architecture following the forms of the ’40s. However, by 1953 (though earlier Autorama shows had been done) GM Design Chief Harley Earl ushered in the traveling spectacle of the Motorama, serving up a more forceful visual ideology—a window into a future of fanciful ideas. Rocket ships, orbital space paths, parabolic architecture and bright metallic colors all became part of the automobile design lexicon.
Detailed areas included aero-inspired tail fins, rocket-engine-baffled taillights, glitter-infused interiors with galactic steering wheels and, of course, the newly cast iron overhead valve V8 engines that allowed rapid and reliable cross-country transport. The visual icons of this era abound in Ford, GM and Chrysler products, but also can be seen in smaller brand Nash, Packard and Studebaker products. And, while the U.S. dominated automobile production worldwide (nearly 10 million cars, making up roughly 70 percent of total sales), European brands began to emerge with specialty products for sports car enthusiasts and touring cars for the wealthy and sporting elite. As international racing became more popular on a worldwide basis, racing themes would further inspire our production cars.
Heavy use of chrome offered the viewer not just a vision of the future but a bright reflection of the “self” as seen in our object of adoration. No longer a utility or appliance, the car became a symbol of affluence and taste. Aluminum, gold anodizing, stainless steel and other highly refined processes (mostly learned and refined through the war efforts in aircraft) all fueled this decorative and sculptural era.
It all came to a crashing halt at the peak of excess embodied in the 1959 Cadillac, complete with ridiculously scaled tail fins, erotically inspired lipstick tail lights, Dagmar bumpers (themselves inspired and aptly named for a popular lady radio personality with ample “upper-figure projectiles”) and candy-colored exteriors. This six-year reign would yield to the more tailored and chiseled linear designs of the 1960s, but it would take three years for it to all go away since much of the design ideas from 1959 would not be in production until 1962. By 1963, it was all but gone and a new genre would emerge.
To understand this era, it is important to consider that much of America and Europe desperately craved celebration as a relief from the darkness of the Second World War. The joy and expansion of a prosperous America was celebrated in the naive but exciting excess of decoration in one of our most culturally pervasive icons of the 20th century—the cars of the mid to late 1950s.