In the ’50s, Boomer kids grew up immersed in the new post-war car culture. The impact of the automobile during the Boomer era cannot be over-stated. The U.S. auto industry, the largest in the world, supported one in six American jobs. More than eight million cars were manufactured in 1950 alone, and more than sixty-seven million cars were registered in the U.S. by 1958.
During the ‘50s and ’60s, Americans were crazy about cars. This is when NASCAR started, hot rods and drag racing went mainstream, and cruisin’ the streets was the preferred teen evening and weekend activity.
American roads started to crisscross the country in 1955 thanks to the Interstate Highway System. With those roads came the birth of conveniences such as Holiday Inn motor inns and Howard Johnson restaurants, drive-in and drive-thru fast food restaurants, drive-in movie theaters, shopping malls and car washes. One third of the country’s population lived in the suburbs by the end of the ’50s.
Boomer kids and their parents commonly took extended summer road trip vacations. Driving across country was a popular pastime, as was camping in a pull-behind trailer.
The “Big Three” – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – dominated the marketplace, producing a dazzling array of car models, each a distinctive brand. Some were oriented towards families, while others were known as “muscle” cars, prized for their performance, power and speed. Cars ranged from the simple to the sublime. Sedans and station wagons were popular, as were expansive cars with outrageous tailfins. Vivid colors and chrome prevailed. New automotive advances such as automatic transmission, power brakes and power steering astonished and delighted drivers.
Cars permeated popular culture: There were car magazines, television shows centered around cars, movies featuring car chases, books written about road trips and pop songs penned about cars.
The Boomer era will always be remembered as the time when Americans fell hopelessly in love with cars. Here are some of the winners & losers from the book, Boomer Brand Winners & Losers: 156 Best & Worst Brands of the 50s and 60s.
The ’57 Chevy is today widely regarded as the most popular classic car in the world. Chevrolet had already achieved success the previous two years, but the 1957 model incorporated several design changes that made it even more attractive. Its unique features included a wide front grille with bumper “bullets,” distinctive chrome headlights, tailfins, and a new dashboard. The wheels were one inch smaller in diameter – fourteen instead of fifteen inches – to make the car sit lower to the ground. It was the first car to have tubeless tires. Countless options were available, both in terms of body styles and accessories. The model came in 2 and 4-door sedans, a 2-door “Sport Coupe” and a 4-door “Sport Sedan,” and several station wagon versions. Luxurious extras included power steering, power brakes, power windows, power seats, power antenna, rear speaker, padded dashboard, air conditioning, and even an electronic shaver that attached to the dashboard. The ’57 Chevy was also a popular NASCAR and Daytona 500 competitor.
September 4, 1957 – “E Day” – a day that will live in automotive infamy. That’s the day the 1958 Ford Edsel was introduced to the American public amid great fanfare. It was one of the most extensively researched and most expensive car introductions. Ford even started a separate Edsel division in the hope that the new car would warrant its own production and sales operations. The Edsel, named after Edsel B. Ford, son of the company founder, was intended to compete with the Dodge and DeSoto models from Chrysler and the Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac brands from General Motors. According to Ford, the Edsel would be “the smart car for the younger executive or professional family on its way up.” Unfortunately, also on the way up at the time was the growing popularity of compacts, combined with the waning interest in medium-priced cars. The massive publicity about the “car of the future” backfired: The Edsel was ridiculed instead of embraced for its less than attractive looks and the too-high price tag. Sales tanked. The Edsel remains one of the great brand disasters of the 20th Century.
The Pontiac GTO, introduced in 1964 by the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors, is often credited as being the first “muscle car.” One of its designers was John DeLorean, who went on to form his own car company in 1975. DeLorean named the Pontiac GTO after an Italian racing car designation; it stands for “Gran Turismo Omologato,” but it’s said that internally, the initials represented “Grand Tempest Option,” since the car was originally conceived as a souped-up Tempest. The Pontiac GTO wasn’t a true racing car, but it was sporty and had impressive performance because it was built with a larger engine – a 389-cubic inch V8 – in a lighter body. As soon as it was introduced and marketed, the Pontiac GTO was on its way to being a success, both in terms of sales and influencing other car brands to enter the muscle car market. By 1966, the Pontiac GTO broke away from the Tempest family to officially become its own model. The first Pontiac GTO era lasted ten years; the car was revived in 1999 as a concept car, but the brand was officially discontinued in 2009. Gone but not forgotten!
It’s a car, it’s a boat, it’s Amphicar! The German-built Amphicar was introduced in America in 1961 as the first amphibious automobile. It was actually a descendant of the Volkswagen “Schwimmwagen,” an amphibious vehicle that Nazi Germany used in World War II. While it was intended to appeal to Americans as a recreational vehicle, the Amphicar was expensive, unattractive, and viewed as nothing more than a novelty. In fact, the Amphicar was inadequate as both a car and a boat. It had a four-cylinder engine and manual transmission at a time when American engines were becoming more powerful and the popularity of automatic transmission was growing. Its speed on land could not exceed 70 mph; in water, the top speed was 7 knots. Front-wheel steering operated in the water and made it harder to navigate than a traditional boat. Lyndon Johnson owned an Amphicar, and he liked to scare the wits out of visitors to his ranch when he would drive it into a lake, claiming his brakes didn’t work. Less than 4,000 Amphicars were manufactured, with production ending in 1965.
The Volkswagen (VW) “Beetle” was conceived by German Ferdinand Porsche in 1933 at the request of Adolf Hitler, who wanted to build a “people’s car” that all German citizens could afford. Because of World War II, civilian Beetles were not widely available until the end of the 1940s. The unusual (some would say ugly) looks and the rear-mounted engine were conversation starters, and the car became popular throughout Europe in the ’50s – but not in the United States, where only 600 were sold in 1952. Also in the early ’50s, the VW Microbus was introduced. A landmark advertising campaign in the U.S. that began in 1959 is generally credited with changing the American perception of the Beetle. Clever ads were focused on the quirkiness of the car, and the Beetle was quickly embraced as cool. In the ’60s, the Beetle became the best-selling foreign car in the U.S. Both the hip Beetle and the economical “Microbus” were adopted by and associated with hippies. The Beetle was regarded as a “flower power bug,” and the Microbus was seen as a live-in camper.