The most incredible cars to come out of the 1950s

1963 Chevrolet Corvettes at the track. W63HV_CH014

In the 1950s, America’s automobile manufacturers designed some of the boldest, most adventurous cars history has ever seen. But the industry hit the rocks in the 1970s and is only now beginning to rediscover the freedoms of half a century ago

In 1903, a gentleman from Michigan founded a company to produce motor cars. His vision was simple: to ensure that every man with a good job could afford an automobile. From 1908 to 1927, Henry Ford sold more than 15 million cars, all of them Model T’s and all priced between $300 and $900. Henry Ford had democratised personal transport in the form of the modern day motor car but, more importantly, he’d sparked America’s love affair with the automobile.

Fast forward 50 years and the automobile had come to represent more than an industry in America – it was a cultural movement. The focus of the economy had shifted away from war and turned towards the consumer: drive-in cinemas, restaurants and interstates – highways designed for speed and ease – had developed, permitting ways of life and forming a culture around cars. With faster and more efficient cars on better roads, people were able to live beyond the confines of the major cities and commute instead. There was space and time to drive, and drive they most certainly did. At the same time, the world was changing. Peacetime meant that scientists, engineers and everyday people could focus on exciting innovations, like luxury jet aviation and space exploration. This melting pot of consumerism, cultural shift and technical advancement brought about a golden age for America’s auto industry, sparking grace, beauty and intrigue in every tail fin, fender and hood. America was booming and backed by the soundtrack of burbling V8s.

Car designs of the time reflected this optimism with stylists like Harley Earl, the mighty Vice President of General Motors, who designed cars that looked like jet-powered aircraft and rockets, such as the 1951 Buick le Sabre concept. With a projectile-like front, panoramic, dome-shaped roof, wings, fins and jet-pipes, ‘Rocket’-inspired cars like this became synonymous with mid-1950s Detroit. Production models like the Ford Thunderbird created a new market niche of the personal luxury car, arguably the beginnings of what would become the grand tourer, while models like the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray offered sports car performance and radical looks to match. Later, in 1964, the Ford Mustang and the Le Mans-winning GT40 would make America the focal point for car design the world over. This obsession with building bigger, better, shinier and more eccentric cars chimed with society’s optimistic stars, status seekers and dream chasers of the time.

The 1951 Le Sabre remains a true testament to GM's innovation and leadership in design.

The 1951 Le Sabre 

‘There was an explosion of money after World War Two, and America was an economic superpower,’ says Robert Edwards, the producer of car-design documentary American Dreaming. ‘People wanted things that were modern and futuristic. It was a time when we looked forward and embraced the
future, because we had a sense that the future was going to be better.’

The impact of Detroit-based design was also felt much further away than the USA. ‘The Italians took inspiration from American trends in the 1950s, but we toned it down for European tastes. American streamlining was a suggestion of speed; Italian streamlining was more scientific,’ says Lorenzo Ramaciotti with a knowing grin – the kind that only
a man who’s headed up Cambiano-based Pininfarina – one of the greatest automotive design houses in history – can pull off.

Ramaciotti’s project portfolio reads like a listing from the most discerning gentleman’s dream garage. The Maserati GranTurismo, Ferrari Enzo and Ferrari F430 are just a few of the projects he’s been credited with, the later of which he owned himself until recently. ‘It was much more simple in the 1950s and 60s, we [designers] didn’t have to battle against so many things,’ he adds.

Unfortunately for America’s car designers, it was this ‘battle,’ that arguably put the brakes on the golden age of styling in the early 1970s. By 1966, the freedom of expression enjoyed by the US car industry came under scrutiny when the National Highway Traffic Safety Association started lobbying manufacturers. Then, in 1973, the Vietnam War began to deconstruct the optimistic psyche of the American people that had built over the years. The final blow came in response to the oil crisis in the same year, with the adoption of 55mph speed limits in a bid to conserve fuel.

1963 Chevrolet Corvettes at the track. W63HV_CH014

1963 Chevrolet Corvettes at the track

‘We had to redesign everything,’ says Edwards. ‘The cars had to become lighter and more safety-conscious and the big bumpers weren’t attractive, but they had to do the best they could.’

Despite the designer’s best efforts, it wasn’t enough to save some models. Landmarks of Detroit like the Ford Thunderbird, Lincoln Continental and iconic Ford Mustang started to gain weight and look unsightly. Gone were the graceful lines of the 1950s and 1960s and instead, the shape of cars was rationalised, producing boxier, less aesthetically exciting models.

At the same time, engines got smaller in an effort to improve fuel economy but this resulted in lacklustre performance from models like the Mustang, which previously sold in volume on its sporting credentials. ‘They lost inspiration and got complacent that they could sell anything,’ says Ramaciotti. ‘They completely lost their direction in the late 1970s and 1980s.’

original Ford Thunderbird with 1990 model

Original Ford Thunderbird with 1990 model

By the 1990s, America’s car industry was in a bad way.

Creativity had reached an all time low and models such as the Thunderbird and Mustang were barely recognisable from their predecessors. Supercars like the 1964 Ford GT40 were all but a distant memory with nothing of the sort on the market, nor seemingly in the pipeline. At the turn of the century, however, familiar American heroes started to grace the stages at motor shows around the world. In 2002, the Ford GT concept caused a media frenzy when it debuted at the Detroit motor show. But it was 2005 that not only marked the start of production for the GT, but also the arrival of a new Mustang, which harked back to the 1964 original with its forward-leaning grille and fastback profile.

‘You don’t have to reinvent it, you need to stay true to the original formula and interpret the design elements in a modern way,’ says Kemal Curi?, the designer behind the 2015 Mustang. And with the new Ford GT being the most highly anticipated car of 2016, the future looks bright for the stalwarts of Detroit.

Today, America is once again the home of global car design, but in a different way to the mid-1950s. America’s car design community has shifted from a closed and concentrated nucleus of carmakers in industrial Detroit, to a diverse network of design houses situated in the sun-kissed state of California. Los Angeles is home to the largest concentration of automotive design studios than any other place in the world, and has 15 design outposts for carmakers from Audi to Volvo.

Tesla Model S

The Tesla S

The styling and shape of many of the cars on the roads around the world today comes from America. Ralph Gilles, Head of Design at FCA – parent company to the likes of Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo – is an American designer who cut his teeth in Detroit but now influences design around the world. Some say it’s the warm weather, others the west-coast lifestyle but one thing is clear: America has once again become a byword for innovative design. In an industry where the likes of Apple, Google and Uber threaten to dislodge the automotive elite, reigniting the design spark and creating exciting cars that push boundaries and captivate buyers to the point of obsession is the only way to keep the driven American dream alive.

This article is taken from our January/February issue. Subscribe here.



Rory is motoring editor-at-large at The Gentleman’s Journal. Most familiar with four wheels but can also be found falling off two.

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