Ok, ok. We concede. America owned the car in the 1950s. Us Europeans made some good motors, and we set ourselves up well for the ‘60s with the launch of the Mini in ’59. But we couldn’t get close to America in the ‘50s; not on numbers, not on power, and most clearly of all, not for its extraordinary, unrestrained, never-to-be-repeated exuberance of design.
We think of America as being more in love with the car in the ‘50s than ever before or since, but when you look at the cars it made – and more specifically its concept cars – you’d think it was bored of the car already. This was the decade of jetliners and supersonic flight, of Sputnik and the start of the space race. Americans didn’t want cars that looked like they could go fast: they wanted cars that looked like they could fly. Tailfins! Yes! Now make them bigger! Plexiglas bubble canopies! Fuselage bodies! Turbines for engines! Who cares how hot that exhaust gas is! I want a car I can stand on its damn backside and beat the Russians to the Moon!
A little economic background. Continental Europe, plainly, was rent by the war; those car factories that survived had been turned over to munition and military vehicle production and needed turning back. Britain started rather better; the first post-war Motor Show of 1948 was rare flash of optimism amidst the grey post-war austerity, and saw the debut of the Jaguar XK120 (sex) and the Morris Minor (profit). Britain made around half a million cars in 1950, less than ten per cent of America’s output. But it exported three-quarters of them; globally, more than half of all cars exported from their home market came from the UK that year.
And that’s because America just didn’t have the time to bother with small, weird, poor markets overseas. Its economy rebounded much faster than Europe’s after the war and its car industry had a tough time keeping up; it too had to retool after the war and labour disputes limited capacity. Sales volumes didn’t really explode in the ‘50s; they started the decade around five million and finished around seven.
But everything else went nuts, particularly the styling. The Buick Y-Job of 1938 is generally held to be the first concept car, but such indulgence was quickly halted by the war. The Korean War caused a little restraint too, but by ’53 all bets were off, and America’s appetite for excess, speed, flight and space, and its ability to afford it, produced some of the maddest vehicles ever made.
Political correctness was of little importance. The ’56 Cadillac Maharani concept, named after the wife of a maharaja, really did come with everything including the kitchen sink, so a dutiful wife could more completely cater for her husband and family on a picnic. The 1951 Kaiser Safari was trimmed with zebra and lion skins.
Most concept cars – or ‘dreams cars’, as they were more often referred to – showcased some new technology or design innovation, but you wonder if the engineers at GM and Ford and Chrysler honestly believed they could bring some of them to production, or whether they were conceived purely as crowd-pleasers. Way out on the unlikely-to-be-seen-in-a-showroom end of the spectrum were some of the Ford concepts, like the two-wheeled Gyron (above) which used a gyroscope to stabilize it and had little legs that emerged as its slowed to prop it up at rest. Or the Ford Nucleon (below), powered by a rear-mounted nuclear reactor which only needed refuelling (“yeah, I’ll have a Ginsters, twenty Bensons and kilogram of uranium, please”) every five thousand miles.
The three-car Firebird series of concepts created by legendary GM design chief Harley Earl in ’53, ’56 and ’59 could be dismissed the same way. Each was powered by an actual gas turbine (the Nucleon, you won’t be surprised to learn, didn’t have an actual nuclear reactor) which GM took seriously enough as a future means of propulsion to build, run, and test. With exhaust gases at nearly 700 degrees centigrade it was probably soon obvious that a big, lazy V8 was still the better solution.
But the Firebirds were significant for two reasons. First, they set the tone for the jet-and-rocket aesthetic that dominated American car design in the fifties. The first one just looked like a jet fighter, with a fuselage body, bubble canopy and a huge single rear tailfin. Oh, those tailfins: they were the fifties and they were sold via artwork like that created by the great Art Fitzpatrick. They first appeared in ’48, got bigger every year until they reached their literal peak with the genuinely iconic foot-high fins on the back of the ’59 Cadillac Eldorado. Then they got smaller every year from 1960, until they disappeared around 1965. But they took off with the Firebirds.
And second, the Firebirds first posited a whole bunch of technologies we still get excited about today; lightweight composite bodies, keyless entry, car ‘platooning’ and crash avoidance, and air brakes, just like the one on the new McLaren MP4-12C.
So not only did they look like the future, they actually were. More importantly to 1950s Americans, they were great entertainment, and GM bust its best concepts out of the straight-jacket of the motor show and put them on the road in the Futurama shows, which toured the country from 1949 to ’61, displaing the cars alongside other space-age advances like microwaves and videophones and pulling in over ten million visitors.
Europe just didn’t have anything to compare. The concept car wasn’t an entirely alien concept – Alfa and Bertone produced the mad BAT series, for Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica, between ’53 and ’55. And when the Italian carmakers and design houses started doing concepts for every big motor show from the late sixties, they made some of the most memorable and outrageous automotive sculpture ever seen.
But the outrageous was irrelevant to the European motoring culture in the 50s. Small, affordable, practical and smart was what mattered if we wanted to get back on four wheels. Forget the Firebird concepts - you could have put a late ‘50s American production car like that ’59 Eldorado onto a European motor show stand and it would have looked like it had arrived from another planet. Which would have been just what its designer had intended, and his audience had wanted.