Wednesday, March 1, 2017

20 Noteworthy Cars From The ’50s That Helped Define The Decade

Hudson Super Wasp
#1.  1953-1954 Hudson Super Wasp

The 1953-1954 Hudson Super Wasp was a luxury expansion of the shorter wheelbase, full-size Hudson series.  This full line included a convertible and Hollywood hardtop.

As in previous years, there were no Step-Down wagons, which would have helped the car company’s sales — which declined each year the design continued without any significant changes.  One of the problems was that the Step-Down was very difficult and very expensive to alter.

Hudson did manage a fairly extensive reskinning operation for the Step-Down’s final year, however, with a more contemporary square-sided look that did away with the very ’40s “torpedo-esque” lines.  The Super Wasp was distinguished from the regular Wasp by an air-vent hood ornament and appropriate script on the glovebox door, trunk lid, and front fenders above the bodyside moldings.

The 1954 Super Wasp models had a more powerful version of the Hudson six with slightly greater displacement.  Thanks in large part to tight wartime credit restrictions and a bitter sales war between Ford and Chevrolet, which proved devastating to the independents.  By the end of 1953, Hudson was more than $10 million in the red and its situation was becoming grim.  It was now painfully clear to the big wigs at Hudson that a merger was in their future.

Nash Rambler
#2.  1953-1955 Nash Rambler

The Nash Rambler automobile was produced briefly by the Nash division of the Nash-Kelvinator Company and was a forerunner to the American Motors Corporation’s entry-level cars.

The Rambler was North America’s first compact car, adopting a European approach to styling.  It was marketed to American buyers as a distinctive alternative to its larger, more flashy Detroit competitors.

Nash’s sales-winning compact, the Rambler, got restyled for 1953-1955 to become more along the lines of the contemporary Pinin Farina senior cars. Model offerings expanded noticeably for 1954 with the addition of two- and four-door sedans and a four-door Cross Country wagon — joining the two-door wagon, hardtop, and convertible — plus a new low-priced DeLuxe two-door and returning Custom and Super versions of all body styles.  The four-door sedans and Cross Country used a longer 108-inch wheelbase.

Nash’s signature ovoid styling was rooted in more than just a desire to look different from the Fords, Chevrolets, and Plymouths.  Nash Motors engineering chief Nils Eric Walhberg, I’ve learned, was a pioneer in the quest for improved fuel efficiency.

It was he who dictated the bulbous body lines and front and rear wheel skirts that reduced aerodynamic drag, even if they did make the cars look like upended basins.

Chrysler New Yorker
#3.  1952 Chrysler New Yorker

During the first half of the 1950s, the Chrysler New Yorker was either the most popular (1953-1954) model in the line or a close second (1951-1952) to the ubiquitous, lower priced Chrysler Windsor. Chrysler New Yorker wasn’t stylistically breathtaking, but its advanced engineering drew applause.

Its popularity had certainly as much to do with its engineering as its styling, maybe more so considering its boxy lines. At the heart of that engineering was the new Chrysler 331 V-8 with hemispherical-head combustion chambers: the fabled “Hemi.” With the hemi being so expensive to build Chrysler abandoned it several times, but in the early ’50s the hemi reigned supreme among V8’s, so Chrysler conceded.

The purpose of the hemi heads on the 1952 Chrysler New Yorker was to achieve exceptional volumetric efficiency and truly outstanding performance, while relying on a lower compression ratio that could allow the use of lower-octane fuels than comparably sized non-hemis — or, conversely, producing a lot more power than comparably sized non-hemis of the same or even higher compression.

Relatively few buyers realized that the 1952 Chrysler New Yorker was also beautifully built, almost impervious to rust, and would last a couple hundred thousand miles with minimal maintenance. The 1952 Chrysler New Yorker was notable for its engineering advances, though the car’s dowdy styling dissuaded too many buyers for the line to be a true success.

Lincoln Capri
#4.  1952-1954 Lincoln Capri

The Lincoln Capri was a full-size automobile sold by Ford’s Lincoln luxury division.  Replacing the Cosmopolitan as Lincoln’s top of the line series, the Lincoln Capri debuted in 1952 with modern squared-off styling.

Available in three body styles, the design was similar to the Mercury models at the time.  Designed to compete with the Packard Series 400 and the Cadillac Series 62, the Capri hit the automotive market with a bang, selling 14,342 models in its first year.

The following year it nearly doubled sales with a total of 26,640 sales in 1953. The Capri quickly outshined its sibling the Cosmopolitan, when it came to sales each and every year until poor sales and public disinterest marked the end of that model.

During 1952 and 1953, Lincoln Capri’s claimed the top four spots in the Stock Car category of the Pan American Road Race thanks to the 5.2-liter Lincoln Y-block V8s.  Lincolns took first and second place in 1954 with four Capris.

Some enthusiasts dubbed the Capri the ‘Pullman of the highway’, and others claimed that driving the vehicle was ‘the nearest sensation to flying’. Today these Lincolns are highly regarded, especially for their excellent performance in the grueling Carrara-Panamericana (Mexican Road Race).

1956 Cadillac Series 62 El Dorado Biarritz
#5.  1956-1958 Cadillac Series 62 El Dorado Biarritz

In 1957, Cadillac continued their legacy of offering exclusive, expensive, stylish, and luxurious automobiles. The Cadillac Series 62 El Dorado Biarritz was one of the revised editions of the El Dorado convertible that never quite found its following.  In 1956 the El Dorado was given the Biarritz designation because there was now also a companion hardtop, The Cadillac Seville.

The 1956-57 models were once considered the last highly collectible El Dorado convertibles through 1971.  But the 1958 version, a chromed-out monster and the 1959 model, which took the look and styling of tailfins to a new level of ridiculousness, are both highly sought after now.  Styling was gradually improved throughout the coming years, but none of the newer Cadillac’s could hold a candle to the 1953-1957 cars.

The Eldorado Biarritz featured a 365 cubic-inch, 325 horsepower V8 with twin Carter four-barrel carburetors, four-speed Hydra-Matic drive and ‘Sabre Spoke’ aluminum wheels.

Pricing for the Biarritz began at $4,781 for the least expensive model and rose to $7,286 for the eye-catching El Dorado convertible.  A truly remarkable feat considering the average new car sold for $2,749 while the average worker earned $4,230 yearly.  With a price tag over the median family income, the Cadillac El Dorado was certainly out-of-reach for many American buyers
Plymouth Belvedere Convertible & Hardtop Coupe
#6.  1957-1958 Plymouth Belvedere Convertible & Hardtop Coupe

The 1957-1958 Plymouth Belvedere Convertible and Hardtop Coupe were the shining stars in Plymouth’s automotive universe, along with their spotlight stealing brother the limited-production Plymouth Fury.

The three Plymouth models were the focus of ad campaigns that touted, “Suddenly It’s 1960” and “1960 — Now, Plymouth is three full years ahead.” Still another read, “In one flaming moment Plymouth leaps three full years ahead—the only car that dares to break the time barrier! The car you might have expected in 1960 is at your dealers today!”  If consumers were meant to believe the hype, the new Plymouths sitting in the showrooms were originally intended to be 1960 models.

In an unprecedented move, Chrysler Corporation had completely revised all five of its car lines and what the corporation trotted out in its place were Virgil Exner’s best designs ever. He managed to give the Belvedere a futuristic vibe and nowhere was this more evident than in the wedge-shaped silhouette of the car. Low front fenders and hood, gently sloped windshield, a razor thin flat roof with tapered rear window, and rising fins created the wedge effect, this was the sort of styling that complemented convertibles and hardtops the best .

Lincoln Continental Mark II
#7.  1956-1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II

The 1956-1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II was the mid-’50s successor to the original Continental of the 1940’s.  It was magnificently styled by a team including John Reinhart, William Clay Ford, and Gordon Buehrig.  Engineer Harley Copp’s unique “cowbelly” frame dipped low to permit high seating without a tall body.

With Multi-Drive three-speed automatic and a balanced, individually tested Lincoln V8, the Mark II was marketed as an image leader intended to steal Cadillac’s thunder in the ultra-luxury class.  Despite its beautiful styling, the Lincoln Contential Mark II didn’t sell well, most likely due to the astronomical (for the time) sticker price of close to $10,000 causing the company to lose $1000 on each car sold.
The price and exclusivity attracted celebrities, business leaders and politicians who chiefly bought these cars.  Frank Sinatra, Dwight Eisenhower, Elvis Presley and local favorite, Doris Day, were notable owners.

Despite the loss on each car, Ford felt that some of the goals of the project had been successful. The image created a very positive influence for Ford’s position in the competitive world of luxury autos.
In spite of its lack of market success, the Continental Mark II is a beautiful example of classic elegance married to modern engineering. It was a valiant attempt to recapture the spirit of the great cars of the ’30s, but unfortunately for Ford, that era had passed.

Ford Fairlane 500
#8.  1957-1958 Ford Fairlane 500

The 1957-1958 Ford Fairlane 500 was Ford’s new top-line series in these feast-then-famine years.  The Fairlane 500 was the most upscale of the Fairlanes built at the time.

It was powered by one of three engines. The base 272-cubic inch V8, rated at 190 horsepower, while the 292-cubic inch engine produced 200 horsepower.  The largest stock engine found in the 1957 Fairlane 500 Skyliner was a 312-cubic inch V8, rated at 245 horsepower.  A supercharged version could generate 300 horsepower, and it was good for a zero to 60 time of 7.6 seconds when equipped with a three-speed manual transmission.
A total of 20,766 Ford Fairlane 500’s were sold for the 1957 model year, but surprisingly, few have survived to the present. The radical design innovation, along with the scarcity of the car, translates into a high level of desirability among collectors today. In 2013, a top-quality restoration went for $73,830 at a Mecum auction in Indianapolis.

The 1957-1958 Ford Fairlane 500’s are all but forgotten these days, so it may surprise you to learn that in their day they actually out sold that perennial icon, the 57 Chevy.

BMW 503
#9.  1956-1959 BMW 503

The 1956-1959 BMW 503 was the first postwar sporting car from Bavarian Motor Works.  Based on the Type 502 sedan box- and tubular-section chassis, it also shared its 3.2-liter V8 engine.

The 503 was offered in sleek coupe or cabriolet (convertible) body styles designed by Count Albrecht Goertz.  Goertz’s talent came through when he dressed the 503’s chassis.  His taut, elegant design was a welcome relief from the exaggerated curves of the ‘baroque angel’ sedans, and the 503’s clean lines and dignified proportions reflected the car’s purpose.

The BMW 503 had a shape that clearly defined it as a fine and proper grand touring car that, while it had sporting pretensions, was no finicky sports car. With clean styling and a marvelous engine, the 503 was marked with the traits of a future classic. Certain circumstances, though, have prevented the car’s status from escalating to its deserved position.

A distinctly unprofitable car, the 503 has been overshadowed in the view of BMW historians by small, affordable cars like the Isetta.  There is also another obvious factor that led to the 503’s state of relative obscurity.  The BMW 507 was introduced at roughly the same time as the 503.

This roadster undersold the 503, but its svelte good looks made a lasting impression.  The significance of the 503 was diminished by the 507, which was both sportier and more attractive than its bulkier brother.

BMW produced 413 examples of the 503, 139 of which were cabriolets.  The quality and rarity of the 503 have made it a valuable car to collectors, but for most people, it remains hidden in the shadow cast over it by the 507.

Cunningham C-3
#10.  1953-1955 Cunningham C-3

Like many sportsmen of the 1950's, Briggs Cunningham dreamed of winning at Le Mans. Unlike many of those men, Cunningham, the heir to the Swift meatpacking fortune, had the virtually limitless funds required to enable such efforts.

After finding that production American cars, such as Cadillacs, were “close but no cigar,” he turned his bank account and energy towards developing his own all-new automobile, one that could run at Le Mans and emerge victorious, but also be, at its core, American.

Cunningham’s cars were smooth, low-slung designs that had strong tubular chassis, independent coil-spring front suspension, and tuned Chrysler Hemi V-8 power. The racing models evolved throughout the early 1950's, winning at Road America and Watkins Glen in 1951, but the Le Mans organizers threw Cunningham a curve ball when he started his preparations to enter their 1952 event.
They specified that at least 25 road going cars had to be built in order to qualify the entrant as an automobile manufacturer. Cunningham gave it some thought and concluded that a road going version of his racing car would not be such a bad idea; in fact, it would actually help to offset the astronomical expenses being incurred by his racing team.

The C-3, as it was known, was still not cheap, as it was based on a modified racing chassis and still had a Hemi V-8. It was essentially a larger, hotter Ferrari but with American grunt under the hood, and it cost about $9,000. However, no one could argue that the power was not worth the cost, as the C-3 was good for 0–60 mph in around 7 seconds and could hit a top speed of nearly 150 mph.

Cunningham had limited production of the C-3 underway by early 1953, but the project was dogged by delays. While his shop could build a chassis every week, it took coachbuilder AlfredoVignale, working with time-honored handcraftsmanship, almost two months to complete the rest of a car. Ultimately, C-3 production wound to a close with five cabriolets and twenty coupes produced.

Allard Palm Beach
#11.  1952-1959 Allard Palm Beach

For an all-too-brief period in the late 1940's and early 1950's, the name of Allard was one of the most revered of all motor manufacturers. The company’s road cars were some of the most popular among wealthy enthusiasts, especially in the United States.

The racing versions were more than competitive on the track, and the company’s founder, Sidney Allard, was one of Britain’s leading competitive drivers, winning the British Hillclimb Championship in 1949 and the Monte Carlo Rally in 1952.

From 1952 through 1959, the company produced the Palm Beach model.  The Allard Palm Beach was initially offered with British Ford four- and six-cylinder powerplants.  Looking in many ways like the Swallow Doretti seen earlier, the Allard Palm Beach proved no more popular that that car.

With the cars popularity relatively non-existent, the company decided that it was time for a redesign which was instituted in 1956.  The Palm Beach was given a more shapely form reminiscent of the Austin-Healey.  Ford, Jaguar, and even Chrysler V8 engines were enlisted, but only seven of these Mark II cars were ever built.

Never much of a high-volume manufacture, Allard had already peaked in the early ’50s.  The company closed its doors in 1959.

1953 Mercury Monterey
#12.  1952-1954 Mercury Monterey

The 1952-1954 Mercury Monterey was a standout among early ’50s Mercurys for its exceptional styling and sound engineering, coupled with solid construction and high-quality fit and finish.

Monterey was a top-line subseries in 1952, then became a separate line (with a three-model Custom series further down the price scale) for 1953-54. Ford’s flathead V8 continued in the first two years, with its highest horsepower rating ever in Mercury tune.

For 1954, the company’s new Y-Block overhead-valve V8 arrived with a five-main-bearing crankshaft and standard four-barrel carburetor. With a robust 161 horsepower on tap, the 1954 Mercury line also continued to build a reputation for sparkling performance.

All told, Mercury very neatly bridged the market gap that existed between Ford and Lincoln and provided an alternative to an increasingly affluent and discerning buyer.

After being a “little Lincoln” in styling and bodyshell for 1949-1951, Mercury again became more of a junior line in these years, with similar styling to Ford but on a three-inch longer wheelbase.

Some of the Mercury Monterey’s selling points were its sleek, sexy styling, its speed and the overall quality of the vehicle.  A few of the Monterey’s negatives were it was slower to appreciate than concurrent Fords and its underbody was susceptible to rust.

I’d say the 1952-1954 Mercury Monterey’s positive attributes highly outweigh the few negative ones.

1958 Edsel Pacer
#13.  1958 Edsel Pacer

The Edsel Division was introduced by the Ford Motor Company in the fall of 1957.  It was well received and expectations were set at selling over 200,000 vehicles during its first model year.

In 1958, Ford finally launched their long rumored, new mid-range Edsel Pacer, giving them a five marque lineup, comparable to GM.  Unfortunately, sales failed to take off partly because of a national recession that led to a sag in the mid-price market.  The other reason cited for its lack of sales was the car’s controversial styling.

Although less radical than expected, critics described the new vertical grille as resembling a ‘horse collar.’   Pacer models included basic interiors built on a smaller wheelbase chassis wîth a smaller V-8 engine. All Edsels had features that were popular in the 1950’s. An option on all models was a push-button transmission.  The Edsel designers had updated the idea by placing the buttons in the center of the steering wheel.

Unfortunately, the rave reviews and anxious buyers never materialized, and Edsel ended 1958 with a total production run of all body styles only reaching 63,000.  The word “Edsel,” the car that had been named in honor of Henry Ford’s late son, will always be associated with automotive failure.

 Studebaker President Speedster
#14.  1955 Studebaker President Speedster

The 1955 Speedster was Studebaker’s first step towards a sporty car. It was based on the Studebaker President – which re-entered the 1955 lineup after a 13-year absence.

Standard equipment on the Studebaker Speedster included most every optional item for the President model. Special quilted-pattern leather and vinyl upholstery and a tooled-metal appliqué instrument panel comprised of white-on-black instruments.

The original Studebaker President had virtually no chrome, while the Speedster had chrome virtually everywhere.  Interestingly, all Speedsters built in the South Bend plant had ‘Speedster’ moldings on the quarter panels, while those built in Los Angeles had both ‘President’ and ‘Speedster’ designations.

The Speedster was powered by the small-block V-8 that was modified to a high-performance level. It was bored out to 260 cubic-inches from 225 cubic-inches and developed 185 horsepower-45 horsepower more than the early Studebaker V8!

Among the significant technical improvements were Safety-Fin brake drums (for extra brake cooling); self-tightening wheel bolts; padded dash and padding on the rear of the front seat; and ‘Hill Holder,’ which prevented rolling back on hills.

The 1955 Speedster was at the top of the Studebaker’s price line-up, costing $3,252 new.

Facel Vega FV
#15.  1954-1959 Facel Vega FV

The 1954-1959 Facel Vega FV was described as a “classy Franco-American hybrid GT.”  The FV was powered by Chrysler, designed by Facel Metallon, and in a previous life was known as a body supplier to other manufacturers.

The car’s styling was most likely influenced by the Simca Sport as well as other cars built by Facel in the late ’40s and early ’50s.  Engineered in limited-production Italian Style, the Facel Vega had a large-tube fabricated chassis carrying independent front suspension and a conventional live axle rear end.  The separate bodyshells were built by Facel.

The Facel Vega’s were considered costly but were very fast thanks to Chrysler Hemi-head V8’s, which were supplied with increased displacement in 1956 and again in 1958.

It had the ability to reach a top speed of at least 130 miles per hour, with later models reaching even higher speeds thanks to their larger engines. Facel Vega’s are quite easily recognized because of its distinctive “face” with a vertical egg crate grille flanked by oval head/parking lamp clusters, and it usually rode on wire wheels.

Most Facel Vega’s were thin-pillar two-door coupes, but a few convertibles were also constructed.

Kaiser Manhattan
#16.  1954-1955 Kaiser Manhattan

In 1945, Henry J. Kaiser and Joe Frazer formed the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation with the purpose of creating an economical, light-weight, and innovative vehicle. When Henry J. Kaiser began production of the Manhattan, his goal was to produce a safe vehicle.

This was accented by the vehicles bumpers, low center of gravity, excellent field-of-view for the driver, and more. The design updates were courteous of the legendary designer, Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin.

The first Manhattan was actually created in 1947 as a Frazer and not a Kaiser. In 1951 the vehicle became the Kaiser Manhattan, the result of Frazer splitting his relationship with Kaiser.
Under the hood of the Manhattan sat a six-cylinder engine. This was unfortunate because the competition was offering high-output eight-cylinder variants that were more powerful and offered more performance.

In 1954 Kaiser offered the Manhattan with a McCulloch VS57 Supercharger. This raised horsepower for the 226 cubic-inch engine from 118 to 140. The zero-to-sixty time went from nearly 18 seconds down to 15.

Much is left up to speculation about the fortunes of the company if an eight-cylinder engine would have been offered.  The Manhattan was a stylish vehicle but its six-cylinder engine was not enough to keep the public interested.

Hudson Hornet
#17.  1951-1953 Hudson Hornet

Created by Howard Coffin, George W. Dunham, and Roy E. Chapin, The Hudson Motor Car Company came into existence in 1909 and produced cars until 1957.  Arguably one of the most remembered of all Hudsons produced in the postwar years was the 1951-1953 Hudson Hornet and is still touted as one of the automotive industry’s all-time greats.

Virtually unbeatable in stock-car racing through 1954, the Hornet continued to compete with some success even after the Step-Down line came to an end with the Nash-based ’55 Hudsons.  Amazingly, this racing success was achieved with a six-cylinder — the last performance six before Pontiac’s late ’60s overhead-cam engine.

In 1952, the “Twin H-Power” engine became standard equipment and produced 170 horsepower, but could be tuned to produce 210 hp if equipped with the factory 7-X modifications.

The Hudson Hornet provided drivers with excellent performance, surprisingly smooth handling,
high-quality engineering, and luxurious styling. Positioned just below the top-line Commodore Eight series for 1951-1952, the Hudson Hornet moved to the top spot in 1953.

The Hornet’s legendary performance prowess gives it a huge edge in collector appeal over the basically similar Pacemaker, Super Six, and Wasp models of this time period.

Kaiser Deluxe
#18.  1951 Kaiser Deluxe

The 1951 Kaiser Deluxe models introduced the basic structure as would remain until the end of Kaiser production in 1955.  The shape was changed, less boxy with an increased area of glass — a sleek, modern-looking automobile, in Jack Mueller’s words.  A padded dashboard was added to the Deluxe, for protection in an accident. The old pontoon shape was gone as well, as the bull-nosed frontal appearance.

The Kaiser now had the highest-horsepower standard six-cylinder engine of any American car except Hudson, launched at the lowest prices ever offered for the car.  The Kaiser Deluxe shared bodies with the Kaiser Special but had a richer appearance and more standard equipment.  Kaiser bragged about their cars’ new “Anatomic Design” made to fit the human anatomy, including a pistol-grip handbrake and two-spoke steering wheel.

Both the Special and the Deluxe had more spacious interiors and four models and body styles – four-door sedans, two-door sedans, club coupes, business coupe, and two and four door Traveler sedans. The tire well was now below the trunk floor, for more convenient cargo carrying.

1951 was not a bad sales year, but Kaiser sales had fallen and the company had overproduced, so there was inventory left over at the end of the model year.

Swallow Doretti

#19.  1954-1955 Swallow Doretti

The Swallow Doretti was a short-lived attempt at a competitor for the Triumph TR2.  The car was built in Britain by a subsidiary of Tube Investments Group which was descended from the original Swallow coachworks of the 1920’s and ’30s from which Jaguar evolved, but was not connected with the latter-day Jaguar firm.

Frank Rainbow the designer of the Doretti was a very competent and experienced engineer, who had worked for many years as a senior engineer at the Bristol Aircraft Company before coming to Swallow Coachbuilding Company in 1935.

The Swallow Doretti borrowed much from its intended rival, using the TR2 engine, transmission, and front suspension.  Its chassis was a box-section/tubular-member affair and was topped by a smart, two-seat roadster body.

Bigger, heavier, and slower than the TR2, the Swallow Doretti’s top speed was nonetheless comparable at about 100 miles per hour.  However, the Doretti was very costly and failed to sell for that reason.

Production of the Doretti was halted when Jaguar gave the TI Group an ultimatum; if they continued to market a rival sports car to the XK 120, Jaguar would go elsewhere for the many components TI supplied.

With no other option, production of the Swallow Doretti ended almost as soon as it began, marking the first — and last — attempt by this Swallow company at carmaking.

#20.  1956-1958 Dual-Ghia

The 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia was the brainchild of auto transport contractor Eugene Casaroll, who established Dual Motors in Detroit for the sole purpose of building this limited-production convertible.
The plan was to build 150 Dual-Ghia’s per year, but building the car was a pain-staking process.

 Chassis were shipped to Turin, Italy where Ghia coachworks hammered out the steel bodies by hand.
Then designer Paul Farago added extra passenger and cargo space to enhance liveability.   Next, the workers fit the body to the chassis, and the completed assembly was returned to Detroit where Dual Motors installed the cars finishing touches.

Despite all of the custom craftsmanship that went into making the Dual-Ghia, it was priced far less than a contemporary Cadillac El Dorado and a Continental Mark II, which would soon prove to be a very costly mistake.

Upon the cars release, it quickly found popularity with Hollywood personalities — notably Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and other members of the “Rat Pack” — each of them vying with one another for a spot on the cars waitlist.

But mounting production costs combined with Casaroll’s refusal to compromise quality left the company virtually bankrupt and Eugene Casaroll had no other choice but to close Dual Motors in 1958.