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Borderlands: ‘50s Cars Changed American Lifestyle And Image 13 (1995)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

‘50s Cars Changed American Lifestyle And Image

Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.

By Gabriel Vargas

Americans love nostalgia, and aspects of current fashions, dances and other facets of popular culture can be traced to the 1950s. However, when it comes to automobiles, Americans aren’t imitating the ‘50s; they are restoring and driving these unique cars which helped to change America’s lifestyle.

After World War II and the Korean Conflict , peace and prosperity seemed imminent. Car companies took advantage of an abundance of steel and made long, beautifully designed cars. The public desired speed, luxury and privacy in a car, and they got it. 

Power steering, power brakes and automatic transmissions were just some of the features drivers could expect in their new cars. These long, sleek automobiles usually got poor gas mileage, but in those days gas was plentiful and very cheap. 

The 1950s was Detroit’s Golden Age. The cars produced during those years dramatically changed the way automobiles looked. Cars in the fifties were ornately trimmed with chrome that made bumpers, fenders and hood ornaments sparkle in the sun. Inside the car, chrome window knobs, door handles and dashboards gleamed as well.

Another symbol of the cars of the 1950s was the tail fin. These fins did not make cars go faster, nor did they improve the car’s performance in any way, but they were unique and so elaborate that they created stylistic parallels throughout the auto industry. 

Harley Earl is credited with the revolutionary addition of tail fins to the automobile. An employee of General Motors, Earl had a passion for fighter planes. After studying the Lockheed P-38 fighter, the design of which he deeply admired, he decided to design a car with “back wings” or fins, similar to the appearance of the plane’s back end. The Cadillac was his creation, the first car to show off these flamboyant rear tail fins to the public. 

Earl also developed the wraparound windshield. This innovation increased driver visibility while also adding a touch of glamour. It is likely that the idea of the wraparound panoramic windshield derived from the bubble canopy of the Lockheed P-38 which inspired the back fins. 

The interiors of the cars were just as impressive as the exteriors. Cigarette lighters, tinted glass, map lights, armrests and air conditioning all became available options. 

Wide, soft seats provided comfort for the whole family. While comfortable and cool, drivers could also listen to the latest sounds on the radios that were installed in nine out of ten cars. Women even found removable cosmetic cases built into the armrests of cars.

The ‘50s also established the station wagon as the family vehicle. Seating six to nine people, the station wagon served as the family vacation vehicle. The spacious wagons allowed 1950s mothers to chauffeur the Little League team to their games and enjoy the newly opened shopping centers. 

Record sales of new cars created the used car market. By 1953, people were trading in their cars every two or three years in order to experience the dramatic styling and engineering changes of American vehicles. Often the models traded in were far from worn out -- they were just nicely broken in. Teen-agers working after school or during the summer plowed their money into used cars as the supply increased.

More teen-agers than ever had their own cars, and they spent their Saturdays working on them, cruising drive-ins and other hangouts at night or participating in drag races. Teens who banded together to work and talk about automobiles and motors became known as “hotrodders.” During the 1950s, four of the most active hot-rod clubs in El Paso were the Lone Stars, the Crescents, the Hood Lifters and the Strokers.

Youngsters wanted to improve engine performance, durability and the appearance of the American automobile. Hotrodders used abandoned airport runways and dry lake beds to test their car’s performance while racing another car.

This phenomenon became known as drag racing. Onlookers would cheer racers on, and at midnight the young drivers would line up in pairs and race on city streets. Local police and parents frowned on this activity, and drag racers usually paid stiff fines if caught. Once in a while, the race ended in tragedy if a driver lost control of his car and crashed.

The automobile in the 1950s served many different purposes for its drivers. One thing is sure, however: people in the ‘50s enjoyed their cars and had fun with them.

Perhaps the absence in many modern cars of the glitz and glamour so much a part of 1950s cars is the reason why they have become collectors’ items. Not only are they winning prizes in car shows, but they are beginning to show up on freeways, fully restored and running well -- the large, elegant chrome beauties with tail fins that still remind us of fighter planes and power.

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