Cars in the 1950s

1957 Chevy Belair

1950s cars were some of the most classic, powerful and unsafe cars ever driven. The modern designs and acceleration abilities were getting more and more amazing every year.

If you ask someone who loves classic cars what their favorite car is, 8 times out of 10 they’ll say ’57 Chevy.

The auto industry was starting to experiment with a new concept called a “sports car.” By the end of the 50s, Americans fell in love with the sports car. After all, the 50s gave birth to the Corvette.

The outstanding feature of the 1951 model year was the popularity and extension of the “hardtop convertible” introduced in 1950 models.

It was announced that air conditioners would be available as optional equipment on three 1953 cars. Power steering had its use extended to five cars.

Research & engineering teams worked hard at making the 1954 models safer, less expensive and easier to drive. The wrap-around window was a nice look though.

Many striking design changes were made to the 1958 models. And for the first time in history, the US imported more cars than they exported.

To read more about a certain year, click on the plus sign next to the corresponding year below.

Cars in 1950

1951 Mercedes-Benz Typ 300 Limo

1951 Mercedes-Benz Type 300 Limo

The automobile industry in the United States established in 1950 a new all-time production record for the second successive year. Total 1950 production was 7,987,000 vehicles.

The most serious event of the year for car salesmen was the reimposition of Regulation W, the government’s credit control bill which had limited purchases during and immediately after World War II. A mild form of this control, requiring a one-third down payment with the balance to be paid within 21 months (three months longer than the wartime version) was restored in September.

Two manufacturers introduced new “small” cars during 1950, to meet the demand for (1) an economical second car for middle income families and (2) a car whose initial price placed it within reach of many people who previously had to buy used cars. Just how strong the demand was in each of these cases had yet to be established.

In design, the outstanding feature of the 1951 model year was the popularity and extension of the “hardtop convertible” introduced in 1950 models. Not convertible in the true sense of the word, these cars embodied the racy lines of a convertible while retaining a fixed steel top. This body style was extended to include four-door sedans in 1951 models. About half of the 1951 models offered hardtop styling.

In other respects the 1951 designing differed only slightly from that of 1950, since most manufacturers had provided new designing for their 1950 models. The majority of the 1951 changes were cosmetic.

There was a spectacular increase in the number of automatic transmissions offered and sold during 1950. It was estimated that well over 1.5 million fully automatic units were produced during the year.

Cars in 1952

The All-New 1953 Chevy Corvette

Many factors hindered production in the motor industry during 1952, the longest stoppage being caused by the nation-wide steel strike in June and July.

The job of stepping up defense production while maintaining a profitable level of civilian output was continued in 1952. Several companies devoted as much as 60% of their work to defense, turning out, in addition to aircraft and parts, tanks and tank cannon, tactical trucks, shells and many other military items.

Shortage of materials was the greatest production problem of the industry. Copper and steel headed the list of scarce materials, with aluminium running a close second.

It was announced that air-conditioners would be available as optional equipment on at least three 1953 cars. Power steering, found on only one 1951 automobile, had its use extended to five 1952 cars. Brought out in 1951, power braking was available on two models in 1952. Automatic transmissions were introduced on one line of delivery vehicles.

Prices on new cars climbed in 1952, but taxes rose even higher. By mid-year, it was estimated that of $2,000 paid for a new automobile, $650, or about a third, went into taxes.

The possibilities of mass producing an American sports car were investigated by two manufacturers, the Packard Motor Car company and Buick Motor Division. Both companies showed their versions. While immediate production was not scheduled for either model, the producers exhibited the sports cars to test public reaction and to determine the possible extent of the market for such an automobile.

Chevy also made a concept sports car that later had some success. They called this new car a Corvette. Many people weren’t sure if they would even make a 1954 model.

Cars in 1953

1954 Buick Skylark

1954 Buick Skylark

After two years of shortages and restriction, the U.S. automobile industry enjoyed in 1953 what promised to be one of its best years.

One of the main factors in this production upswing was the government’s relaxation of controls on steel, copper and aluminum. The only major hindrance to production was a $70 million fire at GM’s Hydramatic plant in Livonia, Michigan.

Materials shortages, although getting much better in 1953, had inspired new ways to make car bodies. Two different cars were introduced in 1953: one with a magnesium body and the other was plastic-fiberglass.

Prices saw very little change in the 1954 models from last year’s models. And while no radical departures in styling were seen, some significant changes were made.

Advertisement for the new "Autotronic-Eye"

Advertisement for the new “Autotronic-Eye” (click for full-size view)

For example, wire racing wheels, recently only found on sports cars, enjoyed considerable popularity in the big car market. The wrap-around back window was extended to more models and the same type front windshield was introduced on the 1954 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Starfire, which was named after the Lockheed F9413 Starfire Fighter Jet.

The ever-swelling rural and suburban population was held responsible for the increasing popularity of the station wagon. The it had been around for over 30 years, the production volume of station wagons never rose above 1% of total production before WWII. Staying consistent with post-war utilitarian attitude, the station wagons were build with strong steel bodies and a minimum of luxury frills.

Research and engineering teams bent their efforts toward making the 1954 models safer, less expensive and easier to drive. Many lower-priced cars were being fitted with power steering. GM also introduced a new invention called the “Autotronic-Eye” which would automatically dim the high beams when a car would approach and then turn them back up when the oncoming car passed. (See ad to the right)

The postwar years watched the automatic transmission become increasingly more accepted. In 1953, more than 50% of all new U.S. models were equipped with some form of automatic shift.

Cars in 1957

1958 Oldsmobile

One of the most noteworthy trends in 1957 was the rise of the station wagon. Before the war, this body style was regarded as a luxury suitable only a country-estate, a resort or an occasional business establishment. By 1957, however, it had arrived as a truly popular and useful family car and accounted for more than 14% of new car sales.

Automatic transmissions, power brakes, power steering, power adjusted front seats, power window lifts and air conditioning increased in popularity. Over 80% of 1958 models had automatic transmissions.

It was at this time, car manufacturers agreed not to advertise horsepower — as it had very little connection with actual top speed. Obviously that changed.

For the first time, the US imported more cars than it exported. Volkswagen was the most popular foreign car company.

1958 Bianchina Supermini

The 1958 Bianchina Supermini clocked in at 40mpg!

At this time the automobile industry dreamed of a time when a one-car family would be insufficient and people would buy different cars for different uses for different family members.

Chevrolet made striking changes to rear-end styling in their 1958 models. Ford offered a full line of luxury model Continentals as well as the medium-priced Edsel. The 1958 Oldsmobile had a completely redesigned body.

Italian car-maker Autobianchi made a supermini called Bianchina that got 40 miles per gallon. The car was presented to the public on September 16, 1957 at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan.

1950s Sports Cars (in chronological order)

1950s Luxury Cars (in chronological order)

1950s Family Cars, Sedans & Station Wagons (in chronological order)

1950s Compact Cars, Campers, Trucks & Electric Cars

What do you remember?

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Last modified: Mar 10, 2014 | Written by Paul Phipps