The Fabulous Fifties was a decadent decade of fun and frivolity after years of war and economic strain. The vehicles of the time reflect the era’s youthful, fun-loving spirit. Stock car racing started to pick up speed and advertising’s growing influence served to make the automobile a centerpoint in popular culture. Over half a century later, as today’s generations look back on the Fifties, a car is nearly always part of the nostalgic landscape—forever iconized as symbols of an upbeat time in American history. Here are the top 5 iconic American classic cars of the Fifties with all their sport, style, and sass:
1.1951 Hudson Hornet
Imagine the racing crowds’ surprise when Hudson—not the Big Three—became the stock car star of the Fifties, with only a six-cylinder engine! (The 1951 Hornet’s Super Six came in at 308 cubic inches and produced 145 horsepower and 275 pounds of torque. It was called the “largest displacement six-cylinder engine in the world.”) In its first year racing, of 34 NASCAR circuits, the Hornet won 27. Not bad for an independent auto! In addition to being a racing legend—almost overnight—the Hudson Hornet was also a trailblazer in terms of automotive styling, popularizing step-down design, where designers placed a car’s floorboards below its chassis so that passengers must “step down” into the car. That, combined with the Hornet’s monobilt frame, made it quite a strong, sleek competitor and a good looking addition to any driveway.
2.1953 Chevrolet Corvette
The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, quite possibly the iconic car of the decade, began as one of Harvey Earl’s Motorama fancies—the car first appeared as a concept car and, very well could have ended up in the General Motors trashbin, if not for such a strong public reaction. But, the GM Motorama show proved to Chevrolet that it had a good thing going, so it proceeded to build 15 Corvettes in its Flint garage until permanently moving production to St. Louis. Harvey Earl was hoping that the Corvette would compete with such small cars as the Jaguar and MG. (He got way more than he bargained for!) All 300 original Corvettes were Polo White with red and black interior. The first 15 featured the Blue Flame I-6 engine, while the last 285 received the V-8—up until that point, GM’s other marques were quite protective of their engines, perhaps because they foresaw the Corvette’s enormous success? 58 years later and the Corvette is still in production. (Bet those former GM marques wished they held onto their powertrains!)
3.1953 Chevrolet Bel Air
Chevrolet introduced the Bel Air in 1949, though the hardtop had to prove itself before General Motors was willing to give the car its own line—until 1953, the Bel Air was only one of many styles in the Styline Deluxe series. But, in 1953, the Bel Air came into its own with its original two-door hardtop look as well as a convertible, a two-door, and a four-door sedan. Hardtop convertibles had been around for over 30 years by the time the Bel Air brought it so much attention and thanks to its success, hardtop models joined convertibles in the sports car category. Under the hood you might between 115 and 125 horsepower, depending on whether the car was a stick or used Powerglide. And when a Bel Air sailed down the street, one need not wonder why it was so popular—style-wise, the Bel Air was a beauty to behold with thick stripes of chrome, attractive fender skirts, and two-tone trim. Over the decade, the Bl Air earned many nicknames, including “The Hot One,” the “Tri-Chevy” and the “sweet, smooth, and sassy Classic Chevy.”
4.1955 Buick Roadmaster
You may know the Buick Roadmaster, not for its performance record or its unique take on styling, but its most famous owner, comic and car lover Jay Leno. Leno’s beloved “Rosebud,” a restored 1955 Buick Roadmaster, has received its share of celebrity treatment, amply photographed and test driven for auto magazines and television programs. However, long before Leno, the Roadmaster received nearly as much attention when Buick reintroduced it in 1955 with a fancy redesign. Elegant, but tasteful, the Roadmaster need not join other Fifties models with their excess of chrome intricate grille work, and cheesy two-tone stripes. No, the Roadmaster embraced simplicity, though it broke that rule under the hood. The 1955 Buick Roadmaster came standard with a 322 cubic inch V-8 Fireball engine, producing 236 horsepower. Shock absorbers and power steering made the Roadmaster’s ride just as smooth as it looked. And 55+ years later, it still looks and drives just as smoothly. (If you don’t believe me, ask Jay!)
5.1955 Ford Thunderbird
When the Chevrolet Corvette appeared at Motorama in 1953, Ford designers immediately started scrambling to introduce their own ‘Vette-like competitor. But, to steal the show, Ford would need to come up with a big idea to set its car apart—thus, the birth of the “personal car” in 1955, meant to sidestep the sports car market and create an entirely new niche. Some say the “personal car” idea was Henry’s—he had a two-seat roadster made the same year the Corvette came out. Before it became the Thunderbird, Ford’s little personal car almost was the Hep Cat, the Beaver, the Runabout, and El Tigre. Then stylist Alden Giberson suggested the Thunderbird and, well, the rest is auto history. The Ford Thunderbird was first presented to the public on September 23, 1954 and immediately applauded for its powerful good looks. Motor Trend named the 1955 Ford Thunderbird one of the best looking cars of the year. Small, low, and loaded with power, the Thunderbird was powered by 292 cubic inch Y-block V-8—same as the Mercurys of the time—and sported a Holley four-barrel carburetor, dual exhausts, and a three-speed transmission. With a softer ride than your average sports car, the Ford Thunderbird created a class all its own and the Corvette never saw it coming!
For more on the top iconic American classic cars of the last century, stay tuned for the upcoming post—the Sixties!