TCS Daily

Back to the Future for Automobiles

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 14, 2004 12:00 AM

What kind of cars will we be driving 50 years from now? What will power them? How much faster will they be? What will their electronics be like? What will the seats be like? Will we still use steering wheels? And what of the industry itself? Will Detroit still matter? Will we recognize the names of the major automakers?

I was pondering these questions last week as I surveyed the new cars being touted at the Detroit Auto Show. Then, indulging that luxury available only to older folks, I thought my way back half a century to 1954, when I was a car-crazy 12-year-old kid going to the big auto show at the old Hunt Armory in Pittsburgh, Pa.

I was in love with automobiles, and as I moved from display to display I collected the colorful brochures for every make. I still have most of them, carefully preserved in a box that has survived all my moves over the years. I didn't comprehend it then, but 1954 was an odd year of transition for the American auto industry. The era of pre-World War II and immediate postwar styling was coming to an end. Distinct front and rear fenders, for instance, were almost completely gone by 1954, although a vestigial sense of rear fenders could still be seen on Fords, Chevrolets and Chrysler products. High crown hoods rising above the fender line were still the rule.

The next model year would bring the most profound changes in the appearance of American cars since the early 1930s -- broad, flat hoods and a frantic chrome-plated embrace of flashy "modernity" that would result in some of the most resoundingly vilified and fanatically loved cars ('57 Chevy!) in motoring history. The mid-50s would also continue the brutal winnowing of competitors in the automobile industry.

I remember, for instance, standing in the armory staring into the gleaming, glassy green finish on a Packard Patrician sedan. I was awestruck not just by how shiny the car was -- a trick of lighting and a professional polish job -- but also by the fact that I was in the presence of a Packard. I use the term "in the presence" purposely, because the name Packard still held for many a majestic mystique. It had been a name uttered easily in the exclusive company of the world's greatest cars.

Little did I know then that the company that had built such an august reputation was in its death throes. And other companies whose names were on the brochures I collected that Saturday morning -- familiar, even venerable names in American automotive history -- were soon to become, well, history. The industry "independents," Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Willys, all were foundering. Kaiser, the brash post-war upstart, was dying as well. A furious price war between GM and Ford, begun in 1953, would come to an end more or less in 1954 but not before it had shattered the hopes of these smaller makers to remain competitive against the "Big Three."

In April 1954, Nash and Hudson, two names whose bloodlines stretched back to the dawn of the American auto industry, became a new company, American Motors Corp. Actually, Nash took over Hudson, but it didn't matter. Within three years both makes would be dead and American Motors would begin to build its early reputation on something new, the economy "compact" (by '50s standards) car, the Rambler.

Later that year Packard would buy out another legendary industry name, Studebaker. It would prove to be a sad suicide pact. Packard, the car that had been a worldwide byword for quality, dependability and upper crust cachet, would die a hideous death in 1958. Thankfully, only a few thousand "Packardbakers" were produced that year -- clumsy, garish, sorry caricatures of an automobile. Studebaker would soldier on until 1966, with a few bright spots in its waning decade -- the notable Hawks, the temporarily-lifesaving Lark, and the fiberglass bodied Avanti.

But I had not the faintest idea of these approaching changes as I moved from car to car in the armory. I slid behind the gleaming steering wheel of a Buick Skylark, and ran my hand across the pleats as I inhaled the delicious smell of the leather interior. I marveled at the first "panoramic wraparound" windshields on GM's Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. It would be another year before the Chevrolets and Pontiacs would get these big windshields, which would soon become common throughout the industry.

I listened to a man in a double breasted suit explain the fine points of Ford's new overhead valve V-8 that produced 130 horsepower, a then breathtaking number for a low-priced car. It was a huge power boost over the old flat-head V-8 that had been a Ford staple since 1932. I remember crowds gathering around Ford's "Crestline Skyliner," a two-door hardtop with a green-tinted Plexiglass insert in the roof. Mercury had a similar hardtop called the Sun Valley.

I climbed into the Ford, and the dashboard reflected the weird green tint of the roof and imparted an odd ambience to the interior. The Skyliners proved initially popular, but owners complained that despite the green tint, the interiors roasted when the cars were parked in sunlight.

Chevrolet built its 30 millionth car that year (Ford had reached the 40 million mark the previous year) but its stubby, rather conventional looking models were in a holding pattern. For that fall the sensational '55 Chevrolet V-8 would be introduced.

As it was, more than a third of cars delivered in the United States in 1954 were V-8s. The rest were "straight" 6's and 8's, all cylinders lined up in a single long block. These were smooth, dependable and for the most part unspectacular engines, proven over decades, like Chevy's "Blue Flame" 6 and Packard's exceptionally quiet 8. Today's kicky yet smooth V-6s, mated to front wheel drive, were completely unknown back then. The V-8 was king. Gas cost about a quarter a gallon and the horsepower race was on. Chrysler had introduced its revolutionary hemispherical combustion V-8 three years earlier and the "Hemi" was well on its way to legendary status. Cadillac and Oldsmobile were riding the crest of the popularity of their "oversquare," short stroke overhead valve engines.

Automatic transmissions were becoming more and more popular. General Motors' amazingly smooth and trouble-free Hydramatic was the clear leader. A year earlier, even Rolls-Royce had begun to offer the GM automatic as an option on its cars. Chrysler would come close with its "TorqueFlite" automatic, a wonderfully smooth, efficient and rugged tranny, but GM had really set the standard.

Two of the biggest curiosities at that 1954 show were Chevrolet's Corvette, then in its second year of production (3640 would be sold that year) and the Kaiser-Darrin roadster. Both cars were made of fiberglass. The Corvette, which then had a 6-cylinder engine, was on its way to iconic status. The Darrin two-seater, with its unique sliding doors, would sell only 435 copies and become a collectors' rarity.

The cars of 1954 gave few clues as to what cars would be like 50 years later. Indeed, many American cars would be astoundingly different the very next model year, particularly the spectacular "forward look" Chryslers, Desotos, Dodges and Plymouths. It seems odd now, but perhaps one of the most prescient cars at that year's auto show was the little 4-cylinder Nash Metropolitan convertible. It seemed almost a joke to me -- a miniature Nash right down to its tiny white sidewall tires. If you ever watch the old Superman serials on TV, Lois Lane drove a Metropolitan. It was homely, yes, but it was a definite precursor of the small cars of the future.

Today's cars are light years ahead of those 1954 cars in power, efficiency, roadability and durability. But cars back then had something that is largely lost today -- something that is still sought through various "retro" efforts like Chrysler's PT Cruiser, the new Ford Thunderbird and Chevrolet's SSR convertible pickup. They had prodigious personality. Each make was instantly recognizable, not only by sight but often by sound.

They engendered incredible brand loyalty. They were endlessly "tweakable." Engines and suspensions were frequently and ingeniously modified, and most of the stuff could be done in backyard garages. And they were massive hunks of steel, with cavernous trunks and roomy passenger compartments and plenty of clearance for the hats that most men still wore.

In short, they were products of their time. What the times will produce in automobiles 50 years from now is a guess too wild for me to attempt. They will be safe. They will be "responsible." They will be "user friendly." But I fervently hope at least some of them will have a soul. That means a lot of things, but most of all it means they will have to be fast and beautiful.


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