TCS Daily

Remembering a Head-Turning, Neck-Snapping Year for Cars

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 30, 2004 12:00 AM

It's been a half a century now, but I can still feel the excitement of October 1954, when Detroit was revealing its 1955 model cars. In those days the fall introduction of new car models was always a big event. I remember many of us boys would hang around the auto showrooms in our little Pennsylvania town, hoping for a glimpse of one of the new cars being unloaded from a truck.

They often arrived at night and under canvas, and if we heard a tractor-trailer had arrived, say on St. Clair Street, up behind Chrisner Chevrolet, we'd all go up there and hover around the truck, oohing and aahing at what we imagined was under wraps.

But the announcement of the 1955s was more special than most -- more exciting than any other model year I can remember. It was a watershed year for the American auto industry and the cars introduced that October marked a distinct departure from old to new.

Detroit would produce almost 8 million cars in the '55 model year, a whopping 44 percent increase over 1954. Luxury extras like automatic transmissions became more commonplace, ordered in 7 out of 10 new cars. Sale of air conditioned cars (an almost unimaginable luxury to most people at the time) would more than triple, although the 184,027 thus equipped were still a small fraction of total sales.

What I most remember is how old previous model cars began to look once the '55s came out. Take a look at a 1999 car now, or even a '95. They don't seem that outdated in comparison to today's models. But take a look at a 1955 Chevy and a 1949 model. You'll see what I mean.

That October 50 years ago Chevrolet's V-8 made its debut. Chrysler introduced its "$100 Million Dollar Look;" Ford announced the exciting two-seater Thunderbird; and color, chrome and glamour became the hallmarks of American cars as never before -- witness the three-tone paint job and lavish appointments of the '55 Packard Caribbean convertible.

The arrival of the Chevy V-8 was one of the most anticipated automotive events since Ford had introduced the Model A back in 1927. Chevrolet had soldiered along for almost 35 years with six-cylinder engines after it halted production of a short-lived V-8 back in 1919.

Lack of an eight had not stopped Chevrolet from passing Ford to become the best-selling car in the country, but by 1954 things had changed. The horsepower race was on. Ford had introduced its overhead valve V-8 in 1954 (replacing its venerable flathead V-8) and everyone, not just hot rodders, clamored for bigger engines.

Plymouth, Pontiac and Packard, and even stodgy Hudson and Nash got V-8s for '55, and Chrysler would trump everyone (later in the model year) by introducing the Chrysler c-300 (see our TCS story here) as the definitive answer to a 1954 NASCAR rule change requiring competition cars to be truly stock models using engines offered for sale to the general public. The car promptly humbled all comers on NASCAR tracks.

The 300's performance and its price (four thousand simoleons) gave it an Olympian aura. But the 265-cubic inch Chevrolet engine, producing up to 180 horsepower in a car priced in the $2000 range, blew the competition away in popularity.

The remarkably clean styling of the cars, with their distinctively delicate egg crate grills and dramatic two-tone paint, was an instant hit. The only hint that a Chevy was equipped with the new engine was the tiny V escutcheon placed discreetly beneath each taillight.

By the time a driver saw those little emblems, the Chevy was pulling away. Fast. I especially remember one magazine ad showing a Chevy passing a Cadillac on a steep hill. "Chevrolet's special hill-flatteners!" read the headline. The copy was full of typical '50s ebullience:

"See that fat mountain yonder? You can iron it out, flat as a flounder... and easy as whistling. Just point one of Chevrolet's special hill-flatteners at it (either the 162-h.p. 'Turbo-Fire' V-8 or the 180-h.p. 'Super Turbo-Fire')... and pull the trigger! Barr-r-r-r-o-o-O-O-OOM! Mister, you got you a flat mountain!"

But in this case there definitely was more than a little truth in all that hyperbole. I was hitchhiking into Ligonier from my home in Rector. The local game warden picked me up at the bottom of Menzie Hill, the steepest in the area. He was driving an ivory and navy Chevy Bel Air coupe with the 180 engine.

My Uncle George's tank-like 1950 Chrysler Imperial (with its straight 8) could climb that hill with a certain languorous aplomb, like a matron on a department store escalator. But this Chevy was a slingshot.

It was the first time I had ever experienced the sensation of being pushed back against the seat of a car by sheer acceleration. The car just gulped up the macadam as tree trunks and fence posts flew by in a blur.

As we topped the hill and approached Rt. 711, two very unseemly words sanctifying fecal matter came to my astonished lips. But being a 14-year-old in the 1950s, I did not utter them. The driver looked over with a satisfied grin and said simply, "Not like the six."

Oddly, with all its success that year (1,704,667 cars -- a quarter million more than Ford), Chevrolet came close to dropping what would become one of its most iconic cars -- the Corvette. The fiberglass bodied sports car, introduced in 1953, seemed to be tanking. Only 674 would be sold in 1955, despite price cutting by Chevrolet.

Indeed, the Corvette was offered with the new V-8 (souped up to 195 horsepower) at a price $589 less than the previous year's six. Little wonder that all but seven of the Corvettes sold had the new V-8 engine. Chevy would spike up the V-8's horsepower and combine it with the sensational spear-sided body restyle of 1956, not just saving the Corvette but launching it into legend.

Ford, meanwhile, stole the sports car fire in '55 with its Thunderbird. At a time when the average American working man made around $3800 a year, the 'bird was priced just south of $3000, but it sold more than 16,000 that first year. With its hood scoop and lift-off hardtop the car had an understated but undeniably exotic look that has continued to appeal to purists.

My family was in no position to buy a new car in those days but it cost nothing for a boy to be dazzled. I pored over the magazine ads, cutting out my favorites and saving them in an old scrapbook -- gleaming scarlet Buick Roadmasters with their four "port holes" in the sides of the front fenders; dramatic royal blue and white Ford Crown Victoria coupes with that odd "basket handle" of chrome raking up and over the roof; fast Olds 98s with their lightning bolt-like chrome side trim and grinning oval grilles.

Many car ads in those days were paintings instead of photographs, and the artists shamelessly exaggerated the width, length and low profiles of the cars and populated them with inordinately small drivers and passengers to make the interiors look roomier. But '55 was one year when the actual cars did not disappoint. We were mesmerized by the chrome and the fins and the reality of neck-snapping performance. And the cars were remarkably roomy, with cavernous trunks.

Eisenhower was in the middle of his first term. The Korean War was over. The stock market was up. Rock 'n roll was just elbowing its way into everyone's attention. The McDonald brothers had just opened their first shop selling cheap hamburgers. Indeed, those were happy days. Even the cars seemed happy. At least they looked it.


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