1959 Cadillac tailfin. Photo courtesy of author.

Disclaimer: This is an excerpt from my dissertation. I love cars so much I spent a year researching and writing 11,000 words, despite professors telling me it wouldn’t be considered a “legitimate” academic subject.

Introduction:

The 1950s, for the American auto industry, were a time of stylistically outrageous and wonderfully excessive creations. The machines they made sprouted fanciful (and questionably effective) aerodynamic protrusions, like fins on the rear deck; they were adorned with chrome embellishments; they were lavished with beautiful details: wrap-around windshields, rocket-inspired hood ornaments, and bullet-shaped taillights; and they were endowed with massive size. This sort of baroque design was shared between the three largest American car manufacturers: General Motors (or GM, which included Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac), Ford (which included Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln), and Chrysler (which included Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth). With very few exceptions- most notably Studebaker and Nash, which were relatively tiny operations compared to The Big Three- this was the de facto style of the time. This design trend reached a peak in 1959- quite literally, in the case of the soaring tailfins on the Cadillacs of that year- and then, over the course of the next few years, essentially disappeared completely. By 1964, American cars had, across the board, developed much cleaner and smoother lines, they had shed much of their ornamentation, and they had even downsized both their dimensions and their engines- they had, in other words, been completely transformed.

The “how” and “why” for this phenomenon of an absolute redesign spanning an entire industry are difficult to discern. A car’s design is shaped in large part by the personalities and artistic sensibilities of its creators- but there are other factors which come into play. For instance, a designer will be decidedly unsuccessful if their creation does not sell- so, a large part of any given model’s design is dictated by the tastes of the public. Furthermore, a car designer is not creating pure art; they are also creating a consumer good which needs to be both practical and functional on an everyday basis. A car’s design, then, tries to fulfill several (and in many cases, competing) goals at once, and cannot be analyzed by examining solely the minds of the designers, or only the popular culture of its time- both play equally important parts in the shape of the end product. A rapidly executed shift in an industry-wide styling trend must reflect both a changing cultural climate among consumers as well as changes in management within the various manufacturers. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, that is precisely what occurred in America- major heads of styling changed in two of the major auto manufacturers; the small, economical, and simply designed European models gained massive traction in the American market; the car-buying demographic expanded to include baby boomers (and their different tastes), and the philosophy of consumption changed in the US. These factors added up to create a rapid and comprehensive styling shift and downsize across the entire American auto industry, occurring from 1960 to 1964.

The material written on the topic of this particular styling shift is limited. C. Edson Armi has perhaps the definitive book on the subject, titled The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities. There are several essays published on the subject of American cars from the 1950s, or post-war American consumerism, but, if they happen to touch on the topic of the styling shift, reduce the cause to one simple explanation. Nigel Whiteley, although he has written excellent texts on consumer culture, attributes the styling shift purely to a backlash against rabid consumerism.[1] There is no book or essay written specifically on the early 1960s style change in American cars, and what sentences have been written attributes it either to changes in leadership within the car companies or a cultural shift in consumer habits- no one has attempted a nuanced explanation of the phenomenon that brings together several different factors. That is the goal of this dissertation, and it will thus mostly rely upon primary sources- pictures of the machines and visual analyses of them, advertisements, reviews and critiques, interviews with their designers, sales and production figures from The Big Three, economic data on the US, and cultural histories reflecting trends in consumerism. This will be contrasted with European cars and how they were advertised in the US, illuminating striking similarities to many of the smaller American models that would be introduced.

The dissertation will open with an overview of the design language of American cars in the 1950s- what the shared themes and commonalities were between The Big Three, and what role the outliers played in the industry. It is essential to understand the minds of the people who created the machines in order to understand the machines themselves. But, it is equally important to understand the cultural climate into which the cars were born. Examining how The Big Three advertised their products will show both what they thought the American public wanted from a car, and what they thought the selling points of their cars were. Crucial to the discussion will be interviews with the designers of these products- these reveal the philosophies and considerations behind the styling process.

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The middle section will address the transitionary period, when the first murmurs of change were heard. Most of this section will be a cultural study focusing on European cars occupying an increasingly large share of the American market, and an examination of the newly wealthy baby boomers, their children, (now reaching driving age), and the various tastes and consumption habits of the American masses. This cultural study will span the late 1950s and the early 1960s, and will reflect a subtly changing consumer culture in America and a public largely unhappy with the way the Big Three were conducting business. Although one of the strangest aspects of the styling shift and downsize is the lack of major, obvious cultural and economic changes in America in the period discussed, this section will shed light on the myriad small changes that caused it to occur.

The third section will look at American cars after the styling shift. There will be visual analyses of these new machines and comparisons to the most popular European models of the period, as well as examinations of the new ways they were advertised and the new people that played a role in their creation. This section will finish with a study of youth and the emerging counter culture of the early 1960s, to understand how a less ostentatious car design represented societal values. In this period, the resignation and replacement of highly influential designers and executives, the growing popularity of small, practical, and economical European cars, the blossoming of the British Invasion, and a youth demographic with a unique consumption culture all coalesced to force the Big Three into radically redesigning and downsizing their products.

This dissertation is primarily a labor of love. At their core, cars are a perfect blend of science and art, machines imbued with the personalities of their makers, designed to let the driver go wherever, whenever, on any whim. The pioneer spirit of adventure, freedom, individuality, and exploration is a crucial and enduring part of the American identity, and cars are made in large part to fulfill that spirit. The styling of these particular mid-century creations perhaps best encapsulates the sheer romanticism they impart in their function, and wonderfully symbolize American values.

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[1] Nigel Whitely, Towards a Throw-Away Culture: Consumerism, “Style Obsolescence” and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s, (Oxford Art Journal, 10:2)