Selling Steel and Killing Chrome: A Study of the US Auto Industry, Part II

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. Then, I bought a 1952 Chevrolet pickup as my daily driver.

Chapter One:

1957 Chrysler Saratoga, photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.

Over the course of the 1950s, American cars grew more and more fantastical in appearance, arguably culminating in the 1959 Cadillac, whose tailfins are pictured on the cover. Emblematic of 1950s American car design, the tailfin was first introduced in the 1948 Cadillac, and was inspired by a Lockheed P-38 Lightning observed by Harley Earl, the chief of styling for all GM products until 1959.[1] Tailfins were far from the only styling traits of these cars, though. Massive and ornate chrome grilles on both the front and rear were typical for the time, as were chrome spears scything across the sides, artistically formed hood ornaments (oftentimes there were three on a car: one large centerpiece, and two smaller decorations marking the front corners), curvy wraparound windshields, and two-tone paint schemes. As Whitely notes, “Instead of trying to attain a timeless and universal appearance...styling features expressed a strong commitment to contemporary ‘jet age’ advanced technology”.[2]

1954 Nash Rambler, photo courtesy of Nash Motor Co.

Besides a few outliers, such as the Nash Rambler and some Studebakers (including the Champion and the Lark), cars of the era were invariably enormous and exotic. Nash and Studebaker were both small players in the industry, and they were the only ones offering small, light, and clean, European-styled models. They achieved limited success compared to the established players: in 1956, for instance, Nash sold 79,166 Ramblers compared to Chevrolet’s 679,950 Biscaynes- enough to establish that there was a market for smaller cars, but not enough to worry the Big Three.[1] [2] 

One of the most important designers in this period (and possibly the most important car designer of all time, practically inventing the concept of car styling in 1927) was Harley Earl.[1] According to Chuck Jordan, a retired Chief Designer for GM, “Earl’s creed had always been ‘longer, lower, wider’”.[2] Earl designed vehicles for GM from 1927 to his retirement in 1959, and developed his own, unique style throughout this period.[3] David Gartman, in an essay for Design Issues, wrote of Earl’s “auto-as-entertainment encrustation...[and] rounded, heavy-looking cars”.[4] C. Edson Armi connected accounts of Earl’s 6'4” stature, flamboyant fashion sense, and booming, angry personality to the machinery he designed.[5] Interestingly enough, Earl did not know how to draw or how to model clay- those were the jobs of his subordinates- he had an incredible eye for design, however, and was a persuasive salesman to senior management.[6]


Virgil Exner was Earl’s counterpart at Chrysler. Exner, according to Grady Gammage Jr. and Stephen Jones, “constantly [claimed] that auto stylists responded only to the dictates of public taste”, and his designs apparently resulted in the nickname “Virgil Excess”.[1] Indeed, in an interview with Arthur Railton for Popular Mechanics, Exner maintains that “the public has indicated its preference for larger packages throughout the years, through sales experiences. Stylists don’t want a lot of chrome either. But people have demanded it through the years”.[2] This was similar to Earl’s design philosophy, described by some as “production and sale oriented”.[3] While Exner acknowledged that a car was first and foremost designed for transportation, he felt strongly that “It should create a desire for ownership and a pride of ownership. A person is looking for something with a feeling of motion that inspires him”.[4] Styling that brought character and emotion to the forefront was crucial on Exner’s Chryslers.

1958 Chevrolet Advertisement, courtesy of G.M.

George Walker was the public face of Ford styling. In the same interview for Popular Mechanics, he described the American consumer as “aggressive, it’s moving upward all the time. The average man still likes that up, up, up, and that means bigness”, referring to what size cars are popular.[1] He also talked about the low-slung silhouette on Fords of the day, and the ever-present debate on practicality versus style: “When you think of an automobile, you think of movement and that means aerodynamics...How many times a day does a person get in and out of a car? We say...about four times a day. Why would he forsake good silhouette just because he knocks his hat off a few times a day?”.[2] In Walker’s mind, a car needed to be styled with emotion in order to achieve sales targets. The aesthetics of these three men had a significant effect on the final shapes their machines took, but the tastes of the consuming public played an equally important part.

1958 Ford Advertisement, courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

The advertising of these cars is highly indicative of what The Big Three thought of their creations and what they thought the American public wanted from their creations. An advertisement on this page for the 1958 Chevrolet lineup reveals a pretty much exclusive focus on styling and power. They describe the models as “sports-minded, fun-hearted and beautiful as all outdoors...[with] prices as low as Chevy’s roofline!”.[1] There are several paragraphs that do little more than describe the design and sportiness of the cars, without any mention of practicality, economy, or reliability. Chevrolet’s advertising in the late 1950s appealed primarily to the emotional purchaser. The illustrations capture two-toned examples of their cars from the exterior, showing the reader how dynamic the styling is without providing any real information.


The story is much the same with Chrysler’s and Ford’s advertising campaign at the end of the decade. Chrysler focused on their luxuriously vast interiors and how well their cars drove; “just going, itself, is excitement enough when you’re at the wheel of a Chrysler!”- to the exclusion of any quantitative information on fuel economy, price, or power.[1] The focus on space as representative of luxury is telling of the “more is better” philosophy behind many of these autos- Chrysler did not mention the quality of the materials used on their interiors, they instead described “living-room proportions” as a desirable attribute of their cars.[2] Ford, for their part, took seducing the emotional purchaser to its logical conclusion, and published advertisements that pictured their products with jet planes and elegantly dressed people, headed with taglines like “The world’s most perfectly proportioned cars”, or “Hot, handsome...a honey to handle”.[3] [4] Aesthetics and driving pleasure were the primary attributes The Big Three focused on developing in their machines, in part because they were the attributes they thought appealed most to the American buyer. The American consumer’s tendency to buy based on emotion is thus reflected in the designs of these cars.

1953 Oldsmobile Advertisement, courtesy of G.M.

Part of the success of the emotional styling and advertising of these cars (and successful they were- The Big Three routinely sold more than a million each in a year) was down to the post-war cultural climate in America. Whiteley links the 1950s design language to the prominence of technology and power in post-war society, when the manufacturers aimed to evoke space exploration and fighter jets in their cars.[1] Raymond Loewy, a famous industrial designer (who penned many of Studebaker’s post-war designs), phrases it somewhat less graciously in a 1955 article for The Atlantic: “Nothing about the appearance of the 1955 automobiles offsets the impression that Americans must be wasteful, swaggering, insensitive people”.[1] Here is a correlation between culture and consumption: American culture at the time was being shaped by the space race and associated rapid technological advancements. Late-1950s car design exhibits this proudly: the tailfins, the long and pointy chrome decorations, and the cockpit-like surround of the windshields are all meant to conjure up fantasy images of jets and rockets. Oldsmobile’s advertising series for their Rocket 88 model exploited this concept, and Chevrolet, too, advertised their 1955 Bel Air with jet planes in the background, in an allusion to the prodigious power underneath the hood.[2] Even the names of various models link them to space and travel: Galaxie, Starfire, Sunliner, Comet, Nova, etc).[3] 

1955 Chevrolet Advertisement, courtesy of G.M.

The financial climate of post-war America left its own imprint on domestic sheetmetal: the way these machines unashamedly wore their chrome jewelry quite literally puts on display the fortune of the driver, and reflects not just a possession of wealth but a desire to flaunt it. After World War II, about half the population of America saw a wild increase in wealth.[1] Grady Gammage Jr. and Stephen Jones link the outrageous styling of the 1950s to “the social and economic factors of given years...Fins caught the imagination of a public trying to forget the deprivation of the war”.[2] In a study of consumer habits, Shelley Nickles notes that “consumer research revealed that the working-class masses generally believed worth was expressed through three design features. One was ‘bulk and size’...Another was ‘embellishment and visual flash’. The third was color”.[1] Because these masses were the ones benefiting most from the post-war American bull economy and were the largest consumer demographic, the majority of The Big Threes efforts went towards creating a product for them and their tastes.

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air hood ornament, photo courtesy of author.

Even the showroom sales tactics for these models were focused around appearance. A 1957 bulletin for Plymouth salesmen illustrates the single-mindedness of the tactic:

Plymouth is over 4 inches wider and nearly 4 inches lower than Chevrolet- but styling lines make the difference appear even greater. Plymouth’s smoothly upswept fins add beauty...don’t “box in” the rear of the car like Chevrolet’s squared-off fenders. And notice the graceful slope of Plymouth’s deck lid compared to the sudden drop-off of the high, squarish Chevrolet deck lid...Plymouth styling lines are lower and more modern![1]

1956 Chevrolet Corvette, photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.

Not only does this bulletin show that style in general was crucial to selling a model, it also shows that the outrageous 1950s aesthetic was the exact type of style that sold. A review of the 1956 Corvette by Karl Ludvigsen in Sports Cars Illustrated discloses deep admiration for the design, described as “a real traffic-stopper...The hood bulges, long fender lines, and cowl vents...combine to give an impression of great forcefulness”.[1] The two-tone paint jobs of these early Corvettes, along with the scalloped-out sides with chrome surrounds, prominent grilles, and pontoon-style rear fenders were all flashy and in-your-face design elements- but that was what worked for American consumers.


[1] Karl Ludvigsen, 1956 Chevrolet Corvette Road Test, (Sports Cars Illustrated, May 1956).


[1] Ross Roy Confidential Bulletin for Plymouth Salesmen, Plymouth vs. Chevrolet, (Plymouth Bulletin, 6), p. 3


[1] Shelley Nickles, More is Better: Mass Consumption, Gender, and Class Identity in Postwar America, (American Quarterly, 54:4), p. 588


[1] Whitely, Throw-Away Culture, p. 5

[2] Gammage Jr. and Jones, Orgasm in Chrome, p. 132

[1] Raymond Loewy, Jukebox on Wheels, (The Atlantic, 1955)

[2] Chevrolet Advertisement, Chevrolet’s 3 new engines put new fun under your foot!, 1955


[3] Oldsmobile Advertisement, Oldsmobile Launches an All-Time Great, All-New ‘Rocket’ Super 88, 1953

[1] Whiteley, Throw-Away Culture, p. 6

[1] Chrysler advertisement, The Mighty Chrysler Makes Driving Exciting All Over Again!, 1958


[2] Chrysler advertisement, Swing in...stretch out, revel in Chrysler Roominess!, 1959

[3] Ford advertisement, The world’s most beautifully proportioned cars, 1959

[4] Ford advertisement, Hot, handsome...a honey to handle!, 1958

[1] Chevrolet advertisement, Nothing goes with springtime like a bright new Chevy!, 1958


[1] Ibid, p. 282

[2] Ibid, p. 176

[1] Grady Gammage Jr. and Stephen Jones, Orgasm in Chrome: The Rise and Fall of the Automobile Tailfin, (The Journal of Popular Culture, 8:1), p. 138


[2] Arthur Railton, Why Do Our Cars Look the Way They Do?, (Popular Mechanics, 111:1), p. 179

[3] Gammage Jr. and Jones, Orgasm in Chrome, p. 135

[4] Railton, Why Do Our Cars?, p. 177

[1] Interview: Chuck Jordan, GM’s Chief Designer, (Motor Trend, June 2006)

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] David Gartman, Harley Earl and the Art and Color Section: The Birth of Styling at General Motors, (Design Issues, 10:2), p. 25


[5] C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), p. 26

[6] Ibid, p. 32

[1] John Gunnell, Standard Guide to 1950s American Cars, (Krause Publications, 2004), p. 170


[2] General Motors Heritage Center

[1] Karal Ann Marling, America’s Love Affair with the Automobile in the Television Age, (Design Quarterly, 146), p. 8


[2] Whitely, Throw-Away Culture, p. 11

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