1950s American automobiles Design and culture
The 1950s were pivotal for the American automobile industry. The post-World War II era brought a wide range of new technologies to the automobile consumer, and a host of problems for the independentautomobile manufacturers. The industry was maturing in an era of rapid technological change; mass production and the benefits from economies of scale led to innovative designs and greater profits, but stiff competition between the automakers. By the end of the decade, the industry had reshaped itself into the Big Three and AMC, and the age of small independent automakers was over, as most of them either consolidated or went out of business.
A number of innovations were either invented or improved sufficiently to allow for mass production during the decade: air conditioning, automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, seat belts and arguably the most influential change in automotive history, the overhead-valve V8 engine. The horsepower race had begun, laying the foundation for the muscle car era.
Automobile manufacturing became the largest industry segment in the US, and the largest ever created; the US auto industry was many times larger than the automotive industries of the rest of the world combined. By 1960, one-sixth of working Americans were employed directly or indirectly by the industry, but automation and imports eroded the need for such a large workforce within a couple of decades. The 1950s were the pinnacle of American automotive manufacturing and helped shape the United States into an economic superpower.
Auto design in the 1950s reflected the Atomic Age, the Jet Age and the Space Age. Several technologies were pioneered in these prototypes, but most never reached production owing to their impracticality or other market forces. The concept cars ranged from the insightful to the bizarre and were often uncomfortable or non-functional. They were sometimes created to inspire the public's imagination or simply to promote the image of the company or the product line as a whole.
The Ford Nucleon was a concept car announced by Ford in 1958. The design lacked the capacity to house an internal combustion engine and was instead designed to be powered by a then nonexistent small nuclear powerplant in the rear of the vehicle, similar to a submarine's.
The Mercury XM-800 was one of many concept cars created by Ford. It was introduced at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show, and featured forward-canted headlights, rear tailfins (a first for Ford at that time), and power seats, brakes, steering and other advancements. Like many similar cars of the time it was not operational, except for the electrical components such as the motorized trunk and front hood, although some of its innovations appeared later in the Lincoln Premiere.
Harley Earl helped develop the General Motors Firebird, a series of three concept cars shown at Motorama auto shows in the 1950s. The Firebird I, II and III were part of a research project to study the feasibility of gas turbineengines and featured radical, aircraft-like styling.
1957 Ford FX Atoms Experimental car
As more Americans began driving cars, entirely new categories of businesses came into being to allow them to enjoy their products and services without having to leave their cars. This includes the drive-in restaurant, and later the drive-through window. Even into the 2010s, the Sonic Drive-In restaurant chain has provided primarily drive-in service by carhop in 3,561 restaurants within 43 U.S. states, serving approximately 3 million customers per day. Known for its use of carhops on roller skates, the company annually hosts a competition to determine the top skating carhop in its system.
A number of other successful "drive up" businesses have their roots in the 1950s, including McDonald's (expanded c.1955), which had no dine-in facilities, requiring customers to park and walk up to the window, taking their order "to go". Automation and the lack of dining facilities allowed McDonald's to sell burgers for 15 cents each, instead of the typical 35 cents, and people were buying them by the bagful. By 1948, they had fired their carhops, installed larger grills, reduced their menu and radically changed the industry by introducing assembly-line methods of food production, similar to the auto industry, dubbing it the "Speedee Service System". They redesigned their sign specifically to make it easier to see from the road, creating the now familiar yellow double-arch structure. Businessman Ray Kroc joined McDonald's as a franchise agent in 1955. He subsequently purchased the chain from the McDonald brothers and oversaw its worldwide growth.