Monday, November 25, 2013

The Archetypical Mid-1950s American Car

Automobile styling to a large degree is a matter of fashion.  Styles come and go, and when a style is riding high, it can characterize an era.  This used to be the case for women's clothing fashions.  I can look at old photos from, say, 1920 to 1970 and usually guess when they were taken within plus or minus three years of actuality if women are shown.

That's no longer the case for clothing, but still holds up pretty well for automobile styling.  Consider 1955, the model year that set sales records for its era.  Every American car maker featured either a complete redesign or a significant facelift, this helping to lift buyer enthusiasm.

And what were the main characteristics of 1955-vintage American car styling?  Here is a list of some of the most important ones:
  • Wrap-around (panoramic) windshield.
  • Extended upper tips of fender line (to emphasize length) ...
  • ... including "frenched" headlight bezels.
  • Low or even sunken hoods (as compared to tops of front fenders).
  • Two or three color paint jobs.
  • "Hardtop convertible" body type.
Let me elaborate.

The extended fender line created a long, thrusting aspect to a car's appearance.  In reality, the front and rear endpoints of an automobile are usually represented by the bumpers.  Up through the early 1950s, it was fairly common for car bodies to appear to have a firm base at bumper level with the rest of the body as as set of increasingly shorter, narrower layers atop this base (the 1949 Buick is a good example).  The new, higher thrust line created the impression that the parts of the car both above and below were lesser layers, thus making a kind of arrow shape.

The term "frenched" headlights was used in the 1950s to refer to headlight bezels that extended a short ways ahead of the surface of the headlamp itself.  The result was a physically longer fender.

For many years, the top of a car's hood usually stood noticeably higher than the tops of the front fenders.  This created the impression that the automobile had a large, powerful motor under that hood.  But, as my book about car styling explains, stylists began to use jet aircraft as inspiration for a future evolutionary path.  Low hood lines were in the spirit of this.

The "hardtop convertible" style was popular from the very late 1940s into the 1970s, and died off due to concerns regarding roll-over safety.  "Hardtops" lacked a "B" pillar in the manner of convertibles, but retained a fixed metal top.

Below are three examples of American automobiles that can be considered archetypical of mid-50s styling.


1955 Oldsmobile 88
Oldsmobiles were completely restyled for the 1954 model year, so this 1955 Olds features a modest facelift.  Changes included a revised division shape between body colors and "frenching" for the headlights.  All of the criteria listed above are met.

1955 Packard Clipper
The Clipper was Packard's attempt to create a mid-price brand (in years past, the name was used for a Packard body style).  The body dates back to 1951, but for 1955 Packard did a massive facelift, adding wrap-around windshields and extensively revising front and rear sheet metal to yield what amounts to an archetypical 1955 design.

1955 Plymouth Belvedere
Plymouth got a completely restyled body for 1955.  Note the sweep of the fender line top and how it emphasizes the length of the car.  Like other Chrysler Corporation cars, its wrap-around windshields kept the slant of the A-pillar at the traditional angle.  So although the windshield wraps, the Chrysler version is not quite mainstream, its solution being shared only by Studebaker.  Ford, Mercury, Nash, Hudson, and the entire General Motors line featured windshields like those shown on the Oldsmobile and Clipper above.

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