Anyone who graduated from high school in 1955 knows that the records played at those dances after the basketball games did not include rock-n-roll, but were ballads such as You Belong to Me by JoStafford, Too Young by Nat King Cole, If by Perry Como, Please Mr. Sun by Johnnie Ray, Wish You Were Here by Eddie Fisher, Wheel of Fortune by Kay Starr, and Why Don’t You Believe Me? by Joni James. The saccharine lamentations of the crooners were relieved only by some novelty songs such as Come On-a My House by Rosemary Clooney and Doggie in the Window by Patti Page.
Bill Haley and the Comets introduced the rock-n-roll era in 1956 with Rock Around the Clock, in a movie by the same name. Also in 1956, Elvis Presley captured the ratings with four huge hits: Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, and Love Me Tender. Examples of other hits that followed were Great Balls of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1958 and Stagger Lee by Lloyd Price in1959. The latter years of the 1950s thus became the beginning of the rock-n-roll era. (The Beatles didn’t appear on the Ed Sullivan Show until 1964.) This is the music that is commonly associated with the 1950s, even though in reality it represents only the latter half of the decade.
The same is true of other elements of 50s culture, including the automobile. Cars of the early part of the decade were quite different from those of the later years.To understand the changes that occurred throughout the automobile industry, it is necessary to go back to 1946, when the post-war production took up where pre-war styles had left off in 1941. Generally speaking, fenders were separately defined, transmissions were standard shift, batteries were 6 volt, and colors were dull. These styles continued until 1949, when the first “shoebox”Fords led the way to a more streamlined appearance. All the car companies, and there were several more American brands than there are today, changed the side view of their cars to a straight line that extended from the headlights to the taillights, making “fender” a term that merely identifiedthe four corners of the car. Automatic transmissions became more common, but the colors remained on the dull side, with a preponderance of black, gray, dark blue and dark green. These changes, considered radical when they were introduced in 1949, continued through the early 1950s, with minor style changes making each year easily identifiable.
The next major change in style occurred in 1955, proving the point that the decade saw two distinct types of cars. In addition to a further streamlining that was influenced by the jet airplane and the rocket, the cars of the late 50s appeared in bright colors, sometimes two or three in combination, and began to grow…..fins! As everyone knows, the fins grew in size and prominence, reaching their spectacular peak in 1959. The changes in appearance from year to year became more pronounced, and the interest in each September’s introduction of the new styles was intense for most young men. The new models were closely shielded from the public’s eye until the announced date, when searchlights lit up the sky to publicize the grand event.
The difference between the cars of the early 50s and those of the late 50s is evident in almost every aspect of the automobile. In addition to the colors and styles of the exterior, engines became more powerful, interiors were prettier in both color and material, and cars became bigger.
Station wagons represented a greater proportion of cars sold.
The Nifty Fifties exhibit contrasts cars from both ends of the decade, as well as shows some of the automobiles from companies which are no longer with us.
Jim Dunne, Chairman Exhibits Committee