Adventure on Wheels - Page 2

With imaginations running wild, designers of the mid-century wowed America with sleek, ultramodern 'dream cars' slathered with chrome and fins
GM’s Firebird III (top) and Cadillac’s Cyclone (bottom) looked like they were bound for Mars.

Among the nightmares is the shark-like 1958 Ford Nucleon, with a passenger cabin pushed to the front and a long, long stern topped by what appears to be an ornamental spare tire—but is really the core of a nuclear reactor.

In many ways, mid-century cars resemble mid-century modern homes. Both shared a similar dream—that technology married to imagination could produce better lives for all.

Both mid-century cars and homes were about freedom. In houses, it was the freedom to be yourself through open-plan designs. In cars, it was the freedom to drive where you want when you want—or in the case of another dream car, the levitating 1958 Ford Volante, to fly there.

Space-age compact.

Just as the postwar was fueled by federal policies favoring low-cost financing and mortgages, so was the car boom fueled by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created interstate freeways.

But there were significant differences too. Designers of modern tract homes aimed to provide affordable housing, answering a real need. Designers of cars aimed to earn big bucks by creating a 'need' in buyers for a new model car every year.

And while architects eschewed applied ornamentation in favor of expressing a home's structure, car designers in the main laid on the ornamentation with—well, a slather.

Still, it's not surprising that people who love mid-century modern homes also love mid-century cars.

In its September 1956 issue, ‘Mechanix Illustrated’ magazine told the world how ‘dreams’ came true.

"Eichler was forward-thinking, the car companies were forward-thinking," says photographer Phil Toy, who bought his Eichler home in Walnut Creek because it shares an aesthetic with his collection of '50s cars, which includes two Cadillac El Dorados with rocket-ship fins.

"The cars reflected the culture of the time, like rock 'n' roll, jukeboxes, the rockets and jet age," he says. "Every year they would make a more flamboyant and more beautiful car so consumers would need a new car. They had an aura, and they still have an aura today. I drive my Cadillac—there's nothing like it on the road today. That was America at its best, right then."

Why did American cars suddenly blossom in the postwar years?

Blame California.

Detroit may have been the center of auto production. But the man who brought design to Detroit—Harley Earl—learned his craft in Los Angeles. To emphasize the Hollywood roots of his styling, Earl (1893-1969) credited as one of his major influences Cecil B. DeMille.

Earl, who began by working for his dad's Earl Automobile Works in Los Angeles, designed custom car bodies for such Hollywood stars as Fatty Arbuckle, often using Duesenberg or Pierce-Arrow chassis. Detroit, it seems, simply wasn't delivering the requisite glamour for Hollywood's glamorous.

With this 1956 issue on dream cars, ‘Young Men’ magazine addressed one of the most compelling fantasies of the teenage male.

Earl was just one of several Southern California firms that helped create "a distinctive Southern California automobile style" with a "chic, modern appearance" in the years before the World War I, according to the Petersen Museum.

Earl joined General Motors in 1927, becoming "America's first professional car stylist," according to Stephen Bayley, author of the book 'Harley Earl and the Dream Machine.' There were, of course, earlier automobile coach designers who were plenty professional—but Earl was the first to start a design department at a major automaker.