Vintage Transportation | When Haute Couture Met Horsepower
Jun 28, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
In our debut post on vintage transportation we looked at the iconic cable car. Today I want to chat about the 1950s – a time when the car achieved iconic status in post-war America. Looking at advertising imagery from the day, you see how alluring and sensual the designs were. They weren’t just selling a means to convey yourself from point A to point B – this was about selling the dream. Let’s learn a bit more about this special time when haute couture met horsepower. As you read, tell me if you think the slick Tesla is bringing this vintage notion back? Do you think transportation will ever be this chic again?
We’ll begin with some context on post-war America. The 1940s were defined by the Second World War. Its impact cut a deep swath across the cultural landscape – but not all hope was lost during this time, for it also fueled a spirit of fearless innovation. Following the end of the global conflict, a renaissance of joy ensued. Seen in the fanciful and feminine designs of one Christian Dior, in the bright and colorful advertisements of the day, in the modern furniture backdrops of living rooms across the country, and in the open use of materials for consumer – rather than military – purposes. The pursuit of happiness was back on track again and the freedom the automobile promised was just the ticket.
In the automobile industry specifically, you had the additional influence of the atomic age. Space travel – rockets – the ultimate adventure was suddenly at our fingertips. Everyone could participate in this narrative by buying a new American-made car. Rockets for the streets, complete with streamlined looks and exciting new features. This was not your dad’s Model T! During these years, a staggering one in six Americans were employed by the auto-industry – most people were literally building this new American dream. Pretty cool, huh? By 1955 the National Highway system expanded to include these new “super highways” also known as interstates. Guys and dolls could now cruise with absolute freedom to far-flung places. (But most hot rods ended up at the drive-in movie or restaurant.) When you combine all these influences and institutions it’s easy to see how car culture took hold of the American psyche.
After WWII, returning soldiers came home to seek out what they had fought so hard for – freedom. Freedom looked like a place of their own; a place to call home; a safe environment for raising a happy family. Young families were encouraged to stake out a claim in the newly developed suburbs. Women who found their voice while working hard state-side to support the menfolk abroad, were now mainly transitioning to household management. That household management included setting up their new life – fancy new washing machines, sparkling new Formica dinette sets, tasty Jello salads – consumerism was in full force.
The shiny new car was just as liberating for the male and female driver. After all, gals had to make their way to the bake sales or knitting circles in style. And some ladies had to get to work and what better way to arrive in boss mode than in a new Thunderbird? Advertisers kept their fingers on the pulse of this cultural shift. We begin to see powerful, elegant women next to sleek cars. Consider the age-old mantra and spin it on its head: women wanted to be her and men wanted to be with her.
As a female driver I have to admit I adore the feeling behind the wheel. Whenever I travel by air I refuse to Uber it to the airport. Oh yes, dear readers, I park at the terminal. I cherish the moment when I get off the cramped plane, grab my case, and am reunited with my car. Turning on my music, hitting the interstate, feeling free as the starlit road delivers me home. There is still some allure there – even if I don’t view my car as stylish. I make my big economic investments based on dependability rather than flash. But that’s the distinction – in the 1950s it was all delightful, buzzy flash. No talk of trunk space, mini vans, or eco-fuel. This was the age of tail fins, steel, and power.
Looking at all of these beautiful images from the 1950s, I feel like I need to find something a bit more flashy for my automotive adventures. How about you dear reader? Given the modern condition we find ourselves in – climate change, oil shortages, and a tendency for instant gratification – do you think we’ll experience a renaissance of joy in transportation again?