Cars of the 1950s & 1960s To The Cars Of Today

Greg Zyla
Greg I enjoyed all of your articles in the recent Boston Herald insert on cars and it was a very enjoyable read. I’d love to hear your opinions on how things were back in the ‘50s and ‘60s versus today’s modern cars. What are your memories on yesteryear cars versus today’s highly computerized vehicles? Back in the 1950s, you were lucky if your car had air conditioning, power steering and an automatic transmission. Thanks, Jim L., Boston, MA.
Jim, thanks for the kind words and I actually love this question as my friends and I always compare the cars we drive now to the cars of yesteryear.
As you note, it’s clear that the modern cars of today, some of which can actually drive them self, are way better and much safer than the cars we grew up with seven decades ago.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s when the new car introductions took place starting in late October, I always felt they were exterior “beauty’s only skin deep” upgrades more so than notable technical and suspension improvements. Clearly when it came to the actual new car season announcements, the words “mechanical advancements” weren’t in the new car formulas.
Further, many of the engines used in the 1950s were from the pre-WWII era. Flathead six- and eight-cylinder engines were the norm until the new overhead valve V8s appeared in 1949 by Olds and Cadillac and 1951 by Studebaker and Chrysler.
Matter of fact, the inline-6 flathead in my dad’s 1955 Plymouth Savoy was the same basic engine that powered Chrysler vehicles beginning in 1924. Although it had grown to 230 cu. in. from its 170-inch 1924 debut, it was the same engine in theory. This engine lasted until late 1959 when Chrysler released its all new inline Slant-6 overhead valve engine that proved to be one of its best engines both for durability and longevity and lasted until 1987 in the Dodge truck line.
To answer your question (sorry about my Flathead-6 and Slant-6 ramblings), let’s use 1957-58-59 as examples of “new cars” that didn’t necessarily mean new cars. Chrysler led the way with design changes that featured its exterior "forward look" cars.
These three years also found the other manufacturers producing cars that looked nothing like the prior years, yet were still the same underneath.
Chevy is another good example in 57-58-59, as is Buick. I really love the ‘58 and ‘59 Buicks, and the ‘60 model that was somewhat similar to the ‘59 but with smaller fins.
Chrysler also made huge exterior design changes from ’54 through ‘57, while over at Ford, the big change years came in 1957 to ‘59 in my opinion. Still, these cars were mechanically the same with just a bit of progress to steering, brake, suspension and interior upgrades.
Studebaker is perhaps the best example of the “beauty’s only skin deep” viewpoint. (OK, I’ll give a tip of the hat here to The Temptations, one of my all-time favorite Motown groups). Studebaker’s poor sales and somewhat homely 1958 model was completely re-skinned for ’59 with a new, good looking and smaller Lark body.
The result? The “new” ’59 Studebaker Lark sold so well it saved the company from bankruptcy. Even though there were no major mechanical differences other than being a bit smaller in wheelbase between the 1958 Studebaker and 1959 Lark, the Lark was a huge success. Other cars I really liked from that era were the 1951 to 1954 Hudson Hornets and Wasps, 1953 Kaiser Manhattan, 1953 to ’56 Packards, 1956 multi-colored Dodges, and the 1955 and 1956 Mercurys. Luxury favorites include the big Chrysler Imperials, just about any Cadillac while the Lincoln Continental was not a favorite as it grew to massive proportions in 1958 and 1959. The Sixties decade were similar, too, so we won’t delve too much into this decade style wise. Yet when it comes to performance, engine advancements and muscle, this was the decade of note. Everything from 409 Chevy Biscaynes, 406 Ford Galaxies and 413 Dodge Darts were everywhere, joined later by the midsize “Pony Car” craze where Mustang Cobra Jets, Hemi Cudas and Camaro Z28s roamed the nation’s boulevards. Even AMC got into the game as its 390 SC/Rambler American could run as quick as most of the other competition. Ditto for Buick with its Gran Sport and Olds with the 442.
And the GTO? Thanks to Jim Wangers and John DeLorean, Pontiac started the midsize muscle craze back in 1964. Ronnie and the Daytonas took care of the radio airwaves with its hit single “Little GTO,” pre-dated by the Beach Boys “She’s real fine my 409” in 1962 and Jan and Dean’s “Little Old Lady From Pasadena” honor of the 426 Super Stock Dodge in 1964. Again, what a great decade to experience. I’ll admit the 1960s were very important as for muscle cars, but the family sedan with the Slant-6 under the hood didn’t change much. If you had a ’67 Dodge R/T with no power steering, no air conditioning and no power whatever that would rob even one horsepower or add weight, that’s just what those performance buffs wanted.
However, this ’67 Dodge R/T came with four-wheel drum brakes, so one option you did want was front disc brakes as trying to stop the R/T after a quarter-mile run and a short shutdown area was a tough task.
Let’s wrap this up with the modern day comparison. All of today’s cars now come standard with computer controlled every-thing, electric hybrid options, tremendous safety innovations, air bags and accident impact enhancements to reduce driver and passenger injuries. There may be too many computer aided features as an engineer friend always points to very high repair costs when these computers and or electric batteries fail. Still, we agree the cars of today are awesome.
In summary, the antiquated 1950 and 1960 decade vehicles we drove back then (you know, the ones that now bring five, six and seven figures at the Mecum and Barrett-Jackson auctions) can’t compare in any manner to a 2021 model cars.
Yet “skin deep” or not, we still love them. 
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