Monday, September 17, 2012

My Column from Sunday's Paper

I know my younger readers are probably sick of me lamenting about the good old days, but I doubt many of them would disagree that the cars from the 1950s and ‘60s were some of the coolest cars ever made.

Cars built in those years were beautiful, except for Edsel’s and Ramblers, both of which had particularly unfortunate designs.

But Chevy, Ford and Chrysler, beginning in about 1955 up through 1967, had designers that were artists with metal, chrome and paint.

The Chevy Corvette came along in 1953, and the Ford Thunderbird came out in 1955, and both models were stunningly beautiful. Even today, I’d trade a kidney for a 1957 Corvette.

Some of the old Cadillacs from that era were masterpieces too.
I started thinking about this story today when Jilda and I passed a 1957 Plymouth Fury on the way home from shopping. It was as red as a sunset. The swath of chrome on the fins, around the grill and headlights shined like a mirror.

I rolled down the window of my truck and listened to the low rumble of the exhaust as we eased by.

I noticed the driver was probably my age. He was driving one-handed with his left elbow propped on the ledge created by the open window. It was obvious he was enjoying the ride.

My family had a 1957 Plymouth like that in the early ‘60s. It had a motor as big as Rhode Island, and when you stomped the accelerator, it slung pavement from under the wheels.

Of course, each time you put your foot in the carburetor, you could watch the gas gauge drop noticeably. 

That wasn’t a factor in 1960 when gasoline was 31 cents a gallon, but when gas prices soared, it got expensive fast.

The price of gas changed the playing field in Detroit. Things went south in the 1970s when the Arabs turned off the oil spigot, and gas prices soared through the roof. 

The Japanese manufactured Hondas and Toyotas, which were easy on fuel, so sales of those models skyrocketed, while the sales of gas guzzlers built in Detroit dropped like a stone.

It took some time, but the Americans got a handle on the fuel-efficiency band wagon and began to build cars that could compete with their imported counterparts.

Cars today are more aerodynamic, with state-of-the-art fuel emission control and ignitions systems, which allows them to get much better gas milage with less pollution. But for the most part, I’ve seen toaster ovens with more style.

Detroit learned that building more fuel efficient cars required a trade off. They traded steel for more plastic and glass. The fins had to go.

Today as I watched the old Plymouth shrinking in my rearview mirror, I realized that a little sadness washed over me.

I know that we all must be better stewards of the environment, and we can’t think of oil as an infinite resource, so I understand why the tradeoffs had to be made. 

But I have to say, I really miss the fins.


  1. I think most things created in the 50's were pretty awesome...did I mention I was born in '53? Unfortunately, my chrome has faded and I need much more paint to make me shine!

  2. I don't miss the fins so much ...but I sure do miss the COLORS !

    Remember "candy apple red" ?

    Now every car on the road is either silver or white. Borrrring....

  3. Anonymous7:57 AM

    The fins, the chrome, two toned, white walls, huge steering wheels and power....those were the days.

  4. I agree - many of those styles in the 50's and 60's had so much design and personality! My family owns a classic Mustang and Thunderbird parts business, and I spent 10 years working there. While it definitely wasn't a pretty job for a girl, I did get to hang with some of the premier restorers of Mustangs and T-Birds and I learned a lot from them. They even let me drive them from time to time - in the parking lot. My dad owned a '61 T-bird for a time and my brother was driving it once with my (then) 4 year old son in it when the brake booster went out. It was like trying to stop a tank! The newer cars are MUCH more comfortable but it's still fun to look at the old ones.


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