Cars and culture of the 1940s and 1950s

Written by phil whitmer
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Cars and culture of the 1940s and 1950s
1957 Chevys are some of America's most recognisable cars. (Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

Cars were an important feature the 1940s and 1950s cultural landscape. Automobile factories provided employment on a large scale. General Motors and Ford Motor Company helped make Detroit a boomtown. South Bend, Indiana thrived because of Studebaker. The saturation of American society with cars provided it with a never before seen level of mobility.

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1940s

In 1940, the United States began the slow recovery from the Great Depression. That year, 4,680,000 cars rolled off the production lines. Demand for cars was on the rise. Shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, civilian automobile production stopped. During the war, after 1942 until 1946, for the first time in American automotive history, no cars were being built. Instead automotive factories produced military vehicles such as the quarter-ton four-wheel drive Jeep to help the war effort.

1940s Cars

The early 1940s saw the first luxury cars mass-produced on the assembly line. Prestige cars included the 1941 Packard Clipper with its flowing, curvaceous bodyshell lines and a 125 horsepower eight-cylinder engine. Cadillac and Edsel Ford's Lincoln Continental filled the demand for high-end vehicles. Chrysler's 1941 Town & Country wagon foreshadowed the development of the minivan. A 1949 Hudson figures prominently in Jack Kerouac's book "On the Road." Like other late 1940s cars, Hudsons were long, broad and built low to the ground.

1950s

During the 1950s, American culture began to dominate the world. The culture was symbolised by the style seen in the 1950s American-made vehicles. Automobiles were no longer just transportation; they became status symbols, lavishly ornamented with chrome. Cars became a central possession, personifying the American dream. The 1950s produced many memorable cars. The 1955 through 1957 Chevys are some of the most highly collected cars in the world. Throughout the '50s, the automobile industry contributed to the county's economic boom.

Tail fins

One of the most striking features of historic American car body design was the tail fin. World War II fighter planes influenced car styling of the 1940s and 1950s. Harley Earl, vice president of GM's styling department liked the look of the P38 Lightning's finned tail booms. He introduced stubby fins on the 1948 Cadillac. Initially called "fishtails," fins caught on and spread throughout the industry. Tail fins grew larger by the year, peaking in size on the 1959 Cadillac.

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