1950’s Car Culture (Feature)

Chevrolet, Ford, T-Bird, Buick, and Mercury’s oh my! These are just a few car brands that caught the attention of society around the 1950’s.  The automobile defined the post war people in a much different way than it had before.  The car served as more than a mode of transportation: it became a symbol of freedom, expression, individuality, and uniqueness.  The car’s impact was brought about through the post war baby boomer generation.  The boomers morphed the car into a “fashion statement”, and the “cruise” began to arise, ultimately changing the way society perceived the car.  The love for cars grew tremendously, and a subculture was produced: “Car Culture.”  The car culture was a culture that the youth was whole-heartedly involved with.  Their interests and passion for car culture allowed the car to evolve into one of the most influential icon’s of the 1950’s.

The 1950’s marked the time of the post war era.  If it weren’t for World War II, the rise in car culture would not have occurred so rapidly.  The 5-year war took a toll on the American people, as they lived by the motto “Do with less, so they’ll have enough” – “they” is a reference to the soldiers.  Rations were set on gas, food, and clothing.  The country was trying to save money in order for the soldiers to have all necessary war materials on the frontline.  It wasn’t until September 2nd 1945 that the American people had a glimpse into freedom – the war was finally over.  Post World War II filled societies eyes with optimism.  The economy grew along with consumerism.  People were thrilled to be able to buy “unlimited” and “un-rationed” amounts of clothing, food, and gas.

The resource that many people sought after was a new car.  On December 7th 1941 the last cars rolled off the assembly line, and at this very moment the United States decided it would be best to focus their full attention on producing war materials.  Little did the people know that this car production “strike” would last around seven-years.  The cars of the 1930-1940’s weren’t so hardy, and people faced the challenge of frequent car repair and maintenance.  Families were eager for the car production to resume, and after the war ended their wishes came true.  The assembly line powered up immediately, starting the brisk production of new automobiles.

Society filled with relief no longer had rations on the resources they could buy.  So when the announcement of car production starting out was heard, people went haywire; they were running in every direction possible to purchase a new car. The amount of car purchasers was so large that they had to start a waiting list for the cars!  Consumer reports found that the number of cars bought in 1950 nearly doubled from pre-war times:  In 1941, 29.5 automobiles were registered, by 1950 49.3 million were registered with a whopping 73.8 million automobiles roaming the streets.

Societies mentality was optimistic as could be.  Why you may ask? … Winston Churchill summed it up perfectly “America at this moment stands at the summit of the world,” this referred to the United States having the strongest military at the time (Elliott, 48).  All in all the post war could be summed up with one word: boom.  The economy was booming, the car consumerism was booming, and so were the amount of babies.  People were finally confidant in the future lifestyle America had to offer.  Families had such assurance in the future, that America as a total decided to pop out a record-breaking amount of 3.4 million babies.  Little did the world know that the baby boomer generation being alongside the popularity of the car would combine as a force to bring about the rise of car culture.

The car was viewed as a very important commodity to teens.  At the ripe young age of 16 this car could be theirs.  Sixteen marked the golden year: the year when one could get their driver’s license.  This was viewed as a rite of passage so to speak in the eyes of both teens and adults.  To teens the license was a token far beyond the legality of being able to drive.  A license provided teens with power, independence, and the opportunity for privacy.  For the parents the driver’s license was a rite of passage into the real world, where they hoped their kids would be responsible and safe avoiding the daily dangers of operating a car.

Teens with their first car

The last thing on a teens mind was fear of the road.  To a teen having a license and a car was equivalent to “living life in the fast lane,” the car was much more than a mode of transportation to the work place and school, it was used to cruise.  Cruising differed greatly from driving to a destination.  The teens characterized the cruise as a recreational and social activity that involved driving with no intentions of ending at a final destination.  Many teens would have a “cruise loop” which was a specific routed loop that the teens knew by heart.  On Friday night’s groups of teens would follow one another bumper to bumper cruising the town streets, eventually ending up to the final unknown destination.  Cruising filled teens with adventurous vibes.  Through cruising they discovered new hangouts, and spectacular spiraling back roads.  Adults found the act of the kids driving just for fun a strange one.  Adults particularly found the cruise loop extremely foolish – driving around the same loop repeatedly.

Adults also had their fair shares of worries, watching their own child leave in the car to some unknown destination.  Parents had a hard time accepting that they couldn’t be fully aware of what their child was doing, but the teens loved it.  Privacy was now an option, and teens took full advantage of it.  Drive-in movie theaters became the romantic weekend hot spots for young love birds.  It was a perfect opportunity a car, couple, and cheap admission of 25 cents a person.  The youth were constantly displaying rebellion when they left the house to go on a “drive,” “booze cruise,” or to the “drive-in.”  This was solely based on the fact that adults had not a clue what went on once their kids peeled out of the drive way.

Along with the cruise came the development of car fashion.  As the passion for cruising began to grow, people began to question: Why the hell not individualize this car I drive everywhere?  Teens wanted their cars to have some spice and appeal.  With all the teens driving around, the thought of individualizing and customizing a car was a great one.

The cars started to drastically change in terms of looks from pre-war to post-war (Dissman,7).  Ford, a well renowned motor company at the time had been successful in both pre-post war sales.  After the war they began to produce louder, showier cars.  Quite the opposite of before the war; Ford was producing cars with clunky, boring, dull, pre-war designs.  Post-war Ford automakers shifted to a modern make of car.  Ford broadcasted to the American people the new, big, powerful, and flashy cars.  The cars transitioned from their previous dark browns, blacks, and green paints into 2-toned cars enhanced with brighter blues and greens.  Ford hit the jackpot selling millions of cars; it was clear what the American people desired.  America wanted a car that was representative of the bright post-war culture.

Two Toned 1955 Oldsmobile

Car fashion became a hobby, concern, and an overall obsession of the youth.  And all of the sudden names such as: Hot rods and Customs begin to become a prominent part of everyone’s vocabulary.  Hot Rods were created from pre-1936 cars; they were stripped down, and souped up for speed.  Customs on the other hand were made from post 1936 cars, were built up, modified, and individualized.  Teens begin collecting issues of the latest magazines; “Hot Rod Magazine”, “Rod and Custom.”  These magazines were inspirational to all youth involved in the world of cars.  The magazines showcased the latest custom cars, how to columns, and advertisements for car shows, cars, and car parts.  This was an extreme hit as teens would model their cars off of the latest how to, or attend an upcoming car show.

Hot Rod Magazine

There was a craving for a craving within the youth: all they wanted was a cool car.  And people may ask, what exactly is a cool car?  George Barris would be the man to answer this question.  Barris was a creator of custom cars; he used an endless amount of imagination to transform cars to embody the culture.  Following his passion for cars led him to open a shop – “Kustom Kars” in Los Angeles.  Teens were infatuated with Barris’s work, he could transform any car into a unique and beautiful masterpiece.  Hollywood was constantly requesting Barris to customize cars for movies or T.V series; he is most famous for the Batmobile and the Munsters koach.

Barris's Batmobile

Barris was extremely popular in the Hollywood industry, but he didn’t let that go to his head.  Barris stayed down to earth and always attended local car shows where he was seen admiring other’s cars, and would answer any fans questions.  Barris encouraged unique customization.  He insisted that teens trust their imagination and follow through with their so-called “bogus” ideas and create any kind of car they desired.

Car shows were the place to be for the youth.  The high amount of teens congregating at a car show cemented the fact that there was an apparent sub-culture among the youth.  It was a sign that many teens shared this interest in car (Wolfe, 80).  The interest in cars culture involved dedication of time outside of school and home to build and customize new automobiles.  Just as a sub-culture is often defined as a group having different passions and ideals from the mainstream larger culture, the teens had a passion for cars and their ideas were evolving the car by the second.  Barris greatly impacted car culture when he stated that “Kustum Kulture is free art,” meaning that it gave teens the ability to express themselves, and allowed them to be apart of an epic sub-culture.

Car Show

The youth now had even more of a reason to cruise around town, and show off the latest addition to their car.  With this a little bit of competition arose in the realm of custom cars; “Whose car looks better?” “Who’s car can go faster?”  Questions like these fueled the fire of teen drama.  When on their evening cruises, people would challenge one another to a race or a rumble.  The youth loved to “burn some rubber” and Drag Race every once in a while.  Teens would do anything in the world to tweek their cars so they could kill the competition.

Society was becoming gradually more aware of the presence of teen car culture.    This hobby began with teens freely cruising with their license, to teens customizing their cars in an imaginative fashion, to now hot rodding and drag racing at high speeds.  People were getting worried of what was to come next from the car obsessive teens.  Parents and elders associated the acts of the teens as rebellious, but not to the point that they were repulsed with the youth.  Even though drag racing is illegal and dangerous, society was amazed in how the youth could alter them to race.  Elders had never seen the car grow and warp into a blue two toned, 409-powered Chevrolet before, and boy were they impressed.

Barris's "Little Deuce Coupe"

The teen car sub-culture was becoming noticed by more than just the youth of society, and they weren’t being acknowledged in a bad way.  Car shows were becoming more prominent, drag racing was trending, and The Beach Boys were singing all about it.  The Beach Boys had a special place in the heart of the youth.  This was greatly due to the fact that The Beach Boys came of age with the baby boomer generation.  The band members deeply valued their cars and the experiences that went along with it, and they referenced these memories in every song.  The teens related with the music and instantly praised their music.  The Beach Boys music publicized the memories youth associated the car with, of and promoted the idea of car culture: the American automobile had an impact.

Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys co-founder was a hot rod freak (Lambert, 11).  One day he was driving up to Los Angeles, when he thought: “lets write a song called 409,” this is referral to a Chevrolet 409 engine with turbo fire.  The engine was a carter 4-barrel that supplied fuel-air mixture to generate 360 horsepower, crazy!  This engine was a beast.  The car could go from 0 mph to 60 mph in 60 seconds.

The Beach Boys

The song 409 begins with an engine purring, and Wilson singing: “she’s so fine my 409… giddy giddy up 409, nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 409.”  This song capture’s the fascination with drag racing.  It also aids in showing that some pop and music culture is being influenced by the evolution of car culture, showing how important car culture has become in America.  The Beach Boys based a lot of their songs on car culture; Little Deuce Coupe, I Get Around, Fun Fun Fun, and Little Honda.  The song “I Get Around” heavily references the youth of the 1950’s teen culture; “I’m getting bugged driving up and down this same old strip, I gotta finda new place where the kids are hip …  We always take my car cause it’s never been beat, And we’ve never missed yet with the girls we met.”  This song perfectly identifies the key parts of the car-sub culture, as they reference a “cruise loop,” and guys searching for “hip kids” and girls.  Lastly the song Little Deuce Coupe idolizes drag racing, which is very illegal in most states, but made up a great part of American culture.  This song specifically pays a tribute to a 1932 Ford with a custom made V8, and makes references that only true car people can appreciate.  The song states “flat head mill” “competition clutch” “purrs like a kitten” “140 mph I got the pink slip daddy.”  This song is the anthem to all the youth in the car-culture.  The song touches on the aspect of rebellion: The girl races her ’32 Ford and gets in trouble with the law, yet she is so proud of her custom killer hot rod.

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The fact that music began to incorporate car culture into their songs shows the strength and presence of car culture as it merges together with pop-culture as one.  Surrounding cultures becoming oriented and built around car culture shows that it matters and is significant.

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The 1950’s post-war era was an uplifting time period for a majority of American society.  The post-war state of society allowed the car to become such substantial commodity.  Car consumerism and babies booming left and right served as the precedent of car culture.  The teens claimed coinage over the cruise, as they drove around town in their groovy whips.  The teens continued to innovate the car, reconstructing and reinventing their cars into customs and hot rods.  The heart of car culture was found based upon the passion and interests that teens had for the cars.  The car stood for much more than a mode of transportation, the car was able to embody the mindset of post-war society.  The car represented modernity, expression, and freedom.  The passion and affiliation with the car is what drove it to becoming the backbone of 1950’s American culture.

~ Halli Bair


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