Recent columns on cars and engines from the 1950s have resulted in numerous letters and comments via email from my loyal readers (thank you so much). Although I wrote a Top 10 muscle car column a few years ago, here’s my Top 10 “notable list” of 1950s American vehicles, performance or not. These are the vehicles that influenced my love of the car for whatever reason during a wonderful decade to grow up in.
In ascending order of year they are:
1952 Oldsmobile Super 88: Introduced in 1949, the Olds 88 is regarded as the first real “muscle car” thanks to its first ever GM overhead valve303-inch Rocket V8 engine and light weight properties. The 1952 model featured more horsepower thanks to a two-four barrel carb setup and more amenities. When you added special Olds spinner hubcaps, a set of fender skirts, pin stripes, Continental kit, side lake pipes and some hood louvers, you were riding in performance royalty.
1953 Kaiser Traveler: Selected in previous columns as the first ever “hatchback,” Henry Kaiser’s Traveler and sibling Frazer Vagabond featured a hatchback style drop-down trunk, a flip up rear window and rear seats that folded down. The cabin featured wood skid strips that helped hold cargo in place, and Kaiser advertising pointed to the fact that an owner could put a double bed in the spacious pickup truck like cargo space.
1953 Buick Skylark: It was tough selecting a Harley Earl designed vehicle from the 50s, but the 1953 Buick Skylark convertible has to be one of his very best looking non-concept vehicles available to the public. With a 322-inch V8 under the hood and that special Buick build quality, it is deserving of a spot on this list.
1955 Ford Thunderbird: Built to compete with Chevy’s Corvette, the two-seat T-Birds from ’55 to ’57 are coveted collector cars, even though Thunderbird went to a four-seat design in 1958. The two-seaters are still something to behold and notable is that Thunderbird returned to its two-seater roots with its final 11th generation Thunderbird available from 2000-05. I feel these 11th generation beauties may one day be worth some serious money.
1956 Chrysler 300: Designed by Virgil Exner, the Chrysler 300 “letter series” from the 50s were all nice cars, regardless of year. However, the 1955 and 1956 versions were especially beautiful with Hemi engines under the hood and lots of NASCAR victories to its credit. Promoted as a personal luxury performance car, it really was just as advertised and only 1,102 were produced. And for you Corvette horsepower fans, it was Chrysler’s 354-inch Hemi that produced 355 horses with two four barrel carbs, the first to do the desirable one-horse-per-cubic-inch trick.
1956 Packard Caribbean: Finished in tri-colors and one of the most beautiful Packards ever produced, they are most impressive in black, pink and white colors. Featuring a big V8 fed by two four barrels, Caribbeans command six figures at the Mecum and Barrett-Jackson auto auctions nowadays.
1956 Mercury Montclair: Still one of the best looking and personal favorites of the decade, Mercury was ahead of the curve with its all-new 1955-56 design. The two-tones were brilliant, and I clearly remember our Monsignor Bartle from St. Anthony’s Church in my native Ranshaw Pennsylvania (Brady) buying a new one in ’56 finished in white and orange. Only 7-years old, I used to wave to him from my second floor porch at 247 Main St. and he always waved back.
1957 Chevrolet BelAir: Featuring Chevy’s initial overhead valve V8 that grew to 283 inches from its 265-inch debut in 1955, this one might be the most popular car of the decade. And with a nice Nomad two-door wagon also available, the 1957 Chevy has earned its esteemed place in collector car history.
1957 Corvette: Not to include a Corvette on our notables list would be a huge mistake, so I selected the 1957 model because it featured a 283 V8 for the first time and fuel-injection, too. The result was a 283-horsepower combination, which back then was a one-horse-per-cubic-inch masterpiece. Long live the Corvettes, old and new.
1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk: Few cars from the 50s made such a huge impact on design as the ’57 and ‘58 Golden Hawks. These Hawks came with McCullough supercharged 289-V8s instead of the heavier Packard V8s the Hawks had been using in prior years. Handling and performance increased on better weight distribution alone, and the design was so brilliant the U.S. Postal Service graced the Golden Hawk with its own official stamp in 2008.
Honorable mentions go to the ’54 Kaiser Darrin, ’52 Nash Healy Roadster, ’51 Hudson Hornet, ’57 Rambler Rebel V8 and ’53 Cadillac Eldorado. Write me if you have some personal favorite, too, or a question.
— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other GateHouse Media publications.