A 1950s Auto History Lesson

The whole country was in a state of war readiness in the ’40s, and vehicle production was reserved for the national defense. But when the second world war ended, the automobile industry took off and by the 50s, was reborn. Air conditioning, automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, seatbelts, and the overhead-valve V-8 engine led to spectacular cars unlike any the country had ever seen.

People had been saving their money for this auto explosion and the industry became the profoundest beneficiary of industrial expansion. Of the “big three” (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler), Ford had expanded the most. AMC was formed when Hudson merged with Nash, but it was never as powerful as any of the big three. Packard and Studebaker flourished, but at a lower level.

Innovations were sprouting up all over the industry. GM had created the first automatic transmissions and introduced them with the Oldsmobile in 1940. They were used in GM-built tanks during World War II, and after the war, the GM Powerglide became dominant in the American industry. By the end of the ’50s, more than half the new cars sold in America used automatic transmission.

Packard had developed the first power windows in 1940. Luxury vehicles were the first to use them extensively, but in the 1950s they became more common in U.S. cars.

Until the 1950s, a kingpin-based front suspension had been standard, but it limited the degree of free movement and, as a result, the smoothness of the ride, especially at high speed. The industry transitioned to a ball joint type of suspension which was more flexible and used a variety of methods to support the car’s weight: leaf springs, coil springs and torsion bars. As a result, cars became safer and more controllable at highway speeds, though slightly less durable.

The French Citroën devised a form of air suspension which seemed promising. In 1958 Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Ford, Mercury, Pontiac and Cadillac all tried a form of suspension using an air-filled bladder which was unsatisfactory and soon dropped by the manufacturers. Years later, the system was refined and became practical for large trucks and some custom car applications.

Unibody construction was a great development of the ’50s. It unitized the body and chassis with a number of pieces welded together into a single unit, arguably stronger, more rigid, easier to handle, and quieter.

The overhead valve V-8 first appeared with the 1914 Cadillac, but until the ’50s, hadn’t been commonplace in mass production. Studebaker, not one of the big three, successfully developed the overhead valve V-8, bringing it out in 1947 and developing it further thereafter. The Studebaker Avanti R series reached as high as 638 horsepower.

Chrysler brought out the V-8 Firepower engine in 1951, producing 180 hp at 4000 rpm. People still refer to the engine as a Hemi even though it no longer used a hemispherical combustion chamber. By 1959, Chrysler reached 375 hp with its Chrysler 300, triple the average horsepower of a decade earlier.

Nash offered seatbelts as an option in some models by 1949, and in all models in 1950. Ford offered the option in 1955 but Saab introduced the belts as standard equipment in one vehicle in 1958. The CIR-Griswold restraint was created by Americans Roger W. Griswold and Hugh DeHaven and patented in 1955. Volvo introduced the three-point safety device in 1959 as standard equipment. A study in Sweden showed un-belted occupants had fatal injuries under circumstances where none of the belted occupants were fatally injured at accident speeds below 60 mph. No belted occupant was fatally injured if the passenger compartment remained intact. Three-point front seatbelts became standard equipment by 1964 and rear seatbelts by 1968.

The radial tire was patented in 1915 by Arthur W Savage, a tire manufacturer and inventor in San Diego. But it wasn’t until the 1950s when Michelin led in making them a more common tire type. It was a big advancement over the previous bias tires which went from +62 degrees to -60 degrees from the direction of travel, crisscrossing over each other. Radials lay the cord piles at 90° to the direction of travel, across the tire from lip to lip. For strength, radial tires have some additional belts oriented closer to the direction of travel. Plus, radials have flexible sidewalls, reduced fuel consumption due to less rolling resistance, a softer ride and are steel belted resulting in tougher construction, longer tread life and a wider footprint.

Of course, no one early in the ’50s could have imagined the explosion of the auto industry into Japan and throughout Europe. Nor could they have imagined the technological changes that have come to the industry since. But those are tales to explore at another time.

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