Q: Greg, I enjoy your auto nostalgia columns, especially those you write about the 1950 decade. I am now in my 74th year and remember you once said that many cars from the 1950s were really beautiful. I also remember you didn’t like 1958 very much when it came to the new designs. Can you revisit that year and any other new news on the 1950s? Sincerely, Frank M., Daytona Beach, Fla.
A: Frank, I’d be happy to. I explained many years ago that following one of the best years for car design in 1957, many manufacturers, in my opinion, went off the deep end. They added unneeded bulk, longer wheelbases, way too much chrome, and even ushered in the beginning of a rear tail fin era that by 1960 was totally out of control.
I feel 1958 was a year that the designers added way too much bulk. In prior years, here’s just a few of the cars that quickly come to mind as great designs: 1957 Chevy, 1957 Ford, 1956 Plymouth, 1953 Buick Skylark, 1956 Continental, 1956 Studebaker Hawk, 1956 Mercury and the 1956 Packard Caribbean. I could keep going, but I think you get the point that prior to 1958 there were many great designs that to this day are highly sought after collector cars.
When the new 1958 models arrived in late 1957, some of the most overgrown “boxy” designs appeared at the new car showings. Of the big three, (GM, Ford, Chrysler) I feel General Motors led the way with poor designs. The 1958 Oldsmobile was not much to look at, and the usually good-looking Pontiac and Buick weren’t too far behind although better. Even the 1958 Chevy, which was probably the best of the GM bunch, looked nothing like its predecessor beauty 1957 Chevy. I remember sitting in all of the new 1958 GM models at the Atlantic City boardwalk Steel Pier entrance, where GM always had a huge display. Visiting the Steel Pier to see the “Diving Horse” and the new GM cars was always the highlight of my early years.
Back to the 1958 designs.
Ford lost its way a little bit, but not as much as GM. The 1958 Ford was at least acceptable in looks, but still nowhere near the 1957 models. A major mistake was the 1958 Mercury, which had already gained weight and an odd appearance in 1957. The 1958 completely deviated from what I’ve always said was one of the best car designs ever with the 1955 and 1956 Mercury’s. For whatever reason, everything seemed to say “let’s add more weight and chrome to the Mercury, box it off and even add a backward tilted window that opens and then let’s add some really weird tail lamps.”
Perhaps the biggest eyesore from Ford was the new 1958 Lincoln, which grew to immense proportions in all manners. As for the all-new Edsel, its unique design wasn’t nearly as bad since there was nothing to compare it to.
Even the Thunderbird, which made positive impressions as Ford’s two-seat sports car from ’55 through ’57, fell to the 1958 “bigger” flaw. Although I do like the looks of the 1958 Thunderbird, it arrived as a bigger, heavy four-seater.
At Chrysler the “fin wars” began in earnest actually in 1957, and then took off. By 1958 some of the big wings ala Plymouth and DeSoto were sitting in the dealer showrooms and looking way different than before.
However, of the big three manufacturers, I’d have to say the 1958 Chrysler family of cars were the best looking, including the Plymouth Belvedere that made it to Hollywood fame as “Christine” and those beautiful Chrysler 300s.
Studebaker and Packard, meanwhile tried to merge their two companies yet did just the opposite. Experiencing financial woes thanks to incorrect Studebaker bookkeeping, Packard put out its final model in 1958 while Studebaker’s 1958 model was a big, dull and ugly Studebaker Scotsman, a feeble looking stripped down car that ran zero to 60-mph in 21 seconds. Sales were atrocious, and the Studebaker/Packard nameplates were brought to their knees. So, what did Studebaker do? They stopped making Packard’s, and took the horrible looking and selling Scotsman, added all new sheet metal and unique design and presto…the 1959 Studebaker Lark! The Lark went on to save the company and delay bankruptcy. Packard? Take a close look at that 1958 Packard Station Wagon and you’ll easily see why this once prestigious model came to a sad end thanks to Studebaker, which lasted until 1966.
Rambler, meanwhile, wasn’t as bad as previous designs never won any ingenuity awards to begin with. The 1958 year was pretty good in this year when “big and ugly” seemed to be a fashion statement. Rambler motored along with some decent designs and today the 1958 Ramblers and Ambassadors actually look pretty nice alongside, say, that gargantuan ’58 Lincoln or 1958 Mercury.
On the really good side were the 1958 Corvette, 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, 1958 Dodge D-500, 1958 Buick Limited long or short wheelbase, and the 1958 Desoto Adventurer.
Thanks for your letter Frank and readers can let me know your feelings about design in 1958, the good, bad and ugly.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes reader questions on old cars, auto nostalgia and old time racing at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.)