The 1950s as the Height of Conservative America

Part II: The Car Dealership

Connor Kaeb

The 1950s was a golden era in American automotive history. The decade saw the introduction of several iconic cars, such as the Corvette and the Thunderbird. It also brought about a plethora of new innovations to automobiles that remain with us today. We stop at the car dealership in a tour of our 1950s town because the automotive industry serves as an analog for industry as a whole. In 1966, the government began applying stringent safety and environmental regulations on the automotive industry with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and followed it up with the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations in 1975. Since then, regulations have forced automobile manufacturers to make products that are more and more similar, decreasing consumer choice and stifling competition. During the height of conservative America in the 1950s, however, innovation and ingenuity thrived due to the lack of government regulation.

The 1950s was responsible for inventions and improvements in automotive technology that we all recognize. Among those innovations were automatic transmissions, power windows, air conditioning, unibody chassis, seat belts, power steering, ball joint type suspension, radial tires, transistor radios, and brake boosters. One important invention stands out even above that impressive list, however: the overhead valve V8 engine. 1950s automakers brought us the iconic, all-American Chevrolet small block 256 and the Chrysler Firepower, now better known as a Hemi, to name just a few examples. With engines capable of producing more horsepower came more and more powerful cars. This led to the birth of American classics like the Chevrolet Corvette, first introduced in 1953, and the Ford Thunderbird, first introduced in 1955. The 1950s also saw car design with a true inspiration. The beginning of the space race and the Cold War with the Soviet Union led to futuristic car designs. The iconic tailfins of the 1950s are the best example of this.

A 1953 Chevrolet Corvette.
A 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Image credit: By Don O’Brien from Piketon, Ohio, United States – 1955 Thunderbird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64256931.
Dodge Coronet from the 1950s with tailfins.

The 1950s also saw automobiles gain a place of prominence in American culture. The birth of the interstate highway system under President Dwight Eisenhower and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 created a sense of ability to travel longer distances with greater ease. A whole new “drive-in” industry sprung up to cater to cars, including drive-in restaurants and drive-in movie theaters. Shopping malls also sprung up due to the assumption that people now could and would drive a distance to an establishment with many stores and attractions. Modifying cars became an ever-growing passion, and an aftermarket industry grew to support that passion. This passion also lead to the growth of motorsports in the United States. The National Association of National Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was founded in 1948 by Bill France, Sr. and hit its stride in the Fifties, with the creation of Darlington Speedway, an asphalt track still in use by NASCAR today, in 1950. Wally Parks formed the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951, which is now the premier drag racing governing body in the United States.

Today, however, this culture and innovation is dead. The argument here is not that automobiles have not improved since the 1950s; that is clearly not the case. In fact, they have improved greatly. According to Baron Public Affairs,

The most-purchased automobile in 1955 was the Chevrolet Bel Air, which cost between $18,000 and $24,000 (2019 dollars), accelerates from 0-to-60 mph in 12.3 seconds with the top engine option, and offers no computer technology. The equivalent vehicle in 2018, the Toyota Camry, cost between $24,000 and $36,000 (2019 dollars), boasts a 0-to-60 time of 5.8 seconds with the optional 301 horsepower V6, and offers the following additional features: adaptive cruise control; Bluetooth; anti-theft alarm; dual-zone automatic climate control; blind spot monitoring system; backup camera with dynamic predictive backup lines; proximity keyless entry with push-button start; panoramic glass roof with power tilt/slide moonroof; Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charging; head-up display; and an eight-inch touchscreen. Furthermore, the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air travels 16.4 miles per gallon (MPG), while the 2018 Toyota achieves 29 MPG in city driving and 41 MPG on the highway. Perhaps most importantly, overall vehicle reliability and safety has improved dramatically in recent decades. The cost of owning and operating a vehicle has declined by nearly 40 percent since 1950, while the rate of motor vehicle fatalities per 1,000 miles of road has nearly halved since the 1960s.

Where the innovation has been lost, however, is between the automakers of today. According to Baron’s analysis, “rapidly expanding administrative state inhibits differentiation.  Regulation frequently incentivizes – and often compels – product standardization.  The auto sector offers a powerful example: more than 16,000 regulatory requirements have resulted in largely homogenized models.”

This homogenization is what industries of all kinds, not just the automotive industry, are forced to do because of increased government regulation. These regulations stifle the type of innovation that was seen during the 1950s automotive craze. Innovation that was not afraid to take risks, innovation that was responsible for great pushes forward in automotive technology, and innovation that spawned American automotive icons that are still respected and sought after today. The lack of government regulation on the automotive industry during the 1950s that made this possible is yet another reason why the 1950s were the height of conservative America.

About the Author

Connor Kaeb is the Managing Editor of American Discourse.

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