Let’s hop in the wayback machine and turn the dial back to 1955, a momentous year for the automobile industry. Oh, to have the choice American motorists had then!
Setting the scene a bit, World War II has been over for a decade and the Korean War for two years. The economy is booming, and the American consumer is fully empowered. It’s game on for the baby boom (four million births a year!), and the suburbs are being populated.
The Mickey Mouse Club is on TV, but it was also the year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Eisenhower is President, and Nixon is the VP. Ray Kroc hasn’t yet had his vision for a McDonald’s on every corner, so teenagers are buying their burgers from car hops at the local drive-in—and listening to doo-wop and rock on the radio. (Elvis’ first hit was in ’56, but rock and roll was already a thing—Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” reached number one on July 9, 1955.)
Given this backdrop, it’s not surprising that Americans were in a buying mood when it came to cars. In fact, the 8,338,302 sold were the high point of the 1950s. Lots of stuff was coming together: sleek new designs; such technology as reliable automatic transmissions, overhead-valve V-8s (including Chryslers Hemi), wrap-around windshields, air conditioning and modern suspensions; power steering and power brakes.
It was a great year for new-model introductions. The most significant debut was—as everyone knows—the 1955 Chevrolet, the first of the three “Tri Fives,” so let’s start with that.
Chevrolet Bel Air. Former GM design chief Ed Welburn offers, “In my opinion, the ’55 Bel Air is the best of the Tri Fives. It was such a departure from 1954—so fresh, so contemporary. This was a car that looked more expensive than it actually was.” USA Today says the ’55-’57 Chevys are “the pinnacle of 1950s automaking,” and I can second that. The ’55, arguably the best of the lot, was all new—replacing a stodgy grandpa car. The small-block V-8 sat in a new, stiffer frame, and there was a full range of models, including convertibles, the Nomad wagon and no-frills budget four-door variants. Fins were on their ascendancy, as was two-tone paint. These cars are icons for generations of hot rodders and restorers, and they dominate at car shows. What’s not to like?
Citroën DS. French cars have a reputation for quirkiness, and in that department the all-new DS didn’t disappoint. With its hydropneumatic suspension, inboard brakes, self-leveling, semi-automatic transmission, front-wheel drive and outer space styling, the DS was like an emissary from another planet. But the car was incredibly practical and comfortable, and found 1.4 million buyers through 1975. Not many were Americans, though—it sold best in Francophone countries.
Yes, the suspension was problematic. Ray Magliozzi told me that, back in the days of their do-it-yourself garage, a customer came in with a DS and spent—I think he said years—rebuilding the hydraulic system. Finally came the big day, and the car rose magnificently to its proper height. But then there was a big bang and it slowly went down again. “I’ll be back in tomorrow,” the owner said.
Packard 400. Offered only in 1955 and 1956, the 400 was the last great Packard before the company was completely absorbed into Studebaker, then disappeared completely (in 1958). The 400 was commanding, multi-toned, and beautifully crafted. Under the hood was a beefed-up V-8 with 374 cubic inches, and the owner enjoyed a pushbutton Ultramatic transmission with finger-tip control. The 400 was impressive, but the brand no longer impressed consumers, and a mere 7,206 were sold.
Ford Thunderbird. Ford was freaked out by Chevy’s Corvette, even if the 1953 fiberglass-bodied debut ran an anemic Blue Flame six and found few buyers. Ford’s answer was the two-seater ‘Bird of 1955-’57. It wasn’t a huge sales success—two-passenger cars seldom are—but it definitely did become an icon that no subsequent T-Bird has matched. The styling remains fresh, and though it was no hot rod, the standard 292-cubic-inch V-8 made it into a nice cruiser.
The gambit succeeded, at least compared to the Corvette. Ford sold 23 times as many Birds as Chevrolet sold ‘Vettes in 1955. But the automaker realized a four-seat version would sell more, and so the two-seater was history after 1957.
Saab 93. Missed this one? Too bad, because it was a Swede with a difference—built by aircraft-trained engineers, with a two-stroke, 748-cc three cylinder engine that required the driver to mix oil with the gas. A freewheel device was installed to forestall oil starvation problems, and options include a big cloth sunroof and a Saxomat semi-automatic clutch. This was the first Saab to be exported, and it got the company a foothold in America—one it held on to until the end came in 2011. I’ve just bought a Saab—a ’96 900 SE Turbo convertible, from the pre-GM days—and we’ll see how it goes. My mechanic warned that Saab stands for, “Sorry about another breakdown.”
Jaguar Mark I. This was the start of something big, Jaguar’s first truly modern midsized sedan. It was the later and improved Mark II that really took off, but the unitary construction Mark I was a great leap forward at the time. Introduced as a 2.4-liter model in 1955, the car was soon given a 3.4-liter boost. The live rear axle and narrow rear track have been criticized, but the Mark I held its own in racing and still looks great. Interiors were sumptuous, and disc brakes were available as of 1957.
Mercedes-Benz 190SL. These stylish boulevardiers, powered by a Solex-topped 1.9-liter four (from the 190 sedan) were designed for cruising from Cannes to Monte Carlo. If you wanted performance you opted for the big cousin, the 300SL Gullwing. The 190SL boasted fully independent suspension and a nice syncromesh floor shifter, and the weather could be kept at bay with a hardtop. I owned one of these and was less than enthralled with the performance, and so sold it at a tidy $1,000 profit. I congratulated myself at the time, but now they being $100,000 or more. It proves that looks triumph over performance. Those six-cylinder ‘Vettes are valuable, too.
Triumph TR3 and MGA. The British, believe it or not, were our biggest automotive trading partner in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. No one else was building affordable sports cars. The Triumph and MGA were competitors at the time, and still highly sought-after—despite their Lucas (“Prince of Darkness”) electrics, Smith gauges and overall, well-deserved reputation for unreliability. The appeal is obvious, since both these cars are fun with a capital F, and handled far better than the heavy Detroit iron of the period.
But c’mon, sidescreens instead of wind-up windows? Heaters that barely worked? When Datsun introduced the Fairlady roadster in 1959—a sports car that was actually reliable—the end was near. The stage was set for the Mazda Miata (an updated Lotus Elan with none of that car’s shortcomings) and a whole new era.
I'm not even mentioning 1955 cars such as the BMW 503, the Ford Crestline Skyliner, the Peugeot 403, the Pontiac Safari and the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. But they're contenders, too.
All this happened in what was truly a great year to buy a car in America. Let's see how it looked on TV back then: