1956 Plymouth

FTLComm - Tisdale - Thursday, August 8, 2002

The North American economy and social environment was on a wartime footing by 1940 and though history books show the second world war concluding in August of 1945 that is not what happened. To mobilise a major portion of the world's population, to accept the consequences and hardship of war, is a major task and it takes time.

The forces that shape the economy and propel it forward are complex and with the second world war having followed so close on the heels of the First War it was understandable that both industry and the population fully expected more turmoil and perhaps all out war. The soldiers were arriving home from Europe and the "Cold War" with the Soviet Union was already a reality.

The real threat of thermonuclear conflict was a constant reminder as Britain tried to mop up what was left of its cities, Canada and United States were preparing for World War III. The jet age was upon us and Korea seemed to be a full scale rehearsal for the big one. Fighter planes, bombers and bombs were in the news. Not just on radio, but before every movie we watched MovieTone News and saw another nuclear bomb go off obliterating yet another island in the Pacific or vapourised another patch of Nevada desert.

The baby boom, a natural consequence of war had taken place during the war years but surprisingly because of the continued acceptance of impending war, continued to the end of the fifties. My mother would shudder as a rail car of scrap iron rumbled along in a train, as to her, that was symptom of war preparations.

I am trying to give you some idea of what was happening and what might explain the incredible proliferation of automobile designs between 1950 and 1969. That era saw the major manufacturers ram out new models each year, not just sheet metal changes, but in many cases whole concepts and even different makes. The public expecting the world to end any time later tonight bought cars and more cars. From 1958 onward we changed cars in our family almost every year and we were merely keeping pace with everyone else.

The design and construction of motor vehicles was benefiting from the invention and advances made during the war. Most cars and pickups were just a variation on a frame, with a motor, transmission and rear end, a cab with doors and fenders stuck on the body to catch the mud from the tires. In 1949 Ford and General Motors began integrating the whole machine into a single structure while Chrysler having some market problems did not get a fully integrated body onto the market until 1955.

Oddly enough, the new Chrysler products of fifty-five were less than spectacular sellers and using the basic design Chrysler brought out new designs in 1956 that were a full blown effort to catch the spirit of the time.

The image of the jet aircraft was moved to the street and for the first time cars were given aircraft tails. Ford and General Motors had hinted at these designs on several models but Chrysler was into tail fins.

We spotted this remarkable base line model on a trailer yesterday and it has an amazing perfect body. Though there were innovations on the fifty-six Plymouth and Dodge the main thing was the design and it was indeed radical. The following year General Motors had tail fins on nearly everything they made and Ford which always had themes in its designs, added token fins in fifty-six and by-passed the fad in fifty-eight opting for the turbo look, then the fifty-nine Ford was give massive jet looking exhaust tail lights.

Chrysler had set the style trend and though the fifty-six vehicles were not exceptional performers, they decided to go for it with even more radical design in fifty-seven when their tail fins no longer were straight lines, but actually bumped upward to what seemed almost shoulder high.

This example of the fifty-six is a very spartan car, the more elaborate and expensive models were decorated in chrome inside and out. But recall that an early 50s Chrysler product had an expensive fake wood grained dashboard with the centre radio and controls dripping in solid chrome, this bare interior shows how radical a design this was.

At some point an owner put in a stick shift in this car, but this vehicle in that pre-restorative phase, so this one has great potential to be returned to what it once was.

Timothy W. Shire