Monday, June 26, 2006

Jet-age gloss

click photo to enlarge
I find car styling fascinating - at times bizarre! When you consider what American cars looked like in the 1950s you have to wonder whether people lost the plot - a bit like we did in the 1980s with padded shoulders and rolled-up jacket sleeves! That post-war decade was a time when the range of car styling narrowed, and, despite valiant efforts by Raymond Loewy at Studebaker, and the attempt by Nash with their "Metropolitan" to introduce "compact" cars, the public wanted vehicles that looked like aircraft, and that's what they got. The cars that the public bought met their social and aesthetic aspirations in full, but their transport requirements were seriously neglected!

The advertising slogan for the 1955 Cadillac "Eldorado" Brougham was "styled in the mode of jet aircraft". It was! The bumpers had twin projections that looked like aircraft nosecones. Down the side was a narrow chrome line that flicked down at the passenger door and continued back, just like the paintwork lines on a commercial transport plane. And at the back were twin fins, about a foot high, below which were more bulbous projections that echoed the exhausts of a jet engine. The long, low lines suggested speed, efficiency and modernity, but it was just an opulent veneer. All the major manufacturers worked variations on this style, and it took Ford's disaster, from 1958 onwards, with "Edsel", an upmarket range that offered two sizes - big and bigger - and the loss of $250,000,000 development money, for the whole market to slowly realise they were going nowhere with this styling. In this hiatus, aided by recession, European and Japanese manufacturers got their first toe-hold in the American market. Today, in the United States and across the world, cars are generally better than they were at fulfilling their primary transport function. However, the status/aspirational part of car design remains incredibly important to manufacturers and a source of fascination and humour (The Simpsons' "Canyonero" said it all) to the critical eye.

I took a photograph of the fin and tail-light cluster on this 1959 Cadillac convertible because it perfectly sums up the extravagant detailing of 1950s American cars. These lights look like military jet exhausts after the pilot has turned on the after-burners and the spears of flame are projecting from the back of the aircraft! It's the sort of styling that you think should never have happened, but part of you is glad that it did. The vehicle was part of a large display of mainly cars and buses on Blackpool's south promenade, and alongside it were several other 1950s cars of American vintage. I used a short zoom lens to capture the shot, deliberately underexposing to avoid "blowing" the highlights in the chrome, then bringing the colour back in post processing.
photographs & text (c) T. Boughen