Motoring Memories: General Motors in the Fifties motoring memories classic cars car culture
1951 Buick LeSabre concept. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance; photo courtesy AmCarGuide.com

The 1950s were the best of times for the American automobile industry’s Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The Depression’s deprivations and the Second World War were past, and apart from some material shortages during the 1950-’53 Korean Conflict, it was full speed ahead.

There was optimism, good times, cheap gasoline and negligible foreign competition. In 1955 the industry sold more than nine million cars, its biggest year to date. To top it off, in 1956 President Eisenhower promised a wonderful gift, a brand new multi-lane, limited access, coast-to-coast “Freeway” road system.

But it wasn’t as good for the smaller players. Financial pressure brought Nash and Hudson together in 1954 to become American Motors Corporation. The same thing happened to Studebaker and Packard who joined to form the Studebaker Packard Corporation. The Nash and Hudson names disappeared in 1957, although AMC carried on. Packard left the scene in 1958. Post-war upstart Kaiser-Frazer departed, as did tiny Crosley.

One company was “King of the Fifties,” and it was General Motors. Although GM had dominated car sales since 1931, and would continue to do so, it reached full flower in the mid-twentieth century.

No company quite exemplified that prosperous era like GM. As profits rose it became bigger, richer and some said, arrogant. Annual model changes and the upward mobility philosophy implemented in the 1920s by its brilliant president, later chairman, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., came to full flower.

In many of those years GM commanded more than half the market, and it was rumoured that it was more afraid of being broken up by the United States Justice Department’s monopoly legislators than it was of competition from Ford and Chrysler. Chevrolet Division didn’t spend much time worrying about a break-up. After all, with annual sales usually over a million units, and above 1.5 million in 1955, a severed Chevrolet would still be one of the largest companies in the U.S.

GM president Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson (to distinguish him from GE’s “Electric Charlie” Wilson) said “We at General Motors have always felt that what was good for the country was good for General Motors as well.” These innocent words would often be used against GM as evidence of its consummate arrogance.

General Motors had introduced the short-stroke, high compression, overhead valve V8 engine in the 1949 Cadillac and Oldsmobile. And although it became the staple of the industry, it was styling that dominated GM in the 1950s.

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