America has had a rough week. The tragedies in Massachusetts and Texas are still firmly on everyone’s minds, despite the jubilation last night, and it can begin to weigh on a country. With all that’s been going on, why don’t we take a brief respite and work up a bit of nostalgia?
Whether real or imagined, the 1950s are thought of almost as a golden-era for the United States. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, and we liked Ike. The economy was also returning to proper form, after decades of Depression, and we liked that too. Sure, there were things we didn’t like, such as segregation, a dramatic increase in nuclear weapons, and the Korean War. But for a small time, at least, there was a bit of a renaissance in the American automobile industry.
Everyone already knows the Big Three of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Those have continued in some form or another to this day, but back in that illustrious decade the motoring landscape was dotted with other carmakers putting their products on the new Interstates.
We had Hudsons, Kaisers, Packards, Studebakers, even your occasional Crosley and Nash. Cruising down the street on a weekend or at a local car show today you might think the cars were produced by some other defunct brand, a Pontiac or an Oldsmobile. But no, they were distinct in their own right, and often independent, too. Let’s take a look at a couple of these hunks of iron that trundled across the country back then:
I’m starting off with Hudson for a very simple reason: I like it the most. Though it didn’t last long into the decade, it was perhaps the baddest of any carmaker of that era. Perhaps the quintessential car when you think “classic,” the Hudson Hornet dominated NASCAR in its early days, winning four times from 1951-1954, and was even enshrined as the character "Doc Hudson" in Pixar's Cars.
Unfortunately, the whole concept of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” hadn’t had its kinks worked out yet, and sales declined every year of the 1950s. The company was only kept afloat by its Korean War contracts, and when those dried up, the company did too. Although Hudson continued as a nameplate until 1957, by 1954 the company was acquired by the next entrant on our list, Nash-Kelvinator.
Photo credit: Jack Snell
Despite the name, “Nash” was the nameplate the company was known for the in the motoring world, as Kelvinator was primarily a brand of refrigerators and other appliances. Back then, car companies were either diversified, or had too many non-core products, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it doesn’t matter, as the company is dead.
But before it was dead, it made cars like the Nash Statesman, pictured above, which actually looked a bit like the muscular Hornet’s chubby little brother. Nash wasn’t all about small fat children, however, as they also made sports cars like the Nash-Healey from 1951-1954.
With an American engine, British chassis, and Pininfarina-styled body, it’s a wonder there aren’t more of these around today. Nash-Kelvinator went through a series of mergers, eventually becoming a key component of the American Motors Corporation, or AMC.
Photo credit: Roadsidepictures
Crosley was the pluckiest of them all. Producers of the original American sub-compact, it predated cars like the Chevy Spark by a whole lot. Though the cars had awesome names like the Super Sedan and the Hot Shot, the vehicles themselves weren’t so awesome, at least by 1950s standards.
Americans wanted big things with chrome and engines that had things like eight cylinders, all arranged in a V-shape, and Crosley never stood a chance. The company’s best selling year was 1948 with 24,871 cars sold, and that’s not too many. A planned merger with Nash never came to fruition when Nash joined up with Hudson.
Photo credit: Blazer8696
Kaiser was a flash in the pan compared to some of the other small auto manufacturers, but their influence can still be felt today, in the form of the Jeep. How can a company that made the jet-themed Kaiser Darrin above, be responsible for my big hairy manly Jeep, you say? Simple. Kaiser, founded by industrialist Henry Kaiser, merged with Willys-Overland, creator of the Jeep, in 1954. Kaiser sort of continued on as Kaiser-Jeep until 1970, when the real jewel in its crown, the Jeep bit, was bought out by AMC.
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons
At the end of World War II, Packard was doing well. Riding high off of government contracts and lit by the fires of nuclear reactions, the future could not be brighter for the company. Packard was a luxury carmaker and was known for its comfort and styling in an era when Mercedes-Benz and BMW had not quite gained their footing yet, though those very things came to be its downfall.
While it had its own pockets that weren’t so shallow, Packard didn’t have the truly deep pockets of the Big Three, and didn’t really spend its money on styling. It got to the point where its cars just sort of looked the same, and the brand became diluted. Nowadays a company might like that because of “branding” or somesuch, but it didn’t go over well for Packard at the time. Things started to go downhill pretty quickly, and it was acquired by Studebaker in 1954.
Photo credit: joseph a
“1852?! No way a carmaker existed in 1852!” you exclaim, spittle and bits of morning sports drink flying everywhere. “No cars existed then!” True. No cars existed then, but Studebaker did.
It started out mostly as a carriage company, but then switched over to gasoline-powered transportation once everything for that was invented. Based in South Bend, Indiana, the company was a bit far removed from everything centered on Detroit. South Bend is a nice town, I suppose, I’ve never really been there myself, but that’s actually what led to the company’s collapse.
Price wars in the 1950s with Ford and GM put Studebaker in a bit of a bind, as the company really couldn’t afford to cut costs. Sourcing parts from Michigan was expensive, as was Studebaker’s labor costs. By 1954, the company was losing money. It bought out Packard in a last-ditch attempt to save itself, but by then it was too late.
The slow tumble continued into the early 1960s, when rumors of the company’s exit from the auto business may have actually pushed it over the edge. Not wanting to be stuck with “orphan cars” after a possible bankruptcy, consumers stayed away from Studebakers. So many stayed away that the company was dead and out of the auto business forever by 1967.
Photo credit: dok1
Gosh, that was supposed to be nostalgic and fun, not depressing and bankruptcy-ridden. No matter. The 1950s were a glorious decade, full of chrome, iron, and Elvis, and it left us beautiful cars. The muscular Hornet, jet-inspired everything, and even some legacies left to this day.
If you take away nothing else from all of them, then, take the beauty and soul of what we once had. And go check the cars out next time you see them on the road. You’ll like what you see.
Topshot credit: Flickr user aldenjewell