Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Best and the Worst from GM, Post-WWII

Hi folks, last evening, in an effort to get my mind off my accident and back pain, I decided to start a series on the best and worst cars made by Big Three auto manufacturers post-WWII. With the help of my Leipzig colleagues, -- Sean Falkowski, Art Mosher, and Becky Blust -- I will develop over the next few posts lists of the best and worst, starting with General Motors.

This list is only OUR top and bottom five, and you may have a different list of vehicles. I invite you to comment!

General Motors Best Include:

1. The 1963 Corvette Sting-Ray Split-Window Coupe. If you ever sat in one of these in the early to mid 1960s, you had to think you were about to take off to outer space. Designer Bill Mitchell's finest car.

2. The 1964 Pontiac GTO. The consequence of the genius of John DeLorean, who took a Pontiac Lemans and stuffed a 389 cubic inch engine into it. My cousin, Fred Schroth, whom I dedicated my Automobile and American Life to, bought one of these new in 1964 -- Midnight Blue, a convertible, with a white top and white interior. Much later, when I was in college, he gave me the keys to this car and let me drive it, an experience I remember vividly to this day.

3. The 1955 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible. During the first decade of prosperity after WWII, the Cadillac was the symbol of success in American life, and the 1953 Cadillac convertible represented everything positive related to capitalism and the American Dream. This car was QUALITY, and its lines were clean. To ride in one of these with the top down on a warm evening was just short of entering heaven.

I wrote this about post-WWII Cadillacs in Chapter 9 in my The Automobile and American Life:
Throughout the twentieth century, Cadillac was a distinguished American marque, although like almost all American cars, its luster was diminished by the early 1970s. It was only one of a number of cars that were purchased by the wealthy elite in America before World War II. Other makes of the so-called "Olympian Age" of the 1930s included Dusenberg, Cord, Auburn, Pierce-Arrow, Packard and Lincoln. The Depression-era forced these manufacturers one by one to either close their doors or change their pricing strategies. But even then Cadillac had a mystique, a name – "the standard of the world." It was a symbol of hard-earned success.

Under the leadership of German-born mechanic Nick Dreystadt, Cadillac emerged as a force to be reckoned with during the late 1930s. The division invested heavily in new and efficient production facilities and sleek designs that foreshadowed the post-WWII era. However, after the war Cadillac moved to center stage in America with new designs featuring gently upturned fins, a bathtub profile, and an influential advertising campaign. The Cadillac was more than flash, however, for it was a true technology leader; its high compression engine, power accessories, and hardtops far outstripped the competition in the early 1950s. It was a machine superior to anything else built, but more importantly, it became a symbol to the increasing numbers of well-to-do in post–WWII America. Jewish businessmen drove Cadillacs as a result of their desire to enjoy the good life. African-Americans, often unable to live in affluent neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s because of covenants, saw the Cadillac as the symbol of the end of Jim Crow, and the rise of a Black middle class. They too could be a part of the American Dream.

The architects of Cadillac’s success were advertising executives from the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, agency of McManus, John & Adams. Jim Adams’ copy lines fostered an intangible spiritual desire for something that was more than a car. In a 1955 article published in Fortune, author William H. Whyte, Jr. summarized Adams’ advertising campaign by bringing together a number of the latter’s copy lines:

Let's say it was thirty-one years ago, on a beautiful morning in June. A boy stood by a rack of papers on a busy street and heard the friendly horn of a Cadillac. “Keep the change,” the driver grunted, as he took his paper and rolled out into traffic. “There,” thought the boy, as he clutched his coin, “is the car for me.”

And since this is America, where dreams make sense in the heart of the boy, he is now an industrialist. He has fought – without interruption – for a place in the world he wants his family to occupy. Few would deny him some taste of the fruits of his labor. No compromise this time! The papers are all in order . . . and the car of his dreams is waiting for him. It’s his!

It’s Junetime – and the top is down – and he’s going halfway up the hill, to a spot where a lane strays into the wildwood and he can glimpse the top of a fieldstone chimney above the trees. The family rushes out with the final voice of confirmation. “Hi there neighbor, isn’t it a lovely day?”

There’s the first trip to the office with a waiting delegation to admire his choice. He’ll get those quick glances of approval that tell him the dream he dreamed for so many years is still in the heart of others.

Let him arrive at the door of a distinguished hotel or a famous restaurant . . . and he has the courtesy that goes with respect. “Here is a man,” the Cadillac says – almost as plainly as the words are written here—“who has earned the right to sit at the wheel.”

The Cadillac is no longer the symbol of success in America that it once was. Now the Lexus, BMW, Mercedes and Jaguar are more popular in county club parking lots, although of late, Cadillac has experienced a resurgence of sorts. Yet it had its place in twentieth century history, as it was a proud product at a time when “American Made” was the standard of the world.
4. The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. One of the great muscle cars of the era, this ZR1 was relatively light, blindingly fast, and very good looking. I'll never forget seeing a car like this in a used car lot in 1972. I shied away from it, and instead bought a good-looking 1969 VW Karmann-Ghia that turned out to be a rust-bucket in disguise!

5. The 1955 Chevrolet V-8 convertible. How can I leave Ed Cole's best work off the list! This car epitomized the Golden Age of the 1950s. It was relatively inexpensive, performed well due to a 265 cubic inch engine, and due to new paint colors, looked great with its two-tones. I'll never forget some distant Geman relatives, who were at the time living in Oakville, Ontario, came to visit us in a 1956 Chevy convertible. I was probably about 9 or 10 years old, and it was my first ride in a convertible. Ever since then I have been a top-down guy!


1 comment:

  1. I can say to this day that I hold my breath everytime I see a Corvette Sting-Ray (or Stingray from the later vintage). My wife can almost undoubtedly vouch for the fact that everytime she sees one, a comment is sure to follow when it eventually crosses my own radar. My favorite has always been the 1969 ZL-1 Corvette, but until I can come up with half-a-million and the patience until one (of two) comes up for auction I'll have to settle for the occasional "Wow" when I see one of its lesser optioned siblings drive by.