Introduction from ’Fifties Flashback
by Al Drake
Published by permission complements of California Bill’s Automotive Handbooks.
This book is a collection of selected ’Fifties Flashbacks, a column I’ve been writing for Rod Action for the past 16 years. Although they were written without book publication in mind, I welcome this opportunity to peruse my files, selecting and organizing past columns, plus adding some new and unpublished material into a book which will, I feel, give the reader a good idea of what it was like to be a hot rodder during the Fabulous ’Fifties.
Actually, the column came about by accident. During the winter of 1982 I was working on a book, Street Was Fun in ’51, the first book on historical hot rodding, and it occurred to me that I could develop some of the ideas touched on in the book. A couple of years earlier, in 1980, I’d published two essays in Rod Action, and so I wrote a letter to the then-editor, Brian Brennan, suggesting a column about ’Fifties rodding. Brian simply returned my letter with a paragraph circled in red ink and the words “great idea” written beside it. I wrote four columns, mailed them, and had several more written by the time the first column appeared in August 1982. One thing that has always interested me about writing the column is the length—it’s long enough to develop an idea without being overly long. Because I’ve enjoyed writing the column and because it’s been well-received by readers and the next six editors of Rod Action I worked with, I’ve continued to explore the possibilities of that time period. I also wrote columns for two other magazines: “Nifty ’Fifties” appeared in the now-defunct Street Rodding Illustrated and “Textures of the ’Fifties” appeared in Rodder’s Digest.
What is this preoccupation with the ’Fifties? people ask. Well, when I began writing the column in 1982 the ’Fifties seemed just around the corner, and the things we did back then were vivid in my memory. Besides, the ’Fifties was my decade. I got interested in hot rods in 1950, was busy with rods, customs and motorcycles for nearly ten years, and by 1959, when I left town for the university, I simply didn’t have the time or money to do more with cars. So when I think about rods and customs I think of the ’Fifties, because it was a great time.
How to explain the ’Fifties to someone too young to remember those years? Metaphorically, I could say it was one long picnic, the basket filled with tuna-fish sandwiches, fried chicken, Jello salad and Cokes, purely American food, and no ants or mosquitoes. It was like falling in love: intense, beautiful, bittersweet at times. It was a ten-year vacation in a super-large hardware store, floor after floor filled with stuff Made in America. Sometimes the entire decade is compressed into a single image of a teenager sitting on a naked front tire tinkering with an engine, the sun hovering in a cloudless sky. Oh, of course it rained occasionally, then as now, and to be accurate I want to include the bad weather too. But in memory it seems as though the sun was always present.
Innocence and enthusiasm
It was a time of innocence and enthusiasm. There were far fewer people and many more personal freedoms. We enjoyed the paradox of low expectations and impossible dreams. There was a general spirit of optimism. It helped, of course, that everybody was young, and perhaps that condition alone colors my view of the decade.
Lately, using hindsight, some commentators have been deconstructing the decade, emphasizing negatives such as communism, the cold war and McCarthyism. They emphasize the conservative politics of the Eisenhower-Nixon years, and the repression felt by various groups. They want you to believe that the decade was a cold, hard time when conformity of mind and spirit was valued. They deride the notion that the emerging television families, as seen on “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”, had anything in common with real families who, they say, were largely dysfunctional.
Well, I’ve lived through several decades, and the ’Fifties seems the decade with the most stability. There was the Depression of the ’Thirties, WW II raged through half of the ’Forties and social unrest characterized the ’Sixties. The ’Fifties seem like a quiet island of time. Although I grew up in a small house in a lower-class neighborhood, my life, in most ways, did not seem unlike the lives of Beaver Cleaver or Ricky Nelson. Fathers were off to work, mothers took care of things at home and kids were always up to some kind of high-jinks, and although this arrangement may not seem ideal to everyone today, it worked pretty well back then.
I’m always questioning my view of the ’Fifties, and I try to remember it clearly, from a personal perspective, because it’s always easy to romanticize the past. So many years have disappeared since the ’Fifties, and the world has changed so much that people who did not live during the decade have trouble understanding the context of the times. For example, it’s necessary to understand personal economics, and to realize that a dollar then was worth much more than a dollar today. I’m sure that people then, as now, were exploited economically, but the fact is that most people did not earn much money. In 1951 I earned 50¢ an hour working in a theater, and from 1953 to 1955 I earned $1.00 an hour working full-time in a garage. I later complained to myself about the low pay, and then recently I called a slightly older fellow I’d worked with and asked what he had earned. He had been paid only $1.65 an hour, and he was an experienced mechanic with a wife and several children to provide for. A rodder six years older than I am remembers working in a different garage where he made $37.50 for a 44-hour week.
Although this reminiscence on economics may seem like a digression, it’s important because it puts things in perspective. While one could buy a nice 1936 Ford in the early ’Fifties for around $75—that is, two weeks’ pay—a dual intake manifold cost $35 and aluminum racing heads cost $75. Therefore, it was common to see a rod with dual carbs and stock (or milled) heads. The amazing thing, given the low wages, was that guys had money to spend on a fixed-up car, and that they were willing to do it. An economist might say that in those days wages reflected more “real” money, the money left after taxes and various deductions. I always had lousy jobs, but in 1955 I owned a ’29 A-V8 roadster, a beautiful 1947 Ford mild custom and a 1951 BSA Gold Star factory racer. What more could one ask for?
A spirit of optimism
It was this spirit of optimism that characterized the ’Fifties—anything was possible—on both the personal and national levels. I know I felt the optimism in the air—whether it was a miracle cure like the Salk vaccine that wiped out the dreaded infantile paralysis, or the advent of CinemaScope, or “hi-fi”—something marvelous was always happening.
At the same time there was a sense of stability and well-being. I was curious whether my personal outlook had been distorted by the passage of years, so I checked on what a scholar had to say:
“Never before had the United States enjoyed such great economic growth as it did during the ’Fifties. Except for brief recessions at the end of the Korean War and in 1957-58, the country experienced unrivaled prosperity. The Gross National Product, which is the total of all the nation’s goods and services, climbed from $318,000,000,000 in 1950 to an astounding $503,000,000,000 in 1960. The number of job holders rose from 53 million in 1950 to over 70 million by 1960. Moreover, the average family income climbed steadily during the decade. Stock market prices reached a record high. Basic industries, such as steel and oil, operated at near capacity. There were also some major new industries, such as computers and electronics.”
I was unaware of all that during the ’Fifties, but it must have filtered into my consciousness to give me that feeling of optimism. My daily life was touched in smaller but equally amazing ways. In 1954 the first fast-food place opened near where I worked, and it served 19¢ hamburgers. One could get a hamburger, milkshake and French fries for only 45¢! I could see a new 3-D movie for a quarter. In 1955 I tasted pizza for the first time when a Shakey’s opened in Portland. Our city had had television since 1948, but we didn’t get a set until 1954. Although I spent most of my free time in the garage or cruising around, I loved to watch TV before going to bed, when the couple channels available showed old movies. It seemed like a minor miracle to be able to watch a movie in one’s own front room.
I’ve since read that in 1948 there were fewer than 17,000 TV sets in the entire United States, but by the end of the ’Fifties Americans owned roughly 50-million sets. Nearly 90% of all American families had television, and many had more than one set. What a dramatic change in how one spent one’s leisure time. When Hamlet was shown on television in 1953, more people watched it at home in one night than had seen it performed on stage in the 350 years since it was written! And don’t forget the spin-offs, such as frozen TV dinners (introduced in 1954), and the TV trays to hold them.
Purely ’Fifties stuff!
The national car craze was born in the ’Fifties, and people really did love their cars. They needed them, as more people moved from the cities to the suburbs. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 provided billions of dollars to construct the modern interstate highway system that we enjoy today. Since it was no longer necessary to drive on the old two-lane roads, more people began taking long vacations by automobile. And what cars they were! Gorgeous, flashy and powerful. The horsepower race began in 1949 with the new Cadillac and Oldsmobile OHV V-8 engines. It accelerated considerably when Chrysler introduced its 180 hp V-8 in 1951. The fins of the 1948 Cadillac caught on, and by the mid-’Fifties almost every car had them. Yes, there were excesses: the fins got bigger, there was more chrome trim toward the end of the decade, but looking back, all the cars are gorgeous—even some makes and models that weren’t fully appreciated at the time.
So when I think about rods and customs I think of the ’Fifties because it was a great time. The economy was solid, people were working, the wheels of industry were constantly turning, Detroit was building terrific cars and America was the greatest country in the world.
The beginning of the ’Fifties was pretty much the beginning of rodding for most of the country, and everything was new. Hardly anyone had a chopped coupe or sedan. If you saw one, even on the pages of a magazine, it was exciting. Slightly modified cars were everywhere, and if you saw a car with even a couple changes, such as a nosed-and-decked job, you spent some time inspecting it. A friend of a friend bought a slightly used 1951 Mercury coupe and had the local garage install an Olds V-8 engine in it—talk about high tech! That seemed like the ultimate conversion, but it was really only the beginning of a major activity— engine swapping.
At the start of the decade the first car shows opened, and although they were small they were terribly exciting, permeated with the odors of lacquer thinner and rubbing compound. And this was years before the advent of angel hair! Because it was the beginning there was nowhere to go but forward. At every drag race records were broken; it was a time of experimentation, and there was always a chance for the average guy to set a record. Drag strips began to open all over the country, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was formed and by mid-decade, when the Drag Safari toured, drag racing had become a national activity.
Custom cars loomed large. By mid-decade anyone could afford an early ’Fifties Ford, Mercury or Chevrolet, and there was an abundance of chrome trim, taillights, grilles, etc., from new cars available for transplanting. As an indicator of the popularity of custom cars, by the late ’Fifties a half-dozen magazines were devoted to the lead sleds.
It’s important to remember these things clearly. It’s essential to remember specific, concrete details about rodding in the ’Fifties. As the year 2000 draws closer, the ’Fifties drop back, a time nearly a half-century past. In the middle of the 21st century, Hollywood, if it still exists, might want to make a movie about what kids did 100 years earlier. It can put a fenderless car before a drive-in facade and play a rock ’n roll sound track, but there might be some viewers who would leave the theater wondering what the ’Fifties were really like. My hope is that this book will inform them.
Thank you, Howard.