For a variety of reasons, the year 2009 is best forgotten. The worldwide meltdown of financial institutions and the collapse of the U.S. auto industry have provided us with spiraling unemployment, unfathomable debt, and a sense that we aren't leaving much to work with for coming generations. However, the end of 2009 also marks an anniversary of sorts. When the last minute ticks past on December 31, it will have been exactly 50 years since the end of the 1950s.
The '50s. As Americans, we revere this decade, and not just because of the Happy Days antics of Ritchie and the Fonz. Soldiers back from the war were eager to make the world over and put the horrors that they had seen behind them. For car enthusiasts, and especially for those of us whose interests lie across the pond, the 1950s set the pattern and define what it meant to like cars.
Think of a sports car. No matter what age you are, it is an immutable fact that the origins of the car that you're thinking of is firmly rooted in the '50s. British marques like MG, Triumph, Austin Healey, and Jaguar established their presence in the United States during that single decade. Likewise, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen stormed our beaches less than a decade after Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Italian makers like Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo, while not yet household names, pushed their tin onto well-heeled Americans and filled the top spots on racing grids.
As for racing, sports car racing barely existed before 1950 in the States. It quickly came to represent a way that you could brag about the merits of your MGA over the obvious inferiority of the agricultural Triumph TR3 owned by your neighbor. Sports car racing wasn't just for the elite and professional few. Literally thousands of British, German, and Italian car owners would pry off their hubcaps, tape their headlights, pump up their tires and race wheel-to-wheel in the same car that they drove to work during the week. For most, it was the only car they owned. A major event like the Sebring 12-hour race would invariably see several competitors driving their racecars across the country to compete, and returning home the same way after taking part in the grueling race. It is no mystery why some of the most popular cars in today's vintage racing come from this era. For those drivers who were just slightly less ambitious, autocrosses, gymkhanas, and time speed distance rallies provided an outlet for competitive juices.
With so many men and women out driving their sports cars, it seemed inevitable that there would also rise a group of magazines and writers to cover their activities. Legends like Tom McCahill, Ken Purdy, Denis Jenkinson, Denise McCluggage, and David E. Davis, Jr. made us feel like we were all part of a big club. Road & Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Competition Press, and host of others now largely forgotten fed us what we needed to know to be a part of the in-crowd. They also established the idea of the road test and an understanding that good writing was an important part of journalism.
The decade was also an age of innovation. Fuel injection, disc brakes, aerodynamics, lightweight aluminum alloy construction, and radial tires all found their way onto some 1950s machines. The Mini, with its compact dimensions and front-wheel drive, was a leap forward. Citron's futuristic DS model still looks unlike any other car ever produced and looks more modern with every passing year.
There were other kinds of car enthusiasm in those days. NASCAR enthralled crowds in the South with rough-and-tumble oval track racing. Hot rodders were tearing across salt flats in search of impressive speeds and hurtling their cars down quarter-mile drag strips, legal and illegal, to find out who had the fastest car. Their culture was centered on the Detroit iron and the V8 engine. Sports car purists turned up their collective noses at the greasers and their homebuilt rods and an "us versus them" mentality resulted. It remains to this day. Yet, a few mavericks found the lightweight small-block V8 could be a formidable weapon on a road-racing track, especially when cobbled together with a lightweight chassis. The American V8-powered road-racing special was a fierce beast that could occasionally humble the most sophisticated blue-blooded European sports car.
Things couldn't last. As the 1960s dawned, everything began to change. Racing became a business, and eventually a big business. Professionals filled the top spots on the grids and the only way to compete was to spend more money. Regulations began to determine more and more of automotive design; wacky ideas were discouraged as the needs of lawyers and safety advocates took precedent over the desires of wild-eyed racers. Cars became safer and much more reliable, but lost some of the cheeky fun that is expressed by an Austin Healey Bugeye or a Porsche 356. There's a reason why so many cars at car shows are from the '50s.
Today, anything from the '50s is automatically cool. Furniture that was once considered cheap and disposable is now chic, collectible, and stylish. Household items that were flea market staples now bring top dollar, and even the most mundane of automobiles from that era are dragged out of their slumber, tarted up with glossy paint jobs or left as "barn-finds." It's getting harder and harder to find a ratty old sports car from the '50s-they have either been restored at a cost many times their original purchase price, or have rusted away and returned themselves to the earth.
Fifty years have passed since that last day of 1959. Our future, and especially our transportation future, appears bleak to those of us who like cars and enjoy driving. It is important therefore to remember that at the end of the '50s, things looked pretty bleak too. An oil crisis had just been narrowly averted, pollution was destroying the planet, the Cold War made everyone edgy, and nuclear annihilation was the sword hanging over civilization's head. Every generation faces its challenges, and to a certain extent, the automobiles they build for themselves reflect their dreams and desires. The question we need to ask today is this: What kind of cars will our generation build for themselves?