Cars in American History of the 1950’s

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Automobiles were and still are the heart and foundation of America, but they would be ineffective without the The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or simply the Federal Highway System. Before the 1950s, cars had been around for over 50 years, but there was no interest in them because they were expensive and they were not the most fashionable at that time. Cars could not really go anywhere without proper roads and highways, and companies had no interest in building roads and highways, so it was hard for people to get around easily even if they had access to cars.

People traveled on huge patches of unpaved road, which were very dangerous to travel on and caused thousands of accidents and serious injuries. These unpaved roads could not be used any longer, and proper roads had to be built. Proper cars that were affordable and environmentally friendly had to be produced, but industries did not really have any interest in making these changes until the 1950s when the demand for cars picked up, and they could start making some money. People slowly started to realize that cars were one of the most reliable, efficient, and popular modes of transportation that were ever created in history. During the 1950s, environmentally friendly automobiles coupled with the Federal Highway System boosted the economy immensely and connected the country.

After World War 2 ended, thousands of soldiers returned home to be with their families, and with nothing occupying or worrying the citizens of America and money weighing down everybody’s pockets, people looked for a new pastime which came in the form of cars. Cars became a necessity in life, and bus and other transportation usage started to decrease. Buses and other types of transportation at the time were expensive, not very powerful, and inefficient, so cars soon took over(Marshall).

However, the beauty and fashion standards of the 1950s were very high, so people did not enjoy the designs, colors, and engines of the current cars. “But throughout the 1950s, there was a persistent niche market in foreign cars, particularly among better-educated drivers who thought that Detroit’s cars looked vulgar and silly and who were appalled by their low gas mileage. Most European imports got well over 20 miles per gallon to an American automobile’s 8”(Humez).

Gas mileage was terrible for these cars, so people were wasting their money on gas, and the designs, colors, and engines of these cars were so bad that people were afraid that it would ruin their reputation and social status. Foreign cars were in such high demand that it almost ran the American manufacturers out of business, so they completely changed their mindset and started over with new cars. American cars got longer, more powerful, and had better designs than before, and they became popular immediately.

Children in the 1950s grew up playing car spotting games, differentiating between the countless brands of cars that were being produced. Automatic transmissions began appearing for the first time, and luxuries like air-conditioning and radios were common options in higher-end car models unlike before. However, because the manufacturers had to sell the cars to dealers at an affordable price, they were not really able to make a profit, so they had to figure out another way. Manufacturers started cheating dealers by selling them excess cars with the threat of taking away their business if they did not take the cars.

In order to make back this lost money, dealers started practicing unfair methods on the public like high-pressure sales tactics, inflated charges for dealer preparation, and bait-and-switch-tactics. The whole entire industry was engulfed by a scandal, but it was never talked about because of the dangerous effects that it could have had if it was released. People still bought cars, and the industry kept on moving forwards even with the scandal pushing it down. “Wartime studies done at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Cornell University Medical College in New York on aircraft cockpit injuries were subsequently extended to an examination of similar phenomena inside automobiles at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory.

Evidence from these studies, coupled with the work of Detroit plastic surgeon Claire Straith on passenger injuries, clearly suggested that relatively simple design modifications could save lives and prevent serious injuries”(Heitmann). These small design modifications could be implemented fairly easily in the cars, but in 1955 and 1956, the manufacturers did not care for these studies because they did not want to pay all this extra money and waste time for some small design modifications, so they ignored it.

“In 1959, the Automobile Manufacturers Association announced that in 1961, cars sold in California would have a crankcase ventilation device. It was hoped that manufacturers could head off government intervention, but the election of 1960 and the presidency of John F. Kennedy signaled increased government intervention, and the auto industry’s complacency was soon forced to change”(Heitmann). Similar to the studies done on automobile safety, studies done by the Automobile Manufacturers Association showed that cars were not environmentally friendly, and the association required that cars sold in California start implementing methods to reduce fumes and pollution.

The manufacturers tried to do the same thing as they did with the automobile safety studies and ignored them, but the election of John F. Kennedy forced the automobile industry to obey all the new standards. “By the mid 1950s, American cars still represented 67% of the global market, with America’s notoriously aggressive car dealers selling an astonishing seven million vehicles per year”(Parissien, Pg.187). Three of the biggest car manufacturers that rose during the 1950s were General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US, which produced some of the most common and popular cars like the Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Corvette, GM Cadillac, and the Chrysler Plymouth. Business was booming, and the economy was going up at an astonishing rate that had never been seen before.

The impact of automobiles during the 1950s on today’s society is unforgettable and will always be remembered. “An important motivator of change in the modern world, the automobile is credited with eliminating social isolation of rural Americans and homemakers and allowing city dwellers to move beyond urban boundaries, and thus creating a need for suburbs.

Auto manufacturing also increased the massive growth of other industries, specifically petroleum, rubber, and steel.”(Leenerts). The suburbs in the 21st century would have never even existed if automobiles were not there because they allowed people to move to places that they could not go to before. The demand for cars during the 1950s increased the growth of certain industries like steel and rubber, and these industries are still employing hundreds of thousands of people today in the 21st century, so the automobiles had a massive impact on industries and jobs today.

Automobiles allow people to travel to all kinds of places, and they allow people to control their own schedule rather than being controlled by the schedules of buses, trains, and ships(Marshall). Even with the cost of having a car, the benefits are so great that today’s society completely depends on cars to get around. The automobile also impacts the advertising industry because ads were being made about cars during the 1950s, and these same ads are still being made today, so the advertising industry was able to grow even bigger and reach its current point today.

However, the cars during the 1950s had some of the biggest impacts on hotel and motel chains, and fast food. ‘As the car liberated vast new travel and leisure opportunities, there was a corresponding growth in franchised motel chains… The car also engendered a revolution in eating, and is primarily responsible for ushering in the era of fast food”(Parissien, Pg.190). People needed to stay somewhere during long journeys, so motels and hotels were created, and they exploded in popularity. In today’s society, motels and hotels are used by thousands of people everyday, but they would have never exploded in popularity if the automobile was not there during the 1950s.

Fast food places also became popular in the same way as hotels because people needed to stop on the way during a long journey to quickly get food, so fast food drive-thrus were invented for this very reason, and they are used so often today because of the impact of the automobile back in the 1950s. So many areas of modern life that people use everyday are only here in the 21st century because of the automobile. It is an essential part of human life that has had a huge impact on the modern world.With all these new cars being produced, there had to be new roads so that people could get around easier, safer, and faster without the roads being congested. “However, he also learned just how ‘miserable the American road network was—the convoy hardly averaged five miles per hour”(Umberger).

As Eisenhower traveled around the country, he witnessed the same problem: too many cars on a small road. His dream was a massive road network that would link all the big U.S. cities with highways and save people a lot of time and trouble by allowing them to go around the cities, and he was able to make it happen(Umberger). The program received a lot of support at first, but people still criticized it because it went through neighborhoods and removed people from their homes. However, Eisenhower said that if America wanted to keep its citizens safe, then this federal highway system would have to be implemented(Dwight D. Eisenhower: State of the Union Message (1956)).

“This was due to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Highway Trust Fund, a collection of taxes on gasoline, oil, and tires. The Highway Trust Fund provided an enormous amount of money to pay for the expensive new highways, and the federal government paid at least 90 percent of the cost of each mile”(Weber). As construction began during the presidency of Eisenhower, it had to be funded somehow, so Eisenhower passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Highway Trust Fund, which collected a lot of taxes for the funding of the highway.

However, even though the federal government paid for nearly the entire highway system, the individual state governments built and still own the highways to this day. Time Magazine called it ‘the biggest public works program since the Pharaohs piled up the pyramids.'(Parissien, Pg.191). By the time it was finished, the entire system included more than 46,000 miles of highways and cost billions of dollars, but the impact that it brought was worth the money.The highway system had an enormous impact in the 1950s and it still impacts today’s society the same way.

“City freeways changed patterns of urban life as planners sacrificed entire neighborhoods to make way for new roads. Highways also facilitated the spread of the suburbs, which caused a middle-class exodus from the cities”(Umberger). As most people now had cars and a fast and easy way to get around, everybody took advantage of it. The highway system brought people out to the suburbs, which are still here today and would have never been popular or widely used if not for the highway system.

The population of cities changed as the highway system was being built because entire neighborhoods were being demolished, and that same impact can be seen today because not many people live in the city, and lots of people live in the suburbs. The interstate system carries 21% of highway travel every single day, and this includes half of truck travel(Matthews). It has such a big impact in the 21st century because it carries so many people around to different places everyday and allows everybody to be moving in a swift and easy manner. “Being on an interstate highway is an important factor in the growth of many small towns and cities.It has reshaped American cities, as suburban interchanges often are the sites of large malls and office complexes.”(Weber).

Malls and businesses that are found in the suburbs are there only because of the highway system. It allowed people to expand their businesses to rural parts of the country, and it allowed the growth of smaller cities because people needed jobs and companies were able to expand to the suburbs and other areas. This same impact can be seen today because malls and businesses can be found in the suburbs, and smaller cities in the country still have a population that was never there before the highway system.

It had a huge impact on the economy, too, because lots of people were needed to help build the highway system, so it produced lots of jobs that people are still employed in today, and it opened up the rural areas to companies and businesses so that they could keep on expanding, and those businesses and companies are still in the rural areas today(Parissien, Pg.191).During the 1950s, environmentally friendly automobiles coupled with the Federal Highway System boosted the economy immensely and connected the country.

The creation of the automobile and the highway system have made a tremendous impact on people’s lives in the 1950s and today. If it were not for them, people probably would not be living in the suburbs, but rather in the city. They have brought the American economy to such a high point that it will definitely not be going down for sometime. The rate of car injuries have gone down because of the cars produced during the 1950s and how their designs are still being used today.

Cars have become more environmentally friendly due to the emphasis on environmental safety during the 1950s, and roads are no longer just unpaved patches, but rather smooth, black asphalt roads. The 1950s was the first time that cars and the federal highway system were actually taken seriously, and their impact will never be forgotten. New cars are being produced everyday and the highway system is growing bigger everyday, so automobiles and the highway system will never disappear, and they will always be a part of the American society.

Works Cited

  1. “Dwight D. Eisenhower: State of the Union Message (1956).” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2018, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/254223. Accessed 27 Feb. 2018.
  2. Heitmann, John A. “Automobiles and auto manufacturing.” The 1950s in America, edited by John C. Super, Salem, 2005. https://online.salempress.com/articleDetails.do?bookId=133&articleName=1950_136&searchText=automobiles%20in%20the%201950s&searchOperators=any&category=History.
  3. Humez, Nick. “Volkswagen Beetle.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Gale, 2013. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/QLZXAB197630090/UHIC?u=engl88921&xid=fcc807b1. Accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
  4. Leenerts, Rosemarie Boucher. “Automobiles.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2018, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/263192. Accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
  5. Marshall, Jim. “Transportation Revolution of the 20th Century.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2018, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/312726. Accessed 26 Feb. 2018
  6. Matthews, Robert. “Interstate Highway System.” Dictionary of American History, edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 3rd ed., vol. 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, pp. 403-405.
  7. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3401802126/UHIC?u=engl88921&xid=226748d6. Accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
  8. Parissien, Steven. The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car. New York, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2014.Umberger, Daryl. “Highway System.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Gale, 2013.
  9. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/PPBSOL217592655/UHIC?u=engl88921&xid=2694edd9. Accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
  10. Weber, Joe. “Interstate Highway System.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2018, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/2139270. Accessed 27 Feb. 2018.

Cite this paper

Cars in American History of the 1950’s. (2021, May 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/cars-in-american-history-of-the-1950s/



How did cars change American life in the 1950s?
Cars changed American life in the 1950s by providing greater mobility and freedom, allowing people to travel further and faster than ever before. They also helped to shape the country's landscape, as the construction of highways and suburbs transformed urban areas and created new opportunities for businesses and families.
What cars were common in the 50s?
Cars in the 1950s were often large and flashy, with fins and chrome. Popular models included the Cadillac Eldorado and the Chevy Bel Air.
What were cars like in the 1950s?
The 1950s were a time of change for the car industry. New technologies and materials were being used and cars were becoming more comfortable and stylish.
Why were cars significant in the 1950s?
The 1950's car culture is perhaps unparalleled by any other decade. There were many innovations in design and safety and the 50's gave birth to many highly prized classic cars . After World War II the American manufacturing industry changed from war-related items to consumer goods.
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