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Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave


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Many of Detroit's diverse car creations of the 1950s persist in our memories. We celebrate them with collector events throughout the country. There are others, however, which fell out of view over the years and didn't receive the recognition that they deserve.  One thing that all these models have in common: they have all enjoyed the wide-open spaces and driving opportunities of the USA. Whether cruising mightily down Main street or getting economical gas mileage as important compact commuter cars for the postwar generations.

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171957 Chevrolet Bel Air

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

Generations of the full-sized Bel Air designated models put Chevy's luxury designers to work, creating sleek two-door initial offerings, convertibles, plenty of chrome options, and even a Ferrari-inspired grille in the second generation. The car's drivetrains and technical features evolved to lead the pack of 1950s automobiles, including self-dimming headlights and power features, which included steering, brakes, front seat, and front windows.

161953 Buick Roadmaster Skylark

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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Post-war American optimism accelerated into the 1950s, and the Buick Roadmaster Skylark gave drivers the stylish top-down, V-8 power cruising opportunity that they craved. It cost a lot -- $5,000 -- but sold a lot as well. The popular Roadmaster evolved to so-called sports car size and styling, as Buick was presenting it to the American public.

151950s Nash Rambler

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

Star of the pop song "Beep Beep" by the Playmates, the Nash Rambler had a peppy engine and cute styling. Still, it did have a disadvantage in competing with other Detroit products both in reputation and practical production considerations because of its Wisconsin origin. Over the years, the Rambler name persisted over several makes, including AMC.

141955 Chrysler Imperial

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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Chrysler's traditional top-of-the-line model starting in the 1920s, by 1955 it had been separated from the Chrysler brand and designated as its own make in an attempt to create a competitor to the Cadillac and Lincoln names. It was Chrysler's showpiece, and one Imperial claim to fame was the introduction of an all-transistor radio option, the world's first.

131959 Cadillac Coupe deVille

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

An impressive 225 inches long, the 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville was the start of the sixth generation of this luxury line. It was derived from an early car design of the same name, in which the chauffeur sat separately in the front exposed to the weather while the occupants enjoyed a luxurious protected space. Everyone sat inside by this point in time, but in a car that stretched from the huge engine compartment and spacious front and rear seating to the enormous fins trailing behind.

121951 Studebaker Champion Starlight Coupe

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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The refreshed Studebaker design going into the 1950s created a buzz among car buyers, which energized this Indiana company. The Starlight raised some eyebrows, though, with design features that are more in keeping with our modern times than the 1950s style. An aviation-inspired panoramic 4-pane rear window inspired the Starlight name.

111959 DeSoto Firedome Sportsman

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

With an optional 361 ci V-8 offering 300 hp, the 1959 Firedome Sportsman had a top speed of 115 mph and an extensive selection of colors and two-tone finishes to pick from. Unfortunately, both the declining economy and some production issues in previous years led to 1959 being the last year for the Firedome. In a way, it lived on, as the 361 engine design became the basis for several later classic Chrysler engines from the 383 to the 440.

101950 Chrysler Newport / New Yorker

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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In 1950 the Newport was a two-door hardtop also listed as the New Yorker Special Club coupe. The choice of multiple colors of cloth upholstery gave it an edge in 1950, and a padded dash was available as well. A "shiftless" Prestomatic transmission allowed automatic-style convenience when cruising at higher speeds.

91950 Chrysler Town and Country Wagon

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

Chrysler adorned their postwar wagon with a last year of "woodie" paneling along with a luxurious interior and the Prestomatic semiautomatic 4-speed transmission. The name continued on Chrysler station wagons until the late 1980s then resumed on minivans starting in 1990.

81952 Chrysler New Yorker Convertible

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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A rare product of Chrysler's fine-tuning features and designs among the Newport, Saratoga, New Yorker, and New Yorker de Luxe models during the early 1950s, this model also featured power steering and the company's new Hemi engine. The production run was only about 1100 cars for this and the previous year.

71955 BMW Isetta

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

Most people react to this front-entry BMW with "what is that?" It's not your typical Beemer, a microcar of Italian design with a front-entry door and bubble-style windows, similar to Peel and Messerschmitt models with "bubble car" style, and not far off from the AMC Pacer. The modern Smart cars are similar in a lot of ways. The single-cylinder engine achieved 78 miles per gallon.

61957 Toyota Toyopet

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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Toyota's first foray into the America car market. Not everyone wanted land yachts with tailfins and tons of steel, but Toyota didn't capture the compact car market with their first try. Introduced under the make "Toyopet," it especially met the needs of growing postwar American families in the 1950s, which needed a more affordable second car, competing with a large number of European brands.

51955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

Mercedes made a strong transition from luxurious but practical cars to what was to be a large portion of its future market: sporty models with dazzling design features. The W198 model entered the USA market in the 1950s and in 1999, was voted the "sports car of the century." It introduced mechanical direct fuel injection to the production car market in the USA, and with the increased power offered a top speed of 163 mph from a 3-liter straight-six engine.

41954 Jaguar XK120

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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The last year of Jaguar's sensational sports car which had its debut in 1948. The 120 in the model number reflected the top speed of 120 mph and the model excelled in 24-hour endurance runs, rallying and racing. Both standard and performance modded versions were available in the USA.

31952 Porsche 356

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

Porsche's first USA-export, brought by the importer who previously introduced the highly successful VW Beetle and other VW products. The 356 was a close relative to the Beetle in many ways, and its engine could be easily installed to add some extra pep to the popular people's car, though it wasn't designed to handle that kind of horsepower.

21953 Sunbeam Alpine Mark I

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave
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Part of the wealth of British sports cars available in the USA during the 1950s and 1960s such as those from Triumph and MG, the Sunbeam Alpine was known for its instant success on Alpine rallies and other motoring events, an appearance in the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief, and, among others, the James Bond film Dr. No.

11958 Renault Dauphine

Forgotten Cars of the 1950s: the Domestic Boom and Import First Wave

An early French export to the USA, which was very popular in France, the Renault Dauphine was an attractive compact car at the time, but with important shortcomings. American owners discovered that the radically varying climates of the United States revealed design and material weaknesses, which made its success in the States short-lived.