Previewing Detroit in 1958

By pure luck I came across this Time magazine article from November 4, 1957 titled “The Cellini of Chrome”, a piece that previews the auto industry’s 1958 models. It’s stacked with gems.

From cars that have an "ICBM look" (the good ol’ Cold War) to sexist lines like "A woman is naturally style-conscious from birth—in her home, her clothes, everything she does. So when she and her husband go out to buy a car, she wants beauty on wheels” to sadly accurate ones like “The inescapable fact, as every automan knows, is that flash, dash and dazzle—what automen call style—are the attractions that sell new cars", this article was a blast to read.

Check out this prescient passage: "Detroit's new cars … were even bigger news to the U.S. economy … the eagerness with which the public buys the new cars may well mean the difference between a good or a great year for U.S. business in 1958. One out of every seven U.S. workers—10.3 million in all—is dependent in some way on the auto industry … a boom in autos is a boom for scores of other industries."

Much of the latter part of piece focused on Ford’s VP of design and father of the Thunderbird, George Walker. It features this glorious passage about the Edsel, which was unveiled to the world exactly two months earlier, on 'E-Day', September 4, 1957:

One of Walker's big jobs was to style the new Edsel … "What we wanted," says Walker, "is for millions of people to be able to say at once: 'That's an Edsel.’ … [Walker] inserted gull-winged rear fenders, and an oval, purse-mouthed grille, with the inevitable result that a new gag was coined: "It looks like an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon." So far, Edsel sales have not lived up to Walker's hopes, but it will be months before he knows whether he has a lemon or lemonade.

Answer: lemon. That said, the Edsel's infamy has been exaggerated over the years, to the point where the word is synonymous with lemon. The Collier & Horowitz bio on the Ford family claims they lost $350 million on the line, but the Edsel was less of a financial disaster than it was an enormous product launch flop, a priceless example of how most of the time, Detroit automakers have shown more brilliance at PR than actual product design.

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