Life Magazine, November 18th 1957: The Tipping Point Between Postwar Dreams and Harsh Reality

My favorite bookstore is The Old Book Shop in Morristown N.J.  Since junior high school I have shopped there many times to buy books and magazines on all kinds of subjects.  When I was younger I bought back issues of magazines like Life and National Geographic–mainly for the old car ads!   A typical Life magazine might contain 6 or 7 car ads, and at 50 cents per magazine, that was less than 10 cents per ad, which I thought was a pretty good deal.   And Life generally had the most lavish, colorful ads of all!  I have selected as an example this particular issue, November 18th 1957 because it shows Detroit’s apotheosis of fantasy and optimism contrasted with changing events that were not so rosy.

As the cover shows, the big story this week is the successful launch of the satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union.  This is a real scientific and public relations victory by America’s Cold War arch-rival, and it makes Americans feel uneasy.   Is the U.S. not #1 in the Space Race?  Are the Russians ahead of us in nuclear missile technology as well?  Since Life is an American magazine, the main thrust of their coverage is not on Sputnik itself, but how America is planning an even bigger advance in space exploration to top the Soviets–going to the moon!   And Wernher Von Braun is going to help us do that, now that he’s working for “our” side (since 1945).

The Soviets may have beat us on Sputnik, but looking at the ads in this issue, we’ve already got cars that look like they can rocket their passengers to the moon, Mars, and the galaxies beyond.  We’ve also got push-button TVs, sexy models and actresses, and kids who have no cavities because they’ve been brushing with Crest!  Judging from Life’s ads this week…everything’s fine!  But under the surface, trouble is brewing.  A sharp recession is about to hit which will drastically hurt new car sales.  John Keats’ The Insolent Chariots, a book openly critical of Detroit’s chrome-laden dreamboats will be published in a few weeks.  Foreign car sales will reach 10% of the market, and compacts will gain market share at the expense of the longer-lower-wider offerings of the Big Three.   But as of 11/18/57 nobody knows that yet, and the ads triumphantly herald the coming New Golden Motoring Age!


“No mistaking it” is right!  Especially that “Dynastar Grille”.  But there’s more to this new car than looks:  “The Buick [is] built with more aircraft principles than any other car in the world. . . . Once behind the wheel you’ll find a new kind of land travel.  You’ll feel it in the bounceless, swayless, yet completely cushioned Miracle Ride . . . . You can even top that, with Buick’s Air-Poise Suspension . . . .You’ll feel it in the silence and smoothness and instantaneous action of the B-12000 engine [named for the 12,000 lbs. of thrust behind every piston stroke]. . . . You’ll feel it in deep satisfaction, in the steel-sinewed solidity that tells you that a new standard of durable Buick quality has been hammered into every inch of this car’s structure.  So don’t wait.  Go find out more about this bold and brilliant forerunner of a new era.”  Then there’s the “incredible” Flight Pitch Dynaflow which “goes through a million switches of pitch with the pace and smoothness of a beam of light . . . and all you feel is smooth, soaring response.”  250,000 people were convinced.  Buick was the fifth best selling car for 1958, although this was down significantly from previous years.


Wow, look at this–the dress, the mink stole, that rocket tail light (or is it a ray gun from a 1950s outer space sci-fi horror movie?)

Park Lane is a new top-of-the-line model, designed to compete with the Buick Roadmaster and the Chrysler New Yorker.  It “will establish its owner as man of taste–a trend-setter with an eye for the exceptional things in life. . . . You command the most advanced engine on the road today–the entirely new 360 horsepower  Cool-Power Marauder V-8 . . . . It’s road-smoothing length, width, and weight weave a spell of serenity that, until now, has only been associated with custom-built limousines.”  Despite assurances that “soon you will see it in the driveways of many of the finest homes in your community”, sales were well below expectations with only 9,252 Park Lanes sold.


“There’s nothing newer in the world than the ’58 Ford” the ad claims, and the big story is “The greatest adventure in motorcar history”.  New Fords were driven around the globe where they “rolled beautifully, easily through the severest road test ever given a car.”  They were acclaimed “from Buckingham Palace to the Taj Mahal” and they “showed camels how to cross deserts and elephants how to move through jungles.”  “New Magic Circle steering makes parking a pleasure–turns traffic into child’s play.”  “The ’58 Ford has broken a trail far beyond competition.”  Then there’s the Slipstream Roof, the Honeycomb Grille, the Power-Dome Hood, and the Safety-Twin tail lights.  Not to mention the new Interceptor V-8 engine “with Precision Fuel Induction” that, when teamed with Cruise-O-Matic drive gives 15% better gas mileage.


“Seldom in Cadillac history has there been an announcement as significant as the message you are now reading” (Hmmm!  This sounds important!)  “The finest and most advanced motorcar ever to bear the celebrated Cadillac name.  Certainly one glance at its extraordinary grace and symmetry will tell you instantly that this is motordom’s masterpiece in styling.  Its new sweep and stature, its remarkable new rear fender design (They made the fins bigger), its dazzling new grille and four-headlamp system, its tasteful use of chrome and color . . . all mark it as a singularly beautiful and majestic automotive creation.”  “There is marvelous new balance and ease of handling . . . a spectacular new high performance engine” (Isn’t it the same 365 as last year?) “A completely new instrument panel design” (They moved the clock in front of the driver, where it’s easier to see but harder to remove from the dashboard when it inevitably will need repair).   “It’s all new–it’s all wonderful–and it’s all waiting for you today in your authorized Cadillac dealer’s showroom.”  Who could resist?


GM and Ford dominate the car ads this week;  there is just this one ad from Chrysler Corporation.  One page only, black and white, talking about how “The Forward Look” is still the greatest thing ever.  In fact, “Our eye-catching dart shape . . . with its clean-flowing design . . . reduces steering correction in cross winds as much as 20%.”  Bet you didn’t know that!  Sales of Chrysler Corp. cars were down even more than their competitors in 1958–I think they needed bigger, splashier, more colorful ads in this issue in order to compete!


Back to GM.  They had this whole series of fantasy ads showing GM cars levitating over the pavement without wheels, or soaring through outer space, with no hoods or engines even!  The point is that GM’s exclusive Fisher Bodies are built to be quiet and solid.  “The secret:  Life-Span Build!  A Fisher Body is put together as an integrally joined unit.”  I suppose some readers might be fooled into believing that these GM cars had actual unitized construction, like the very solid Ramblers and Volkswagens.  But they were still conventional body-on-frame designs, as before.


General Motors really went all out for this issue of Life.  Another big, colorful two-page spread, showing cars from all five GM divisions.  (They are christened “The Golden Five” as this is GM’s 50th [Golden] Anniversary.)  “Each maintains its own personality…”  Yes, but that will become less and less true, especially next year when all will share the same body shells, Chevrolet through Cadillac.   And as new and glittery as these cars look, they will be completely obsolete by 1959, when everything is “All new all over again” with the wildest, most over-the-top styling GM has ever introduced.  Those in turn will quickly become passe in 1961, with the coming of cleaner, more tailored, boxier designs pioneered by Harley Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell, thus ending “The Golden Age of Gorp”.

More pages of interest in this same issue:

Believe it or not . . . there’s this truck, see.  And instead of tires it has these air-filled, rubber pillows for wheels!  This is a great scientific advance, especially because you can now run over pretty looking women, and it won’t even hurt them!  As a matter of fact, she seems to be enjoying the experience!


Not only did Chrysler Corp. cars, Mercury, and Edsel have push buttons, but so did this General Electric TV with Electronic Self-Tuner.  Just push a button to change channels!  What’ll they think of next?  Has anyone actually seen one of these?   I would bet a greater percentage of 1958 cars survive today than 1958 television sets, since these TVs are totally obsolete since digital signals became standard.


Segregation is here to stay now that J. Lindsay Almond Jr. has been elected governor of Virginia.


George R. Price, a man of impeccable credentials, gives us “. . . a provocative warning of impending national disaster” caused by Russian blackmailing of the U.S.  Today we have alleged “Russian Collusion” in the 2016 presidential election.  Those sneaky Russians, they never quit!


“Tempting with the top on!  Terrific with the top off!” (We’re talking about a lipstick case here, guys!)  But even so, in the left photo she is wearing a top, and on the right she’s wearing . . . nothing.  (Get it?)  There’s some other interesting symbolism going on here too, which I will not comment on at this time.


Summary and Conclusion:

Looking back on all this 62 years later, what are we to make of it?  The overly-hyped ads, like the cars themselves, seem quaint and even silly with their faux futurism, but I find them fascinating and beautiful just the same.  The “important issues of the day” which people worried over and argued about are long gone.  All of this makes me wonder, “What will people in the year 2081 think about our time?”  What will they say about today’s cars, SUVs, trucks, and the advertisements for them?  And, going further, people in 1957 could not have foreseen the Kennedy assassination, the disaster in Vietnam, hippies, acceptance of racial equality, government safety and emissions standards for cars, and other trends of the next decade (although they did predict the moon landings!)   Nor could they see how the Cold War would end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.   So what is coming in our near future that we have absolutely no clue about today?