I want to thank everyone for the positive response to my recent Curbside Classic post featuring ads and content from the November 18th 1957 issue of Life magazine. In that post, I pointed out that Chrysler Corporation only had a one-page black and white ad in that issue, which was dominated by splashy, colorful car ads from GM and Ford. Well, it turns out that the reason for Chrysler’s under-representation was the fact that one week before, the Forward Look people had taken out an incredible 14 page spread in the previous issue of Life. So for you Mopar fans who felt cheated, we now present Part 2, Mopar Edition.
Here’s Christine when she was new. This Belvidere hardtop is truly striking in two-tone red and white. It’s easy to see why the makers of the movie Christine chose this model as the car that devours its enemies and is so deeply loved by its owner. Dear Owners of Remaining 1958 Plymouths: We don’t need anymore Christine clones! The cars look great in the other colors too.
Of the five Forward Look cars for 1958, Dodge is the jazziest! You have to give the designers credit for combining a chrome strip and clever paintwork to make the fins look twice as big as they really are! Then there’s that “bumper with teeth” for the Custom Royal model (not shown here). If there ever was a Detroit monster, that’s it!
I thought De Soto was the best looking of all the Mopar makes this year. The ad copy is all about “the future”, but sadly De Soto has no future. Production slipped from a respectable 122,000 units in 1957 to only 52,000 in ’58, and sales dwindled from there until the plug was pulled on the De Soto name in ’61. Why did what was arguably the nicest looking car sell so poorly? This hardtop looks particularly stunning in pure white with gold accents. There is also a white dog, a white backdrop, people in white clothing, and a white tree. “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!”
These ’58 Chryslers really look sharp! They’re jazzy, but it’s cool jazz, like Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. (The Dodge is like the more manic Blue Rondo a la Turk–Crazy, man!) This is another example of “So nice, but gone too soon,” as 99% of these entered the jaws of the crusher by the mid to late ’60s. I’ve only seen one in person, a Spruce Green and white Windsor 2-door hardtop, near the Short Hills N.J. train station in the late 1980s. And it was for sale! Alas, another lost puppy I couldn’t save!
Now, if you want the ultimate . . . well, just listen to this: “With a sound like the wind, and a starry glitter, the magnificent new Imperial rolls on the scene. . . . Touch a button. You summon deep-breathing power which feels limitless. . . . For all its impressive size and length, your car handles like silk . . . an experience at once thrilling and restful. The exclusive suspension system on the Imperial holds you serenely level and supremely comfortable on any road, any curve, any surface, any stop.” Pure poetry.
I can tell you that having once owned a ’62 Imperial (mechanically very similar to the ’58) the advertising claims have some truth to them. First of all, this is one BIG car! Park it next to a ’58 Cadillac and the Caddy looks small! Really. The combination of torsion bar suspension and super-easy power steering makes for light handling and a solid, level ride. The big V-8 has incredible low-end torque and the push-button Torqueflite transmission goes very well with this engine. In 1957, Imperial nearly reached Lincoln’s sales with 35,734 Imperials produced, igniting hopes that Imperial could become a real player in the luxury car field. But then sales collapsed in ’58 to a mere 16,133, and ’57’s stunning total would never be achieved again. What went wrong?
More great car ads in this issue:
“This is the EDSEL. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it.” (That’s certainly true!) “Once you’ve owned it, you’ll never want to change.” (If you never want to change, you better hold on to the one you bought, because after 1959 you won’t be able to buy another.) I go back and forth on these Edsels–I like them because they have that late ’50s “swoosh”, but they’re not my favorite 1958 car. However, I have to say that this ’58 Citation 4-door in black looks pretty elegant.
OK–here’s where the arguments start. I think the ’58 Oldsmobiles (and Buicks) were beautiful cars! I have always been at odds with writers of old car hobby books and magazine articles who have been telling me since I was 12 that these cars are ugly. You won’t change my mind, and I won’t change yours, so let’s leave it at that. I will say that Oldsmobile had a lot going for it in ’58–“Excitingly styled . . . with distinctive good taste“, the “greatest Rocket Engine ever”, the improved 4-speed Hydra-Matic transmission, and a reputation for better-than-average workmanship. The public agreed, and Oldsmobile weathered the recession better than most, holding production near the 300,000 mark and overtaking Buick to come in 4th place in sales.
Everything in these ads is “New, New, NEW. . . The newest ever!” Well, here’s a car that really IS all-new: “The new Continental Mark III, and styled and crafted in the Continental tradition . . . the new 1958 Lincoln.” This was Lincoln’s attempt to out-Cadillac Cadillac by offering something longer, lower, wider, sleeker, roomier, with a monster 430 cubic inch, 375 HP engine, full-coil suspension, unitized construction, and everything else to match.
Now I understand what the stylists were trying to do here–from the rear and from the side they look clean and sleek, futuristic yet formal, blending well with the best examples of mid-century modern architecture. (If Frank Lloyd Wright designed a car, this would be it!) The trunk on that Continental seems to go on forever! The front looks kind of–strange–with those canted headlights in oval pods. I’ve always felt that if they had used the front end of the 1955 Futura dream car (later “Batmobile”) for this car instead, the cars would have been real knock-outs and less polarizing to buyers. But sometimes when you’re coming up with an all-new design, it’s hard to know what will be a hit and what won’t, and I think Lincoln really wanted to capture people’s attention with a design that was altogether new and different.
Given the enormous investment in tooling up for these cars, sales were quite disappointing: only 29,684 (compared to 41,123 in ’57 and 50,322 in record-breaking 1956.) It would be a fascinating experience to own and drive one of these ’58 Lincolns, just for the sheer size and magnificence!
Cadillac, “Motordom’s Masterpiece” was the luxury king that Lincoln and Imperial were trying to de-throne. They were not successful in doing so. Cadillac produced about 120,000 cars, taking the recession in relative stride. What made Cadillacs so special? Style, luxury, smoothness, silence, roominess, excellent overall quality, and prestige. Resale value was tops, and its customers were the most loyal. “It’s good to be the king!”
I’ve always loved this illustration. “Wonderful Start”–The first time you take the car out solo. The Drivers’ Education teacher is there, checking off the right boxes. Mom is there too, to share in the happy moment. The gas station attendant waves you on, wishing you the best. The modern school building in the background looks clean and neat. Ah, yes–the American rite of passage. And you’ve got this cool ’58 Chevy to cruise around in. How would this look today? What cars do they use for Drivers’ Ed. now? Will Mom be there? No, she’s probably working. And today, the gas station attendant wears no cap and uniform and probably doesn’t care about you.
“Tomorrow’s Life Today” is the theme of this issue of Life. On the cover is an air-supported plastic dome that allows for year-round swimming in an in-ground pool. Here’s another picture of it:
The man who invented this is from Buffalo, N.Y. which makes sense because there probably aren’t too many really warm days in Buffalo to enjoy swimming. I wonder how much work this is to take down and set up, and how well it withstands the outdoor elements. Whenever I think the winter weather is lousy in New Jersey, I just think of my fellow victims in Buffalo who are getting it much worse!
These are the “Houses of Tomorrow”. Above is the “Batwing House” in Raleigh, N.C. All it needs is a ’59 “batwing” Chevy in the driveway to complete the look. But what looks good on cars doesn’t look good on houses and vice versa. Below is a diamond-trussed house in Rye, N.Y. This sort of looks like living in a gas station. The walls are basically giant windows, so there is no privacy. Life also had a picture of the Monsanto House, which resembles a giant white plastic mushroom, complete with a stem. It’s so ugly and “non-homey” looking that I didn’t feel like posting the picture but you can look it up on the internet if you really want to. The Monsanto house is gone now, but I wonder if the two houses above still exist and retain their original appearance, or if they too have been demolished or remodeled to the point of being unrecognizable.
Rocket cars we’ll all be driving around say, 1989 or so.
Here’s the actual future: McMansions and SUVs. No batwings or mushrooms, but a large house with exaggerated colonial or traditional features is the norm. And the successful person of today drives a new “sport utility vehicle” or “crossover” which is neither long, nor low, nor wide, nor sleek; with no fins and virtually no chrome. Not exactly what the editors of Life predicted. As is so often the case, the reality never really catches up to the dream, does it? Or maybe the dreams change. Despite this, man, with all his failures and foibles, presses on in new directions. Because there are those times when the dream does become reality, and all the struggles are worth it. And that’s what L-I-F-E is really all about!
These issues of LIFE on Google books are a fun peak at the past.
Christine the movie is based on the book of the same name by Stephen King, which also featured a 1958 Plymouth Fury as the car. King said he chose a Plymouth specifically because, when he was writing the book, it was still a somewhat obscure car from the late 1950s, particularly compared to the 1957 Chevrolet.
I recall reading that, at the beginning of the 1958 model year, Chrysler President Lester Colbert had predicted that the corporation would corner 25 percent of the market. This was no doubt based on the sales success of the 1957 models, which had claimed almost 20 percent of the market.
Instead the corporation lost money for 1958, and its market share slid back to its 1956 level. Things would get worse, as the 1957 models had stolen a fair number of customers from the competition – many of whom went back to the competition after their sleek 1957 Mopars quickly began rusting and falling apart.
What has always driven me nuts about Stephen King’s novels is that he has this ability to get the details sooooo right, and then, in the middle of it, throws a complete (deliberate?) boner that drives you nuts.
In Christine, at one point, he has the hero SLAM THE COLUMN SHIFT LEVER into Drive and peel out. And I’m sitting there with my jaw on my lap. Stephen King is my age. Every male in the fifties knew that Plymouths didn’t have shift levers if you got the automatic.
That one has stuck with me since the day I read the novel.
At one point, he refers to the Plymouth as having four doors, even though the 1957-58 Fury was only available as a hardtop coupe.
If I recall correctly, the book does make it clear that the red Fury was a special order, as the 1958 Fury was only available in one color, and it wasn’t red.
Supposedly special orders for Chrysler Corporation vehicles were possible at that time, provided the dealer was willing to go to bat for the buyer.
That’s the nitpick that stuck with me. Column vs. touchbuttons flew right over my head, given I read it when I was a teen in the mid 00s, but I knew enough that a red 4 door Fury was taking some liberties.
Only a car guy would get upset about the book’s transmission shifter error but totally accept the premise that a vehicle has evil murderous intent without blinking.
One of my favorite movies is “Awakenings”…takes place in 1969 but Robin Williams character drives what I think is a 1964 Dodge…it is a bit hard to tell but at one point he gets in and makes a motion as if he’s using a column shifter…maybe I’m wrong (could be a 1965?) but the ’64 should still have had push buttons.
In another 20 years we’ll likely see a movie with a current day car that also shows someone using a column shift…don’t think there’s any car left that still uses one…so the car oriented detail observers will likely be pointing that out too.
My Dad had a ’56 Plymouth back then he bought new after getting out of college…(my sister and I came home from the hospital in it)…but it was a stripper, with a manual column shift and flathead 6. He drove it from Massachusetts to southern California where he briefly worked in 1959 (we flew out, guess my parents thought we were too young to stand a cross country car trip in the days before interstates were common….though we drove back in the 1961 Rambler wagon my Dad bought in Compton, Ca (first automatic in the family, undoubtedly bought for my Mother, who to this day never has really been comfortable with standard transmission).
There was also a dream sequence in the book where the two instrument pods turned into eyes. I couldn’t figure that one out unless he was refering to the previous year’s Fury round instrument gauges.
There was a rather big error in the movie, as well, when the girl is locked in the car and can’t unlock it via the plunger-style inside locks. IIRC, the Mopars of those years didn’t have plunger door locks, but locked via the inside door release lever (push down to lock, pull up to unlock).
I don’t have any automotive-related artwork or decorations around my house, but if I were inclined to get some, I’d go for a framed version of that Imperial ad. Absolutely beautiful.
And you’re so right about the McMansions… examples just like the one you pictured are spreading like a virus here in Virginia. Not quite the future most of us imagined.
Around here we reckon those McMansions built so close they almost touch roof to roof are like a scaly grey fungoid growth spreading over the ground.
My Father bought a new 1958 Plymouth convertible. He as looking for a used 1957 when the used car salesman asked what he wanted to spend. His reply was $2800. Salesman said you can new for that. A new one with power steering and brakes, plus automatic and an AM radio was; $2800. It hung together for four years in NE Ohio, but it was washed frequently ; by me.
My first car was a 1957 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer 2 dr HT with a 325 4 bbl. The build quality was better than the 1958 Plymouth. Even at 7 years old the body was solid. My Fathers 1960 Dodge Phoenix convertible was the worst of the three. In four years it had many rattles.
His new house built in 1956 had stainless steel appliances, which were mostly built in commercial units. The refrigerator and freezer had compressors located above the unit in a cabinet. I sill look at stainless steel as old fashioned.
My Dad had a ’58 Belvedere 2 door HT in blue/white colors. It was my favorite car as a youngster. It replaced a similar ’57 which got t-boned and totaled while we on vacation.
Unsure, but that ’57 may have been the first year for the torsion bar suspension. A fellow doctor had parked just in front of Dad’s car and was getting his bag out of the trunk when he heard a “gunshot” behind him, followed up right away with a second. When he turned around in reaction, the front of Dad’s car had settled nearly to the pavement. Both front bars had snapped while parked.
Apparently, to save money, at the last minute, Chrysler Corporation deleted a rubber “boot” that was supposed to protect the point where the torsion bar mounted to the chassis. As a result, the torsion bars began snapping with alarming regularity. The boot was hastily installed going forward.
This being the days before government-mandated safety recalls, the corporation didn’t issue any sort of recall to cars without the boot.
The ‘57-‘58 Mopars are gorgeous! The 5 Chrysler divisions really had the best styling of any ‘57-‘58 American car, my favorite is De Soto, too bad it all fell apart starting in ‘59 hitting it’s nadir in ‘61-‘62.
I have an old b/w pic from when I was a toddler of my parent’s ‘59 Plymouth with their neighbor’s ‘58 Plymouth in the background.
I love that house in Raleigh, NC – there is a stand alone Dry Cleaner on Chicago’s southside with a similar roofline, unfortunately it is too easy to walk up the roof so a chain link fence with razor wire really distracts from it’s mid century Googie design.
Fun Thanks for doing the writeup. Where did you get the pictures? There is a bunch of good stuff at Google Books including all issues of Popular Mechanics.
I would like to do a few writeups but I simply cannot figure out how to download images. If you or someone can explain how I will sure be grateful.
There’s extensive info on the “Batwing House” (officially known as the Ezra Meir House) at this site – http://www.usmodernist.org/catalano.htm . Scroll about 1/4 of the way down the page.
The site includes a ton of pictures of this very cool mid-century modernist design, and documents the wealth of structural and mechanical problems experienced by the house’s owners. Perhaps that’s of particular interest to readers interested in cars of the same age.
Sadly, the house is no more. Like so much in Raleigh, it was torn down in 2002 and two macmansions (and no doubt a ton of decorative mulch) were built in its place.
My grandparents bought an inflatable “bubble” pool cover in 1969. But no, it didn’t work out year round, was still too cold to swim after summer. And only drizzly rainy days could use it. Thunderstorms were too dangerous.
The base of bubble was water filled tubes. A large fan kept the top up, but when turned off, the bubble inflated for the night.
But, the plastic ripped in many different areas, and had to be duct taped. Also, was a curiosity for its first summer, an annoyance the second. New owners of the house discarded the whole thing the 3rd summer.
I love that both illustrations of the pool have a girl surfing in it. I don’t see any waves, so maybe that powerful fan helped propel her….
1. “But sometimes when you’re coming up with an all-new design, it’s hard to know what will be a hit and what won’t….”
Very true, and not only in automotive circles. Today’s internet is loaded with after-the-fact “what were they thinking” snarky critiques of earlier creative efforts, but any kind of clean-sheet design exercise is daunting, especially when there are big commercial $$$$ at stake. In my field (music) it’s very easy to criticize someone else’s creative choices–but very hard to make the creative decisions by oneself. Film music gets bashed endlessly, but it’s big responsibility to decide **where** music should be heard, and what it should sound like.
2, Batwing House, Raleigh NC: University design professor’s own place; internet tells us house gradually passed to others, sat vacant for a while; eventually torn down with two McMansion-y homes on the site. Ah, well.
3. 1958 DeSoto (white): returning to my music analogy, Gretsch’s “White Falcon” guitar came immediately to mind: https://reverb.com/news/the-white-falcon-a-classic-gretsch-that-was-never-meant-to-exist
4. “Wonderful Start” (young driver): Chrysler ad with similar theme, about 1961-62:
Wait, Dart was originally a separate marque from Dodge? I knew Valiant was a separate make from Plymouth at first but I thought Dart was a Dodge from the get-go. (this would have still been the full-size Dart at this point)
When did manufacturers start acknowledging that women buy cars too? I thought that was starting to become common by the early ’60s with Mom often driving one of the new compact cars, rather than just “the family car” that everyone had to share.
It was advertised as the “Dodge Dart,” and clearly separated from the medium-price Dodges.
It was pitched as the new, low-price Dodge, and had been given to Dodge dealers in 1960 as compensation for the corporate decision to take away their Plymouth franchises.
For 1960, each had its own brochure. In 1960-61, the Dart was also on a shorter wheelbase – 118 inches, versus 122 inches for the traditional, medium-price Dodge.
Dart sales were, however, always included within total Dodge Division sales.
2nd ad mentions Lancer as one of the brands, 1st one doesn’t; both have Valiant but not De Soto, That would seem to date the first ad as 1963 or later after the Lancer was discontinued?
FWIW, here’s Chrysler Corp’s other Boys Life (1961) ad, with teenage young lady as well–perhaps it ran in the Girl Scout magazine too?
Very interesting ad copy, particularly when read 58 years later in the era of self-driving cars and a general dismissal of human responsibility for nearly anything.
(I was 3 months old when that ad was published. It’s a very different culture that we live in nowadays)
Don’t know if I would have appreciated living in the 1950s. The over-the-top messages and prose, both editorially and in marketing, seems too much at times. So much of it seems so manipulative, for lack of a better word.
OK, in that AC ad, why is there a gas station in front of a high school? (the high school itself though looks just like all the high schools in my area).
I drove by this recently closed gas station near me in Kensington, MD whose architecture reminds me some of the Batwing House, though the roof on this one doesn’t slope so much you could walk on it without a ladder. Any of those Mopars would look perfect out in front; its roofline echoes the shape of the fins. I’m hoping it gets reused either for commercial purposes or is converted to a house. I could see myself living there if you planted some glass out front. Not sure what was on that huge blocky sign which seems out of scale with the building.
I know that building, and no one would put a residence on that corner (even if zoning allowed it). It’s in the middle of downtown Kensington on Connecticut Avenue, across the street from a fire station and a gas station, with an active train line 100 feet to the south. I’ve been stuck in traffic there many times. Lately the open space has been used as a farmers’ market, which seems a suitable use for it.
I somehow thought there was residential of some sort to the building’s right, but yep it’s on that corner, didn’t know about the train tracks though.
Maybe it’s the side or back of the school we’re seeing? There doesn’t seem to be a big main entrance on that elevation, unless it’s behind the pump jockey’s back or off the page to the viewer’s right.
This leads to a good debate topic, 58 Edsel or 58 Oldsmobile?
Edsel > Oldsmobile
The 58 Edsel to me has to be one of those “you had to be there” type cars regarding the punchline styling jokes. There are a lot of wrongs with Edsel, the hype and lack of living up to it, being instantly perceived as just another tarted up Ford, and coming out into the 58 recession. But the styling looks perfectly average 1958 to me, little to no worse than any other Ford division, many GMs and certainly any independent. There were even things about it I find interesting and endearing like the the gull wing and boomerang taillights. Chrysler styling made a grand slam hit in 57, so maybe a lot of people were expecting Edsel’s hype campaign to result in a direct answer to the forward look, and not another jukebox car. That the core dislike of Edsel seems to boil down to the horse collar grille, or it’s vulgar anatomical comparison(which really? Given many people find the Jaguar E-type the most beautiful car ever made makes me give pause on that one), seemed ludicrous, especially in an age where annual clean sheet front end styling changes were not only the norm but expected – even if the front end was that much of a deal breaker it shouldn’t define the brand, and indeed by the short lived 60 model was completely gone.
I can go on a diatribe about everything vapid and uninspired about 21st century taste with the final image of a luxury brand utility vehicle and tract McMansion but I think my scorn way of wording that summed it up. For all the nasty faults of the real 1958, the optimism to elevate humanity to someplace better is the real takeaway to the finned cars, wild architecture and goofy futurist technology. It was aspiration to reach for the stars, rather than reward ourselves with riches for the accomplishment of it.
The Edsel ran into so many headwinds at once. Everyone expected the moon and stars, but the car was (other than the front and the pushbuttons in the steering wheel hub) one of the most conservatively styled cars of 1958. It was crowded from above by Mercury and from below by Ford and had no real segment all to itself. And it came out in the worst economy since before the war.
Also, failure was relative – at about 68k units for 58, the car came in about 8k cars ahead of Chrysler for 1958 and beat DeSoto by something like 16k cars. Had management (spelled Robert McNamara) given the car any support going forward, it could have found a niche. But the failure turned out to be a blessing which allowed Ford to burn the Sloan Ladder.
and the Edsel Citation was priced above all Mercurys except the Park Lane
my GF had one and he switched to Chrysler after that
The 1958 model may have been the best looking 2 tone treatment ever to find its way onto a Plymouth. And count me as another befuddled by DeSoto’s death spiral. I guess these just developed to where there was no real reason to buy one over a Dodge or a Chrysler.
Am I the only one who thinks that the Cadillac was the most attractive 1958 model from GM by a longshot. That Sixty Special pushes all the buttons for me. And sorry, I cannot get on board with the 58 Olds, good as it was under the skin. That dour front end is a buzzkill.
I like the Mercury-bodied Edsel so much better than the Ford-bodied Edsel. Does anyone else see it or is it because they are seen so much less frequently. Outside of the front end, it may have had the most conservative styling of anything built that year.
As for that plastic pool dome, I am getting overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine.
My favorite uncle had a ’58 Sixty Special that he bought at the end of the model year. He was reluctant, being a thrifty, hardworking product of the depression, but my aunt always wanted to ride in a Cadillac. Baby blue, with all the options, including A/C. What a presence! Recalled it was somewhat troublesome, with frequent trips to the dealer. Suddenly, in 1962 it was replaced with a Chevy Biscayne wagon, total stripper, manual trans and 6 cylinder. For some reason he never, ever wanted to talk about the Caddy again.
I see elsewhere in this issue is the soft-tired “Rolligon,” going into production. Sort of a CC effect, because some recent column showed this as a thing of the future (safe enough to drive over an un-concerned woman, as I recall):
In the current film, “Green Book” a ’62 Imperial appears several times. Aside from the free-standing headlights, which I never liked, it has a classic beauty that far surpasses the ’62 Cad which was the center-piece of the film. I do not know why anyone would part with such a car, Mr. Poindexter, unless they did not have garage space for it.
Fascinating article and well-written post. Really enjoyed this peek into the car scene of the late 1950s. And I’m with you on the ’58 DeSoto being either the best or No. 2 looker of the Forward Look Mopars (I also really dig “Christine”).
I would venture to guess that the 1958 Fury got the nod as the basis for Christine for one reason: the name.
The 1958 or 59 Dodge Custom Royal had an angrier face.
I would love to see a piece on your 1962 Imperial. As a kid that car fascinated me from the minute I saw the Motor Trend cover with the gun-sight taillights featured. It was such a dramatic improvement over the 1961 with those enormous, ungainly fins (which looked half-way decent only on the huge Ghia limousine, the bulk of which managed to almost handle the size of the fins).