Life Magazine Part 2: The Mopar Edition


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!

1955 Lincoln Futura dream car.

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!