Curbside Classic: 1955 Chevrolet Station Wagon – Mid-Century Splendor

I had moved back to Puerto Rico with Mom and my little brother in late 1987. Once again in US territory, it didn’t take long for a “classic car show” to materialize one Saturday on our way to Wendy’s. We had gone out to get mom’s weekly ‘buffet lunch,’ a staple of hers since our arrival. I had a different kind of hunger; what with all those antique US automobiles gleaming in the mall’s parking lot? Now, that was a feast for the senses!

We were to go window-shopping after lunch, another staple since our arrival. But those cars! Could Mom hold out on her eye-non-buying impulses? Could Brother and I frolic around those ’50s and ’60s wonders instead? “Sure… eh… go ahead…” Chucks mom! You’re the best! Either that or she knew I would be my-surly-teen-self if I didn’t get my way!

Much joy was to be had amidst those mid-century American cars; attendees pointed in wonder, passersby stopped on their tracks and stared, smiles abounded. No one could remain passive; there was joy, wonder, surprise, -and occasional disdain- regardless of one’s mechanical inclinations. The parade was fairly extensive, with myself gravitating towards Chevrolets, and Brother to Mustangs. It was just pure delight around those cars; all gleaming under the tropical sun in cheerful hues. No wonder Miyagi gave Daniel san a ’47 Ford in the Karate Kid; try getting the same reaction with an ’84 Skylark or ’79 Datsun.

I wondered as I walked around: Would cars of the ’80s ever cause the same sensations? (Non-spoiler alert: 30+ years later, the answer is still NO).

Those who claim CC suffers of anti-GM bias have failed to see Paul’s ’55 Chevy paean. One of GM’s greatest hits? By all means. As is rather known, Harley Earl’s chore mantra stated that a car’s forms should be ‘entertaining’: proportions evoked movement, with sculpted shapes and trim accents that kept a viewer’s eyes discovering new details under repeated viewings. Even with missing trim, there’s no way to deny that this post’s surviving Chevy is peak GM (one of many such peaks).

Not only were GM’s stylist riding high during that fateful decade, America itself seemed to do so as well. America’s postwar prosperity loomed large in the imagination of the Free World, and had the muscle to show it: Puerto Rico quickly went from a shanty-town-filled-backwater territory, to a land filled with US-owned factories and cruise-loving American retirees. Puerto Rican’s living standards raised exponentially; Mother graduated from secretary school and found herself proud owner of a brand new suburban home shortly after (Impossible to imagine nowadays).

American goods carried the allure of prosperity and modernity. To possess or be associated to any meant to own a bit of that success and mystique. Even in Central America US products were the norm, with Detroit metal providing most transport, be it private or commercial. Car ownership was a rarity at the time and was solidly entrenched by American makes. By coming on top after WWII’s ordeal, US goods acquired mythical qualities in the region. You wanted quality? There was no better reassurance than ‘Made in the USA.’

In the automotive front, it helped that American cars still possessed traits that worked for most of the world; large, but not excessively so. Reliable? Better than just about anything else at the time. Gas consumption? Not that much of an issue yet, although 6 cyls. were the preferred ones in the region. Power? You bet, if you wanted it.

Is this Chevy wagon an original back-in-the-day import? Or a recent arrival? I believe it’s the former, as recent vintage US grey-imports tend to be decked out with period glitz and rarely appear in the open, stashed away in upper class neighborhoods. This one? No such luck. It was parked in a low-middle-class area, lacking plates, seemingly in wait for further restoration funding.

If this were Havana, the find wouldn’t be much of a surprise. Here in Central America? An absolute oddity. Most remnants of the ’50s are long gone, with a few US trucks being the sole remainders. Otherwise (as most of my posts show), it is ’70s Japanese car heaven. Did I rejoice at the sight of this ’55? Almost. Low-middle-class neighborhoods get really skittish with picture taking, and I was just glad to leave with some quick captures.

Not only old ’50s cars bring glee; everything from that decade seems to elicit similar reactions, as it has been forever associated with prosperity, fun, and good times. A stranglehold on the collective consciousness that refuses to let go.

Specially in cinema. Old Chevys and Fords are the epitome of good times, or so many a flick keeps saying so. A young Harrison Ford was behind a ’55 Chevy’s wheel in George Lucas’ ’50s love-letter, American Graffitti (1973). Talking about said movie, for a bunch of teenagers, they had lots of sweet rides! Even that hot-rod Ford looks concours ready. California prosperity or cinematic make-believe? And you wonder why everyone wants a slice of that American-dream pie?

The past is not only a foreign country, but a comfortable one as well. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) puts forth a less idealized version of the decade; with lots of alienation, sexual frustration, and repressive social mores. That it is populated with Ford and Chrysler products is probably just an accident (Or is he trying to say something?). As the tumultuous ’60s showed, much discontent was beneath the surface.

Even under casual scrutiny the idealized ’50s can be pinched: those ‘wholesome’ ’50s movies are just brimming with sexual repression. The Seven Year Itch? Tom Ewell dreaming of having sex with Marilyn for a whole hour and half? And getting none? Talk about a lousy set up! (The original Broadway show had a much different payoff).

By my teenage years in the ’80s, the ’50s were back in full nostalgia mode: Ghostbusters rode a ’59 Caddy, Michael J. Fox flew back to the ’50s, and a ’58 Plymouth Fury played the psycho killer in Stephen King’s Christine. By the way, both the Caddy and the Plymouth are the finniest of the fin-age, long way from the right-amount of fin to be found on our ’55 Chevy.

Talking about which, to the question “Can you ever have too much of a good thing?” American marketing always finds a way to answer with a resounding YES. After the ’55, it took a scant few years for American cars to become too large, too space-agey, and too gimmicky for anyone beyond its borders. Rather quickly, by the mid ’60s, European and Japanese makes found the favor of Latin America’s shoppers. Not that American makes seemed to care; with their cars being tailored to US conditions, they relied on their foreign operations to attend ‘lesser’ markets.

Not that our ’55 is completely devoid of gimmicks. Still, its jet-age nods appear in rather restrained -and fairly tasteful- form. Curiously, it’s the less-flamboyant nature of the ’55 that keeps it somewhat of a hidden secret outside US borders.

As these two samples from a San Salvador car show prove, recent vintage grey imports chase after the excessive side of American design. Somewhere in chrome-laden heaven, Harley Earl’s soul must have been leaping with joy; pedestrians gawked and stared in admiration to the ’57 and ’58’s many shiny surfaces.

Many decades after, rarity has made the overstuffed ’58 behemoths look appealing. Foreign fans of American metal look precisely for these types of vehicles: flashy, hefty, excessive. No other nation built anything like it, and no other nation would ever even try to. Good thing, as these ‘excessive’ fads tended to end in agonizing ‘market-correcting-itself’ periods. Then again, no one in the crowd knew -or would care to know- of the ’58s sales slump. Locals just walked by in wonder, shooting, staring and posing next to Harley Earl’s final wonders.

I notice we’re back to the crowd-pleasing qualities these cars have. Let’s leave it there, and allow this ’55 rekindle my Chevy-love (which I have, in spades). As for the ’50s, though I didn’t exist at the time, I’ve lived through its many parallel versions ever since. Where are we now? An ’80s revival that has deep ’50s nostalgia roots underneath? Nostalgia is one thing, but idealized prosperity notions aside, I prefer a present where I could ask Marilyn out if she happened to be my neighbor.

On the ’55 Chevrolet:

Curbside Classic: 1955 Chevrolet – The iCar – GM’s All Time Greatest Hit