The Age of the Automobile

by admin - October 12th, 2017

By Emily Clemente

There were several events that brought about huge change during the 1950s, but there was one particular invention that had a profound effect on America. In Andrew J. Dunar’s book, America in the Fifties, he says, “It affected not only how Americans traveled, but also where they lived, where they shopped, where they ate, and how they spent their leisure time.” (Dunar 169) This brilliant creation was known as the automobile. In 1950 alone, there were 7,987,000 vehicles produced. The economy was generally driven by the automobile industry.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were known as the three main car manufacturers during the 1950s. However, this changed in 1960 when foreign car manufacturers began to enter the United States and put their products on the market. In 1950, only a small percentage of the automobiles that were bought came from outside of the U.S. In 1950, there were only 300 Volkswagens bought. This is because Volkswagens were products of the Japanese. As a result of these products being created in Japan, they were typically viewed as cheap and flimsy by Americans. The typical car that Americans wanted had to be big and have a boxy shape. The prices of the different makes and models widely ranged. The most popular model was sold for approximately $1,800. This model was an 8-cylinder, 100-horsepower vehicle with a manual transmission. Other makes and models were sold for different prices, as they included different features. Fords and Chevys were typically sold for $1,329 while nicer cars, such as Cadillacs and Chryslers usually cost $4,959 and $5,384. Additional makes and models are listed on this website. Car sales absolutely rocketed as new changes emerged within the appearances of the different models.

The main manufacturers, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, continued to introduce new features that kept the industry booming. Dunar says, “In the first year of the fifties, sales reached 6.7 million, on their way to a peak of 7.6 million in 1955.” (Dunar 169) At the beginning of the decade, only 60 percent of American families owned an automobile; however, by the end of the decade, approximately 78 percent of families owned an automobile. Some of the later models from the 1950s became “classics.” This meant that these cars were featured in classic car shows. There were even some songs made about “classic” cars during the 1950s as well. Throughout the decade, the automobile industry continued to boom.

The automobile industry had impacts on several different factors. For example, it impacted where people traveled, where they shopped, and even where they ate. Dunar claims that, “The automobile affected American eating habits even more dramatically than its shopping patterns.” (Dunar 171) People were always on the go; therefore, they were looking for fast ways to get cheap food. Easy food was made accessible when drive-ins were more common. The McDonald brothers, Dick and Maurice, opened a popular restaurant known as McDonald’s. The automobile allowed individuals to get dinner and watch a movie without leaving their cars. The automobile industry boomed during the 1950s, changing the ways many Americans lived.

A 1955 Chevy BelAir

Works Cited
Dunar, Andrew J. America in the Fifties. Syracuse University Press, 2006.

“Cars in the 1950s.” RetroWaste,

“The Life in 50s: Cars.” The Life in 50s,

4 Responses to “The Age of the Automobile”

  1. Meagan Perro says:

    Reading this post really puts into perspective the difference in style and in cost of cars that we have today. The ideal car today is nowhere near $1,800 as it was in the 1950’s. Today, $1,800 gets you an old, used car that 17 year olds typically buy for their first car. “Nicer cars” were typically $6,000 in the 1950’s and today you can buy nicer cars for 3 times that. It’s crazy how fast everyone all of the sudden had cars, and how much nothing has changed in that sense today. Basically every family I know has at least 2 cars. Also, I had never thought about how much cars impacted the fast food industry. They wouldn’t even be able to exist without cars.

  2. Victoria Lemire says:

    I think it is so strange that only about 65 years ago, there were hardly any cars that came from out of the country. Today in my own home, all three of our cars are Toyota’s, and that was not even a brand in the 1950’s. The 1950’s really seemed to be the starting point of a lot of different ideals like television, fashion, and clearly the auto industry. I just wish that cars would be built the way that these cars were in the 1950’s. Many of them are still running if they were taken care of, and today, we have cars that will only last about 15 years.

  3. Erin McCormack says:

    This article was really interested to read, especially since cars are such a huge part of our society today but it is completely normal for most families to have at least 2 cars. Your discussion on the shape and style of the cars made me think of my papa, who grew up in the 1950s and now to this day hates the style of newer cars as they become more and more compact. Recently he has traded in his car in order to try and get one that has more of the boxier shape, and was looking into the new version of the Lincoln Continental which aims to bring back that town car vibe that they once had. Additionally, throughout his search he was focusing only on American made cars such as Lincoln and Cadillac which I think really represents the mindset of the people that grew up in the 1950s. Very interesting post to read!

  4. Jenna Goodreau says:

    It is really crazy to see how the prices of cars have changed, and it is also crazy that at the beginning of the 50s only 60% of families had cars, since today most families have a car for every member of the family, including teenagers. It is also interesting that as automobiles were on the rise, so were fast food chains. I never really thought about how if people did not have cars and could easily go far distances, fast food chains would not be popular because people would rather just stay home and cook than walk across town to get a meal. Also, the fact that barely any cars were sold that were manufactured outside of the United States is weird to think about because so many of the cars people drive today are not manufactured here.