What Are The Best Cars Of the 1950s?
While acknowledging that other classics deserve recognition, we included the following cars. While no list is exhaustive, we included cars influential to the car industry's development.
1955 Ford Thunderbird
No list from the fifties is complete without a mention of the Ford classic. The Thunderbird began as a sporty two-seater designed to compete with the Corvette (even though Ford did not market it as a sports car). Instead, Ford offered the Thunderbird as a “personal luxury vehicle.”.
The original Thunderbird was given a Y-block V8 (4.8L) which was relatively new at the time, having replaced the side-valved flathead V8 Ford had used for over 20 years. The powerplant was updated the following year to a 5.1L that produced 215 hp with the manual transmission and 225 hp when mated with an automatic.
The Thunderbird shared several components with other existing Ford models as Ford sought to keep production costs low. While the wheelbase was shorter than others, Ford spent its time making the comfort and convenience items spectacular rather than emphasizing the power or performance of the car. The strategy worked as the Thunderbird outsold the Corvette by nearly 23 to 1 in its first year.
The Thunderbird would go on to a glorious future, being made for another fifty years (with a five-year hiatus in 1997 - 2002). The original MSRP was $2,941 (around $32k in today’s dollars). While only 10k units were planned, the demand was so great that over 16,155 vehicles were produced and sold.
- The Ford Thunderbird began the personal luxury vehicle market.
- The first generation Thunderbird was produced as a competition against the Chevrolet Corvette.
- The Thunderbird would go through eleven generations before finally being retired in 2005.
1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
The 1957 Bel Air is considered to be an icon of the age. Having been in production since 1950, the second-generation Bel Air underwent profound changes in 1955, including an optional V8 engine shared with the Corvette. The 1957’s Super Turbo-Fire produced 283 hp and 290 lb/ft of torque. A few ‘57 Bel Airs included a closed-loop fuel injection system, even though most had 4bbl Rochester carb. Coupled with a choice of two automatic transmissions (Powerglide and Turboglide), the car had a top speed of 128 mph and a 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds.
The attraction of the Bel Air was that interior upgrades often were a part of this luxury vehicle. Bucket seats, color-coordinated padded dash, AM/FM radio, and wall-to-wall carpeting were options. The Bel Air had power for everything (power locks, windows, steering, and brakes, although air conditioning was an option. The cars offered so many different amenities and color combinations that consumers began to refer to the ‘57 as a baby Cadillac.
Chevy made nearly 750k Bel Airs in 1957, although only 47k were 2-door convertibles. Even though Ford outsold Chevy during the year, there is no question that the fin-tailed Bel Air has become an icon of the decade and is sought after by collectors everywhere. Considering that the original MSRP was only $2,511, the car's value is nearly $30k, according to Hagerty. It is not unusual to see this revolutionary car go for much more, often pushing close to $100k.
- The 1957 Bel Air was considered to be a “baby Cadillac.”
- The 1957 version of the Bel Air was filled with many amenities often reserved for much more expensive cars.
- The Bel Air was introduced in 1950 and enjoyed a 25-year production run before being discontinued in 1975.
When the Imperial introduced itself in 1955 as a separate brand, it was to create a new line of luxury vehicles. GM and Ford had enjoyed success with the Cadillac and Lincoln brands, and Chrysler wanted some kind of flagship vehicle to eat into the luxury marketplace. They brought out the Imperial, gave it a push-button automatic, a large V8 engine for power, and large back fins that made folks think they were looking at a Cadillac, precisely what Chrysler intended.
For the second generation model in 1957 (the best year for Imperial sales), the designers threw everything they could at the car. With torsion air suspension, a Hemi V8 engine, a newly invented transistor radio, and a stiffer frame that shifted the car's weight toward the rear, this car handled like a dream. It gained popularity during the late fifties with its bi-plane front bumper, egg-crate grille, and curved side glass (a first for a production car). Power seats and windows complimented the lush seating and oversized instrument panel. With dual exhaust, this luxury car was a force to be reckoned with.
The 6.4L Hemi V8 displaced 392 cubic inches of power and produced 325 hp. The powerful motor was used for a few years until the Imperial execs decided to install a wedge-shaped 6.8 V8. The Imperial was offered in three trim levels, with the Imperial LeBaron being the top. At the time, Chrysler declared the ‘57 Imperial was the “most beautiful car ever designed” and had “exclusive charm and good taste that will be appreciated by those who love fine possessions.” The advertising worked because Cadillac dealers were instructed to refer to the car as a “Chrysler Imperial” to help remind buyers that they were considering an overpriced average sedan.
While the Imperial never outsold the Cadillac, customers were rewarded with an MSRP of nearly $5k (still a couple of thousand less than the Eldorado). Buyers could enjoy the full suite of luxury for significantly less money.
Hagerty says that a fully restored Imperial Base 2-door is around $25k. However, convertible models have been known to sell for over $76k.
- The Imperial was a direct competitor to the Cadillac and the Lincoln Town Car.
- The Imperial had many production firsts, including using a transistor radio, curved side glass, and air suspension.
- The 1957 second-generation model was the year the Imperial sold the most cars, with a new frame, wider stance, and larger tail fins.
1952 Hudson Hornet
Although the Hudson Hornet was only in production for a few years, 1952 was indeed its best. (And thanks to Disney’s film Cars, much of America has become acquainted with the old beast as a bonafide race car. The Hudson developed a reputation on the racing circuit, winning nearly 80% of the Nascar races it was entered into. Hudson drivers won the season's first six races and 11 of the first 12. (An Olds outdueled them for one race).
With the largest displacement engine in production cars, the H145 straight six-cylinder engine produced 145 hp (an option for a 5.0L flathead bumped the power to 170 on some models). A large two-bbl carburetor sucked air in at a constant rate, providing higher compression than other models, and the cobalt-chromium alloy formed the engine block, which provided the stability necessary for racing.
The Hudson had a step-down design (which means that the car's floor was set down into the frame rather than on top). Owners literally “stepped down” into the floor of the car. The lower center of gravity made the car handle well and gave the Hudson a comfortable ride. The straight, streamlined exterior with hidden rear wheels provided excellent wind resistance. The interiors were rudimentary at best, with a central cloth bench seat, large oversized round gauges, and a standard clock. Air-conditioning was a particular option installed by dealers. The Hudson lacked many amenities that other automakers were adding as standard equipment to their vehicles.
The Hudson never really took off with the American public. Part of the issue was that Hudson needed help to compete with the constantly evolving models of the Big Three. Even a merger with Nash-Kelvinator to form a new automaker called American Motors was not enough to save the Hudson from extinction a few years later.
Today, a 1952 Hudson Hornet is worth $22,000 in good condition, and though only 35,921 units were manufactured that year, only a tiny fraction (360) were convertibles.
- The 1952 Hudson Hornet dominated the racing circuit, winning most of the races it entered.
- The 1952 Hornet was a step-down design with a lower center of gravity, giving the car a soft ride.
1957 Chevrolet Corvette
By the time the late fifties rolled around, Chevy had produced the Corvette for a few years. Debuted in 1953, the Corvette started slowly with weak sales (only 300 units were sold in the first year). There were production issues, shoddy workmanship (water leaks constantly), and even some safety issues (doors that flew open while driving). The problems almost killed the Corvette before it even got started.
By 1957, some serious upgrades had occurred, including installing the 283 cid V8 engine (the standard six-cylinder had been dropped the year before). The 283 V8 would grow to become one of Chevrolet’s best engines, producing a whopping 290 hp (although that might have been officially underrated). The iconic sports car zoomed down the track at 6.6 seconds (with a fuel-injected model), significantly faster than its competitors' standard carbureted models.
Chevrolet offered a racing package to the general public, which included heavier suspension, a fresh air intake, and 15-inch x 5.5-inch wheels. Sales increased by over 80% as over 6k Corvettes were sold that year. While the Corvette never had the popularity of the Ford Thunderbird (almost a decade later), the uptick was enough to make Ford abandon the two-seater Thunderbird and make it more of a personal luxury vehicle.
In 1957, if you wanted a Corvette, you could purchase one for $3,176. Today, most 1957 Corvettes fetch over $100,000.
- The 1957 Corvette had a 283 V8 which would become one of the best engines GM ever made.
- The 1957 sold over 6k units but could not compete against the Ford Thunderbird.
1953 Ford F100
Ford released the second generation F100 (earlier models were F-1s) in 1953, with a redesign that increased the size and power of the pickup. While the body resembled the previous generation, the front fascia contained larger recessed headlights, chrome for bumpers and a center grille, and an enlarged front windshield.
The F100 was powered by a standard Cost Clipper 215 ci inline six, which produced 101 hp. (An optional V8 was also offered, but the horsepower was almost the same on 106). Even though these early trucks didn’t have the power later models would have, they were more than enough to keep Americans moving, whether hauling hay or delivering goods across town.
The F100 enjoyed an excellent fleet business as Ford marketed not just to individual owners but delivery companies. With the new Interstate highway system connecting cities and towns as never before, Ford knew that its stalwart pickup would be a significant player in helping businesses thrive.
The interior of the F100 was roomy and could seat three adults on the bench seat. The oversized steering wheel and instrument gauges were simple to read, and the standard 3-speed steering mounted shift helped the truck glide down the road. The truck had the basics, although if you wanted things like a rear bumper, fire extinguisher, windshield washer, or directional turn signals.
133,491 F100s were built in 1953 at a base price of $1,346. Today, an 1953 V8 F100 is valued at $25,000 (although some models have sold for over $100k). The six cylinder version is worth less at $23,200.
(Even though the F100 is technically not a car, we felt it needed to be included because, eventually, it would lead to the birth of the iconic F150 and lay the groundwork for Ford’s dominance in the pickup truck market).
- 1953 was the second generation of the F100 (but the first for the three-number designation).
- The 1953 F100 offered two engine choices, an inline-six, and a V8.
1957 Cadillac El Dorado
The epitome of luxury for the fifties was found in the Cadillac Eldorado. Offered in 1953 as a testament to Cadillac's golden anniversary, the car quickly rose to the top of the line for affluence and amenities. The 1957 third-generation model featured serious design upgrades, including new styling, a lower and wider stance, and longer tail fins with small round tail lights. The new sleek body captured the eye from the slanted windshield pillars leaning back toward the sloping trunk area.
The Eldorado was powered by a 6.0L cubic V8, which produced 325 hp and 400 lb/ft of torque. The car's Hydra-matic 4-speed transmission and refined suspension made the car glide down the road. Interior amenities were standard on the car, including power locks, seats, automatic trunk buttons, upgraded sound systems, tinted glass, and air conditioning options. The car boasted power steering and brakes, with tinted glass and air conditioning options (the air was standard on the $13k Eldorado Brougham).
Cadillac produced only 2100 models of the Eldorado coupe, and only 400 Broughams were produced (each handmade). The base price for the El Dorado was a hefty $7k, while the Brougham was almost twice the price. Today, a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado will be worth around $50k, according to Hagerty.
- 1957 was a perfect year for the Cadillac Eldorado, defining the luxury market.
- The Cadillac was available as a coupe or convertible and stickered for around $7,286.
About THE AUTHOR
My name is Matt and I've been around cars all my life! I have owned and worked on many different classic vehicles, so I started this site to share my experiences. If you're new to classic cars, then this website is for you.Read More About Matt Lane