the atomic car : a muddy levy and a future gone bad

We go a little back in time and a little forward as well. Looking at car design. Reminds me a bit of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. But Art Chantry breaks it all down:

Art Chantry:

The ‘dream car’ phenomena was sort of the 1950′s corporate vision of the future. It was the jetsons, southern california kustom kulture and pie-eyed visionary madness all rolled into one little weird ass sales pitch.

The ‘dream car’ (as it became known) was popularized after the war (WW2) as the one place where the future was rolled out onto the showroom floor for the ‘little people’ to see. They were car designs featuring innovations in mechanics, engineering, styling, materials and sheer crazy fantasy. They were generally presented at annual car shows (lovely gals standing next to them rattling off all the flash gordon features) and at scenes like General Motors “motorama” events. these were the places all the new models of automobiles from Detroit proper were presented in all their planned obsolescent glory for the post war citizen (soon to be re-named as a “consumer”) to drool over. After the presentation of ‘this year’s model’, the dream cars were the stars of the show.

Art:the guy who is credited with actually placing the tailfin on the cadillac is one Harley Earl (head of design at GM.) his initial test was on his innovative (and maybe the first) dream car called the 'firebird'. he was inspired by his experience as a ww2 pilot. after GM finally dumped his butt (years later, when he cost too much - it's the american way), he went on to do very poorly with interior design. pretty funny. i have an ad of ol' cigar-chomping Harley presenting the new interiors he did for some showroom furniture company. a sad end for an american design legend. how come they don't teach this stuff in design programs at academic institutions of higher learning? those programs are so lame. they entirely miss the point of this stuff. every designer should automatically know who designed the tailfin, shouldn't they?

To give you an idea of what these things looked like, I give you the dream car that Ford Motors introduced at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (in seattle, of course). it was dubbed The Seattle-ite XXI” (of the 21st Century, ‘natch, since the fair was officially called the ‘Century 21 Exposition.’) it had six wheels (for better maneuvering), flip tops, crazy contours, and (best of all (a NUCLEAR REACTOR MOTOR!!!!!! yes, this was an ATOMIC CAR!!!

Now, try to imagine a fender bender at first and main. how do paramedics deal with a radioactive meltdown? “send more paramedics…”

To be honest, the actual reactor wasn’t really installed. It hadn’t really been developed (yet.) It was just suggested and a nice hole left for it’s placement. Most of the cars were not drivable, they were just big elaborate well-made models, more like sculptures, actually. They rolled around, but you had to push them.

The weirdness of an atomic car shocks us today. But, you have to remember that back in that era, science was still the bright hope of the future, scientists were our saviors of mankind, just like in all those giant bug movies of the 1950′s. they were going to figger it all out. they were already designing atomic airplanes (!) and atomic energy and atomic medicine. nobody really gave radiation much thought (take a pill) and the concept of waste? Well, they’d figger that one out, too. right? and things like fall-out, and leakage and stuck valves and meltdowns and storage and cancer cancer cancer (and now, terrorism) really hadn’t been thought about, yet. who knew?

Art:here's the inside splash page on a brochure for the seattle-ite xxi. so "moderne".

I have old copies of the official trade magazine of the nuclear industry (every industry has a trade mag, right?) in the 50′s it was called “Nucleonics”. It’s marvelous technological claptrap to look at. did you know that the way nuclear reactors work is that they simply boil water? they’re giant steam kettles, using the heat from the nuclear fusion to make st

to run antique design steam generators. that’s like using a sledge hammer to pound a thumb tack. morals and messy things like that had no part of the process. It was all about making tomorrow a better place to live for everybody. Thus, atomic autos seemed perfectly normal. No wonder the whole world is turning to religious extremism these days.

I love the styling on these cars. ever seen anything so “Jetson”? and this ‘seattle-ite xxi” isn’t even all that extreme. some of those dream cars were positively mad. they are where the batwing tail fin first emerged. Disc brakes, gull wing doors, push button everything, etc. etc. things we take for standard today first were tested on these cars.

Credit needs to be given to the krazy kar kustomizers of the period as well. George Barris, Daryl Starbird, Dean Cushenberry, and Ed Roth are among a huge number of customizers who were watched VERY closely by Detroit. The big three auto makers (and all of the smaller compeitors) stole ideas liberally from the custom car culture. It became infuriating (and a backhanded compliment) to many of those guys and they furiously came up with more ideas just to stay ahead of detroit’s rip off game.

For instance, those chrome “torpedo tits” on the front of the fifties Cadillac bumpers were called “dagmars”. they were named after a z-level hollywood sex bomb (with huge “talents”) as a sort of honor/joke – by the customizers. suddenly, dagmars were on cadillacs? Go figger.

Another for instance? ed “Big Daddy” Roth, being one of the more nutty customizers, innovated the “bubble top” on his “beatnik bandit” custom car. He made it by “slumping a big piece of plexiglass in a pizza over at a pizza parlor down the street from his shop. top that, Detroit!

But, the dream cars campaign is where these amazing new ideas were presented to wow the public. people flocked to see them they literally were dumbstruck. I remember crawling inside the seattle-ite xxi when i was a little kid attending the Seattle world’s fair (or maybe it was a Dean Cushenberry custom. I forget. They all looked alike to a dumb kid.) But, it certainly made an impact on me. I still am in love with the future, except that the future is a whole lot darker than it was back in those days. Punks’ anthem of “no future for you” is today’s “bright hope for the future.” Sad, how we’ve changed.

So, where are all these ‘dream cars’ today? some of them were saved in storage (i’ve read). never seen them show up, though. A lot of them fell apart or were torn down for parts, etc. They sorta disappeared.

Maybe the most poignant ‘future’ for these ‘cars of the future’ is a river bank levy in Ohio. A friend of mine actually was told about this and went and checked it out. And, yup, there they were – squashed flat and used to control flooding on the (if i remember correctly) Ohio river. Not in a museum as sculpture, not in Las Vegas on display in Caesar’s or Harrah’s, not in a millionaire car collector’s garage. A muddy levy. A mere rusting lump of a future gone bad.

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Marketing/Advertising/Media, Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>