Ashes to Ashes (Part 2)

Prying open a few more creaking doors, we conclude our trundle amongst the fallen.

1950 Plymouth. All images: The author

In 1948, Packard continued its longstanding leadership in the American luxury car arena. It remained the best-selling brand, with over 92,000 sales, compared to Cadillac’s tally of around 52,000. However, its dominance was coming to an end. That year’s bulbous restyling of a body that dated back to 1941 didn’t help matters and the car quickly earned the unflattering nickname ‘pregnant elephant’. From 1950 onwards, Cadillac took the lead and never looked back, while Packard withered and died before the end of the decade.

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Virgil Exner’s third issue of ‘forward look’ Chrysler Corporation cars introduced for the 1960 model year were a mixed bag in terms of visual appeal: that year’s Chrysler was probably the best looking of the lot with its relatively unfussy detailing, a strong, dominant grille and clean, sweeping lines terminating in tailfins with boomerang-shaped tail lights.

Before a series of engineering flops beginning in the 1970s dulled GM’s appetite for innovation, the Detroit giant had the courage to bring out several technically interesting cars. Two examples of one such car can be seen here reposing in the Indiana sunshine, the Oldsmobile Toronado from 1967 (left) and 1968 (right) respectively. Not since the pre-war Cord had an American car featured front-wheel-drive. Introduced in 1966, the Toronado was powered by V8 engines of between 7 and 7.5 litres that produced up to 385 horsepower (SAE), making them amongst the most powerful FWD cars ever. Styled under the direction of Bill Mitchell, the Toronado gained praise from press and public alike and even, somewhat oddly, finished third in the 1966 European Car of the Year award behind the Renault 16 and Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.

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Time seems to have been relatively kind to the bodywork of this 1940 Pontiac. In fact, a surprising number of cars from the forties seen in the salvage yards looked to be in better shape than those of the fifties and, especially, the sixties and seventies. That old chestnut ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ perhaps contains at least some truth.

Viewed in isolation, details can be just as interesting to let the eye dwell upon as the entire vehicle they decorate. Font types and design features can provide clues to their approximate vintage. The model badging of a 1955 Buick Special features an ‘S’ within a roundel that is slightly reminiscent of the Trabant ‘Sachsenring’ logo. The intricate bonnet ornament of a 1951 Oldsmobile, complete with globe, is a joy to behold both in patinated and restored form.

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Once undoubtedly the posh pride of its original owner, this imposing 1958 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special stretched as long as its name. Within the hierarchy of Cadillac sedans, it was bettered only by the extremely expensive Eldorado Brougham. The Daphne Blue example in the salvage yard was too far gone to make restoration a viable prospect, but there were still plenty of useful body and trim parts ready for the taking.

Now largely a forgotten brand, Rambler was a staple of the typical street scene in American towns and cities for much of the fifties and sixties. A marketing strategy mocking the domestic competition as unnecessarily large, gas guzzling, hard to park and overstyled was quite successful for a time (and also not exactly untrue) but, as this 1959 Rambler Ambassador demonstrates, by the end of the fifties, even Rambler had succumbed to the fashion for tailfins, albeit of modest proportions.

Between 1952 and 1954, Ford Motor Company’s three car divisions, Ford, Mercury and Lincoln fielded cars that, especially in the case of the latter pair, looked a little bit too similar for some tastes. This did not hurt the lower priced Ford too much, as its sales came in a reasonably close second to Chevrolet in these years and even beat the GM marque in 1954. However, Lincoln did not fare very well, despite successive class wins in the gruelling Carrera Panamericana road race. Middle child Mercury did okay: it was outsold by its GM competitor, Pontiac, but kept Dodge honest. Seen here is one of the 172,807 Mercury cars that left the showrooms with their proud new owners that year, a Monterey two-door hardtop.

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We move on to one of the most easily recognisable American cars of all time, despite some missing trim on this example. By now, most remaining 1959 Cadillacs will have been either restored or picked clean of any useable parts: the days when you could still find the odd one in any salvage yard are long gone. The Edsel of the same vintage has found a new use as a planter. Apart from its tail lights, it seems doubtful that it has much else to offer to any restorer.

1948, the year this Plymouth Special DeLuxe left the factory, marked the end of the lucrative post-war seller’s market. This was the result of a four-year hiatus in all US automobile production during WWII. Carmakers knew that warmed-over pre-war cars such as this one wouldn’t do anymore, and indeed almost every manufacturer introduced entirely new models for 1949. Still, this Plymouth is a respectable representative of the breed, if unexciting from a styling or performance standpoint, its sturdy 3.6-litre inline six delivering a modest 95 horsepower.

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Before I first encountered it personally when visiting American salvage yards, surface rust was an unknown phenomenon to me. I knew only rust as those nasty pestules appearing under the paintwork that soon burst and revealed holes and rot. According to old hands in the business, surface rust is no big deal and can simply be sanded or blasted off. This 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop is a prime example of this type of rust. Intriguingly, the ‘new’ door indicates that, at some point before the car ended up here, someone was in the process of restoring it, but abandoned the project for some reason.

Elwood Engel arrived too late to have any meaningful input in the styling of the 1963 Chryslers, hence they represented (soon to be dismissed) chief designer Virgil Exner’s swansong at the company. This slab-sided Chrysler Newport said goodbye to the last remnants of tailfins and complex body sculpting. Its sloping tail section was not universally liked, however, so for the 1964 model year, tailfins, albeit very modest ones, were back to create a more linear profile.

References to the jet age and space travel were part of just about every American car’s styling vocabulary in the fifties, and Oldsmobile was no exception, even naming their engines ‘rocket’. For 1959, Oldsmobile’s styling theme was dubbed the ‘linear look’. An obvious jet-age reference in its styling (most clearly visible in the restored specimen) is the chrome rocket on top of the front end of the wings, leaving a white contrail along the flanks that culminates in a taillight styled to mimic a jet exhaust.

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Bathroom-scale type speedometers may be associated with Opron-era Citroëns by most, but they first appeared years before the 1970 GS. One of the briefs for the 1958 Edsel was that it had to be a little bit different, hence the likely reason for choosing this particular arrangement. Also different, and not very reliable, was the ‘teletouch’ keypad on the steering wheel hub that operated the automatic transmission. It was dropped after only one model year and the entire Edsel brand followed it to the grave a year later.

Being GM’s unofficial ‘experimental division’, Oldsmobile was the brand chosen to introduce the first truly full automatic transmission in a passenger car with its 1940 models. It enjoyed a very positive reception and soon all other GM brands, as well as most of the domestic competition, made automatic gear shifting available in their cars. This well picked-over 1940 Olds does not seem to have much more left to give.

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The Mercury Turnpike Cruiser lasted only two seasons as the brand’s top of the line model.  Notwithstanding the fact that, especially in the second half of the fifties, the American car was characterised by a plethora of gimmicks, both in styling and features offered, the Turnpike Cruiser probably took this trend a step too far. Quad headlights (amongst the first cars to offer this feature), twin ventilation intakes at the top of each A-pillar with radio antennae peeking out of them, a retractable rear window, a non-circular steering wheel with a flattened top section and ‘Seat-O-Matic’ programmable electrically operated seats with a memory function were some of the novelties featured on the car.

With engine options including a 7-litre V8 with no less than 400 horsepower (SAE), the Turnpike Cruiser was no slouch, but sales simply never took off. After a lukewarm 16,861 sold in 1957, just 6,407 were ordered the following year. This resulted in the somewhat more sedate Park Lane series taking over the mantle as top of the Mercury range in 1959.

By the turn of the millennium, vehicles from the thirties were no longer a common sight in any salvage yard, but there were still a few to be found. Apart from the missing headlights, which made identification a bit more challenging, this 1938 Dodge still appears quite complete and its body reasonably solid. Not regarded as a bona fide ‘classic’ however, as well as being a four-door sedan, it probably remained where it was since the time the photo was taken until the moment came that the whole lot was cleared and crushed.

The prospects for a car like this 1958 Ford Thunderbird hardtop to have made it out of the salvage yard before it was to be cleared were a bit better, and the same goes for the 1961 Chevrolet Impala two-door hardtop coupé. Both cars have a considerably larger following than 1930s Dodges, if only for the simple reason that those who experienced the latter cars in their youth are literally a dying breed. Moreover, two-door hardtops, while themselves trumped by convertibles, are virtually always given preference over sedans in the desirability stakes.

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Buick was on a roll in the mid-fifties and even occupied the number three spot behind Chevrolet and Ford in the sales charts for a while. This 1954 Super is a typical example of the breed, being big, comfy and imposing. Well priced too, especially the entry-level Special, which was responsible for a large portion of Buick’s output during these years. Alas, that large output had a downside: quality control, long a Buick virtue, suffered and the company would face years of weak sales before it eventually picked itself up again.

As a former owner and admirer of this model, I trust the readers will allow me to end this tour with a forlorn looking 1963 Lincoln Continental. Shorn of its front bumper and bonnet, as well as its engine and transmission, it is unlikely that this particular car ever graced the roads again under its own power. That said, its donated elements will have ensured one or more of its brethren did so.  Since all the photos seen here depict a situation that is in all probability no longer a reality, one hopes that as many of the cars as possible performed a similar service before they disappeared forever.

Sir Winston Churchill once coined the phrase “a mystery wrapped in an enigma”. In a sense, these photographs represent something similar: at the time they were taken, they captured a trip down memory lane for me, but looking at them now, the photos have themselves become a trip down that same lane. I hope you have enjoyed joining me on that journey.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

10 thoughts on “Ashes to Ashes (Part 2)”

  1. Good afternoon Bruno. I am late picking up on your piece today, but thank you for a lovely set of evocative images. I can almost smell the mouldering vinyl and rexine and feel the patination of the surface rust. It takes me back to my childhood in the west of Ireland where it was common practice to abandon life-expired cars in bogs and watch them slowly be subsumed back into nature. Needless to remark, they provided a great playground for a car obsessed youngster like me.

    1. I don’t think it’s been eliminated completely even now. Train journeys in Connacht reveal quite a number of cars slowly deteriorating beside farmyards…

  2. Good afternoon, Bruno. I am late to the party as well. Lovely tale of these dying cars. I was friends with the scrap yard owner’s daughter in primary school days, so I spend plenty of times around cars in several state of decay.

    Good to see a Rambler here. There is ’58 Rambler Ambassador around where my mom lives. I am browsing through my photos, but I don’t think I have a picture of it. I’ve seen most cars here in the flesh, but not the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. A monstrosity of course, but an interesting one.

  3. My dad bought a new Mercury Montclair four door hardtop in 1957 which was one level below the turnpike cruiser. He chose the option of dual headlamps and the long fender skirts possibly trying to mimic the Turnpike cruiser at a slightly less price, It was the same colour as the one in this article.
    I remember this car well with its push button electrically selected automatic transmission and four door pillarless design, a radio with a foot operated button for station selection but most of all it was the car I passed my drivers test in aged 16.

  4. Radios with foot operated station selection were popular in the late Sixties when many more things were foot operated.
    Bottom row second from right

    My brother in law had a Simca 1500 with foot operated radio (retrofit), foot operated rubber ball for screen washer (standard) and foot operated headlight flasher(!). Made the footwell look like a modern steering wheel where all kinds of control buttons are where they shouldn’t be.

  5. No problem since the foot switch was floor mounted well away from the brake and accelerator.
    This reminds of another habit of left foot braking in automatics which I have always done and yet have never done so with a manual.

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