Q: Greg your recent columns on muscle cars, music and auto designs were interesting and enjoyable. When it comes to car designs weren’t the cars of the 50s and 60s compared to those from other decades forward thinking in the new designs they offered?

The cars from the 50s really changed a lot from year to year while today a car might not change much for 5 or more years. What’s your opinion?
-- Charles L., Canton, Ohio.

A: Charles thanks much for your letter and kind words.

To answer as best I can, there was a good reason the car companies could concentrate on new exterior designs every year in the 50s and 60s. Specifically, while the exterior designs were all new, there wasn’t much going on underneath these new body designs. Although new fins, more chrome, special rooflines and flashy interiors prevailed, there was usually nothing going on that dealt with improving the chassis, suspension, safety systems, engine economy and transmissions.

As a good example, Nash/Rambler used its flathead six cylinder engine from the 1940 decade all the way through 1964 successfully, something I’ve written about in detail in a past columns. Chrysler Corporation, too, used its trusty “Slant Six Cylinder” engine from 1960 all the way through 1983 in the Dodge truck line. To this day the engine is regarded as a bullet proof engine design.

So, taking everything into consideration, you are correct in your assumption. Detroit would do quick facelifts and/or complete body re-designs without too much trouble back then as they could use the same chassis and engine combinations on the assembly lines. Granted, new engines appeared regularly, but they were still bolted into the same chassis using basically same suspension systems with little or no tweaking to leaf springs, coil springs, shocks, etc.

Thus, these cars from those two decades were great examples of the Temptations Motown hit “Beauty’s only skin deep” more so than not. As much as the designers changed the outward looks of these models, the words “mechanical upgrades” just weren’t in the car manufacturer’s dictionary.

As an example, and taking 1957-58-59 as case in point years, Chrysler led the way with its “forward look” cars and all 3 years resulted in the manufacturers producing cars that looked nothing like the prior years. Chevy, too, is a good example in 57-58-59, as is Buick as I really love the ’59 Buicks and the ’60 models, too. But rest assured they were bolted to the exact same chassis that had served them well for years and years.

Chrysler made huge design changes from 1954 through 1957, while over at Ford, the big change years came in 1957-59 years, in my opinion.

The independents Studebaker is still perhaps the greatest example of re-skinned success. Its poor selling 1958 Studebakers, as I mention yet again, found new success thanks to an all-new Lark body for ’59. While the Lark saved the company, it still rode on the same chassis Studebaker had used for many years and there was no major mechanical difference of note between the poor selling ’58 Studebaker and the “new” ’59 Lark other than the body.

Other cars I really liked from that era were the ’51 to ’54 Hudson Hornets and Wasps, ’53 Kaiser Manhattan, ’53 to ’56 Packards, ’56 tri-colored Dodges, and the ’55 and ’56 Mercurys.

The 60s were similar, too. Ushered in was the era of Detroit built high-performance, as all the manufacturers took part in the boom. From full size hot rods like the ’62 Dodge Dart 413/426, ’62 BelAir bubbletop 409 or ’63 Ford Galaxie 427, the mid-size muscle cars were soon to follow. From GTO, SS396, 442, Gran Sport, XR7, Z28, Cobra Jet, Barracuda and Javelin, the highways were jammed with these popular cars.

Still, these cars might have been quarter mile shotguns, but if you tried to take corners and/or stop quickly, you might find yourself in over your head thanks to the still antiquated stopping capabilities.

A good case in point was my 1967 Plymouth GTX, powered by a 440-inch, 375 horse engine. We added headers, ignition, intake and a cam and got the cat to run 12.80s on tiny rear drag slicks, which helped the stock 3.23 ratio rear rise up to maybe a 3.55. It was a bullet for sure, but when it came to stopping it, it had four-wheel drum brakes that faded very quickly trying to stop from 108 mph in the quarter-mile.

Today, the reason some cars receive only minor tweaks of outward design is because the engineers work diligently making these modern cars safer, more fuel efficient and with high-tech braking systems that far outweigh anything we used to drive in the 50s and 60s.

We now travel with air bags surrounding us, four wheel anti-lock brakes, rear safety cameras, automatic parking assist, lane departure warning, cruise control radar and even collision emergency braking systems that will stop your car if you are not paying attention in an impact scenario.

I sure do love the collector cars from the era we speak of, but today’s cars are works of mechanical and safety excellence.
Thanks for your kind words, Charles. Hope this all helps.

-- Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other GateHouse Media publications. He welcomes reader questions at greg@gregzyla.com.