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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : A DECADE OF DELIGHTS

<i> Frey is a Los Angeles automotive writer. </i>

The cars of the 1950s have become the hot collectible commodity of the ‘80s. ‘They were good cars, happy cars, the exact opposite of the direction society and technology are headed in these days.’

They move with stylish grace through the anonymous, ant-farm bustle of urban traffic like a tuxedoed Fred Astaire dancing his way through a shopping mall. Far from causing an onlooker to flee at the sight of technology gone quite obviously mad, their passing transports you, for a while at least, to a happier, more innocently optimistic time. Like majestic land yachts, they plow through a homogenized sea, thumbing their elegant noses at the forces of conformity, churning up a wake of happy smiles and nostalgic memories, and leaving you kicking your mind’s behind for letting dear old granny sell hers for next to nothing when she got too old to drive.

If you’re in your 20s or 30s, your grandmother owned a time machine--perhaps a great big chrome-plated one. Your parents probably did too, somewhere along the line.

At the time you thought it was merely some old car, but one of the truths of life is that everything old that travels far enough into the future becomes new again, a verity that in this day and age applies especially to automobiles.

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There’s no such thing as “some old car” anymore, particularly if it was built in the decade following World War II. The cars of the 1950s have become the hot collectible commodity of the 1980s.

“I think it was the movie ‘American Graffiti’ that got this whole thing really rolling,” says Scott Boses, a major supplier of ‘50s cars to movies, TV shows and creators of television commercials. “The nostalgic mood was already simmering under the surface of America, and that movie--along with the TV show ‘Happy Days'--fixed the spotlight on the most tangible remaining symbols of that era, the cars. They were good cars, happy cars, the exact opposite of the direction society and technology are headed in these days. They are appreciating faster than most real estate, but the essence of their appeal is that they’re art you can drive.”

Which may explain why the people buying these cars are not the same ones making wealthy men of the owners of German car dealerships.

The people who buy and drive ‘50s cars have chosen a different road--a road that, if it leads to more or less the same upwardly mobile destination, passes through considerably different countryside on the way. A road driven by people to whom style is at least as--perhaps more--important than status. A road on which your BMW 325i, your Mercedes 560SL and your Porsche Carrera are all well and good, but so what? Everybody’s got one, or so it seems.

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Start talking about 1959 Cadillac convertibles, 1957 Chevrolet Corvettes, 1954 Jaguar XK120s, and you’re getting into the realm of cars that define the driver as someone “different,” cars that simultaneously serve as transportation and artistic statement. Cars that are worth more every year.

For positive proof that this unique generation of automobiles has achieved an unprecedented position in today’s technology-driven culture, consider that, at an auction held in Phoenix, Ariz., this year, a 1957 Ford Thunderbird sold for $42,500. This for a car that, in 1957, rolled out of the showroom for $3,408, and even as recently as 10 years ago could have been bought for $5,000.

From transportation, to used car, to combination status symbol/cultural artifact/functional sculpture--with an 800% increase in value. Of course it took 30 years, but those are still numbers to make one seriously consider cashing in that CD, liquidating that conservative stock portfolio and plunging it all into an investment that will not only get you from A to B, but make you feel good and make you rich.

“The collector-car market is benefitting from the flight away from traditional investments,” says Tom Barrett, elder statesman of the collector-car business and organizer of the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Our auction in January drew 10,000 people, and we sold 840 cars worth $30 million. Almost any 1950s-era car is a valuable collectible these days, with a special emphasis on convertibles,cars with big-displacement, high-horsepower engines, and limited-production models. The demand is so strong that the advice I give newcomers to the field is that you can never pay too much for a car. You may occasionally buy too soon, but the value will always catch up.”

Let us consider some additional examples from the same auction: 1952 Ferrari, $800,000; 1950 Delahaye, $180,000; President Eisenhower’s 1953 Cadillac Eldorado, $103,000; 1951 Allard, $95,000; 1954 Aston Martin, $71,000; 1957 Chevrolet Corvette convertible, $55,000; 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible, $67,000.

Lest we’ve given you the impression that this phenomenon is confined to the United States, consider that the Cadillac convertible that brought $67,000 would bring $100,000, or more, in Japan. Even at those prices, experts estimate that dozens of 1950s vintage cars are shipped from the United States to Japan each month, where they’re selling like Big Macs during lunch hour in downtown Tokyo.

The future looks, if possible, even rosier, with sober experts making predictions that sound like drunken lunacy. In the year 2000, they say, a 1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, now worth $15,000 will sell for $75,000. The 1959 Cadillac that used to cost $100,000 in Japan will cost $100,000 in Los Angeles.

“If, in 1969, you had invested a quarter of a million dollars in 1950s-era convertibles, that investment today would be worth $23 million,” says Rick Cole, owner of Rick Cole Auctions and the largest classic/collectible car dealer in California. “The 1950s are a very busy market segment for collectible cars, and we’re getting buyers from England, France, Switzerland and Germany, as well as Japan. The demand for these cars is so strong that they’ve become a viable alternative to fine art as a safe investment. This has become a billion-dollar-a-year business that hardly anybody knows about, and I expect the current prices for these cars to triple over the next 10 years. The beauty of it is that there are still tens of thousands of valuable cars sitting in barns and garages in middle America waiting for someone who knows what they’re looking at to come along.”

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The lesson is clear. If you own a car built in the 1950s, particularly if it’s a convertible, rent a real big safety deposit box and lose the key until the turn of the century.

If the lesson is clear, less so is--why? In our era of smoothly-flowing aerodynamic shapes, these cars may look like dinosaurs in silver-lame costumes. If you apply the currently prevailing ethic of form following function, these cars should be able to blast off like a rocket. And if your kick is the sensor delights of a fine-tuned driving machine, your senses will tell you that you’re driving something designed by a blacksmith.

So what is it about the cars of the 1950s that makes them so valuable, so sought after, so . . . special?

Perhaps the logical place to begin is with establishing the mood of the era that spawned them.

Jan. 1, 1950. Harry (“Give ‘em Hell”) Truman is President of the United States. The world has had almost five years to step back from the brink of Armageddon that World War II promised and nearly delivered. The rubble of madness has been cleared; a new world is rising, built on the ashes of innocence. A pendulum swung almost to the breaking point in one direction is now swinging the other way. Those who’s nature and job it is to worry still had communism, the A-bomb and the cold war to occupy their minds, but to most people such concerns seemed somehow distant. It was time to get happy, and the exuberant inclination to party in the streets, throw out the old and dance into the future was demonstrated in every aspect of our culture.

People were dancing to two decidedly different kinds of music. Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton were the high priests of the progressive jazz embraced by the self-anointed intellectual elite, while Bill Haley and Elvis Presley set off the guitar-powered rock ‘n’ roll time bomb that announced the arrival of the youth rebellion.

Jack Kerouac wrote “On The Road,” the book that turned coffee shop existentialists into beatniks, and James Dean starred in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the movie that turned teen-age America into a motorized subculture.

The seductive shapes of the machineries of war spilled over into the look of everything from architecture to automobiles. The era of the designer was in full swing, with Eero Saarinen, Miles van der Rohe, Virgil Exner and Raymond Loewy giving shape to artistic trends that would reverberate throughout the decade. But in the automotive world, none had a more pronounced effect on the shape of the cars of the 1950s than Harley Earl, who, as the head designer for General Motors, catalyzed the aesthetic revolution that swept through the auto industry in the years following World War II.

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While on vacation in California, Earl became intrigued with the shark-fin styling of the tail of the Lockheed P-38 fighter plane and took that enthusiasm back to his Detroit styling studio. The power of his vision was such that by the end of the 1950s, every manufacturer was building cars that looked like fighter planes and rocket ships equipped with wheels and dripping with chrome.

The end of Earl’s career--and the end of a flamboyant, if at times heavy-handed era in car design--came when he retired from GM in 1959. For all that he achieved, what Earl will be remembered for is the baroque excesses of the 1959 Cadillac, a car he had to use all his power and influence to get into production, a car that lasted only one year before its most prominent excesses, those incredible fins, were trimmed down to a size that the lesser men who followed Earl could fit into their smaller vision of the future.

“The cars of the 1950s were special because it was the last time the car companies could design purely on artistic merit, without having to consider aerodynamics or other functional considerations that dictate the shape of cars today,” says Harold Cleworth, automotive artist and owner of a 1959 Imperial. “As a boy in England, I remember hitchhiking to the 1959 Earl’s Court Motor Show and being awed by the sight of a silver Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible with silver upholstery. That encounter left me with a passion for ‘50s cars that burns in me to this day.”

It is perhaps such long-remembered childhood experience that is the root of the ‘50s car mania, for it is worth remembering that no financial trend can maintain itself for long without emotional involvement from the participants.

“One of my strongest childhood memories is of my father’s 1955 Buick Special with the two-tone, red-and-white paint job,” recalls film editor A. Michelle Page, who’s daily transportation is a 1959 Cadillac. “That car made it impossible for me, as an adult, to choose some anonymous transportation module. Driving a ’59 Caddy is like double-dating with a Las Vegas showgirl who insists on going out in full costume. She and I are the center of attention wherever we go, which is occasionally a mixed blessing. But every time I get to wishing for something a bit more anonymous, I see someone’s face light up at the sight of us driving down the street, and that’s what really makes these cars special. They make people smile.”


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