Friday, September 17, 2010

1953. The greatest year for the world's greatest company

The question as to what was the best year in the history of General Motors is often the source of hot debate. I think you could make a good case for several different years.

1967 is a big one that comes to mind. Chevrolet produced the most hairy-chested, desirable Corvette in its history. The Camaro debuted to tremendous fanfare. Bill Mitchell’s gorgeous front-wheel-drive Eldorado hit the streets. The Pontiac GTO had grown into its full potential. Everywhere you turned, good things were happening.

1957 is another high water mark. Everything they built became part of our culture. The ’57 Chevy is probably the most iconic car ever. Fuel-injected Chevrolets and Pontiacs were technological marvels. General Motors products from 1957 still influence what we see today.

But if I had to pick a single greatest year, I’d go with 1953. If there ever was an example of the ideal American corporation, the General Motors as depicted in ’53 was it. With World War II becoming a distant memory, the Korean War coming to an end, and a nation of happy, well-fed people looking to get their piece of the American dream, 1953 had it all.

This wasn’t lost on America’s greatest company. Scratch that—the world’s greatest company. Because that’s what it was; the world’s greatest company. And it was obvious by the way they ran things.

Before they were in the business of health insurance, governmental safety regulations, fuel mileage, and other such mundane matters, GM was actually in the business of designing and building the best cars in the world.

And they did, too. The sky was the limit as far as what they could accomplish there. They were all about beauty, comfort, and passion. The only reason they couldn’t do something was because it was beyond the scope of their designers’ and engineers’ imaginations—and they had the best people working for them that money could buy.

Look at the cars they sold to the public. Every detail on every car was crafted to the limit, but just having a bunch of ordinary cars wasn’t enough. No, they also had to have a lineup of handcrafted dream rides that were extraordinarily expensive to buy, built in very limited quantities, and cost a fortune to build.  These were cars like the Cadillac LeMans, the Buick Wildcat, and the Oldsmobile Starfire. Why? Because they were General Motors, and they could it.

Examples of these cars would include the lavish 1953 Eldorado. It sold for nearly double that of a regular Cadillac. It was out of reach for anyone but the very rich. And only 532 of the custom-bodied beauties were built all year.

Or take the ’53 Oldsmobile Fiesta. Oldsmobile built 334,462 cars in 1953. Only 458 of these were Fiestas. It looked kinda’ like a regular 98 convertible, but none of the body panels were interchangeable, and it cost more than double. The ’53 Fiesta is a great example of wretched excess, and it is spectacular.

Buick got their own ridiculously awesome custom car in ‘53. This one had the highest production totals—a whopping 1,690 copies. Gleaming Kelsey-Hayes genuine wire wheels, acres of waffle-patterned leather, and a special custom body made this Buick more expensive than a Cadillac Deville convertible.

Even value-leader Chevrolet wasn’t left out. And at the time, their car was probably the most radical of them all. Instead of the practical, sensible, entry-level family haulers they were known for, Chevy got the Corvette—an impossibly low, two-seat fiberglass roadster that didn’t even have roll-up windows. The Corvette was pulled straight from the Motorama circuit, and only 300 were made in that groundbreaking year.

Motorama circuit? Oh yeah, let’s talk about that for a second. If you needed more proof that General Motors could do whatever they wanted, this is Exhibit A. GM would bring their Motorama shows from town-to-town. They were among the biggest traveling productions on earth, if not the biggest. They had opulent stages and displays, dancing girls, orchestras, and oh, the cars.

Not just any cars, either. Sure, they brought out their finest new production vehicles for people to drool over. And that would have been enough to bring the huge crowds to the convention centers. But they also brought “Dream Cars”. These were one-off eye candy that foreshadowed GM styling years down the road. Some of the styling cues were so far in the future, we still haven’t gotten there yet. One car could cost millions to build in 1950s dollars. But they were General Motors, so they could do that.

And speaking of the future, let’s not forget the General Motors parade of Progress. This was an earlier idea that went on hiatus during World War II, but started back up in ’53 to rave reviews. GM traveled the country in a fleet of twelve 33-foot long Futurliners—radical, custom-built busses—to basically let people look into the crystal ball. And we’re not talking about cars, either. GM owned Frigidare, so there were displays about modern appliances and microwave ovens. But they also touched on jet propulsion and even space travel. How did the Parade of Progress know so much about the future? Because it was produced by General Motors.

General Motors has been a part of a lot of great things throughout its history, and there were some real significant years. But for me, the things they accomplished in 1953, the influence they had, and the products they built are mind-boggling. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything quite like it ever again. It truly was the greatest year in the history of the world’s greatest company.

Here's a little slideshow with some examples of the cars and advertising that came from the great year of 1953.


  1. So what does an Olds Fiesta look like?

  2. I'm glad you asked me that! The second picture in the article body is a Fiesta, but I also did a whole feature about them earlier this year on the Examiner. That article is here (copy and paste the whole link):

    Thanks for reading!