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Tuesday, 06 November 2018 23:21

In Reverse: The Fabulous ‘50s and Mr. O’Donnell’s Invention

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The decade of the ‘50s marked a golden era in the auto industry. American servicemen were back from the war. No longer were factories turning out bombs and bullets. It was time to build some cars that were destined to be classics---and time to introduce some new automotive technology.


Mainstay models like the Chevy Corvette and Ford Thunderbird were introduced. The 1957 Chevy Bel Air became the quintessential classic car. Ford’s 1957 Fairlane became forgettable. It was also the decade that saw the emergence of the import car with names like VW, Triumph and Jaguar. Typically at the time, import cars were first characterized as vehicles that were difficult to repair and difficult to find replacement parts and refinish paint for. That stigma would remain until the 1970s.


In 1950, with so many people hitting the roads after being limited for so long by gas and tire rationing and simply lacking a vehicle, vehicle miles traveled and the accident rate began to soar. In 1950, 34,763 highway deaths were reported. It was time to implement some safety measures.


Wide curved-glass windows, front and rear, gave drivers an extra measure of safety to avoid accidents … and offered replacement window re-installers a new challenge. The new Chevy small-block V8 gave drivers safety in the way of more power on the new interstate freeways to pass and merge into traffic.


Safety became more of an issue in the 1950s for body repairers, the motoring public and civil and safety engineers. Vehicle safety meant greater use of seat belts and padded dashboards. The concept of automotive safety airbags was developed in the 1950s, but they were not very practical. To deploy an airbag, a driver or passenger had to anticipate a collision and flick the “deploy” switch in time. Most people weren’t quick enough.


Roads became safer with new legislation that called for more signs and lane separation. Civil engineers designed roads with a crown in the middle, allowing rain water to run off to the edges, leaving a better, less slippery surface. It was also the start of the interstate highway system, which promoted driving and led to more accidents and more need for body shops.

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