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1950s Cars: 20 Iconic Cars That Changed the Automotive Industry

By Vlad Craciun


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1950s Cars
1956 Aston Martin DBR1 / RM Sotheby’s

The 1950s was a very interesting decade, one of progress, flourishing production and creativity in many areas. After a devastating World War II, humankind was recovering from all that damage. Industries went back to their pre war duties and production was at a historic peak, reaping the benefits of the innovations made during the war and applying them to the more peaceful human needs.

The automotive industry was among the ones that benefited a lot from the winds of change. Cars became a necessity for many people all over the world, and car makers would strive to come up with stylish designs and improved performance.

Despite the fact that the 1960s are often considered the golden age of automotive progress, the cars of the 1950s have a special place in our hearts too.

They were gorgeous, innovative, and exclusive enough to inspire the models that came a decade or two later. Many of today’s popular names in the automotive industry began to surface in this period and stand out from the rest, producing models that would achieve legendary status in the following decades, proving that the 1950s were among the best years of the car world.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most iconic cars that the 1950s have produced.

20. Ford Fairlane

Ford Fairlane
1955 Ford Fairlane / streetsideclassics.com

The mighty Ford Fairlane was a gorgeous full size convertible that came out in 1955, replacing the company’s Crestline. Named after Henry Ford’s cherished estate, Fair Lane, the now iconic car featured distinctive stainless steel lines on the side and came with several innovations in driving safety.

The car came with a Lifeguard Safety Package, which featured energy absorbing steering wheel and safety belts, two of the many automotive improvements of the decade.

19. Chrysler Plymouth Fury

Chrysler Plymouth Fury
1956 Chrysler Plymouth Fury / Photo by Alfvan Beem / wikipedia.org

The 1956 Chrysler Plymouth Fury was one of those cars that cared more about the looks than its practicality, a feature that made it unique. Nonetheless, people loved it and Chrysler delivered it.

The Fury was stylish and flashy, featuring beautiful tailfins and elegant lines, and came out as one of the most distinctive cars that came out in the 1950s.

18. Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud

Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud
1955 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud / supercars.net

With its distinctive aesthetic and performance improvements, the 1955 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud was one of the best cars that came out during those years. It got that old-school definitive British look, big and luxurious, but adapted to the modernity of those times.

Inside, the Silver Cloud featured air conditioning and leather seating. Performance wise, it came with power steering, and a choice between a 4.9 liter straight six and a powerful 6.2 liter V8, able to push the car past 100mph.

Overall, the Silver Cloud was Rolls Royce’s first true post-war design and a very significant model.

17. Lincoln Continental 

Lincoln Continental 
1956 Lincoln Continental / Photo by Rex Gray / wikipedia.org

The 1956 Lincoln Continental is easily the best classic American luxury car of the decade. Though its production was limited to only 3,000 units, the Continental brought a refinement that the American consumer had never known before.

It featured air conditioning and a nice stereo system, and was powered by a hefty 6.0 liter V8, capable of a good 300hp. Each of those 3,000 cars was built by hand, making it even more luxurious and unique. Unfortunately, that also meant a very high cost of acquisition, which made it too expensive for most Americans.

16. Lotus Seven

Lotus Seven
1957 Lotus Seven Series 1 / RM Sotheby’s

Many car enthusiasts today know about the Caterham Seven, but few know where it all started. Its inception was in fact the Lotus Seven Series 1 that came out in 1957 and took the world by storm with its kit car design which was meant to avoid a high tax rate.

Despite the car’s huge success, the rights to the Seven were sold to Caterham, as Lotus wanted to move away from the kit car image it started to have, a move that happened in 1975.

15. Aston Martin DBR1

Aston Martin DBR1
1956 Aston Martin DBR1 / RM Sotheby’s

The Aston Martin DBR1 that legends such as Stirling Moss, Jim Clark or Caroll Shelby drove changed completely the rules of what a racing car looks like and behaves.

The DBR1 came out in 1956 and looked amazing. It turned heads anywhere it went, raced four times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and won the Nurburgring 1,000km race in 1958.

The heart of the car was a revolutionary inline-six that pushed the DBR1 to a top speed of 155mph, unleashing 254hp in the process. It truly was an amazing achievement of the automotive industry.

The DBR1 pictured above was auctioned off for a staggering $22.5M by RM Sotheby’s at the 2017 Monterey Car Week.

14. Buick Skylark

Buick Skylark
1950 Buick Skylark / hymanltd.com

The 1950 Buick Skylark was a very important step in the evolution of the American automotive world, setting the standard for all the carmakers to follow, a symbol of American greatness, upper class ambitions, and the nation wide optimism that was born in those early years after the end of the World War II.

The outstanding Skylark was probably one of the most significant cars to come out in the 1950s, a gem of car design, classiness, and lavish interiors. It featured a 5.3 liter V8 under the hood, luxury leather upholstery inside, and an electric roof. The Buick Skylark really represented the American dream of the period.

13. Jaguar XK140 

Jaguar XK140
1955 Jaguar XK140 / goodingco.com

Though the Jaguar XK120 was one of the most successful sports car of the era, the 1955 XK140 was even better. It was superb from all the literal points of view, and served as the base and inspiration for the coming E-Type.

The Jaguar XK140 took the form of a GT, made for long distance cruising, which fit wonderfully in the 1950s.

12. Cadillac Coupe de Ville

Cadillac Coupe de Ville
Cadillac Coupe de Ville / bringatrailer.com

The 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville is a true beauty of the automotive world, one of the most impressive car designs ever created. It impressed everyone with those gorgeous and outsized tailfins and pointy stoplights, the curvaceous lines, bus sized steering wheel, chrome bumpers, and white wall tires.

It was the car of choice for some of the greatest names in music, John Lennon and Elvis Presley, making it that much more popular.

Under the hood, it came with a 325hp 6.4 liter V8, so nothing to complain about when it came to power.

11. BMC Mini 

BMC Mini
1959 BMC Mini

The  iconic BMC Mini came out in 1959 and set completely different standards for what all day cars could be. Some name it the most revolutionary car of all times, and you can easily see why.

The Mini wasn’t successful in only minimizing its overall footprint, but it also managed to offer an incredible amount of space for the driver and unbelievable handling and racing prowess.

The car was an excellent choice on both circuit racing and in rallies all over the world.

And when you think that more than 5 million of these cars came out the production line during the decades, it really puts its success into perspective.

10. Cadillac Eldorado

Cadillac Eldorado
1957 Cadillac Eldorado / Gooding & Company

The white wall tires, the shiny chrome body, and the pointy tailfins were a thing in the 1950s America, and cars like the Cadillac Eldorado delivered them all.

The Eldorado hit the roads in 1957 as one of the most expensive cars that Cadillac had ever made. The elongated body, the conical Dagmar bumpers, the chrome lines, the tailfins and the white wall tires, everything made the Eldorado a gorgeous car.

Added to its exterior and interior luxury was a powerful 300hp engine that made it an instant hit with consumers, bringing Cadillac the much needed success on the market.

9. Chevrolet Bel Air

Chevrolet Bel Air
1957 Chevrolet Bel Air / mecum.com

Drawing inspiration from the world of aviation, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air became the brand’s go to car, cherished by many, from the average customer who needed an affordable daily driver to the movie industry.

The Bel Air was among the first affordable hard-top convertibles that the American public got to enjoy, impressing with its distinctive and sensational styling, and its large front and mesmerizing tail fins.

The car came equipped with a new and improved engine, the Super Turbo-Five V8, and features such as air conditioning and a great stereo system.

8. Citroen DS

Citroen DS
1955 Citroen DS / bringatrailer.com

The French didn’t stay in the shadow of other manufacturers during that time, so they unveiled the Citroen DS at the Paris Motor Show of 1955. The car was a different kind of amazing, distinct in design from the American classics, the Italian stallions or the British snobbery.

Among the innovations that Citroen brought to the world back then was a hydro-pneumatic suspension and all-round disc brakes, semi-automatic gearbox, power steering, and directional headlights that came on later variants of the DS.

The car remained in production for more than two decades, with close to a total of 1.5 million units made.

7. Ford F100

Ford F100 
1952 Ford F100  / classicautomall.com

The Ford F100 acquired a legendary status due to its almost indestructible construction. It was the best selling and longest running line of Ford trucks ever made. The F100 came out in 1952, and it led to another iconic truck, the F150 – the most well known of the line, and to a total of over 40 million F-series trucks sales.

The F100 featured powered brakes, an adjustable bench seat with room for up to 3 people, an optional automatic transmission, and seatbelts – introduced in the later iterations. As for engines, it was powered by either a 100hp flathead V8 or a 101hp straight six, plenty enough for heavy duty work.

6. Chevrolet Corvette

Chevrolet Corvette
1953 Barrett-Jackson / Barrett-Jackson

The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette needs no introduction. This line of cars is so iconic, that people all over the world can recognize one when they see it. Maybe less for the first generation, the C1, but true car enthusiasts have it in their hearts.

Though most would think they all came with a V8 under the hood, the truth is that the C1 was powered by a straight six instead. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Corvette received a V8.

The initial variant had two speed automatic transmission, the only one that Chevrolet had that was able to handle the huge and powerful engine. The fiberglass body made the car lightweight, and the two seater convertible design was lovely.

Despite that, the car was slow to sell, but it had already set things in motion, and its next siblings would make the Corvette line truly legendary.

5. Aston Martin DB4

Aston Martin DB4
1958 Aston Martin DB4 / RM Sotheby’s

One of the fastest cars to come out during the ’50s, the Aston Martin DB4 was a sensational appearance wherever it went. It was launched only in 1958, but it shaped the car scene worldwide.

Under the unbelievable beauty of its design lay a 240hp 3.7 liter inline six that could rush the car past the 140mph mark. It came with disc brakes for each of its four wheels, and managed to become the first production car ever to do the 0 to 100mph run in less than 30 seconds.

The Aston Martin DB4 quickly became the luxury sports car of choice for many rich people, and it lay the foundation for James Bond’s DB5 that reached international fame.

4. Ford Thunderbird 

Ford Thunderbird
1955 Ford Thunderbird / Bring a Trailer

The Ford Thunderbird of 1955 was regarded as the quintessential American car of that decade, offering the high performance, an impressive aesthetic, and a terrific driving experience for a price that the average American could actually afford.

The T-bird, as it was nicknamed, was created in response to Chevrolet’s new Corvette, and was marketed as a luxury car, despite its affordability. Under the hood it featured a 5.1 liter V8 that was capable of unleashing a good 245hp and push the car to 150mph, which was more than enough for that era.

The two seater Ford Thunderbird with its lovely detachable fiberglass roof managed to surpass the Corvette in sales, with over 16,155 units sold in its first year. The car was an instant hit, and it quickly became an American icon of the period.

3. Porsche 550 RS Spyder

Porsche 550 RS Spyder
1956 Porsche 550 RS Spyder / RM Sotheby’s

Another fine classic of the 1950s is the Porsche 550 RS Spyder that came out in 1956. It was known as Porsche’s first race car, super lightweight, low body, and painted in that iconic gray.

The 550 Spyder was hand built, which meant that each and every car that came out the production line was unique. Though not as mesmerizing as the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa that would come out two years later, the elegant bodywork made it a very impressive sight wherever it raced.

There were only 90 of them built, which makes the Spyder one of the rarest Porsches ever.

2. Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa

Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa
1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa / Gooding & Company

The 1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa is one of the most beautiful cars that have ever been created. It came with such a distinct style that everyone who saw it knew instantly it was definitely a Ferrari.

The sleek curves and aerodynamic rounded body wasn’t everything though. The Italian sports car was powered by a 3.5 liter 12 cylinder engine that could output a jaw-dropping 300hp. With it, the Testa Rossa was complete.

It broke records on the race track and opened Ferrari’s appetite for designing some of the most marvelous cars that ever hit the road ever since.

1. Mercedes-Benz 300SL

Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing
1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing

The Mercedes-Benz 300SL from 1956 is a rare beauty, and most probably one of, if not the most beautiful car Mercedes has ever brought to life. The exterior design close to perfection and the gullwing doors that would open to reveal a luxurious interior made this car a true masterpiece.

Based on the W194 Mercedes that dominated the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1952 and equipped with a 215hp 3.0 liter straight six, the 300SL was also the fastest production car of that time, reaching a top speed of 155mph.

Did you know that one of these beauties (actually, the SLR version) was sold for $142 million? That mind blowing winning bid made it the most expensive car ever sold!

Final thoughts

The competition that unfolded after the automotive industry recovered from the previous decade gave birth to some of the most amazing road machines people could have dreamed of.

From the European manufacturers and their race-bred beauties to the American carmakers and their big shiny classics, everyone was trying to impress and outdo its competitors, bringing to fruition several mesmerizing car designs that shaped the future of the automotive industry. The ones above are some of the best examples.

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About Vlad Craciun

Vlad has over 7 years of experience writing content about subjects such as travel, cars, motorcycles, tech & gadgets, and his newly discovered passion, watches. He’s in love with two wheeled machines and the freedom and the thrills that motorcycle travel provides. Learn more about Luxatic's Editorial Process.

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