In the 1950s, the American economy was booming, the suburbs were sprawling, and automobiles took on newfound importance. At the same time, inventions, pop culture, and technological innovations touched our lives in new ways, from the Space Race and the credit card to the Barbie doll and beyond. With jet planes and research rockets soaring above us, not even the sky was the limit anymore.
Few objects of any sort embodied the spirit, the extravagance, and the confidence of 1950s America as well as the concept, or “idea,” cars displayed at the country’s auto shows and, in some cases, on its roads. Designers and engineers experimented with wild styling, clever features, and new solutions to old problems, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. The Jet Age was upon us, and the carmakers were not about to let us forget it. And so you don’t forget them, here is a collection of what we consider to be the greatest concept cars of the decade.
1951 GM LeSabre
No company put out more captivating concept cars in the 1950s than General Motors, in large part thanks to GM design boss Harley Earl, who dazzled the world in 1951 with the GM LeSabre. The LeSabre (a name not yet associated with Buick) captured the dawning Jet Age from every angle, starting with the protuberant center grille that concealed twin headlamps. Its distinct, fuselage-like upper body contours flowed all the way to its afterburner-like center taillamp, all flanked by low and wide fenders and tailfins sprouting from its outboard flanks. The latter theme continued to define the era. The LeSabre was a runner, too, powered by a 335-hp aluminum supercharged V-8 with a rear-mounted automatic transaxle. But unlike most concept cars that followed, the LeSabre was no trailer queen: Earl used it as his everyday ride for a few years, ultimately putting 45,000 miles on it. Strong public reaction to the LeSabre helped convince GM to include concept cars in its famous Motorama traveling car shows of the 1950s.
Oldsmobile was a powerhouse in the 1950s, and its shark-nosed Golden Rocket concept, which made the rounds as part of 1956’s General Motors Motorama, showed how ambitious the brand was. Decidedly sporty, if a little strange-looking with its round headlamps tucked between the skinny grille and high-set, missile-like fenders, the fiberglass-bodied Golden Rocket could have outaccelerated a Corvette at the time, thanks to its 275-hp V-8 and lithe 2500-pound curb weight. Sadly, few of its nifty styling features made production, save for the wraparound split-rear-window treatment, which appeared on the 1963 Corvette. As fast as it was, its luxury features were equally interesting, including a power-tilting steering column, seats that automatically raised and swiveled out when the doors opened, and twin roof panels that tilted upward to facilitate ingress and egress, adding even more drama to arrival.
Italian coachbuilder Ghia kept busy in the 1950s and built the gorgeous Lincoln Futura in 1954 for display at the 1955 Chicago auto show. The Futura’s furrowed brow was the most consequential styling element as far as Lincoln was concerned, but the car itself became a cultural icon more than a decade later when, in 1966, it was given a batlike face, fluted fins, and black-and-orange paint, becoming—you guessed it—the Batmobile for the Batman series. Fifty years later, it remains one of the most famous and beloved automobiles in history, selling at auction in 2013 for $4.6 million.
Concept cars weren’t just an American thing. In the early 1950s, Alfa Romeo commissioned its fellow Italians at the Bertone design house to assist its aerodynamic research efforts. The collaboration resulted in three amazing B.A.T. (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) concept cars: B.A.T. 5, B.A.T. 7, and B.A.T. 9. No relation to Bruce Wayne’s favored ride, Alfa’s trio appeared in successive order at the 1953, 1954, and 1955 Turin auto shows brandishing tapered greenhouses, curved fins, and fenders that were covered in smooth bodywork. Each car looked more producible than the one before it, but they were never built for customers. They did, however, help Alfa Romeo gain a better understanding of aerodynamics, with the best one claiming a heroically low 0.19 drag coefficient, a figure achieved only by the GM EV1 and the Volkswagen XL1 in modern times.
With its one-piece glass roof, forward-thrusting front fenders, and dual afterburner taillamps, the Ford Mystere could hail from no other time than the 1950s. The Mystere’s four passengers would enter and exit through the rear-hinged swing-up canopy, with the overhead scoop providing much-needed ventilation considering how much sunshine the cabin would get (and that there was no way to open the glass). Intended for a gas-turbine engine mounted in the back, the Mystere is said to have arrived at the 1956 Chicago auto show unable to move under its own power. It also supposedly had a radio telephone between the front seats and an aircraft-like “throw over” steering system that could be moved for operation from either front seat.
1956–1957 Chrysler Dart/Diablo
Of the numerous Chrysler/Ghia collaborations of the 1950s, the 1956 Dart/Diablo was arguably the greatest. This concept was built on the chassis of a 1956 Chrysler 300 and was originally dubbed the Dart, featuring a low, ovoid, horizontal grille rendered in chrome that streaked all the way down its clean, unadorned body sides. With its smooth body and inset wheels, the Dart was extremely aerodynamic, so gigantic fins were used for stability as well as style. It originally featured a trick, if unreliable, retractable hardtop that slid back in three positions—sunroof, landau, and fully retracted—but in 1957 it was sent back to Ghia, where the elaborate roof was swapped for a more conventional ragtop and the tailfins were shaved down to more relatable proportions. Thus equipped and renamed the Dart Diablo, the nearly 21-foot-long show car was shown to the public at the 1958 Chicago auto show. In 2013, it sold at auction for a cool $1.4 million.