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Notes From a Bygone Era

This morning my father mentioned a 1957 Chevy. He was talking about what an interesting car it was, and how it was such a landmark in American automotive history, and for at least an hour, I didn’t really understand what he was referring to, because I was confused between the object and the context: it wasn’t the car itself, the sheetmetal, the engine and the frame and all the componentry — it was the era in which the 1957 Chevy was built that he was so nostalgic for. The entire era of the 1950s, from about 1953 until 1966 or 1967, defines my father’s formative years. And despite all the things that happened during that time, all of the things that today we would hyperventilate about, he still believes that they were the model for how America should live, as though those years could be frozen in time and replicated forever. The high water mark of our culture.

Later I was wandering around on the Internet and came across this: The Old Car Manual Project. And looking at the photographs of the ’50s and early ’60s Buicks there, reading the advertisements, just took me into a completely different world, so far removed from the one we live in today that I almost can’t believe they were composed in the same country, or even the same world.

The pictures of the Buicks from the 1950s just beam with optimism and security. They’re the polar opposite of self-doubt, worry, and indecision. Those cars and the people who bought them must have felt that they were living on top of the world, and selecting from the best of the top of the world when they bought something to put in their driveway. The families were model families, and the concerns weren’t even concerning — they were just minor differences of opinion. People could be excited even when they were relaxing.

I mean, just listen to this:

It’s something you can’t miss.

Even as you see it standing at the curb, you can sense the pulse-quickening action this rakish Buick promises.

But nothing seen or heard can fully prepare you for the thrill you feel when you press the pedal of this automobile.

For here a new kind of excitement wells up in you — from a new kind of action that was never in any Earth-bound vehicle before.

For Pete’s sake the ad. must have appealed to people who believed they were living in Valhalla. Other ads are less hyperbolic, but all of them have the same undertone of absolute, boundless optimism. By contrast, I half expect GM and Chrysler’s next generation of ads to advertise their new cars as homeless shelters.

It’s a very different world now, and I couldn’t help but think while gazing at all those car advertisements from the ’50s and early ’60s whether America will ever be so grand, so elegant and self-assured, so polished and intelligent and so intrinsically confident? It seems almost impossible to imagine now…

[More to come in this thread...updates in the next hour]

The first thing that really struck me about some of the ads. was how much text there was in them. You don’t see five or six paragraphs used to sell American cars now. Occasionally in more expensive magazines, luxury foreign carmakers print ads with more than 250 words. These ads resemble today’s ads for computer products more than anything else.

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