For a variety of reasons, the year 2009 is best forgotten. The worldwide meltdown of financial institutions and the collapse of the U.S. auto industry have provided us with spiraling unemployment, unfathomable debt, and a sense that we aren't leaving much to work with for coming generations. However, the end of 2009 also marks an anniversary of sorts. When the last minute ticks past on December 31, it will have been exactly 50 years since the end of the 1950s.
The '50s. As Americans, we revere this decade, and not just because of the Happy Days antics of Ritchie and the Fonz. Soldiers back from the war were eager to make the world over and put the horrors that they had seen behind them. For car enthusiasts, and especially for those of us whose interests lie across the pond, the 1950s set the pattern and define what it meant to like cars.
Think of a sports car. No matter what age you are, it is an immutable fact that the origins of the car that you're thinking of is firmly rooted in the '50s. British marques like MG, Triumph, Austin Healey, and Jaguar established their presence in the United States during that single decade. Likewise, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen stormed our beaches less than a decade after Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Italian makers like Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo, while not yet household names, pushed their tin onto well-heeled Americans and filled the top spots on racing grids.
As for racing, sports car racing barely existed before 1950 in the States. It quickly came to represent a way that you could brag about the merits of your MGA over the obvious inferiority of the agricultural Triumph TR3 owned by your neighbor. Sports car racing wasn't just for the elite and professional few. Literally thousands of British, German, and Italian car owners would pry off their hubcaps, tape their headlights, pump up their tires and race wheel-to-wheel in the same car that they drove to work during the week. For most, it was the only car they owned. A major event like the Sebring 12-hour race would invariably see several competitors driving their racecars across the country to compete, and returning home the same way after taking part in the grueling race. It is no mystery why some of the most popular cars in today's vintage racing come from this era. For those drivers who were just slightly less ambitious, autocrosses, gymkhanas, and time speed distance rallies provided an outlet for competitive juices.
With so many men and women out driving their sports cars, it seemed inevitable that there would also rise a group of magazines and writers to cover their activities. Legends like Tom McCahill, Ken Purdy, Denis Jenkinson, Denise McCluggage, and David E. Davis, Jr. made us feel like we were all part of a big club. Road & Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Competition Press, and host of others now largely forgotten fed us what we needed to know to be a part of the in-crowd. They also established the idea of the road test and an understanding that good writing was an important part of journalism.
The decade was also an age of innovation. Fuel injection, disc brakes, aerodynamics, lightweight aluminum alloy construction, and radial tires all found their way onto some 1950s machines. The Mini, with its compact dimensions and front-wheel drive, was a leap forward. Citron's futuristic DS model still looks unlike any other car ever produced and looks more modern with every passing year.