Forgotten Dreams: Lesser-known 1950s concept cars

By Angelo Van Bogart

With little doubt, the 1950s marked  the pinnacle of American dream cars. Prosperity allowed Americans to dream and automakers with the funds to coax those dreams with ideas for the future. Nearly every automaker produced dream cars in the 1950s, especially at the middle part of the decade when General Motors’ Motoramas were in full swing.

Those cars of tomorrow featured ideas with the promise of progress during the jet age: bubble roof canopies, jet thruster and rocket styling themes, the newest technologies such as in-car TVs and communications devices and the antennae to support them, innovative powertrains and fins mimicking the aeronautical industry. One look at the idea cars at a GM Motorama or auto show floor would make the Joneses think flying personal transportation was just a discovery away.

Mostly, these dream car exercises were just that — dreams. On rare occasions, the dream became reality, as with the Chevrolet Corvette or the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

Sometimes, the dream cars became small-run vehicles for the wealthy, as with the Ghia 1953 Chrysler Sports Coupe. More often, those dream cars lent individual features to forthcoming production cars, such as the tiara on the Ford Mystere that landed on the 1955-’56 Crown Victoria or the tail lamps from the 1956 Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser that split the fins on production 1959 Mercurys.

As quickly as these dream cars predicted the future, they became passe, an outdated marker of yesterday’s logic. Once past their prime, dream cars were oversized paper weights with potential liability for manufacturers, especially if brought to the road. Due to the burden they posed, most were destroyed by their makers and written off to history.

Survivors have become valued treasures that remind Americans of the most sparkling moments of the 1950s. Despite the excited crowds they once drew, those that were crushed are often forgotten and are only found by the most dedicated researchers leafing through dusty book pages.

Here you’ll find 11 of our favorite lost or forgotten dream cars that once thrust daydreamers into the future during the jet age. Most have met the fate of oblivion, a few remain to be discovered and even a few remain known, although rarely seen, unless you know where to look.

 

1953 Oldsmobile Starfire X-P Rocket

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Oldsmobile didn’t deny its experimental Starfire was a product of its generation, or the influence of its design features. The car was named for the U.S. Air Force’s Lockheed F-94 Starfire jet plane, although aside from the bubbled headlamp covers that mimicked the rockets carried by the F-94, the Oldsmobile Starfire shared little exterior design with the F-94. Fortunately, the design maintained the best parts of Oldsmobile and served as a bridge from its early 1950s to mid-1950s designs. Its open-mouth grille, delicate side trim, “Darrin dip” beltline and rocket-tipped tail lamps jutting off the rear the fenders were just a few of the features that made Oldsmobile tops in the 1950s.

Olds is reported to have built as many as three of these four-seat Starfires for 1953, but from what we understand, all that remains is a single front seat.

 

1955 Ford Mystere

concept-Mystere

As much as the Ford Mystere was a product of the jet age, it was also a product of the atomic era. Its multiple antennae and air scoops made it prepared for whatever whiz-bang devices man had invented or could possibly dream of creating. A telephone, television and button and lever controls gave it a futuristic feel inside. On the outside, its jet-age influence was most visible in its clear-roof canopy, twin jet-plane rear exhaust ports and its long, low stance that made it appear as though it was hovering above this planet or the next. It was a package that George Jetson would have proudly ridden to a day at Spacely Sprockets.

For all of its futurism, the wild Mystere featured traits that would appear on production Fords. The side trim made it to 1955 and ’56 Fords and the fins to 1957 Fords. It’s easy to picture Junior playing with his Robby the Robot from the back seat while Mom prepared pills for a picnic warmed in the in-car microwave oven.

Although the Mystere swooped into the hearts of showgoers during the late 1954 show season, its subsequent history is a black hole.

 

1955 Oldsmobile Delta

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Oldsmobile took a rocket, flipped it around, and created a stunning dream car that is often overlooked. The smooth rear end of the Delta carried the profile of a rocket, but the relatively flat, forward-leaning front end was designed as an air intake between an exaggerated form of Oldsmobile’s contemporary “headlamp over parking lamp” theme.

Open fenders around the wheels with plated fender backings gave the car an airy and future feel, while the rounded roof of brushed aluminum added an aeronautical element. Its busy and bright wheel covers were straight off the buttons of a robot, yet complemented the clean design of the Delta.

We doubt anyone has followed up on the fate of this concept car, which probably landed in a Detroit-area salvage yard and then, oblivion.

 

1955 Packard Request

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Fans asked for it, and Packard delivered.

The 1955 Packard Request brought back the traditional tall, tombstone-type Packard grille to a production Packard. Creative Industries fitted the 1930s-style grille and the special bumpers it was flanked by to a production Packard Four Hundred while creating this wildly popular dream car. For all but the person who drove the Request home, it was a dream, as no others were built. For Packard fans, car production itself would soon become a dream as the company ceased to be an automotive brand after the 1958 model year.

Although rarely seen, the Request still exists, and remains one Packard dream not totally forgotten.

 

1956 Chevrolet Corvette Impala

concept-impala

In a sea of ’50s GM dream cars, the Corvette Impala often gets lost. Perhaps that is because it’s not hard to picture the Impala on the road. It is a clean design, lacking the chrome excess, venting, antennae and heavy trim parts of atomic-era influences. Its restrained jet-age influences are most obvious in the open-mouth grille and rocket-shaped side trim. While not noteworthy for its wildness, the Corvette Impala remains important for predicting not what could be, but what would be. Its front-end treatment and rear fender shape were borrowed from the Corvette. Its name, roofline and side trim wound up on the 1958 Impala.

For all its familiarity, the 1956 Chevrolet Corvette Impala is often overlooked. This one is believed to have been crushed, but has anyone cared enough to look for it? As Chevrolet’s last Motorama dream car, it’s worth hunting.

 

1956 Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser

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Stylist Don De LaRossa’s design for the XM-Turnpike Cruiser encapsulated all the tasteful excess of 1950s dream cars. For starters, it had huge tail lamps, four exhaust pipes, excessively large front fender cooling vents and four protruding jet pods on the front bumpers. And nothing was as excessive as the manner in which this show car was displayed — it had its own windowed trailer pulled behind a matching semi cab. The XM-Turnpike Cruiser actually predicted 1959 Mercury styling, but the car’s almost 360-degree visibility and flip-up transparent roof panels were not part of the production package.

This car is rumored to still exist under the sun in a warm climate, awaiting a someday restoration.

 

1956 Chrysler Norseman

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The Chrysler Norseman still leads people to dream about what could be, although few actually ever saw this jet-age beauty. Instead of rocketing imaginations toward the long, low look of upcoming Chrysler Corp. products, the Norseman torpedoed to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean when it sank with the SS Andrea Doria. Many have wondered about the current state of the car and dreamed of retrieving it from 200 feet of cold ocean water, but the dangers of the dive and the condition of the decaying ship in which it rests have prevented the wreck’s few visitors from finding the car.

If found, the Norseman would likely live up to dreamers’ expectations, with its cantilevered roof line, toothed and concave grille, rocket pod parking lamps, fastback roof and jet pod instrument panel.

But alas, the Norseman will likely remain in its watery resting place.

 

1954 Dodge Granada

concept-granada

The 1953 Corvette wasn’t the only glass-tastic experimental car to hit the show circuit — one year after the ’Vette’s debut, Dodge displayed its 1954 Granada roadster. While the Granada may not have been the first plastic-bodied car, it was the first to feature a one-piece plastic body — a type of body construction Corvettes would eventually adapt.

With its Red Ram 241-cid Hemi and lightweight construction on the conventional Dodge chassis, the Granada probably could have given the Corvette a run for its money from a stop sign.

Although sleek and sporty, the 1954 Granada did little to predict future Dodge or Chrysler Corp. styling. Its current whereabouts elude us.

 

1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket

concept-rocket

If it weren’t for the wheels and tires, Oldsmobile’s 1956 Golden Rocket might look as though it were a rocket plucked straight from under the wing of a F-94 jet plane and given the plane’s cockpit cover.

No other ’50s dream car took the jet-age theme more seriously than the Golden Rocket. Its three-point nose, rocket-tip rear bumper caps and rounded side panels to tie the front and back together made the Golden Rocket look like, well, a rocket with wheels. There was even a lateral fin on the rear deck for good measure.

While the nose was smooth for good air stream, there was a vent located in the center prow, flanked by projectiles at the tips of the pointed front fenders. As though more jet-age inspiration were necessary, several cockpit controls were placed in the center of the steering wheel. A central console that began on the instrument panel and extended to the console was not unlike that found in today’s cars, but the lift-up roof panels for easy entry and egress were very much a jet-age feature of the Golden Rocket.

The metallic gold Golden Rocket was promoted as a “glittering new experimental car by Oldsmobile,” but the shine soon wore off. Exactly where this car landed after the 1956 Motorama season is anyone’s guess.

 

1958 La Galaxie

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As the jet age wound down, Ford debuted the 1958 La Galaxie, which was more shuttle-like than jet-age in appearance. As expected, it was long and low, but relatively heavy looking for the time period with huge rear bumper loops mimicking exhaust afterburners and hubcap-size chrome pods for headlamp housings. While it was unike anything on the road, perhaps the era of the jet-age concept car was waning. One look at this photo suggests that: all of the onlookers are enthralled by the production 1958 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop in the background while the La Galaxie begs for attention from its pedestal.

For gizmo-laden, pod-bedecked concept cars such as the La Galaxie, it became less about futuristic styling and more about futuristic technology, which the La Galaxie had with its proximity warning screen and radar navigation. From this point forward, Ford dream cars would evolve into  Jetson-like crafts resembling flying saucers in the early 1960s before looking more production-ready by the mid 1960s.

Unfortunately, no one probably noticed when the La Galaxie made its way off its pedestal, likely headed for the scrap heap with other forgotten dreams.

 

1956 Packard Predictor

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Perhaps the worst-named concept car of the 1950s was the Packard Predictor. It did little to predict the future of automotive design beyond a couple years, and worse yet, it was a bad joke on the future of Packard itself. Sure, the Predictor’s reversed rear window and swivel bucket seats would appear on production cars, but the Edsel-style front bumper helped spell doom for that automaker. Regardless, these features were very 1950s and the package as a whole was certainly wild and awe-inspiring during the jet age. We can’t predict the past’s future on a path not chosen, but we can’t help think what Packard’s future might have held had the Predictor design made it to production. It survives.

 

 

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