Cruise O Matic

by Yasutoshi Ikuta

Published by Chronicle Books

188 pages, 2000

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Chrome-Magnon Style

Reviewed by David Middleton


In the postwar boom of the 1950s, North American cars were not just DeLuxe or even Custom DeLuxe they were Super-Matic, Ultramatic, Hydra-Matic, Futuramic, with Hurricane Power, Planadyne suspension, Power Dome combustion, Merc-O-Matic Drive and rattle-free Airflyte construction. Their Blue-Flame engines with Powerglide, Dynaflow, Touch-Down Overdrive and Glide-Ride had sensational Strato-Streak power. You could treat yourself to a Trigger-Torque test drive and barrel down the highway secure in the knowledge that beneath all of that Detroit steel, the Speed Trigger Fordomatic Drive, Motoramic, Sweep-Sight windows, Jetaway Hydra-Matic, Strato-Flight, Quadra-Lite, Cruise-O-Matic, Synchro-Mesh, Mirror-Matic, with Skyliner Styling and Sea-tint glass would purr along like a chrome-plated kitten.

Masters of the hyphenated superlative adjectives, copy writers of 50s automobile advertising would write just about anything to baffle the buyer and out-describe their competitors. But then, the 50s were a time of excess. Bigger cars with bigger engines, more chrome, more accessories, more knobs, switches and doodads to make your friends envious and other cars feel inadequate. You could hold your head high with pride knowing that on a bright, clear day you could blind a pilot at 30,000 feet with nothing more than the sun heliographing off your door trim.

Yashutoshi Ikuta's Cruise O Matic: Automobile advertising of the 1950s takes car ads from such popular periodicals as Life, The Saturday Evening Post and Look and reproduces them in a single volume. We get to peer in to the Way-Back machine to a time when men wore fedoras, women wore poodle skirts and seat belts were yet to become standard equipment. Back to a time when the latest models off the assembly line were described as stupendous, sassy and frisky. (Frisky?)

Also the author of The American Automobile and an avid collector of American advertisements, Ikuta includes ads from all of the major American car builders as well as a few examples from European manufacturers and some now defunct American marques (Nash, Packard and Hudson -- to name a few). Through this advertising we see the evolution of the American automobile as it graduates from the bulbous lumbering hulks of the early 50s through to the more linear and slightly more streamlined hulks of the latter half of the decade.

The most identifiable feature of American Cars of the 1950s was the soaring tail fin, which made its first appearance on the 1948 Cadillac. The style perfectly matched not only the upsurge of nationalism in the United States... but also the boldness that Americans exhibited in general.

Thus, with each year's new model the tail fin became larger and more exaggerated. Its most extreme manifestation graced the 1959 Cadillac. Moreover, from about 1955 on, cars made by GM's competitors began to resemble Cadillacs, for the majority of cars produced after the mid-fifties bore the fashionable tail fin.

No doubt, the 1948 Caddy influenced the shape of cars to come and its persuasive effect is seen in such makes and models as the 1953 Packard Clipper, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and the 1959 Dodge Custom Royal. The 1959 Cadillac model year is indeed the epitome of shark-like excess -- those huge curving vertical wings edged with chrome trim and ending with the double bullet-shaped lights seemed more than a little aggressive: they looked downright kinky. And, of course, to mention those big stabilizers without a corresponding illustration would be criminal. Too bad the 1959 Cadillac ad reproduced in Cruise O Matic has cropped out those oversized dorsals so you never get to see them in all their glory as the illustrator had intended.

Despite the fact that there is a typo or two and some ads have been cropped too tight or occasionally suffer from a curved page edge -- you know that effect you get when you photocopy something but can't open the book enough to get the whole picture -- Cruise O Matic includes an impressive collection and Ikuta knows his subject well. There are some lovely examples of the illustrator's craft as the cars are portrayed in techniques that even by today's photographic and Photoshop standards are outstanding. Running the range from simple line and wash drawing to photorealistic painting as well as fashion inspired and Norman Rockwell-style illustrations -- complete with family unit of lucky-to-be-driving-the-Chevy-of-their-dreams parents, 2.3 kids and insanely happy-but-well-behaved canine -- Cruise O Matic is not only an excellent piece of reference but also a prime example of the style, art and design of the time. | August 2000


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and rues the day he threw out his bright yellow plastic mushroom lamp.