As 1958 dawned, America was headed straight up. We won that war, didn’t we? We were the first, most, best, fastest, biggest, richest. In everything. At least it felt that way. The Russians? A repressed, third world country struggling to support a first world military. We had no real competition. Then came Sputnik. The first man-made object to orbit the earth was launched by a proud U.S.S.R. in October 1957 and suddenly, things changed.
An instant pall fell over the land of the brave, with much soul searching, cries for improved education, and breast beating over being beaten by those dirty Reds with their shiny chrome space ball, taunting us with that insane beep-beep-beep electronic tone. It was the kind of sound that would soon dominate when electronics evolved at hyper speed to transform society. But in 1958, it was the needling sound of embarrassment for Americans who watched helplessly as our rockets routinely experienced premature ejaculations, exploding on their launch pads, leaving us as gasping, earthbound losers.
A number of factors led to the economic recession of 1958, but the dour mood inspired by the U.S.S.R.’s historic achievement didn’t help. Detroit automakers were our major industrial base. As its fortunes went, so went the economy. In this climate, Motor City’s 1958 models had a lot riding on their success. And they bombed. Ford’s new Edsel met with a resounding thud. With the single exception of Ford’s successful new four-seat Thunderbird, the company’s styling defined “meh.” Legendary GM styling chief Harley Earl was losing his edge, introducing doughy, overly-chromed 1958s that looked so out of touch they were phased out after a single year instead of their planned three-year cycle. Chrysler carried over its ground breaking new 1957s with minor updates, but the rush to meet demand for their wildly popular 57s led to disastrous quality control issues and 1958 sales suffered as a result. Overall, America’s automobile sales for 1958 were down nearly two million units from 1957’s total.
Though they faltered at the time, history has proven kind to Detroit’s 1958 models. Even Earl’s one year only bulgemobiles are now beloved classics, enjoyed for their expression of Detroit style at its most baroque. The Edsel’s active fan base and clubs support its legacy. Virgil Exner’s Chrysler Forward Look cars still turn heads at shows and auctions. And we finally got those rockets to work, beating the U.S.S.R. in every significant metric, finally topped off by our successful landing of men on the moon just eleven years later.
By Jim Cherry