Top cars of the 1950s

1950s cars offered the would be motorist in Australia an incredible range of styles to choose from, from large and luxurious to small and economical, with dozens of models to choose from in between. Unlike today, when you can hardly tell one vehicle from another, in the 1950s, they were all quite distinctive in appearance.

The most common makes were English, such as Austin, Morris, Hillman, Vauxhall, Vanguard, Riley, Rover, Sunbeam, Triumph, Jaguar, Humber and the occasional Armstrong Siddeley, Allard, Bentley or Rolls Royce, and a few more beside, and not forgetting the English made Fords.

Leading the American contenders were Ford and Chevrolet, Studebaker, Hudson, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac, mostly big cars, which were referred to as "Yank Tanks".

Germany and France offered the Mercedes, Borgward, Messerschmidt, Renault, Peugeot and Citroen while the popularity stakes in the late 50s was clearly won by "Australia's Own Car", the Holden and the sensational little VW from Germany. VW drivers were so proud of their cars that they used to wave to each other as they passed on the highway, and they weren't the only ones.

The first Japanese car that I can recall seeing on the streets of Townsville, in the late 1950s, was the Datsun. It was regarded with much skepticism at first, but the word was spread around that it was the Japanese Austin, so it was accepted as being OK. It is strange to think that nearly all those English makes have disappeared and Japanese cars now fill the market place.

Immediately after the War very few families owned a car. Petrol rationing and the post depression economy saw to that. The new cars that were coming on to the market were mostly small, ranging from the Messerschmidt, Bond and Gogomobile to the Austin A30 and A40, the Morris Minor, Standard, Ford Prefect and Vauxhall and Hillman.

Each model had it's own very distinctive style. Apart from the sports cars like the Austin Healey, Triumph Spitfire, MG TF and the Sunbeam Alpine, I think the real head-turners were the Rileys, Jaguars, Studebakers and that stunning looking Allard with it's long sleek bonnet. I remember as a kid, walking to school past a sky-blue Austin Atlantic convertible. Oh! What an amazing looking car that was.

In the early '50s, the little Dinky cars we loved so much in the '40s were superseded in the kids affections by Matchbox Cars, beautiful little models of the cars that were on the roads in those days.

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I learnt to drive in a Ford Zephyr and a Holden. My first car was a 1956 Austin A30, a modest, but very reliable little car. My second car was a 1960 VW. Brand new, I parked behind our office in Eagle Street, Brisbane. That morning, the manager called me in to his office to give me some pointers on good road manners. It seems he had just returned from holidays when the only ones that passed him on the highway were "young coves in Volkswagens".

Roads and driving conditions have changed completely since the 1950s. My brother and I drove from Melbourne to Townsville in his Ford Prefect, in January 1954. Apart from the large cities, traffic was very light, which is just as well as roads were narrow and winding. Bridges were often just above water level at the bottom of steep banks. In Queensland, many bridges were single lane only, so only one car could cross at a time, and country roads, including the Bruce Highway, were often little more than dirt tracks, rough and corrugated.

The R.A.C.Q. maps in those days were marvelous. They were strip maps showing every bend in the road and the whereabouts of bridges, gates, cattle grids and side roads, as well as the distance to the next town, service station or telephone. Most of the towns we passed through, were dry, dusty, sleepy little hollows, in contrast to the thriving places they are today. The good thing was that there were no semi-trailers taking up the road.

Travelers were few and far between, so they used to wave to one another, and if anyone was stopped on the side of the road, cars would stop to see if they needed assistance. Road courtesy was universal. Vehicles would dip their lights for approaching traffic, and slow down to avoid showering the approaching vehicle with dust and rocks, and of course, in an effort to protect their own windscreen from breakage. Never the less windscreen breakages were common. The Bruce Highway was referred to as "the crystal highway" because of the broken windscreens twinkling on the side of the road.

In the early 60s, my job as insurance inspector took me all over North Queensland. The road from Townsville to Mount Isa was corrugated black soil with low level bridges or sandy river crossings. In places, huge pot holes formed pockets that became filled by talcum powder-like Bull Dust, so the unsuspecting driver would be unaware of the pot hole until he walloped into it and bounced out the other side in a blinding, choking cloud of powdery dust. Oh! What a feeling that was. The only bitumen on the route, past Charters Towers, was just through each of the little towns. It started a few hundred meters before the town and ended about the same distance past it, then it was back to bone shaking corrugations for the next hundred miles or so to the next town.

1950s cars took the rough roads in their stride without the benefit of four wheel drive. Water was a different matter. If you were caught in rain on the black soil plains you were in trouble as the black, sticky mud would build up on the tyres until it was impossible to drive. However, I doubt whether four wheel drives would fare much better. Maybe just take a little longer to get stuck.

For a while in the 1950s the Redex Reliability Trials were held. Cars of all descriptions raced around Australia, over the worst roads and in the most difficult conditions. Men like Jelignite Jack, who took explosives along to clear obstructions from the roads, became household names. Townspeople used to line the roads to see the cars go past. It was a really big event. Volkswagens and Peugeots proved their reliability as did many other makes. An MG nearly won the race one year, but the cars I best remember were the majestic Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire and the Rolls Royce Tourer with a 44 gallon drum of petrol strapped to it's boot. They were really great cars.

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