On the surface, Glamour Road (Schiffer Publishing), the new book by writer Jeff Stork and graphic designer Tom Dolle, presents as a hefty, eye-popping volume to sate classic car buffs — page after page of deliciously stylized photography and illustrations as well as vintage advertising that replays the desire, romance, and aspiration of the midcentury era. But alongside the artfully displayed kitsch lies a trenchantly researched account of the seismic effects of design, women, fashion, and advertising on American culture.
“This book has been more than 40 years in the making,” Stork, a private collection manager who also writes for automobile publications, says in Glamour Road's introduction. “I’ve been accumulating stories for it since childhood.”
Stork and Dolle, both Palm Springs transplants, created the popular Cul de Sac Experience for Modernism Week. They placed a selection of restored classic cars in driveways in the Palmer & Krisel-designed Canyon View Estates neighborhood of South Palm Springs, opened six homes for tours, and hosted a street party with a DJ, go-go dancers, and vintage ice cream truck.
“When connected to midcentury modern design and architecture,” Dolle explains, “classic cars become a key visual design element that helps define the period. As we explored how fashion, glamour, and styling influenced both midcentury car design and marketing, we discovered more information than we ever imagined and, by connecting the dots, quickly had enough to fill a book (or two).”
On Feb. 24, as part of Modernism Week, Dolle and Stork will present a lecture and panel discussion at the Annenberg Theater at Palm Springs Art Museum.
The following text from Glamour Road comes from the chapter titled “Ready to Wear.”
Ford tantalized its customers throughout World War II with a forward-looking ad campaign called “There’s a Ford in Your Future,” in which a giant crystal ball foreshadowed peaceful postwar relaxation with the glimpse of a Ford car somewhere in the background. Once production resumed, the campaign became “Ford’s Out Front,” a pedestrian presentation of its new automobiles. It didn’t matter; they were selling everything they could produce. The first ad directly aimed at women was in 1949, when a pair of green-gloved feminine hands grabbed a giant steering wheel, demonstrating how easy it was for “ladies” to drive the Big New Ford.
Ford burst into the world of fashionable motoring in 1952 with the introduction of the Motor-Mates line of car coats, the perfect travel accessory for the smart new Ford Victoria hardtop coupe. The coats were produced of a woven fabric called Kalakina, which was made by the Collins and Aikman company of New York, suppliers of aircraft and automotive fabrics. The two-tone exterior colors of the coat matched the paint colors of the car, and the nylon lining matched the upholstery. This “Dress Like a Ford” promotion continued for the 1953 and 1954 seasons.
Ah, seasons — that wonderful fashion term that clearly delineated what was “in” and what was “out.” So, the Motor-Mates ads highlighted “The Style Setter of the ’53 Season” and “The Best Dressed Beauty of the ’54 Season,” referring not only to this year’s car coat but this year’s Ford Victoria, all the while subtly reminding consumers that this year’s gleaming new beauty will be hopelessly out of style in about three years.
Selling the She-Bird
There was no popularly priced car more glamorous in the 1950s than the Thunderbird. From the first ads in late 1954, the Thunderbird was shown in smart suburban settings, with a high proportion of women. The launch brochure showed women behind the wheel in two separate illustrations.
But, of course, two-seaters had a limited market in the ’50s. General Motors displayed fabulous four-seat dream cars at the annual Motorama car shows, but they never built one. The folks at Ford saw the potential of a car with the glamour of Thunderbird and the practicality of a back seat and voilà — an instant classic was born.
So, when the restyled four-seat version made its debut in 1958, it made sense to promote it to upscale women. Ads touted the ease of entry and exit, handling, and parking compared to the full-sized car, and the glamour, headlining it as “America’s Most Becoming Car.”
One 1959 ad showed Ann Cole of Cole of California Swimwear praising the flair of Thunderbird and inviting women to see how they look in a Thunderbird. Another showed the versatility of Thunderbird by showing different outfits, for casual, business, and evening wear — and noting how flawlessly each would look inside a new Thunderbird. No car sold sizzle and style quite like the Thunderbird.
Edsel Was a Drag
Of all of the Ford follies in the ’50s, none was as noteworthy or spectacular a fall from grace as the Edsel. The poor car was cursed from the start — ill-timed, disadvantageously priced, dubiously styled, oddly named, and scorned by its own sister divisions, which envied any chance of its success. Thankfully for them, there was little chance of that.
Ford gave its sister Mercury, in a similar price point with 18 years of business on the books, a complete makeover in 1957 — a unique look inside and out with no panels shared with the Ford. And the “Big M” laid a Big Egg. The fully restyled ’57 touting “Dream Car Design” sold fewer copies than the Ford-derived ’56, and it was going to be the basis of the upper Edsel range. The car just wasn’t going to sell in the Eisenhower recession.
The marketing campaign for the all-new car was decidedly pedestrian. They positioned Edsel as “the car for the young executive on the way up,” which was such a great idea that Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, De Soto, Nash, and Studebaker were already playing in that crowded arena. The campaign consciously didn’t focus on women; it all but ignored their existence with one dramatic exception.
For the press introduction in Dearborn in the summer of 1957, the Edsel Division made a point to invite the wives of the auto writers. This was highly unusual and designed to increase attendance at the event (and possibly decrease the bar bill).
They were treated to a lecture called “Style and Adventure” by Miss Gayle Hastings, who was billed as a fashion designer from London and said to be en route to Hollywood to design costumes for an MGM musical. She was not. In fact, the woman speaking about her harrowing travel adventures was actually 52-year-old Martin Hughes of Barrington, Illinois. Hughes, who later released a 1966 comedy album called “Madam Chairman,” was engaged by Edsel PR director C. Gayle Warnock and recounted in his 1980 book The Edsel Affair. Warnock noted that after Miss Hastings completed narrating her adventures, she challenged the audience about the difference between perception and reality. She noted that none of the attendees could prove that the story she had just told was true, that her name was really Gayle Hastings, or that she was even really a woman. “As a matter of fact, I’m not” Hughes said as he pulled off his wig. The house was stunned and ultimately applauded loudly.
Perhaps the inclusion of Miss Hastings was prophetic. Many people have claimed over the years that the Edsel was just a Ford in drag. Perhaps Warnock decided to celebrate that fact in a most memorable way.
• READ NEXT: Ron Hicklin Chats at Modernism Week About Giving Voice to Many '70s Groups Like The Partridge Family.