[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden of Richardson, Texas, got to do something as a child that we can only dream about these days: He took in the 1956 Motorama show at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Here he shares his recollections of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.]
“If you don’t look back at your car after you park it, you own the wrong car” (anonymous).
I couldn’t believe my good luck.
A junior high friend invited me to join him and his father on a journey into New York City to see the 1956 General Motors “Motorama.”
This was billed as the biggest car show in the world and considered by aficionados to be the “grand pooh-bah” of automobile braggadocio. I was a GM fan even at age five…about the time I started naming every car and model in GM’s post-WW-2 lineup.
My parents owned Chevrolets and my first vacation memories started with their 1948 black sedan, affectionately named “Cleopatra.” The car’s rear window shelf was large enough to stretch out on and sleep during a journey from New Jersey to Ottawa in 1950.
They bought other Chevrolets during my youth: 1950 and 1953 black models with six-cylinder engines and three-speed manual transmissions. Their first non-black Chevy was a turquoise-and-white 1961 “Biscayne” followed by a 1966 maroon-and-yellow “Caprice” with V8 engine.
“Do you like this car?” Mom asked, as the family listened to the living room radio. She had cut out a newspaper photo and handed it to me. The grainy, black-and-white image of the 1953 Corvette blew me away. GM had just unveiled the car at the first Motorama in New York City.
The 1953 Corvette and other GM concept cars made quite an impression on me and the nation. I saw my first real Corvette while bicycling in South Orange (NJ) that year. Looking just like the one in the photo, it was parked on a busy street. It was one of the first Corvettes sold in New Jersey…and perhaps nationwide.
As I was to learn, 1953 was the first year GM used the term “Motorama” (other versions of the show with different names started in 1949). It also was the first to feature futuristic dream cars. After seven days in freezing-cold January, it had drawn more than 300,000 people. The show stopper and most famous dream car, of course, was the Corvette. In addition to the Corvette, three other dream cars were made of fiberglass and drew strong attention: Buick Wildcat, Pontiac Le Mans, and Oldsmobile Starfire.
Was I dreaming?
It was a sunny January day three years later when a friend, his father and I arrived at New York City’s luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It’s hard to remember, 62 years later, exactly what happened. Everything was a blur of frenetic running and gawking at fantastic cars.
Was I dreaming? No, there it was parked at the hotel’s curb…a GM dream car. Surrounding Oldsmobile’s experimental “Golden Rocket” were awe-struck, screaming pedestrians dressed as if spring had arrived. Sprinting, my friend and I shouldered our way into the throng. The rocket’s gold paint sparkled in the sun. Pointy bullets jutted from a streamlined front-end and reminded me of busty actress Gina Lollobrigida’s best features.
The 275-horsepower “Golden Rocket” was our “future,” a young, well-dressed man boldly told us. I believed him, too. After all, it looked like a science fiction spaceship. Its rear fenders were rocket-shaped and it had slick, aerodynamic tailfins. Looking inside the cockpit, I saw my first tilt steering wheel—a real innovation at the time—and a speedometer mounted in the console’s center. Jet plane control levers completed the stunning illusion.
Minutes later, pushing and shoving, we worked our way inside the Waldorf Astoria’s fancy entrance. A long hallway took us past car advertisements and exhibits staffed by pretty young ladies in tight slacks, risqué then because most women wore dresses. Loud music and excited voices blasting from speakers assaulted ears as we approached the ballroom.
Like cattle herded through a chute, we were pushed inside the enormous room while stumbling and bumping those in front. Flood lights blinded eyes. This wasn’t a car show…it was a Broadway production. On one side was a 27-piece orchestra and 12-voice chorus that provided musical background for six shows daily. On the other were fashion models and a cast of actors performing on stage. Giving everything a Hollywood flavor, wide-screen movies about future cars and highways ran continuously.
But it was what I saw in the ballroom’s center that really got my attention. Inside the cavernous madhouse was a cornucopia of the most beautiful, shapely and gorgeous vehicles in the world. Most were perched on slowly-revolving platforms where sexy models in flowing dresses and high heels walked seductively, smiled and pointed at sparkling chrome wheels, gaudy paint jobs and creature features I had never seen.
Glib pitchmen wearing tuxedos held microphones to mouths and extolled each car’s virtues and style statements.
“Imagine driving the Pontiac Club de Mer,” a guy with slick-backed hair and white tuxedo jacket bellowed, his audience salivating and reaching out—unsuccessfully—to touch the car’s sexy flanks. Just seeing the vehicle brought on an instant orgasm. Will it be sold to the public when I’m 17 and start driving, I wondered?
What I and so many others didn’t know was that the Pontiac was nothing more than a non-running, non-functional design mockup. But it sure looked good, especially its metallic finish, double chrome strips on the hood and custom bucket seats.
Spread out among the Pontiac and other concept vehicles, and filling the 26,000-square-foot ballroom floor, were 63 exhibits and more than two dozen new GM production cars. Their two-tone paint jobs and sparkling chrome trim dazzled our eyes. The exhibits filled our minds with GM propaganda about electronic “Highways of Tomorrow” and fantasy cars displayed in short films with silly titles such as “Design for Dreaming.”
The ballroom’s centerpiece was the “Highway of Tomorrow.” It was truly a work of art. The futuristic display featured the Firebird II, the second of three turbine cars that appeared in various GM Motoramas. There were five new “dream cars,” too, that resembled jet aircraft and had advanced technologies: Chevrolet Impala, Pontiac’s Club de Mer, Oldsmobile’s Golden Rocket, Buick’s Centurion and Cadillac’s Brougham Town Car.
The Firebird-II’s gas turbine engine was truly revolutionary. Who cared that it was impractical because its 1,250-degree exhaust heat could turn humans into toast. All that mattered to me were the car’s bubble-topped canopy and bullet fuselage.
The titanium-bodied Firebird was way ahead of its time with four-wheel disc brakes and fully-independent suspension, features that wouldn’t show up on production cars for years. It had an electronic guidance system, too, designed for the “highway of the future.” Electric wires, GM told us, would be buried in roadways and send signals to steer the car clear of accidents. Imagine…a self-driving car in 1956.
The Buick “Centurion” was innovative, too. Constructed of fiberglass and powered by a 325 horsepower V8 engine, it had a camera in the rear to report traffic conditions to the driver on a dash-mounted TV screen. Twin air scoops in front of the windshield sent fresh air to passengers. Front seats automatically slid back when the doors opened.
Highways across America
The year 1956 was an exciting time to be a car crazy boy. In fact, that year may have been the pinnacle of America’s automobile industry and culture.
Imagine…Elvis had just released his first big single hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and, thanks to President Dwight Eisenhower and his signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the U.S. was soon to have a 41,000-mile interstate highway system connecting all parts of the nation.
Cars were changing rapidly. The horsepower race was in full swing…ironic when you consider most roads had 40 mph speed limits and no one was in a hurry. New features such as air conditioning—which in some cars cost more than $400…about one month’s salary for average Americans—and power steering started to be offered. Even the way we bought cars had changed. “Dynamic obsolescence” forced car buyers to upgrade every few years. Which meant manufacturers were forced to offer fresh designs every year.
The Motorama’s new production cars grabbed my attention. They weren’t as exciting as the concept cars, but they had design cues that made my blood boil. I particularly liked the Oldsmobile 98 Starfire convertible with “Rocket V8” engine and bold, wide-open grill that looked ready to swallow anything in its path.
The Cadillac Eldorado “Biarritz” convertible was the most impressive production design at the Motorama, I thought. Its high, stylish fins were the largest of the day and I wondered if they made the car handle better…like a jet aircraft. After all, it was the “jet age” and stylized aircraft ornaments adorned hoods and trunks, and sweeping fender trim resembled wings.
After hours of walking, it was a relief to sit and watch a wide-screen movie titled “Key to the Future.” It’s a good thing we have YouTube today because I could enjoy the movie again after all these years. The corny plot, which had me sitting on the edge of my seat in 1956 and smiling in 2018, revolved around a family on vacation in their Chevy convertible.
Suddenly, they’re magically transported to the “distant future.” It’s now 1976—which seemed a long way off then—and they’re in a four-door version of the turbine-powered Firebird-II. Daddy is talking on his communications device with a uniformed “traffic controller” who switches the vehicle to autonomous mode and programs their route on the car’s computer.
“Check your fuel level and engine data,” he tells Daddy, who looks at a gauge indicating the turbine is turning at 31,000 rpm.
“We’re ready for auto control,” Daddy responds, while steering the Firebird-II to a control strip in the center lane.
“This is the life,” Daddy tells his family, leaning back and relaxing. “It’s safe, cool and comfortable. Do you mind if I smoke a cigar?” No one objects, so he lights up while Mommy—grateful the car’s air conditioner removes cigar smoke—smiles blissfully while she and the kids chill with orange juice and ice cream retrieved from a refrigerated glovebox.
The “exciting” film ends with the actors singing happily…their chorus enhanced when the traffic-control guy—who must have been eavesdropping—joins them in song. Perhaps it was the “rebel” in me, but self-driving cars and automated highways didn’t appeal. And the last thing I wanted to do was sing with parents while driving anywhere.
I didn’t know it then, of course, but the 1956 Motorama marked the end of dream cars from each GM division. The 1957 Motorama, to my disappointment, was canceled and no new dream cars were shown at the 1959 and ‘61 Motoramas (except for the 1958 GM Firebird III).
Motoramas hit their peak in 1956 with more than 2.3 million visitors. After 1961, GM decided it could display cars more effectively and cheaply on TV. But life went on for this young man, who never forgot the “Motorama Madness” of that ’56 car show.