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May 22, 2009

Cars 70 Years Ago: Not So Big

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not long ago James Lileks (his site is here) posted the photo of a Minneapolis building shown below. His interest was in the building's history, mine is different.


As the banners indicate, the photo seems to have been taken in 1939. A couple of cars near the center of the photo seem to be 1939 models: the rest are older, as one would expect.

Now look at the people near the cars, because they provide scale. Note how short and narrow the cars are. They are typical of the 1930s. Luxury cars such as Packards and Cadillacs were larger (longer, for the most part, but not much wider).

By 1970, American cars were quite large, the growth trend having begun to develop seriously when the first redesigned postwar models appeared in 1947-49. I remember that advertisements crowed about six-passenger seating. But even so, a while back I was startled when viewing a parked 1950 Buick Special to notice that it seem narrower than I remembered them.

Nowadays, cars come in a larger variety of sizes and types and comparable street scenes should reflect that.



posted by Michael at May 22, 2009


Interiors in those cars were cramped. But the exteriors, especially the bulging fenders, made those cars appear larger than they actually were. There has been a lot of design progress to make today's cars look smaller, yet offer larger interior space. I guess this is a long-winded way of describing an optical illusion.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 22, 2009 1:44 PM

Another element of the illusion is that, for me at least, the cars of the 50s looked huge because I was a small child. The perspective changed as I grew older.

Posted by: Lesthanzero on May 23, 2009 12:15 PM

But also note that the people were smaller too. Smaller, and narrower, like the cars. This was before the age of fast food and slovenliness!

Posted by: Boadicea on May 23, 2009 12:30 PM

No car seat laws. Or seatbelt laws, for that matter.

I don't care how immaculate your diet is or how trim and narrow your family is; you just can't jam five people into the same amount of space as you could in the Good Old Days, if they're all harnessed in accordance with the law today.

Posted by: omw on May 26, 2009 1:34 PM

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