Tailfins Run Amok


The Cars Detroit Forgot to Build,1950-1960

By Bruce McCall

Crown -- 128pp -- $25

Last August, General Motors (GM ) shocked the auto industry by turning to Detroit legend and ex-Chrysler President Bob Lutz to juice up its stodgy designs. Lutz, who oversaw development of the Dodge Viper and PT Cruiser, may be just the man to banish the blahs. If the motorheads at GM had really been thinking out of the boxy, however, they might have given the humorist and illustrator Bruce McCall a ring.

For more than 20 years, McCall's work has graced the covers and pages of The New Yorker. But as he reveals in the introduction to The Last Dream-O-Rama: The Cars Detroit Forgot to Build, 1950-1960, he spent a good part of the Fifties in a Canadian border town as "a prodigy of incompetence at the craft of painting luscious pictures of new cars for magazines and catalogs."

It wasn't just the chromed-up, sharp-winged, white-walled lemons Detroit churned out that galled McCall, though: It was the tenor of those smug, postwar years. "I still see that decade as fabulous only in how long it stayed in its stupor of mediocrity," McCall writes. "...The sound of doo-wop, the mention of Arthur Godfrey or Tab Hunter or Senator Joseph McCarthy or John Foster Dulles, the mere idea of a white sport coat and a pink carnation can set me off all over again today."

McCall's revenge is a book of fanciful dream cars, each expertly illustrated and tartly explained. It skewers the cult of the automobile as it parodies the paranoia, the politics, the obsessions, and the crassness of the decade. "The automobile was no longer just an appliance, but a rolling boudoir, a metal mistress, a leather-clad dominatrix with great big pointed silver bumpers. And the industry's leaders had the vision to follow the mob," McCall writes. As the chairman of one of his car companies tells an apocryphal Senate hearing that's considering a bill to ban foreign cars: "Conformity, materialism, status, sex, insularity, greed--what a country!"

The concepts behind McCall's cars range from the madcap to the wickedly pointed. The 1955 Bar-B-King Royal Patio Leisureliner, for example, is a long green-and-yellow job with an ugly brick wall, picnic table (with a rabbit-eared TV on top), white picket fence, and grill built on a bed in the back. That's the annoyingly "normal," Father Knows Best side of the Fifties. The blacked-out windows and mounted spotlights of the 1954 Redscare Phantom Witchhunter represent the sinister side.

Not every one of McCall's darts hits its mark. Some of the dream cars are a little too similar, and more than one reference will probably be over any head that's not at least speckled with gray. The description of the Bar-B-King, for example, begins: "From Rebel Without a Cause to what Cheryl Crane did to her mom's boyfriend Johnny Stompanato that night in L.A., family fun was the Fifties." How many 40-year-olds are going to know that Stompanato was Lana Turner's mobster boyfriend whom her daughter Cheryl stabbed to death in 1958? Still, if one of McCall's deliciously vengeful vehicles doesn't amuse you, flip the page. The next one will.

By Ciro Scotti

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