Top 5 Classic Car Accessories and Trim From the 50s

Many consider the 1950s the Golden age of the American automobile. Flamboyant styling showcasing the imagination of car designers turned into increased sales at the dealership. For me it was more than the tail fins and heavy chrome bullet bumpers found in the Tri-Five Chevrolet Bel Air. The attention to detail and the thoughtfulness behind it made the launch of a new model year an exciting event.

In the 1950s, buying a car was a family affair that included aunts, uncles, cousins and sometimes neighbors. Heading to the dealer was like going to a car show. This is because manufacturers began to realize the value of investing in styling departments that enhanced the appearance and operation of the final product.

Artists, engineers and designers pushed things like hood ornaments and chrome trim to a new level. Automakers also dazzled us by installing accessories we had never seen before. Join me as we review the top five classic car trim pieces and accessories that helped define the evolution of the automobile in the mid to late 50s.

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Highway Hi-Fi 45 Record Player

Highway Hi-Fi 45 Record Player
Highway Hi-Fi 45 Record Player. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Ford installed the first Motorola car radio in a 1930 Model A Deluxe Coupe. In the 1950s the automotive audio system started receiving the attention it deserved. The mainstream use of transistors instead of vacuum tubes increased the reliability of factory-installed radios.

In 1952 the development of the FM (Frequency Modulation) band improved sound quality. It did so by reducing interference and providing richer sound thanks to a higher signal bandwidth.

In 1955 Chrysler formed a new partnership with the Philco Electronics Company. Together the companies manufactured the first all-transistor radio. The following year you could order the cutting-edge device carrying model No. 914 HR stamped on the side for an additional $150. With all of the improvements, the mobile audio system of the 50s was still plagued with problems. A lack of radio stations and poor range from the ones that existed became issues for motorists on long trips.​

In 1956 Chrysler launched the highway hi-fi record player. In its first year, the $200 option only played proprietary 7-inch vinyl records. One album provided two hours of commercial-free listening. In 1957 Chrysler launched a mobile turntable that played standard 45 RPM records. Engineers shocked mounted the turntable and used a weighted stylus to help keep the needle in the grooves while driving on rough roads. Surprisingly the system worked quite well.

In an effort to increase awareness of the improved model the company included it as standard equipment on several 1957 Chrysler Imperial luxury cars. Unfortunately, it didn't catch on and the company mothballed the idea. Starting in 1960 they made another run at the mobile audio entertainment option. This time featuring a partnership with RCA and deploying the RCA Victor auto Victrola record player as a $52 option. Chrysler would try a few more times with limited success until the eight track tape came on the scene in 1968.

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The Continental Tire Kit

Continental Tire Kit
Platform Style Continental Tire Kit. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Although the luxurious Lincoln Continental from the 40s popularized the trunk-mounted spare tire it was far from the only car that utilized it. Removing the full-size spare from the rear luggage compartment makes a lot of sense. Not only does it increase the cargo capacity of the trunk it also improves rear collision protection.

The classic Continental tire accessory challenged the creativity of automotive styling designers. The task was to turn the necessary evil of carrying a spare tire into a positive thing. Manufacturers took two different routes to accommodate an exterior mounted spare tire. Method No. 1 included removing the bumper and extending the frame rails.

This is often referred to as the swim platform method as it resembles the swim platform on the transom of a boat. The other method included the complete redesign of the rear chrome bumper. This provided a mounting area for the external spare wheel while maintaining the original design integrity of the automobile. The Continental tire Kit became a popular option on the first generation Ford Thunderbird.

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Chrysler Push-button Transmissions

Chrysler Push Button Transmission
Chrysler Push Button Transmission. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Chrysler was the last American car company to develop a fully automatic transmission. However, they were the first American car company to deploy a push-button gear shift mechanism. Ford wasn't far behind as some 1957 Mercury models used a similar system. Chrysler first offered push-button controls on the 1956 Chrysler 300 and Imperial models. These cars utilized the two-speed automatic dubbed the Power Flight.

The early push-button systems from the mid-50s were simple mechanical devices. They mounted them in a pod to the left of the speedometer. When you pushed the button you operated a large cam that pulled on a shift cable. These early automatic transmissions didn't have a park button. In fact, they didn't have a parking pawl to lock the transmission at all. They instead relied on a parking brake assembly to secure the vehicle in all situations.

A lot of people wonder why Chrysler stopped using the push-button mechanism despite positive customer feedback. From what I understand, it was the government that asked the company to stop using the system. The federal government felt that all automobiles should have a similar shift control to prevent confusion and injuries. They also mandated that park, reverse, neutral, drive and then the lower gears are displayed in that order on the standard shift indicator.

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1950s Mercury Hood Ornamentation

1956 Mercury Montclair Hood Orniment
1956 Mercury Montclair Hood Orniments. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Carmakers have been using hood ornaments since the inception of the automobile. In the early days, the hood ornament often doubled as the radiator cap. Throughout the years, companies used the highly visible decorative device to distinguish their automobiles from other products. Jaguars leaping cat ornament is a good example of marketing through bonnet mounted metal statues. In the late 1940s,​ Ford started upping their game in this department.

One of their early examples is the classic postwar Mercury Eight Sedan. As the division moved into the 1950s they used both a solid fixed ornament and a redesigned three-dimensional emblem. The emblem featured the head of the Greek God of commerce and speed mounted in the valley of a giant M. The solid mounted ornament represented the jet age and the exploration of space. Combining these two elements on one hood seemed overkill to some, but beautiful to others.

People often wonder why car companies stopped installing large solid hood ornaments. We can thank our government for changing the regulations in 1968. Officials believed that these decorative devices proposed a risk to pedestrians. They relaxed the regulations a few years later, but manufacturers were required to spring mount any hood ornamentation to reduce the risk of injury.

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Chrysler Gunsight Taillight Assemblies

Chrysler Imperial Gunsight Taillights
1957 Chrysler Imperial Gunsight Taillights. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Take a look at the gunsight taillights on this 1957 Chrysler Imperial. The bullet-shaped red tail lamp is centered inside a floating chrome circle. They supported the ring using the aiming lines of a reticle. They first showcased the precursor for this design on a 1952 concept car at the Paris auto show.

In fact, the Chrysler D’Elegance concept car showcased two ideas later carried over to the top-of-the-line Imperial luxury cars. Both the gunsight taillights and the Continental spare tire and wheel carrier from the 1952 model became iconic styling features of the Imperial line of automobiles. The Imperial models stopped using the gunsight taillights in 1962. However, they continued to use a Continental spare tire feature through 1965.

A vintage automobile with any of these factory installed accessories is often considered collectible classics. Hopefully, you'll have a new appreciation for the vehicles of the 50s now that you've reviewed the top 5 classic car trim and accessories from this time period. As the American car entered the 60s, it would begin to lose a lot of the detail and exterior styling featured during the 50s. However, we would get big engines and lots of power to help fill that void.

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