By Doug Farmer  

In the early spring of 1958, my father went to the Chevrolet dealership in my hometown. Typical of that period in a town of 2,000, we also had a Ford dealership. Today, the town remains, but both dealerships are gone.

My father went there to order the first new car of his life. In the wake of World War II, you gratefully drove any car you could get. But this was to be different, a new car built exactly to the specifications my father chose and to be delivered two to three months later. He selected Chevrolet’s least expensive model, a Bel Air, silver-blue with upholstery to match, two-tone or not, radio-styled hubcaps and a variety of other choices lost to a 9-year-old’s excitement.

The ‘50s are now viewed as the age of conformity. The best illustration of that is “Mad Men” on Netflix, which, while accurate to the last detail, misses why the ‘50s might have been the age of individuality.

As my father made his picks—one color versus two, various fabrics and textures for the upholstery, radio or not, cigarette lighter, clock—he was crafting a statement of personal identity.

It was estimated that the big three carmakers could produce 20,000 one-of-a-kind variations every year. The next year would follow with a fresh slate of newly-styled models producing another round of one-of-a-kind cars. And you didn’t have to take what was offered. You could order your car exactly as you wanted.

No wonder the neighborhood emptied out to see the “new car” when it arrived. The excitement bordered on ceremony, a christening. Something you never see today.

With all the variations, you could tell instantly who was coming down the road in the opposite lane. Teachers got a respectful wave. Your friends got an index finger ever so slightly and so very coolly lifted from the steering wheel.

Your whereabouts were broadcast by the car, a lesson I learned when I crinkled the family car. Everybody knew instantly.

But our modern age might be the new age of conformity.

Cars look so much alike you can drive with total anonymity. They look so much alike that I cannot recall a neighborhood emptying out to see the “new car.” Only the “old car” earns that when the local enthusiast (to put it kindly) convinces his wife to let him buy four wheels from their childhood. The excitement and wonder of a new ride are gone, replaced with technical fuel efficiency and safety requirements—all good and needed, but boring by comparison. There are an estimated 150 to 200 separate touch points in the design of a car required to meet the federal specifications. That leaves very little room for an individualistic choice of the past.

My father was very proud to make the trip to the dealer to “order” his new car. Today he wouldn’t have even made the trip. A car is only a car and the age of conformity is born anew. Oh, for changes of the fabulous ‘50s.

Doug Farmer has worked at Park Bank since 1981 and began his term on the State of Wisconsin Banking Review Board in 2003.He’s lived in La Crosse since 1971. You can reach him at douglas.farmer@helloparkbank.com.

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