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My Dream Car - Lesson Plan
The decade of the 1950s was the "Golden Age of the Automobile." Car buyers
wanted style, and automobile manufacturers responded. It was an era of tail fins and
toothy grilles, chrome and color, hardtops and wrap-around windshields. Cars were longer
and lower, sleek and sculptured. Automotive designers of the decade included General
Motors' Harley Earl and Chrysler's Virgil Exner.
Cars were no longer "basic transportation." Cars had electric starters,
heaters, and radios, but 1950s designs would make driving safer, more comfortable and more
fun. Among the enhancements introduced by automakers during or since the 1950s are cruise
control (developed as Chrysler's Auto-pilot), seat belts, safety interlocking door
latches, padded dashboards, head restraints, remote-control mirrors, variable-speed
windshield wipers, electronic ignitions, emergency flashers, rear-window defrosters,
radial tires, crash-resistant bodies, air bags, antilock brakes, and cassette tape and CD
Whether designing for styling or safety, someone had to see a need or market for new
features, develop the ideas into products and sell the products to car manufacturers and
What possibilities exist for improving the car of the future? This activity encourages
students to be creative, yet systematic, in developing their own new automotive concepts.
- Students will respond to a problem they propose and investigate.
- Students will create an advertising approach to convince others of their solution.
Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards
This lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, these standards:
- 4.2 BUSINESS CHOICES: Students will explain and demonstrate how businesses confront scarcity and choice when organizing, producing, and using resources, and when supplying the marketplace.
- 4.4 ECONOMIC SYSTEMS: Students will explain how a free market economic system works, as well as other economic systems, to coordinate and facilitate the exchange, production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
Paper, pencils or pens, resources about automobiles and auto history, art supplies (vary with project), automobile brochures and costs or access to automobile company Web sites
- In class discussion, talk about the styling and safety features of automobiles of the 1950s. Compare them to cars of today. Sample topics:
Divide students into small work groups to do the following:
- SAFETY FEATURE: If you were in an accident in an early 1950s car, the door might pop open due to inadequate locks. Since you had no seat belt, you would likely be thrown from the car. In 1955, most car makers began using safety interlocking door latches to keep car doors from flying open. During the same year, manufacturers made seat belts an option. In 1964, they made belts standard on all new models. Today, we also have air bags and reinforced door panels to protect us.
- STYLING FEATURE: Automotive designers of the 1950s looked to the aircraft industry for inspiration. Cars, especially Cadillacs and Chryslers, had outrageous tail fins. These cars that looked as thought they could take flight were, however, gas guzzlers. In the1960s and 1970s, car buyersfacing fuel shortages and rising coststurned to small compact cars. American engineers studied aerodynamics, and designers met the challenge with more fuel-efficient designs. (Compare a car of today with the
1957 Plymouth Fury in the exhibit!)
Ask each group to pick one problem that needs solving to make the car they choseor the car that best fits their prioritiesa better or more desirable car.
Once the groups have defined their problems, ask each to research how the problem is currently being addressed by today's automakers. Is it totally ignored? Is it answered in some other cars? Students might interview people who drive (if the students are too young to have licenses), look at automobile sales literature, and read about auto history and technology in library books, encyclopedia and on the web. Ask students to summarize their findings in one page that describes the current approach to their chosen problem.
Finally, ask students to present the idea for their new automotive feature, both logically and creatively by:
- List the things you would consider if you were buying a car.
- Put your list in priority order with the most important feature first. (Collect lists from groups so they are not available for the next step.)
- Look at new car brochures collected from several dealersor automobile company web pagesand pick the car you would buy. (Students need to have car prices as well as advertising that includes lists of features.)
- (Return lists to student groups.) Evaluate your choice based on your priorities list. Did you choose the car that did the best job responding to your priorities? If not, what happened?
- In writing, describe the feature and tell how it solves a problem or adds value to the car. Suggest the market for the new feature (Is it for everyone or for a niche market?).
- Create an advertisement touting the new feature. The advertisement should be as creative as possible to interest the chosen market in buying a car with this feature. The ad might be a page for a magazine, a poster for a showroom, a 60-second video spot or other media presentation.
- Present all four parts of their projects to the class:
- how currently addressed
- the solution/new feature, and
Questions for Discussion or Research
- Who were Virgil Exner and Harley Earl? What were their design philosophies? What
contributions did each make to automotive design?
- What compact and foreign cars made the first inroads into the American market in the
late 1950s and early 1960s? How did they impact the auto industry in Michigan?
- Investigate the ban on oil exports to the U.S. imposed by the OPEC (Oil Producing and
Exporting Countries) cartel between October 1973 and March 1974. How did it impact
American driving habits and automobile manufacturing in Michigan?
At the Museum
- Compare the cars of the Early Auto gallery (Olds Curved-Dash Runabout and Model T) and the 1920s Auto Showroom (1925 Flint) with the cars in the 1957 Detroit Auto Show Gallery.
Which would you most like to have owned? Why?
- "Vote" for your favorite 1950s car in the 1957 Detroit Auto Show Gallery.
- Market: A geographic area considered as a good place to make sales or a section of the population considered as a group of likely buyers.
- Niche market: A smaller section of a population considered as likely buyers for a product. For example, if teen-agers are the market, then teens who play soccer would be an
example of a niche market.
- Style: The particular fashion or quality evident in a product's features that sets it apart from others.
- Armi, C. Edson. The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and the Personalities. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. (TL255.A76 1988)
- Georgano, Nick. The American Automobile: A Centenary, 1893-1993. NY: Smithmark Publishers Inc., 1992.
- Godshall, Jeffrey I. Microphone Taillights and Doughnut Decks: Chrysler Cars of the Exner Era. Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1 (January 1991), 70-95.
- Hirsch, Jay. Great American Dream Machines, Classic Cars of the 50s and 60s. NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985. (TL23.H56 1985)
- Kleiman, Jeffrey D. Hard Times - Good Times: The Michigan Economy. In Hathawa, Richard J.(Ed.), Michigan: Visions of Our Past. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1989.
- Ludvigson, Karl. Corvette, America's Star-spangled Sports Car: The Complete History, An Automobile Quarterly Library Series Book. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Publishing Co., 1974 (TL215.C6 L78 1975)
- May, George S. (Ed.). The Automobile Industry, 1896-1920, Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography. NY: Facts on File, 1990. (HD9710.U52 A815 1990)
- Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of the United States, Inc. Automobiles of America, 4th edition. Detroit: Savoyard Book, Wayne State University Press, 1974.
- Mueller, Mike. Fifties American Cars. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1994.
- Rae, John B. The American Automobile, A Brief History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965. (HD9710.U52 R29 1965)
- Ward's Automotive Yearbook. Detroit, MI: Ward's Reports, Inc., 1951. (HD9710.U5 W26z)
- White, Lawrence J. The Automobile Industry since 1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. (HD9710.U52 W52 1971)
- Wilson, Paul C. Chrome Dreams: Automobile Styling Since 1893. Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Co., 1976. (TL23.W58 1976)
- Wright, Richard A. West
of Laramie: A Brief History of the Auto Industry (an on-line book). Detroit: Communications Department, Wayne State University, 1996.
Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.