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Philadelphia Trolleys - 1955
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Recently, I watched a video titled: 'Philadelphia Trolleys - 1955'. It was 45 minutes worth of footage (transferred from nicely done 16 mm color film) shot in the period 1955-57 by a trolley car enthusiast. While I like trolley cars, I didn't really buy this video to watch the trolleys. I wanted to observe the street scenes of Philadelphia to see if the film matched my memories of growing up there in the 1950s.

The most interesting things about the video were the automobiles. First, I couldn't get over how ordinary they were. Because we're all exposed to these books, movies and TV shows about the 1950s, we think that all of the cars on the road in those days were top-of-the-line Ford Crown Vickies, Chevy BelAirs and Cadillac Eldorados. In the video, the two autos which seemed to appear most often were early '50s Plymouth Cranbrook sedans and '55-56 Ford Mainlines (the cheapest Ford model one could buy). The Fords looked especially familiar, since I learned to drive in my Dad's 1956 Mainline Tudor sedan.

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I saw several Cadillacs but only two Lincolns in 45 minutes of video - a nondescript '54 Lincoln sedan and a new 1957 Landau hardtop. The '57 Lincoln had whitewall tires - unusual because only about 10% of the cars in this video wore whitewalls.

There were no imports of any kind to be seen in the film - no VW Beetles, Hillman Minxes (surprising since both were eagerly promoted and sold in the Northeastern U.S. in the 1950s) and certainly no European sports cars like a Jaguar XK140 or MG. Actually, no sports or sporty cars of any kind were seen - neither Corvettes nor Thunderbirds. Of course, there were no Japanese autos in this film, either. They didn't make it to the U.S. until 1958 - and then only to California.

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Aside from the Lincoln four-door hardtop, the most interesting automobiles seen were a couple of 1956 Ford convertibles, a red '55 Caddy convertible and a really nice, freshly-washed, mint-green 1955 Chevy Nomad wagon. There was also a really nice mint-green '55 Mercury Monterey sedan. Mercs were distinctive, good-looking cars back then.

Another interesting revelation was how bad the driving was in those days. With the camera mounted on a tripod at various locations to capture the sight of an approaching trolley, it was amazing how many motoring faux-pas were captured on film. People running stop signs, cutting off other drivers, weaving in and out of traffic, pulling out of side streets in front of other motorists, changing lanes without signaling, making illegal U-turns - all were recorded for posterity.

There was a real absence of old cars, too. The oldest automobile I saw was an 18 year-old, clapped-out Packard. If you set up a video camera today at an intersection and ran it for 45 minutes, you'd probably capture dozens of sightings of 18-year-old cars. Even though we talk about how sturdy those old 1930s cars used to be (thick body metal, no flimsy plastic, heavy engine castings), the fact is that the vehicles didn't hold up to the test of time - they just wore out faster. Or maybe people just got tired of them - in 1955, a 1937 automobile looked really out-of-date compared with, say, a 2002 vehicle in 2020.

Finally, I was surprised at how dirty the cars were. In today's made-for-TV retro movies, the cars are always freshly washed and polished. In real life, autos were washed less often. And in 1955 Philadelphia, they didn't have any of those do-it-yourself car wash bays. Also, there weren't nearly as many automatic car washes as there are today.

It was nice to see the footage of the 1950s. But a lot of the scenes showed a pretty dumpy place. So, it didn't make me want to build a time machine and travel back there. (Although, I've mused about time travel here and here and here. And reminisced about the auto shows of 1955 here.)

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Old times are always better in your memory than they were in reality. Hang on to your memories; they're better than the real thing ever was. (posted 4/22/10)

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