America Bites The Bullet
Recently, I saw a news report about the newest generation Japanese Bullet Train, the N700. It looked fantastic and very futuristic. There's nothing like it in America. Amtrak uses blocky locomotives which look like they were styled by Soviet bureaucrats armed with T-squares. Or Legos.
Shinkansen N700 bullet train - Japan
Amtrak Genesis locomotive - USA
What happened to America? We used to have the coolest trains in the world. In 1957, our passenger trains were sleek streamliners with stainless steel cars pulled by mighty, swoopy-styled GM Electromotive E-series diesels. Or the futuristic Aerotrain. The rest of the world had lame trains - puny coaches painted in dull earth tones pulled by tired-looking, wimpy engines.
We had the best cars, too. Oh sure ... in 1957, Euro-intellectuals mocked our way of life (when they weren't busy spawning and pumping out future Eurotrash) and our huge but affordable cars with their wraparound windshields, three-tone paint jobs, chrome trim and giant fins. Then Europe started incorporating our "hideous" style on their own PüniAuto.
For example, the 1960 Vauxhall was slathered in chromium and sported an American-like curved windshield. But it remained a shrunken bantamweight parody with a gutless little engine because British gasoline prices were sky-high and they couldn't figure out how to make their bloody cars run on Welsh coal.
In the early-1960s, Mercedes cars finally abandoned that 1949 Dodge rear end and sprouted petite fins. Not cool ones, either - clones of '58 Rambler mini-fins.
Plymouth Fury two-door hardtop
Fifty years ago or thereabouts, the best - and only - concept cars came from Detroit. Including almost everything shown in the spectacular GM Motoramas, especially the glorious series of Firebird turbine cars. Or FoMoCo's magnificent bubble-topped Lincoln Futura:
Some dreams came to life - like the '53 Corvette and '55 Thunderbird.
Custom cars and hot rods were found almost exclusively in America.
There was no British George Barris or Japanese Ed Roth. While America was rollin' down the blacktop in gleaming Candy Apple Red T-buckets with chrome-plated, exposed V-8 engines, the Brits were ... er ... 'hillclimbing' - running up muddy embankments in underpowered '30s clunkers. And the Germans were ... ummm ... driving tiny Isettas. Or shrimpy, anemic DKWs.
American popular music used to be pretty much the only music. We invented rock and roll; Elvis was a strictly-American phenomenon. In the late '50s, American Bandstand ruled the afternoon airwaves. We made the greatest musicals, too. In 1957, Americans were being entertained by Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Or The Music Man, or My Fair Lady, while a 9 year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber was munching Weetabix and picking at his butt. In '57, the Beatles were gazing in their respective mirrors, testing out pimple creams. And trying to imitate Gene Vincent.
America made the best television sets - Admiral, Philco, Magnavox, Sylvania and Zenith. We produced the greatest TV shows, too. The 1957 season included Perry Mason, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Tonight Show, The Price Is Right, The Phil Silvers Show, Ed Sullivan and Playhouse 90.
Meanwhile, Great Britain had the BBC. And Japan offered shadow puppets in the town square of almost every prefecture on weekends.
We invented and manufactured the cleverest stuff; fifty years ago, the first electric wrist watch came - not from the Swiss - but from the Hamilton Watch Co. of Pennsylvania. In 1957, Smith Corona developed a lightweight 14-pound portable typewriter. What did France develop that year? The sack dress.
America had the best toys - mighty Tonka trucks, Lionel trains, rocket ship pedal cars and dolls that peed themselves. Meanwhile, Europe played with little Matchbox toys - tiny cement mixers, delicate milk floats and scale models of the Queen's coronation coach. Or wood blocks from a Scandinavian country.
America offered Disneyland. Sweden offered out-of-focus porn. China spun silk. In 1957, Americans were the only people in the world to purchase more than 3 pairs of shoes per year - an average of 3.48 pairs per person.
So ... what happened?
The long version of that story would require a book - several books, probably. But the short version is that we took our eyes off the ball. We sacrificed long-term goals for the sake of short-term pleasure-profit-efficiency-selfishness-convenience-laziness-greed-expediency-compromise.
That's why we don't make televisions in America anymore. Or much of anything else.
That's why Lionel trains are now made in Korea and China. That's why American cars look more Asian than today's Asian cars do.
That's why all the small, locally-owned toy stores have closed and you're buying Chinese-made crap for your kids at a Wal-Mart.
That's why Elvis is dead and Björk is alive.
And that's why we don't have a Bullet Train. (posted 7/20/07)
Remember When: 1957
|In 1957, the U.S. established the Eisenhower Doctrine and extended the Truman Doctrine to protect the Middle East. In the Arctic, the Distant Early Warning System began operation. Three USAF B-52s completed the first nonstop jet circuit of the world in just over 45 hours.
New U.S. products include Sta-Puf fabric softener, pink plastic flamingo lawn ornaments and electric can openers.
'57 American cars were longer, lower and wider. Every Big Three offering was either all-new or extensively restyled but Chrysler's second-generation Forward Look was the most dramatic and outrageous with soaring fins on all models. Plymouth ads proclaimed, "Suddenly it's 1960!" Chrysler offered torsion-bar suspension; Chevy and Pontiac had fuel-injection on their hottest engines and Oldsmobile offered a three-carb J-2 performance option.
The '57 Ford Skyliner became the first U.S. production automobile featuring a metal retractable hardtop. The 1957 Mercury was all new with styling inspired by the 1956 XM Turnpike Cruiser dream car.
The top-of-the-line '57 model was given the Turnpike Cruiser name and featured a wrap-over windshield and reverse-slant, retracting rear window.
'West Side Story' and 'The Music Man' debuted on Broadway. New words included baby-sitter, scuba and moonlighting.
Top '57 record hits included 'All Shook Up', 'Teddy Bear', 'Too Much' and 'Jailhouse Rock' by Elvis Presley, 'You Send Me' - Sam Cooke, Chances Are - Johnny Mathis, Whole Lotta Shakin' - Jerry Lee Lewis, 'Bye-Bye Love', 'Wake Up, Little Suzie' by the Everly Brothers and 'Honeycomb' by Jimmie Rodgers.
'Wake Up, Little Suzie' was banned in Boston as too suggestive. In '57, more radio stations switch to a Top 40 format.
The postwar American baby boom crested with a one-year record of 4,308,000 1957 births. For the first time, margarine outsold butter. Wham-O introduced the Pluto Platter - soon to be rechristened as the Frisbee. The new $55,000 IBM 610 (described as "the size of a spinet piano") could solve a six-hour calculator computation in a mere 20 minutes.
Memorable 1957 movies included 'Peyton Place', 'Jailhouse Rock', '12 Angry Men', 'A Face In The Crowd', 'Funny Face' and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'. A poll found that 50% of American teenagers went to the movies at least once every week.
New '57 television shows included 'Have Gun, Will Travel', 'Leave It To Beaver', 'Perry Mason' and 'The Price Is Right'. A long-time Philadelphia favorite, 'American Bandstand' went national in August. Kermit the Frog made his television debut on Steve Allen's 'Tonight Show'.
Significant new books included Vance Packard's 'The Hidden Persuaders', Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road' and James Agee's 'A Death in the Family'.
In California, Don Bowden became the first American to break the four-minute mile.
copyright 2007-20 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved
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