October 25, 2011
The mid-1950s was a revolutionary time for the American driver. The Federal Freeway Highway Act of 1956 would radically alter the American landscape with the largest public works projects the country had ever seen. President Eisenhower’s expansion of freeways criss-crossing the country inspired a lot of Americans to think about what the future of transportation might look like. It was an era of drive-ins, tailfins and Googie architecture.
The September, 1955 issue of Reading Automobile Club Magazine – a magazine from the town of Reading, Pennsylvania associated with AAA – included an article by Michael Frome titled, “A Travel Editor Speculates: If Today Were 1965!”
The piece mentions some staples of futurism from the time, such as the four-day work week, which would allow citizens to take full advantage of the benefits resulting from greater mobility:
While the four-day work week is not yet universal, most citizens enjoy the pleasures of added three-day weekends during the year. These extra days, as well as monthlong vacations, are used in the pursuit of our studies, hobbies and travels — and often all three are indulged at the same time.
On the one hand, there is a tremendous outgoing of travelers to other continents, but, on the other, the national parks are being visitied this year by 75,000,000 persons and the national forests by an equally heavy volume.
Frome also quotes Robert F. Kohr, director of Ford’s engineering staff about the future of the automobile:
“Today’s developments, no matter how advanced,” [Kohr] said then, “will be antiquated by 1965 — though that is just a little too far in the future for any accurate prediction.
“The passenger car engine probably will be lighter, smaller and more compact. It should have greater combustion efficiency, higher compression ratios and improved ignition. If some of today’s knotty metallurgical problems are solved, a gas turbine power plant, weighing roughly half as much as the reciprocating engine, may be used.
“Tomorrow’s automobile will be a highly dependable and durable vehicle, requiring fewer repairs and less frequent servicing. Strong, light metals, such as magnesium and titanium, may perform increasingly important roles in engine and body construction.
“Visibility will be enhanced, probably by smaller structural supports and greater use of glass — although car glass may be tough enough to support the roof itself, and impregnated to filter out the burning rays of the sun. Stylists will attempt to lower the future automobile, imparting a longer, wider and faster look. Sliding car doors are a possibility. Electronic controls will be popular.”
The piece mentions some of the industries that would be expanded around the highway system to service all of the drivers participating in America’s favorite fossil fuel-based pastime. Writing from the futuristic vantage point of 1965, Frome continues:
Motorists now have a choice of fabulous stopping places. The newest accommodations have been built in two general types of locations: at service areas along the superhighways (which have grown up into attractive and complete communities) and at the outskirts of major cities. Certain of the urban centers, which had been thought to be doomed, have scored a surprising comeback as a result of striking new traffic developments such as depressed roadways and vast underground parking spaces. As a result, tourists are not repelled as once they were, but instead enjoy city sight-seeing.
The new overnight lodgings, built by large corporations at great expense, have combined features of the motel and hotel. The Sheraton chain, as you may recall, was one of the first major firms to enter this field, starting in 1955 with a $2,500,000 “highway inn” at Tarrytown, N.Y., followed by others at Binghamton, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and New Orleans, until it had completed a network of nearly 15 suburban hotels across the country.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.