Car Culture 1950s–1970s’ Bears Witness to History


Photographer John Zimmerman worked at the Time-Life bureau in Detroit in the 1950s, covering the Big Three domestic automakers for that company’s flagship titles, Time and Life. He was thus both a direct witness to, and a documenter of, a profound era of industrial dominance, when Ford, GM, and Chrysler controlled 96 percent of the American auto market and exerted unparalleled influence on legislation, infrastructure, design and society radiated. , in accordance with their industrial scope.

Now, a new book from renowned art and design publisher Rizzoli, Auto America: Car Culture 1950s-1970scollects many of Zimmerman’s photographs from the era in a handsome coffee-table compendium, offering a deep and well-executed glimpse into the era’s sensibility.

“At a time when self-driving vehicles and climate change are reshaping driving around the world, John’s photographs capture the optimism and even utopianism of a beloved period in American car culture,” said Linda Zimmerman, John’s daughter. Car and Driver. (John died in 2002; Linda and her brothers Darryl and Greg help manage his archive and were key in compiling the book.) “What time for a refreshing look back at a golden era in American car culture? “

1956 Lincoln premiere

’56 Lincoln premieres its grand entrance (from stage right) in Detroit.

John G. Zimmerman

The book contains a wealth of glorious images of an industry at its peak and includes public photographs from events such as motor shows and benchmark celebrations, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of cars being designed, built and tested. Zimmerman also worked for Sports Illustratedso there are treasures from his coverage of mid-century motorsport too.

shirley muldowney

Shirley Muldowney dominated the National Hot Rod Association in 1977, winning the first of three Top Fuel dragster championships that year.

John G. Zimmerman

Especially compelling are forgotten newsworthy moments. “I was surprised by two stories my dad photographed with General Motors,” Darryl Zimmerman told us. “The first was a catastrophic fire at a GM plant in Livonia, Michigan in 1953. It was a state-of-the-art transmission plant that burned to the ground. I didn’t know about the fire until I saw my father’s pictures didn’t. He arrived on the scene while the fire was still burning and captured both the human and physical toll, and we included a series of those photos in the book.”

1954 flint, michigan, parade celebrating gm's 50 millionth car

Flint, Michigan – home of General Motors – turns out for the parade celebrating the production of GM’s 50 millionth car in 1954.

John G. Zimmerman

The second story featured General Motors’ production of its 50 millionth car, a record-breaking milestone. “Life asked my father to photograph GM’s jubilant, city-wide celebration in Flint, Michigan, in 1954,” according to Darryl. “The spectacular celebration in Flint demonstrated GM’s dominance of the industry.”

Deciphering these images was not always easy. “My brothers and I are by no means experts in car history, and it sometimes made it difficult for us to know what we were looking at in the photos,” Linda told us. “For example, the story about GM’s 50 millionth car celebration was originally shot for Life magazine, but never published. The film was therefore returned to my father years ago without any written documentation identifying the people, cars and events in the photographs.”

Auto America: Car Culture: 1950s-1970s–PHOTOS BY JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN

Auto America: Car Culture: 1950s-1970s--PHOTOS BY JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN

Auto America: Car Culture: 1950s-1970s–PHOTOS BY JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN

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Yet the process of preparing these vintage images for publication was probably the most difficult task the Zimmerman siblings faced. “All the images that are in Auto America was originally shot on film and had to be digitized as a first step,” said Darryl. “There are over 200 images, and about half of them are in color. The original color film, much of it dating from the 1950s and 1960s, became unstable over time so that in some cases the colors faded and shifted dramatically. Restoring the film to its original color, or improving it to today’s color standards, sometimes meant spending hours retouching a single image.”

We’re sure it made the Zimmermans and their publishing team yearn for the kind of quick-click filters found on contemporary social media sites. But flipping through the pages and seeing the popping carnation pink of a 50s Lincoln, the shimmering yellow gold of a 50s Chevy, or the inky black of a 50s Chrysler concept makes it clear that their efforts were worth it .