Can You Identify These Cars You'd See at a ’50s Drive-In?

Dave Davis

It might not have been the most expensive vehicle parked on the drive-in lot, but which of these cars offered both economy and style?

Available in two-tone paint finishes, the Plymouth Belvedere came in a number of styles — including sedan, hardtops, convertibles and station wagons — and offered multiple powertrain options, ranging from a 5.6 inline-six to a massive 7.6-liter "Golden Commando" V8.

You didn't realize it at the time, but the car you're taking to the drive-in tonight will be considered one of the quintessential cars of the 1950s.

Now one of the most sought-after vehicles from the 1950s, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air (the highest trim level of this model — the other levels were called the Two-Ten and the One-Fifty) came in several body styles, including two-door or four-door sedans, convertibles and station wagons. When people think of a car from the '50s, they often think of this model.

When the whole family is ready to go to the movies, which vehicle would best hold them all?

The Brookwood was a full-size station wagon that would seat ... many people. The vehicle had a large engine — a 5.7-liter V8 was an option — but it needed that kind of power because it weighed in at nearly 4,000 pounds (not counting the weight of the family and whatever else you decided to bring for the night out).

The car parked next to yours looks more like a spaceship than what's on the screen — what could it be?

Smaller and more streamlined than most of the competition, the 1955 Citroen DS would turn heads at the drive-in (also, it's French, and wouldn't be a common site outside of Europe). The aerodynamic car also had futuristic touches that wouldn't be apparent at the drive-in; it was, for example, the first mass-produced car with disc brakes.

Oldsmobile fans in the '50s would certainly notice when this car pulled into the drive-in lot. Which Olds was redesigned for 1954?

The Ninety-Eight line went into production in 1941 and for the first three generations didn't change much in appearance. The fourth generation, which launched in 1954, was redesigned to breathe new life into the model. A larger 5.3-liter (up from 5.0) Rocket V8 was also introduced.

Which station wagon somehow managed to look cool and still take the entire family out to the drive-in?

The Chevrolet Nomad — and specifically the Nomad with its Tri-Five design from 1955 through 57 — not only managed to look cool, but it gave the driver some power under the hood with the first version of the famous Chevy Small-Block V8.

That 1955 Lincoln Futura parked next to you could be taking a superhero to his next adventure a few years from now — but which hero?

The Batmobile from the classic 1966-1968 "Batman" TV show was based on a concept car — the Lincoln Futura — that was built in 1955. The car, which measured almost 19 feet long and seven feet wide, was also in the Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford film "It Started with a Kiss." It was later heavily modified by Dean Jeffries for the Caped Crusader.

The popcorn's burnt, the movie reel snapped and the kids in the next car are screaming. Your date is sure your new car is a jinx. What are you driving?

The poor Edsel line from Ford couldn't catch a break. The line, which ran from 1956 through 1959, was named in honor of Henry Ford's son and Ford President Edsel Ford. Because of an economic recession in 1957, disastrously bad market research and other reasons, the Edsel lost its parent company an estimated $250 million.

It's 1951 and your buddy asks if you're up for a double date because he's got his Dad's Corvette for the night. What's your answer?

Your buddy either has a time machine, gets visions of cars to come or he's making up stories to look good because the Chevrolet Corvette didn't hit the streets until late in the 1953 model year. Also, even if he had one, a double date isn't in the cards; the Corvette is a two-seater.

This long, elegant, powerful car might be hard to park at the drive-in, but it'll be worth it. Which car is it?

The top-of-the-line Cadillac during this period, the Eldorado was long (just over 18 feet long, in fact), streamlined and a thing of beauty. It also had a 6.0-liter V8 engine, so it could handle itself on the road just fine. This car was also one of Elvis' favorite vehicles, so catching one of his flicks at the drive-in with this car is both poetic and perfect.

You're alone at the drive-in because your only option is your funeral-director father's 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor hearse. Decades later, which car will this go on to be on the silver screen?

There weren't many 1959 Miller Meteors — only 400 were estimated to have been made. The car was known as a "combination" car, which could be used as either an ambulance or a hearse. This particular model went on to see fame as Ecto-1, the vehicle used by the Ghostbuster in the 1984 film (after a little work).

With smooth lines and a wraparound rear window, this Studebaker had style. Which one is this?

First introduced in 1939, the Studebaker Champion was a full-size car for its first three generations, and then a mid-size car beginning in 1953. Available as a sedan, coupe, station wagon or convertible, the Champion was designed to be affordable and was also made to be light ("weight is the enemy" was the mantra of its designers).

Expensive for the times, this luxury vehicle had electric windows so you didn't have to roll them down yourself on hot summer nights.

The 1953 Skylark was developed to celebrate Buick's 50th anniversary, and the luxury automobile was a showcase for design and feature advancements, including electric window controls. It had a 5.3-liter V8, but most of that power went to moving the car's bulk — it had a curb weight of more than two tons.

Why would people behind you at the drive-in be ticked off if you opened the doors of your 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL?

You might get a few calls of "Down in front!" if you open the 300SL's gullwing doors during the movie — although you'd also probably get a few envious glances as well when you show up in this beauty. It had some engineering beauty under the hood, as well; this car was the first to effectively use direct fuel-injection technology.

Time Warp! What type of car do you NOT want to be sitting in when you see the midnight showing of 1983's "Christine"?

"Christine," based on a novel by Stephen King of the same name, tells the story of a boy, his red '58 Plymouth Fury and that car's desire to kill anything that comes between them. There were 14 1957 and '58 Furies destroyed during the making of the 1983 film.

If you showed up at the drive-in driving a new Cadillac in 1956, it was probably which model?

The Cadillac Series 62 — of which the Eldorado and the Coupe de Ville were a part — was the most popular model of the luxury brand in 1956. With more than 134,000 vehicles sold, it made up just over 86% of the company's total sales that year. It's also a good thing that gas prices were lower back then; the vehicle got a whopping 8.3 mpg.

Which two-seater, called "America's first post-war sports car," would have turned heads at the drive-in in 1951?

The 1951 Nash-Healey was a product of post World War II cooperation that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. The sports car had an American engine and an Italian body on a British chassis. Only 506 units of this model were ever made, not counting prototypes and race vehicles.

What brand did Robert Mitchum's bootlegging character prefer in the 1958 drive-in classic "Thunder Road"?

Driving down the backroads of Kentucky and Tennessee running illegal moonshine around both federal roadblocks and gangsters, Mitchum's Lucas Doolin relied on his 1950 customized Ford kept one step ahead of his enemies for most of the film. It also was some of the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen's song of the same name.

With nearly 10 feet of space with the rear seat folded down, which of these vehicles was ideal for parents with fidgety kids at the drive-in?

The 1950 Town & Country Wagon had space to spare once the rear seat was folded down, and it was also the last year of the line's model to offer a style that would find new appreciate a decade later: wood panels. The station wagon had a long life, running from 1945 through 1988.

Which car was not only a looker on the drive-in lot but also had the horses under the hood for a little after-movie racing?

The 1953 Dodge Coronet not only had a redesigned streamlined style but also had an option for something that many other car owners envied: a 3.9-liter V8 Hemi "Red Ram" engine. That engine was responsible for more than 100 land speed records for the time. It could take to the streets!

There weren't many made, but if this car showed up at the drive-in, the tailfins would attract as much attention as the movie on the screen. Which is it?

Designed to invoke the image of an airplane (it had what was termed "Forward Look and Flight Sweep" styling), the Chrysler 300C was part of the company's "letter" series. The 300C offered a 6.4-liter V8 Hemi engine, was available as a convertible and, of course, featured those jaw-dropping tailfins.

Designed with luxury in mind, which of these cars would give you the best seat in the house in 1951?

The Oldsmobile 98 was the company's top-of-the-line offering for the 1951 model year, offering three body styles (coupe, sedan and convertible), a 5.0-liter Rocket V8 and standard features including a leather interior, a deluxe steering wheel, dual horns and a lot of chrome.

Ladies, you didn't have to wait for your fella to pick you up for your date. Which of these was a car aimed at women?

Dodge saw that more women were taking an interest in automobiles and driving after World War II and decided to make a vehicle aimed directly at that market. The La Femme was a full-sized car trim package based on the Dodge Lancer and offered "softer" exterior and interior color options. The line was ultimately not successful.

Time Warp! What kind of vehicle was "Greased Lightning" in the 1978 love letter to the 1950s, "Grease"?

"Greased Lightning," a 1948 Ford De Luxe convertible, needed a lot of love to become the machine the T-Birds needed for the big race, but thanks to their shop class training and a well-timed musical number, Kenickie's ride became a force to be reckoned with — and one anyone would be proud to take to the drive-in when the race is over.

Which of these vehicles on the drive-in lot could have been bought from Sears & Roebuck?

The Allstate, built by the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, was only available in 1952 from the Sears & Roebuck department stores (actually, only from Sears in southern states who also carried other auto products). For Kaiser-Frazer dealerships, this was not a good deal; they had to sell a similar model with fewer features for a higher price.

Which vehicle could carry lawn chairs, snacks and several adults (or several more children) to the drive-in?

Not only did the 1959 Pontiac Safari have all the room you could ever want for taking your brood out to the drive-in with all the creature comforts, but it also had fins. Lots of fins. The vehicle had fins on both the top and bottom of the rear fenders.

This car had some firepower under the hood. If you were challenged to a race after the show, which of these vehicles would you want to drive?

The New Yorker might not have appeared to be a fast car from the looks of it (it was not lightweight, weighing in at about 4,400 pounds), but it had a surprise under the hood: a 5.4-liter FirePower Hemi V8, which could go from 0 to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. That was faster than the Oldsmobile Rocket V8 of the day.

Luxurious and safe, which of these cars was starting to look a little dated at the drive-in by the early 1950s?

Although it had light design changes and upgrades from its introduction in 1941, the Hudson Commodore was starting to look a little dated toward the end of its run in 1952. The car did have a reputation for luxury and a smooth ride, and it could take a hit; its body chassis was surrounded by steel girders.

Dodge almost went under in 1953 but came back with which of these vehicles that could have been found at the drive-in two years later?

A $250 million loan from Prudential Financial bailed Dodge out of the financial problems that almost sunk it in 1953, so the company launched new models to capture the attention of the drivers of the day with the help of designer Virgil Exner, known for his aerodynamic flair. The Royal, Sierra and Coronet were the first vehicles from this "new" Dodge.

Which of these vehicles would have been perfect for a nice night at the drive-in to see both the movie and the stars?

The 1951 Packard 250 marked a redesign sensibility for the company that had, historically, made "inverted bathtub" shaped vehicles. The 250 was a step up from the 200, offering a bigger engine and more options. The Packard 250 Mayfair was the same vehicle, only with a hardtop.

Which of these was the first American car to offer a 400 horsepower engine, which was great if you were running late for the movie?

This car, available as either a hardtop or a convertible, offered a monster of an engine — a 7.0-liter Ford MEL V8 — for only one year. It was the first American car to be rated at 400 horsepower. If you didn't get the 1958 Mercury Park Lane, however, you were out of luck; the engine in the '59 was only rated for 345 hp.

If you wanted to show up at the drive-in with some style and flair, which of these vehicles would fit the bill?

The 1957 Lincoln Premiere could take you and five of your friends to the drive-in with style. An upscale version of the Lincoln Capri, the car weighed in at a massive 4,300 pounds and offered a 6.0-liter V8. The Premiere wasn't cheap, either; in today's dollars, it would have run about $42,000.

You were the first to show up at the drive-in with this model, which debuted in 1957, but you wouldn't be the last. Which one is it?

Released for the 1958 model year, the Chevrolet Impala would go on to be the flagship for the Chevy passenger car fleet for decades. First available in either hardtop or convertible styles, the first year for the Impala was an impressive one; the company sold more than 180,000 units, and Impalas made up about 15% of Chevy's production that year.

You've got the top down, enjoying the night air with your date, when you feel sprinkles. Which of these vehicles gets your top up with the least hassle?

The Ford Fairlane Skyliner offered a feature that other vehicles at the time didn't — a retractable roof apparatus, called the "Hide-Away Hardtop" — that automatically folded the roof into the rear of the vehicle. This was a popular option, as well, because it was the first car with a retractable roof to five-digit production numbers.

You'd love to make it to the drive-in, but that means having a car, and — you guessed it! — yours won't start again. Which of these are you "driving"?

The Renault Dauphine was a hit in Europe. The version that was sold in the U.S.? Not so much. The car was panned by critics and owners alike for its bad performance and rotten reliability. How bad? It went from 0 to 60 mph in 32 seconds. Rust was also a mortal enemy. It's regularly listed on "worst of all time" car lists.

It's big. It's heavy. It ... won't start. Which of these cars is the reason you'll miss seeing your friends at the drive-in?

The DeSoto Adventurer, which was released in 1956 and ended in 1960, was not known for its reliability — especially the 1958 model. Bad power steering units, leaky roofs and an inability to resist rust plagued both the car and its owners. Also, it was BIG, measuring over 18 feet long and weighing in at more than two tons. That's a lot to push.

When you decided to hit the drive-in but wanted some comforts of home, which of these vehicles would have been your best bet?

The Catalina Coupe had features that no other vehicle had at the time — or, for that matter, any car has today. Some of these include tissue dispensers, a seven-tube radio and a Remington Auto-Home shaver. The Catalina Coupe's V8 engine could produce 116 horsepower.

With a couple of blankets to soften the bed, pickup trucks were another great option for the drive-in. Which of these would fit the bill?

The Chevrolet Task Force was the step between the Chevy Advance Design and the C/K Series of pickups. Released in late 1955 and running through 1959, the Task Force trucks offered three engine options — a 3.9-liter inline-six and a 4.3-liter and 4.6-liter V8. With their streamlined good looks, this truck became popular with generations of hot-rodders.

You're taking your best girl to the drive-in in your Pop's 1956 Thunderbird, but she wants to double date. What's it gonna be?

If you want to double date and you're driving a first-generation T-bird, the other couple is going to have to find their own ride. The Thunderbird was strictly a two-seater from its introduction in 1955 through 1957. The car was redesigned to seat four after that in efforts to increase sales.

As the '50s were coming to a close, more and more cars of this model were showing up at the drive-in. Which of these helped usher in the '60s?

The Ford Galaxie, introduced in 1959, was a car marketed around the burgeoning space race the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were starting to run. The Galaxie was a full-sized vehicle meant to take on the Chevrolet Impala and was offered in many trim levels, body styles and engine packages.

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Image: Wiki Commons by Greg Gjerdingen

About This Quiz

The picture wasn't always the best, humid summer nights could be uncomfortable and the sound didn't come from a Dolby surround system, but from a small speaker attached to your car's window. Still, many people recall the drive-in movie experience as a fondly remembered treat. While there are still some sprinkled around the country, drive-ins have largely been left behind for the air-conditioned comfort of the multiplex or the projector in the home's rec room. They may have fallen out of favor with today's audiences, but for movie-goers of the 1950s, drive-ins were the place to see movies — and be seen by your friends — on Friday and Saturday nights.

Drive-ins also worked the magic of transforming your car from a simple vehicle into a theater with comfortable seats and a clear view of the screen (assuming your windshield was clean and in good condition). If you were lucky enough to drive a convertible, the sky was the ceiling of your own personal cinema. From couples wanting a night away from the kids to family trips where the kids came along to teens on a date where the movie wasn't always the main attraction, drive-ins were a part of the American experience, and cars were integral to that experience.

Are you ready for a quiz to see how much you remember (or were told) when it comes to cars parked in rows during the weekend facing a giant screen showing "Attack of the 50 Woman," "Daddy-O" or "Thunder Road"? Grab your popcorn, your jujubes and a soda, put your arm around your best guy or gal, and see how much you remember about these cars of the '50s!

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