Gas guzzlers of '50s, '60s are selling as classics

Bored by the look-alike ''econocars'' of the 1980s? Want something different from the crowd? Believe it or not, the gas hogs of the '50s and '60s are fetching top dollar in the fickle used-car market of the '80s. When these so-called automotive dinosaurs were designed and built, Detroit was caught up in excessiveness, ostentation, and gimmickry.

No one laughed at the cars because they were signs of the times. Weighing up to two tons or more, they featured gaudy fins, tri-tone paint jobs, massive V-8 engines, and 50 pounds of chrome.

No one really cared that you had to fill the gasoline tank every two hours when you drove at sustained high speeds.

Detroit engineers began to coin new words ending in ''matic,'' ''flite,'' or ''glide'': hydramatic, powerglide, airflyte, motormatic, dynaflo, cruisematic, fluid drive, torqueflyte - and one car was nicknamed ''powerless crawl'' because there was so much slippage in the transmission. All were intended to capture the symbolism of space-age rocketry.

There were silver-bullet speedometer needles topped with red jelly beans, radio push buttons that spelled out B-U-I-C-K, foot-operated station changers for the lazy, back-up lights that could flood a football field, and hood ornaments shaped like wild animals.

Advertisements at the time lauded the DeSoto Deluxe, Chevy Chic, Pontiac Power, Buick Beauty, Ford Flashy, and Edsel Elegance. One even boasted of ''off-the-shoulder'' upholstery fit for the ladies.

Most of these marvelous mechanisms are battered silly nowadays and selling ''as is'' from scruffy used-car lots. Others are piled high in junkyards as crunched, rusted, and stripped shadows of what they once had been. Yet some of them are on their way to becoming classics of a bygone era.

An enthusiastic diehard of the old days, who happens to own a 1949-50 Buick Roadmaster, says he loves it for its comfort and space, explaining: ''You're not tied in like you're flying an open-cockpit biplane. I like to punch in the cruise control and sit back while the car drives itself. It's that ride that really turns me on - soft and smooth, and not the short, choppy ride of many of the cars of today.''

A Boston socialite now has a 1959 convertible in her three-Cadillac garage, because, she asserts, it represents an era's final hurrah and maybe Detroit's last laugh in the big-car scene.

A West Coast interior decorator who cherishes his 1958 Chrysler Imperial sedan, which is painted a very unartistic turquoise-green and white, says: ''It's like saying, 'Hey, guys, look at me. Aren't I having a lot of fun? And when they designed me, they didn't stop, they just kept on going.' What an abysmal but wonderful example of excess at its best.''

While the public's affection for such classic guzzlers is hardly a national trend as yet, it is spreading. It began in southern California (where most trendy American things originate), surged along to Chicago, then on to Texas and Miami, and finally up the East Coast to New York and Boston.

The full experience, so to speak, involves buying, restoring, and then the daily driving of these land yachts for the mere pleasure of it. They aren't just stored away in a garage.

Drew Hardin, manager of the classic car division of Rick Cole Auctions Ltd., says, ''There's definitely an undercurrent, a cult starting to form across the nation.''

In four auctions held this past year, Mr. Hardin says he witnessed old-time Detroit gas-guzzlers going for as high as $10,000 (a 1957 Chrysler 300E) and as low as $1,675 (a 1965 Cadillac sedan).

''Because they are not all that expensive, compared to the robot-made tin cans we're seeing offered today, they're becoming increasingly popular. It seems that anything around that's worth restoring is being restored.'' These cars are not only being snapped up as daily transportation, but also as investments.

On the other hand, other trend setters think this may be another aspect of the 1950s nostalgia movement evident in clothes, music, dance steps, movie reruns, and other entertainments. Among Detroit buffs' most-favored relics: the fantailed Buick Electras, Chrysler wagons with the wooden paneling (real wood, by the way), the New Yorkers and Crown Imperials of the '50s, all the Lincoln Continentals of the '60s, and any Cadillac that ever carried a rear fin.

Bob Gottlieb, a California attorney who owns 55 classic cars of the '20s and '30s, doesn't think the cars of the '50s and '60s present too much in the way of an investment potential. He says he'd rather buy one good Duesenberg than a dozen slab-side limousines of the recent past.

Young adult buyers are seeking out these cars, he says, ''because they identify with the automobiles they grew up with, but could never afford anything except a clapped-out Ford or Chevy.''

Enthusiasts say that for $6,000 you can buy a new, tinny, unstyled ''econo-box.'' Yet for that same $6,000, you can get an immaculate example of an older big Cadillac, complete with space, comfort, and luxury.

Mechanically, many of the old land cruisers are as honest, rugged, and reliable as a stove bolt. Parts for them are still readily available, and basic repairs can be performed at the service-station. Insurance is inexpensive. And their gasoline consumption can seem a slurp in the bucket when balanced out by low purchase prices and their total driving enjoyment.

A mechanic from ''the old school'' remarks: ''And you know, when you look under the hood, you see spark plugs, not vacuum hoses, black boxes, widgets, nimbets, thingamajigs, and whatcha-macallits all over the place.''

There's even a growing trend to organize the Great American Land Yacht Society. Membership drives will be started by putting a flyer under the windshield wiper of any parked land yacht. A newsletter is planned, and so is a catalogue of parts centers.

A logo for the group is being drawn up by automotive artist Harold Cleworth. It will likely include the rear fin and Buck Rogers tail-light of a '59 Cadillac. The motto will be: ''Chrome, Fins, Tonnage.''

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