History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
When you’re the premier car manufacturer in a country defined by its car culture, the occasion of rolling your 50 millionth car off the assembly line is one worthy of a giant blowout. And in 1954, General Motors did not disappoint.
For just shy of 50 years, the American car manufacturer had been making some of the most popular cars in the country. But It would be the new 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe that would mark this milestone achievement for General Motors.
At 10 a.m. on November 23, 1954, the four-wheeled star of the hour rolled off the assembly line, appropriately decked out for the momentous occasion. GM’s 50 millionth car was swathed in gold from the inside out. In addition to being painted the color of glamor and wealth, over 600 of its parts had been plated in 24-karat gold and its interior was—you guessed it—completely done up in the glittering hue. It was the car to beat all midcentury cars and, after parading through the streets of Flint, MI, it would go down in automobile history.
The Birth of an American Institution
General Motors was founded in 1908 by William Durant, who got his start in the transportation industry with horse-drawn carriages. When the newfangled automobile began taking over American streets, Durant saw where the future was headed, even if he wasn’t happy about it; he “thought [cars] were noisy, smelly, and dangerous.”
But that didn’t stop him from switching out his literal horsepower for horsepower of a more mechanical variety. After a stint at the Buick Motor Company, Durant left to found General Motors on September 16, 1908. While his main rival, Ford, primarily made one type of car, Durant decided his success rested in diversification. He quickly snapped up several different car manufacturers and put them under the GM umbrella, which grew to include Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Chevrolet, among many others.
While this profligate need to acquire ultimately did Durant in (his board kicked him out for the last time in 1920 for spending too much money), it set the stage for GM to become one of the premier American car companies. In 1912, four years after its founding, GM accounted for only 12 percent of the U.S. car market. By 1954, its piece of the automotive pie was up to fifty-four percent, and it would remain the dominant player in the market for most of the 20th century.
Step Right Up to the Golden CARnival
When the head honchos of GM learned they were about to manufacture their 50 millionth car, they realized they needed to throw a celebration worthy of such an achievement. It wouldn’t do to merely produce a Golden Car; no, they needed to honor the event with a Golden CARnival and events around the nation.
On November 23, 25 GM manufacturing plants around the country opened their doors and invited ordinary citizens to come take a look in what the company called an Open House to America. There were also luncheons held in 65 cities for more prominent members of the community. But the real celebration was centered in Flint, MI, where the company made its home. There, thousands of locals gathered in the city streets to watch a parade of floats and cars and bands. Many were wearing some of the 50,000 golden feathers the city’s Chamber of Commerce had handed out for the occasion. There was a giant luncheon and a cacophony of plant whistles, honking, and cheers as the city’s golden moment was marked in grand, glittering style.
“For us in General Motors the 50 millionth car stands as a milestone along our path of progress. It represents a momentous accomplishment. It marks one stage of a journey whose extent is limited only by our vision, our capabilities and our capacity to serve,” GM’s president at the time, Harlow H. Curtice, said in his celebratory remarks.
When Flint Met General Motors
The roots of GM were planted in Flint long before the company was ever conceived. In 1886, the Durant-Dort Carriage Company was founded in the city because of its easy access to timber. So, naturally, when Durant decided to turn his carriage expertise into a car company in 1908, he started it in the city he knew so well.
Since its founding to the present day, GM continues to be the main employer in Flint, but that hasn’t always served the city well. As the car manufacturing industry experienced its highs and lows, so, too, did Flint. In the 1960s and 1970s when the car industry was still enjoying its height of success, GM employed over 80,000 people in the city, a number that has now fallen to closer to 5,000.