Home » Here’s What People In The 1950s Thought Cars Would Look Like Now

Here’s What People In The 1950s Thought Cars Would Look Like Now

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It’s hard to predict the future. Do you know what cars will look like 50 years from now? Heck, do you even have an idea of what your life will look like a half-century from this moment? Barring time travelers reading our site, nobody knows what the future holds, but it is fun to predict where humanity will be. Over a half-century ago, many thought we’d all be driving flying cars and perhaps even daily commuting to a Mars colony by now. One of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s newest exhibits shows one designer’s vision of the future. The 1956 American Motors Astra-Gnome was the Nash Metropolitan-based concept car designed to look like what a car might have looked like in 2000, and it gets cooler the more you look at it.

I have even better news, once you’re done reading this, you can see this car in person! The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California is launching the “Eyes On the Road: Art of the Automotive Landscape” exhibition. Petersen Automotive Museum Executive Director Terry L. Karges says the exhibit “represents the fusion of artistic expression, automotive ingenuity and observation of the motoring environment,” and that “it also perfectly illustrates how artists can reveal the beauty hidden in plain sight throughout the world in which we drive.” Tickets are on sale for the opening reception on March 29, and I bet you’ll have a grand time.

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There will be a number of vintage futuristic vehicles there from the 1934 Dymaxion to the 1969 Chevrolet Astro III. The highlight vehicle of the exhibit will be Richard Arbib’s vision of what a car from the year 2000 could look like. It makes you wish that the future actually happened.

Timeless Designs

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The American Motors Astra-Gnome was the work of Richard H. Arbib, a designer who had a career spanning five decades. Like many fascinating figures in classic automotive design, Arbib didn’t just pen vehicles, but he was an industrial designer with a vast portfolio.

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Arbib was born in 1917 in New York and graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1939. As Hemmings reports, in school, Arbib was trained in industrial design and he was able to land a job soon after at General Motors. At GM, Arbib worked on the automaker’s contribution to the New York World’s Fair and, under the direction of designer Harley Earl, a consultant for the General Motors Art and Colour team.

Venture History
A 1957 Hamilton Ventura, claimed to be the world’s first electric watch, designed by Arbib. – Hamilton Watch

As the New York Times writes, Arbib was later sent off into World War II.

There, Arbib made use of his design skills with Republic Aircraft for work on wing-tip fuel tanks for Boeing B-47 bombers. Upon his return from the war, Arbib found himself back in the embrace of Earl, beginning work with the Harley Earl Corporation, where he found himself penning Argus cameras, Benrus watches, U.S. Royal tires, and the interiors of passenger cars used by the Union Pacific. Arbib’s name is also on a television he designed in 1947.

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Henney Motor Co. via Alden Jewell

However, Arbib didn’t want to stick around in Detroit forever, so he left that world behind and set up his own firm in Manhattan. His first notable contract was with the Henney Automobile Company, then the largest manufacturer of hearses and ambulances. Arbib then penned professional cars for a few years until 1954. One of Arbib’s designs under the Henney umbrella was the distinctive Packard Super Station Wagon (above), a custom build that featured striking bubble-shaped windows in its rear.

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Arbib’s works span far and wide outside even those hearses and ambulances. In 1957, Arbib designed the Ventura, the first battery-powered watch for the Hamilton Watch Company (above). Arbib’s other contributions to 1950s design include the Century Coronado hardtop speedboat for the Century Boat Company, the Packard Pan American, a radio, the Packard Monte Carlo, and reportedly, the narrow whitewall tire.

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Z. Taylor Vinson collection / Hagley Museum and Library

Arbib passed in 1995, leaving behind a legacy of stunning industrial design. Reportedly, Arbib even designed an ambulance based on an early Ford Thunderbird! Perhaps Arbib’s best work was found during his design work with the American Motors Corporation.

In 1955, AMC hired Arbib to style 1956 model year Hudsons, which would share bodies with senior Nash vehicles. Arbib was limited in what he could do with the Hudsons as the vehicles were of unibody construction and the automaker didn’t want major changes to stamping between the model lines. Despite that, Arbib cracked out a tri-tone design with a V theme. Unfortunately, this couldn’t save Nash from the brink.

Looking To The Future

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In a career with so many striking designs, one stands out as totally out-of-this-world. American Motors commissioned Arbib to create a new concept car, and the resulting Astra-Gnome looked far into a future where cars would be a bit more like planes. The Petersen gives us some history:

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The Astra-Gnome was Richard Arbib’s vision of what a car would look like in the year 2000. American Motors Corporation hired Arbib to design the car, which was built on a 1955 Nash Metropolitan chassis. The body was manufactured by Andrew Mazzara and featured changeable colored aluminum panels, and the wheels were hidden behind full fender skirts to suggest a floating hovercraft. The vehicle was a highlight of the 1956 New York Auto Show and was featured on the cover of Newsweek. The Astra-Gnome was the epitome of futuristic space-age design that flourished in the 1950s.

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As you can tell from the above description, a theme of the Astra-Gnome was a vehicle previewing a future where cars might not have rolled on tires, but hovered across the ground. Thus, aviation was also a central theme of the concept. Arbib called this vehicle a “Time and Space Car” and it was constructed in just four months. If you’re confused, an advertisement from Arbib’s company offered some clarity:

The “Time” element in the appearance of the Astra-Gnome in the year 1956 can be termed relative. Its features are timeless as far as basic automotive design improvements are concerned. Everyone has always wanted a smaller car that has plenty of luggage space! The Astra-Gnome provides just this through its unique “integra-luggage” system with distributes suitcases into otherwise wasted space areas.

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Everyone has always wanted a full vision top without troubles of a convertible! The Gnome’s bubble canopy, plus air conditioning, gives this open feeling, but with no wind noise and “walk-in” entrance and exit ease. Everyone has always wanted futuristic styling, but in a practical form that is functional – not just different! The Gnome has an “out of this world” look, yet features interchangeable colored aluminum trim panels in place of gaudy paint schemes, functional big car bumpers in place of small car weaknesses, and admirably adapts to unit-body construction.

These, and a host of other features, are here and now in the Astra-Gnome, but it will only be a matter of time until in some form they appear in future production cars. These features are not concerned with high horsepower or competition car performance, because as product stylists we do not believe the primary task of the appearance designer is a mechanical one.

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It’s a bit tricky to discern the Gnome’s scale from the photos, so you may be surprised to learn it’s about 6 feet wide and 13.5 feet long. For comparison, that’s a foot or so shorter than a Toyota RAV4, and the same width. Arbib’s company notes that while this car was the length of a small car in the same era, it was as wide as an average car of the time. That meant the Astra-Gnome gave the space of a larger car while maintaining a small size. As noted above, the Astra-Gnome also advertised the safety of a larger car thanks to its larger bumpers.

The “Space” part of the car was quite literal, as Arbib used every bit of otherwise dead space as storage dubbed “integra-luggage,” with six suitcases and large 6x6x20″ gloveboxes built into the vehicle offering plenty of stowage. The interior was also a sight to behold, with a Hamilton celestial time zone clock as the centerpiece, said to allow for flight-type navigation.

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The huge dome and sculpted body allowed occupants to walk into and out of the vehicle and they sat in an interior covered in leather, including the floor. In addition to the celestial time zone clock, other interior features included a Hi-Fi radio, a record player, and air-conditioning – the latter would surely be necessary for comfortable summer driving beneath the dome. The car had all of this in a vehicle that was 25 percent larger than the donor Metropolitan but still weighed under 2,000 pounds.

At some point after the Astra-Gnome’s debut on the show circuit, the vehicle disappeared, only to be found in a New York building in 1980. After its discovery, the Astra-Gnome was restored to show car condition. The vehicle is now in the hands of the Metropolitan Pit Stop Museum, who loaned it out to the Petersen Automotive Museum for this exhibit.

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Sadly, like so many concept cars, nothing ever came of the Astra-Gnome, but I’m glad someone saved it. It’s fascinating to see what someone in the mid-1950s thought the year 2000 would be like. I know we aren’t zipping around in flying cars like science fiction might suggest, but technology has evolved further than anyone in 1950 could imagine. The Astra-Gnome featured a record player and today, your handheld television, phone, and computer can snag about any song you want to play practically out of thin air. And forget about clocks, how about a moving map showing you exactly where you’re going? In many ways, we far exceeded the 1950s dream of the future.

Still, I bet looking at the Astra-Gnome would be like nothing else. If you’re in California, the opening reception for “Eyes On the Road: Art of the Automotive Landscape” happens on March 29. General tickets, which net you admissions and drinks, are $45. Penthouse access and food will cost $75, or $53 for museum members. After that, the Petersen Museum says the exhibition will run in the Armand Hammer Foundation Gallery through November 2024.

(Images: Petersen Automotive Museum – Kahn Media, unless otherwise noted.)

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Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
25 days ago

Yes you’ll stay cool in the air conditioning but that’s not going to stop the sun from giving you the most epic sunburn on your forehead and arms and whatever surface of your skin is facing up towards the light while sitting in there. Just like how your left arm gets a wicked sunburn on it hanging out the window on a long road trip yet it never felt like it got hot.

Last edited 25 days ago by Nick Fortes
PeriSoft
PeriSoft
25 days ago

Its features are timeless”

This, about a design that could not possibly have been any more of its moment.

Hermtownhomy
Hermtownhomy
26 days ago

If you are old enough to remember The Jetsons, then you know exactly what this thing should sound like.

Sundance
Sundance
25 days ago
Reply to  Hermtownhomy

Yep, absolutely.

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