Old postcards Part 1: The GM Exhibits at the NY World’s Fair

While rummaging through a box of my parents’ stuff the other day, I rediscovered a trove of postcards that my father had collected. “Collected” might be too formal of a word; I never witnessed my father actually purchase a postcard. In the mid-20th century, many places gladly gave them away for the free publicity they’d garner. To my dad, a depression-era baby, if it was free, it was for him.

 

Two cards in particular caught my attention: both postcards featured the General Motors exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, with one from 1939-1940, and the other from 1964-1965. My dad went to both. (He was born in Germany, immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 6, and lived in NYC from 1925 to 1981.)

 

As little as he talked about anything from the past, he enjoyed sharing the story of how, at the age of 21, he won a brand new 1940 Chevrolet at the World’s Fair. I believe he kept that car right up until the time he married my mom in 1950 and bought a Willys station wagon. I’m 100% certain about the ’64-’65 Fair, because he took the entire family six times! We have photos and video from those trips. I was 10, and it was my first time riding the NY Subway. We took the 7 line, and I have strong memory of numerous exhibits, especially the Ford Motor Company rides, the Sinclair dinosaurs, and the NY State Pavilion. I also saw a real baseball stadium for the first time when I got a glimpse of the new Shea Stadium from a vantage point within the Fair.

 

Back to 1939: the GM exhibit was huge. Named “Futurama”, it was GM’s attempt to predict a vision of life in the U.S. by 1960. This Futurama correctly predicted the interstate highway system, including multiple traffic lanes and higher roads speeds than existed in the late ‘30s.

 

The GM Futurama exhibit at the ’39-’40 NY World’s Fair

As this Wikipedia entry details, the theme of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair was “The World of Tomorrow”, and the GM exhibit meshed nicely with that theme. Note the image on the postcard: this was a full-scale exhibit. The people walking along the elevated sidewalks and crosswalks were looking down at full-size vehicles positioned on the roadways below. Also note the rooftop parks, signifying a recognition that if the ground space is consumed by roadways, the greenery and outdoor entertainment needs to go somewhere else.

 

The obverse of the postcard doesn’t miss an opportunity for GM to pitch its “General Motors Installment Plan”, which “makes it easy to own a new car. Besides it saves him money and provides valuable insurance protection which he needs…” So the ladies of the house weren’t making the vehicular purchase decisions yet? Perhaps they were driving down to the Post Office to buy the one-cent stamps needed to mail a postcard.

The back of that postcard; note that it calls for a one-cent stamp

 

The 1964 postcard displays what passed for futuristic architecture at that time. Whether coincidence or not, the GM pavilion was right along the highway (Grand Central Parkway? The exit sign in the photo reads “495 – Midtown Tun(nel) – Long Island”. Route 495 is the Long Island Expressway). The obverse of the card reads in part: “General Motors ‘Futurama’ presents the world of tomorrow. The popular Futurama Ride, with stereo sound, predicts the conversion of wastelands to benefit mankind;….” Note the thematic repetition from 25 years earlier. This website details the exhibits within the GM building, and some of the themes are tragically predictive: autonomous cars (highway only!), atomic-powered submarines, large-scale deforestation, and “plazas of urban living (rising) over freeways”.

The GM pavilion from the ’64-’65 NY World’s Fair

Part of my daytime gig involves writing and editing articles which attempt to predict the future (autonomous driving has been a very popular topic of late). I’ve made the wry observation that it’s quite difficult to predict the future, and no one is really very good at it. Where are the flying cars? And who predicted the iPhone?

The flip side of that postcard – stereo sound was a big deal!

It’s fun to look at these General Motors postcards, printed 25 years apart. Their World of Tomorrow was all sunshine and flowers. Of course it would be: why try to predict World War II, the imported car invasion, 50,000 traffic deaths a year, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, two Arab oil embargoes, the Japanese auto revolution, bankruptcies, and bailouts? And to this child of the ‘60s, add the sad news, impossible to imagine as a boy, of the loss of Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Mercury. Yet we go on, enjoying our cars and trucks, embracing our present while still looking forward to a better tomorrow. It’s the way it should be.

 

 

All images are from my personal collection of postcards.

Father’s First Ford: The 1967 Mustang

My dad was a GM man throughout the first two decades of his marriage. Although it was a Willys station wagon which served as family transportation when he and my mom got married in 1950, he bought a new Chevy 210 sedan in 1953 (the car which brought me home from the hospital), and a new Corvair wagon in 1961. The ‘60s saw the Corvair augmented with a ’63 Pontiac Catalina wagon, then replaced by a used 1966 Buick Sport Wagon.

 
When the Ford Mustang was introduced in 1964, this 10-year-old car-crazy boy was infatuated with it. Some magazine advertisement at the time offered the chance to buy a promo model, which I did (and which I disassembled so I could paint it.) One advantage of growing up in New York City was the opportunity to visit the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park. The family went six times! Of course, the new Mustang, having been introduced there, was always on prominent display. Dad, who normally didn’t say much, ever so slightly let it be known that he “liked” this new pony car.

1964 1/2 Ford Mustang promo model (hand painted)
1964 1/2 Ford Mustang promo model (hand painted)

 

From the book "Images of America; The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair (author's collection)
From the book “Images of America; The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair” (author’s collection)

 

In the mid-sixties, we were a typical suburban American family with two cars, what with two working adults and three school-age children in the household. At that time, our transportation needs were met with station wagons (the Corvair, Catalina, and Sport Wagon). But by the late ‘60s, perhaps there was room for something more fun. (Was it a coincidence that my father turned 50 in 1969 and may have been having something of a mid-life crisis?) To my surprise and delight, “we” got just that in the form of a Ford Mustang.

 
In 1969, my father found a used ’67 Mustang for sale in our hometown of Staten Island, NY. It was a Lime Gold coupe, 289 2V, automatic, vinyl roof, full wheel covers, whitewalls, AM radio, and nothing else. My dad paid $2,050 for it; the number always stuck in my head because of the odd $50. I was 15, and, just two years away from a driver’s license, hoping that someday it would become my car.

 

My dad's '67 Mustang, photo taken by me in our yard in 1969
My dad’s ’67 Mustang, photo taken by me in our yard in 1969

In 1971, with that freshly minted license, the Mustang was ‘mine’ to drive. Dad bought a third car so that he and Mom would each continue to have their own wheels. Giving a 17-year-old a V8 Mustang was maybe not his best decision, although I used the car responsibly as transportation to a part-time job, as well as a weekend “cruisemobile” with my high school buddies. Like many teenagers, I considered myself a good driver, but in retrospect, my driving was aggressive, cocky, and naively self-assured.

 
It is ironic then, that on the morning of December 23, 1971, at the speed of perhaps 10 mph, I rolled through an intersection, having failed to see a stop sign, and was punched by another car. The accident was 100% my fault. The car had 2-point lap belts, but mine wasn’t on. My head hit the steering wheel, I was knocked unconscious, suffered a concussion, and required 10 stitches. (The hospital needed to shave my hairline to sew me up. Today, the scar is well below the hairline!)

The wrecked Mustang in 1972
The wrecked Mustang in 1972

This happened in Brooklyn, which is why my speed was so low. I didn’t know the neighborhood, and was looking at street signs. Dad drove to the hospital to see me. I dreaded his scolding, but he didn’t. He was upset, but took it all in stride. The Mustang was totaled. For reasons possibly having to do with insurance, the car was towed to our house, where it sat for several months before he sold it to a salvage yard. My father went back to new GM cars (Buicks and Oldsmobiles), a new Dodge Dart, and eventually moved to import vehicles (Renault, Datsun, Mazda). “Father’s first Ford” turned out to also be his last; he never bought another Ford.

 
Fast forward to August 2003: I purchased my first collector Mustang, a ’68 California Special, in Lime Gold (my first color choice for sentimental reasons). Dad was in failing health, and never got to ride in it. He passed away in 2006. My ’68 is a story for another time. But every so often, I think back to that ’67 coupe and wonder: did someone rescue it from the junkyard, or did it give itself up for parts so that other Mustangs could stay on the road to be enjoyed today?

The 1968 Mustang California Special in Lime Gold
The 1968 Mustang California Special in Lime Gold

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.