We admit it: we’re fans of the AMC series Mad Men. Big fans. And while the plotlines can be good, and the acting is very good, what’s most seductive about the advertising-world drama is soaking in the 1960s that we never knew or were too young to appreciate. There’s the on-the-job drinking, the constant smoking, the rampant sexism — all strangely repellent and fascinating at the same time.
Whether or not you watch it, Mad Men has grown to be more than a TV show. It’s become a shorthand term for that ’60s-era modernism, when America was on the cusp of all sorts of cultural upheavals that would, for better and worse, question long-established truths like the faith in technology and the notion of progress. Advertising is the perfect medium for the show because, in those pre-cynicism days, it was our guide to all the wonderful new products that promised to make life better.
Of course, we can’t help but check out the vintage wheels when we watch the show. Leading man Don Draper started out with a 1959 Oldsmobile in the series premiere. Then came a ’61 Dodge, which he wrecked while driving drunk, heading off for an extramarital tryst. Classic Mad Men. On the advice of his partner, Roger Sterling, Draper replaced that car with a ’62 Cadillac. All those were period correct, but we couldn’t help thinking that they might not be the best possible representation of the Mad Men — era zeitgeist that has so many people digging the show.
So three of us went to the living cathedral of midcentury modernism, Palm Springs, California, each charged with finding a car that we think best answers the question: WWDDD? What Would Don Draper Drive?
1962 Oldsmobile Starfire
You can understand why Don Draper feels slightly unhinged. As the 1960s began, the simple civil sobriety of a society in which men wore hats to work had all but disappeared, and the ambitions and appetites that were set loose had made life a complicated, excessive, and messy business. So like the boom-and-bust of prosperity in our own times, eh?
It should be no surprise that cars were also changing during the early 1960s, as this 1962 Oldsmobile Starfire shows. For General Motors, the 1950s had really ended in the summer of 1956, when young designer Chuck Jordan (then a colleague of our own Robert Cumberford and a future GM design chief) spied early examples of designer Virgil Exner’s 1957 Chryslers, which were low, sleek, and dynamic. Suddenly, the rocket-inspired visions of GM design director Harley Earl seemed overwrought, and when he retired in 1958, new design chief Bill Mitchell led the way into the future.
A former advertising illustrator of great talent, Mitchell loved bold shapes and clean, breakaway lines. With his guidance, the stylists at GM developed a design language for the 1960s in which form was more important than flourish, a precept that has become a principle of modern design. At the same time, engineering improvements made it possible to make a car’s roof appear to be little more than a delicate arc of metal poised on thin pillars, so like the cantilever roofs of custom houses being built for movie stars in Palm Springs. As a result, panoramic expanses of glass began to express modernism in cars as well as in Manhattan skyscrapers and Westchester private homes.
Yet this Starfire is also rooted in the past, much like Draper himself. The hardtop duplicates the look of a convertible top with breathtaking exactness, and the bodywork and interior are trimmed with streamlined strakes of 1950s-style chrome. For all this, you can also see intimations of the future in the cockpit-style theme of the Starfire interior, with its bucket seats, a center console with a shift lever, and even a tachometer. Also note the his-and-hers ashtrays on the dash.
Like all these cars of the early 1960s, this Olds Starfire was built for the then-new network of interstate freeways. It has a 394-cubic-inch V-8, a 4-S Hydra-Matic transmission, and power brakes. It even rides well thanks to a 123-inch wheelbase for stability, plenty of bodywork overhang to calm ride motions, and 4335 pounds of road-hugging weight. It’s modern and American, just like Draper.
It’s hard to know where Don Draper will be going as the Mad Men series approaches its conclusion. You can sense his anomie as he struggles to resolve the simple values of his small-town upbringing with the messy excess of modern life. But we hope he makes it, and maybe we’ll make it, too. — Michael Jordan
1963 Ford Thunderbird
The “personal luxury car” was an automotive segment that came into flower in the 1960s, and it was pioneered by the Ford Thunderbird. The original, two-seat T-Bird may be an icon of the ’50s, but it was the larger, four-seat models that saw Thunderbird sales take flight — and competitors take notice. The first four-seat ‘Birds were the overwrought 1958 through 1960 models. When the comparatively clean, spare, bullet-nosed 1961 — 1963 models came along, they brought ’60s-modern design to this new category. That those T-Birds were the work of Elwood Engel should be no surprise. Engel was a high priest of 1960s modernism and the man who is credited with the classic suicide-door Lincoln Continental (a Mad Men — era icon that did appear on the show — as Betty Draper’s father’s car, which eventually gets handed down to Betty). Engel later went to Chrysler, where he brought his simple, rectilinear aesthetic to the
Imperial and the rest of the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth model range.
From their pointed prow sweeping back to huge, afterburner taillights, Engel’s ’61 — ’63 T-Birds convey the romance of jet aircraft, as jet travel then had a considerable hold on the public consciousness. In the cabin, a wide band of ribbed metal trim sweeps across the dash and onto the door panels, suggesting a cockpit. Reflecting the American automotive ideal of the time, the T-Bird driving experience has nothing to do with sportiness or handling but is instead focused on power and smoothness. The 390-cubic-inch V-8 moves the big ‘Bird along easily once up to speed. The cushy suspension, light-effort steering, and delicate shift lever telegraph the message that this car is about comfort and ease.
Although it is only a Ford, the Thunderbird was an aspirational car, perfect for a self-made man like Don Draper. The Thunderbird name had considerable mystique — mystique that was stoked by the fires of advertising and that surely would have captured the attention of the day’s Mad Men. Like the cars themselves, Thunderbird ads were spare and clean, with powerful imagery and little copy. The tagline was “Unique in all the world.”
The convertible, naturally, was the most glamorous offering. Even more so than its contemporaries’, the Thunderbird’s power top was a feat of engineering. It disappears under a hard boot that emerges from underneath the deck lid in a choreography of electrics and hydraulics. It may be hideously complicated, but the mechanical symphony also reflects the can-do spirit of the time. This is an America that would soon put a man on the moon.
Of all the Thunderbirds, the Sports Roadster seems particularly appropriate for this exercise. Introduced in 1962, it was a convertible with a lift-off panel behind the front seats that incorporated fared headrests that flowed seamlessly into the ultralong rear deck. It turned the four-seat convertible into a two-seat roadster — perfect for the family man who so often behaves as if he’s single. — Joe Lorio
1964 Imperial Crown
Don Draper drove a ’64 Imperial convertible in an episode in which he visits Los Angeles. Presumably, he specifically chose it because it set him apart as no other luxury car could. A Cadillac of the era might peg him as an arriviste, a Lincoln Continental would have been a bit on the establishment side, and Draper would have wanted to have some flair outside the confines of office and family. Both the insider and iconoclast in him were well served by Chrysler’s Imperial, lending distinction in a very masculine, tailored way. The Imperial for ’64 had lots of style and innovation but only for a select few — sales were a fraction of competitors’.
The Imperial’s body was all new that year, styled entirely by Elwood Engel, who had come over from Ford after the triumph of his low-key ’61 – ’63 Continental. The Imperial continued his slab-sided approach with horizontal flanks capped by grooved trim that echoes the split front grille. The rear-deck treatment incorporated a stylized, squared imprint of the virtual spare tire. In its center shines a brilliantly chromed eagle that conjures the Habsburg Empire. Most ads highlighted a rear-three-quarter view, which was a pity because the menacing-looking front end is an awe-inspiring sight, heralding the approach of such an august machine in no uncertain terms.
The car, in a real way, wears trim pieces like jewelry — not like today’s gaudy “bling” or the bulbous jukebox glitter of the ’50s. Small gold crowns are found on the door panels and the dashboard, reminding one that a fine suit is not complete without cuff links. Brightwork and badging, even that big bird on the trunk lid, are bold but not overbearing. It can be argued that the car is, in fact, an exemplar of what has come to be known as Hollywood Regency style, a mix of midcentury horizontality with over-the-top flourishes. Design guru Jonathan Adler summed it up neatly as “Neoclassical lines mixed with Hollywood glamour and a top note of mod moxie.”
Propelling a cinder-block-shaped object that’s more than six and a half feet wide, nineteen feet long, and weighing two and a half tons is no easy task, but Chrysler’s 413-cubic-inch “wedge” V-8 mated to a push-button-selected Torqueflite automatic provides smooth, steady power appropriate for adults, not jejune boy racers. A torsion-bar suspension makes handling more sporting and suave than one might expect in a machine of such grand proportions.
I once saw an Imperial offered in a classified ad with the attention-grabbing headline: “Chariot of the Gods.” That’s a good description of a conveyance appropriate for an earthbound titan to project subtle power and reflect a self-assured attitude that can only be called swagger. — Bob Merlis.