Boomers Were Promised Aerodynamic Vehicles

For a decade now, misterboomer.com has been attempting to answer the questions boomers want to know, and here is another: whatever happened to our aerodynamic, streamlined cars? Like flying cars, we were promised we’d be driving the sleekest, most streamlined vehicles imaginable. Instead, we have a series of look-alike models across company brands that almost all resemble a box with a little pocket-knife whittling done along the sides.

When Mister Boomer was a wee lad, he’d attend auto shows every year. He was a long way from buying his first new car — or driving for that matter — but he went, along with Brother Boomer and the neighborhood boys. While Brother Boomer and some of the boys could appreciate cross-section models of V-8 engines, there was only one thing Mister B wanted to see, and that was the prototype cars of the future. Every show displayed these what-if dreams, where auto companies tested out designs and engineering challenges in an attempt to define what the public would want to buy in the coming years. What they showed us was mesmerizing: streamlined exteriors that were shaped more like rockets than cars, with innovative methods of entry, from cockpit domes and gull-wing doors that opened upwards to automatic doors that popped up from a smooth surface and slid silently along the side of the car. Mister Boomer felt he was looking at the future, and the future looked pretty cool.

Little did he know at the time that auto companies had pretty much abandoned the aerodynamic shaping of cars at the very onset of the Boomer Generation. The exploration of aerodynamics began in the 1800s. Shaping an object in an effort to control the surrounding air flow as it moved could reduce friction and thereby increase fuel and performance efficiency. However, most historians point to the 1920s and ’30s as the heyday of the aerodynamic car. In the 1930s, dozens of streamlined vehicles were touted as the next logical step up from centuries of the horse and wagon. The vehicles were as sleek as can be, so different from the Model T’s and A’s that preceded them as to be a solid glimpse of the future. Yet, they were expensive, and the average American did not flock to purchase them.

After World War II, European auto makers picked up where world automakers had left off, producing dozens of aerodynamic models. In the U.S., however, the largest and most popular auto companies were more interested in making and selling as many cars to new families as they possibly could. They had learned a lesson immediately after the War, when their sleekest models did not sell well. Gas was plentiful and cheap, so the automakers had little incentive to keep engineering cars that would perform more efficiently and use less fuel. It had also become obvious that the parents of the Boomer Generation wanted larger cars to accommodate growing families.

To counter what was happening across the Atlantic, U.S. automakers introduced larger cars with more horsepower, and tail fins. The 1948 Cadillac is generally credited as the first U.S. car with fins; they were more about style than aerodynamic function. By the mid-50’s, tail fins grew in size to be reminiscent of aircraft wings, and aerodynamics had all but disappeared from auto design.

In Mister B’s estimation, one of the last of the U.S. production cars made with an aerodynamic design for the average buyer was the Hudson Hornet in the early 1950s. Like many streamlined vehicles before it, the shape of the car looked more like a bug, with its rounded shape sitting low to the ground. The car boasted many aerodynamic features, like a curved top and short, sloped tail, covered rear wheel wells and a step-down entry. The floor of the car was nestled between the chassis and undercarriage functions. That created a flat bottom under the car, altering its center of gravity while producing less drag while driving. There were a few others, mostly from automakers outside of the Big 3 (Ford, Chrysler and General Motors); Studebaker comes to mind. One by one, the companies were dissolved or absorbed by the Big 3. The Hudson Motor Car Company merged with Nash-Kelvinator in 1954, to form American Motors.

Mister Boomer has a particular soft spot for the Hudson Hornet because his neighbor owned a 1951 model. Though it was a strange looking two-toned thing, it was one the roomiest and smoothest rides Mister B has ever experienced in a car to this day.

When the Oil Embargo hit the country in 1973, there was a brief flirtation with some aerodynamic features for cars in order to increase fuel economy. Ultimately, lowering weight by replacing steel, first with alloys, then various types of plastics, produced similar fuel economy at a less expensive manufacturing cost. After the embargo, the race was on for minivans and ultimately, SUVs. Fuel economy is still not the top factor for most Americans looking to buy or lease a new car.

Will electric and alternative-fuel vehicles return to aerodynamic design, not only for efficiency but as a way to capture our imaginations with a cool factor of what the future might look like? Only time will tell.

Did you envision driving streamlined vehicles down the superhighways of the future in your day, boomers?

Boomers Witnessed the Evolution of Weather Forecasting

As long as people have been aware of their surroundings, there was a need for some form of weather forecasting. In ancient times, attempts were made to predict weather by observing the sky, astrology, observing plant and animal behavior under changing conditions, and then, as they were were invented, with measuring instruments (such as the barometer in the 1600s). Sayings such as, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” have been circulating for more than two thousand years. Variations existed for shepherds and farmers.

Humans stumbled along with day-to-day weather as best they could until, in 1904, a Norwegian mathematician named Vilhelm Bjerknes surmised that weather might be predicted by using mathematical equations. British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson took the concept to heart and quickly came to the conclusion that a huge number of calculations — taking all the variables into account (wind speed and direction, temperature, pressure, to name a few) — would need to be made for even a small weather prediction to be possible, let alone in a timely manner. It took until the 1940s for a team of meteorologists and mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, to employ early computers to work the tens of thousands of calculations needed in weather forecasting.

But, hey, Mister Boomer, what does this have to do with the Boomer Generation? Fast forward to a time young boomers were hearing stories about World War II. The onset of our generation appearing immediately after the War meant movies, books and family remembrances were readily available for interested boomers. A story often told in various cultural forms was about Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. One of the amazing facts of that historical battle on June 6, 1945, is that the order to go or no rested in the hands of a team of British and American weather forecasters. The need for accurate weather forecasting became crucial to the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Despite far from ideal weather conditions for days on end, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took the team’s advice that a lull in the rain, wind, fog and rough seas would occur within a three-day window beginning on June 5. In his report on the operation, Eisenhower wrote, “I thank the Gods of War we went when we did.”

After the War, the advances made in forecasting for battles, in combination with a more developed radar system, ushered in a new era of weather forecasting. By 1950, the team of scientists at IAS in Princeton, New Jersey, led by Jules Carney, successfully predicted a series of forecasts in North America, ten years after first applying computers to the challenge. By the mid-50s, the U.S. Weather Bureau was issuing regular forecasts across the country. Boomers were the first generation to benefit from this forecasting, and TV helped get the word out.

In 1960, the U.S. launched the first weather satellite (TIROS) to monitor the Earth’s cloud cover. It was operational for a mere 78 days, but the Genie was out of the bottle — that more data from both terrestrial and space sources were going to assist in future forecasting.

Nowadays, with weather forecasting available on your phone, right down to an hour-by-hour prediction for your Zip Code, it’s difficult for us to remember that this type of forecasting — and its increasing accuracy (though we still complain) — was non-existent before the boomer years.

One last example will illustrate how boomers had a front-row seat to the evolution of weather forecasting, and that involves tornados. There was not a clear understanding of what conditions caused tornados, nor was there enough data gathered before the boomer years. The result was that predictions of tornados were generally not attempted. A little known fact is that from 1887 until 1950, the Weather Bureau forbade or highly discouraged the use of the word “tornado” to avoid a public panic from these fearsome and deadly storm events.

In March of 1948, a tornado devastated the Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma. The base commander, looking to avoid another disaster, ordered two meteorologists, Captain Robert Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush, to work on the prediction problem. The two developed a system and successfully predicted several tornado outbreaks in 1948. At that time, predicting tornados was considered career suicide for weather forecasters. Captain Miller later wrote, “I wondered how I could manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator.” In 1950, the Weather Bureau dropped their opposition to mentioning the word, just in time for boomers to watch weather forecasts on television.

Despite the unpredictability of storms like the tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and numerous weather disasters that have befallen our country in the past few months alone, the death toll for these events is dramatically lower than what would have been just a few decades ago.

Do you remember watching the weather forecasts on TV, boomers? Did you ever base what you wore to school on the weather forecast you saw on TV?