Rat Rods, Rocket Sleds and Land Yachts: Atomic Age Detroit Metal Shines At Newcastle Museum

Some people don’t get it. And, most likely, never will. Some do. Of those who get it, a few will never move beyond it. They embrace it in all its forms. The rest are spectators, no matter how inflamed their interests, they’ll never cross that great divide, turn fantasy to reality, embrace the actuality.

Although this applies to collectors in general, it’s especially so for those whose main interest is cars. Most people out there are content (happy may be stretching it) with their late model Fords or Toyotas, even with the current trend towards the bland homogeneity, that has rendered all cars pretty much the same, the choice narrowed to a handful of designs and a handful of colours. Good luck finding your car in a shopping centre car park.

Yet there are those of us who want more than mere transport. Prestige, perhaps, individuality, certainly, a statement of style or their love of design excellence or nostalgia. These people really enjoy driving. It’s a pleasure for them. An adventure.


I love old cars, in particular the American variety of the 1950s to 1970s. I’ll leave it up to qualified experts to explain my preferences. Certainly, my last three cars fell within that grouping – a 1968 Ford Galaxie, a 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car.

I had the Cadillac for almost 20 years and it’s appeared in previous posts, as much for its fascinating back story as the collective joys of owning and driving a classic car.


For those not familiar with the backstory, check out:




The Cadillac has long been America’s mainstream luxury car, an aspiration noted lyrically in so much of the country’s music (especially blues and early R&B songs) and pop culture. I never doubted I’d be a Cadillac owner forever.

But it was not to be and, instead, I found myself switching alliances (perhaps a little too easily). My Caddy was what is now termed a survivor. Although mechanically excellent, the original Silver Mist paintwork needed a respray and the red leather interior (an expensive option, along with the bucket seats, in its day) also required extensive attention. I was looking at big bucks for the quality finish it deserved.

Then the engine blew a cylinder. It took me ages to mull over the options (limited as they were – fix or not) and it was probably more the case that I didn’t want to make the hard decision. What I didn’t want to face was the possibility of the Caddy ending up in a wrecking yard. In the meantime, I needed something to drive.


As I started shopping around, I ruled out another Caddy as they were priced beyond what I wanted to pay. In what turned out to be a timely combination of dumb luck and divine intervention, I found a beautiful midnight blue 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. It’s the default limousine used extensively in the United States for airport transfers, while it’s substantial bulk and moderate retro stylings gave it something of the flavour of a Mafia staff car.

The price was right, ridiculously so, and everything else checked out so I flew to Adelaide for an inspection. It was in immaculate condition; it’d been purchased from a deceased estate in Maquoketa, Iowa, brought to Australia, complianced and fully registered in South Australia just two years before.

Maquoketa is some 200 kilometres west of Chicago but the pristine undercarriage revealed the previous owner to be extremely fastidious; bless him, he was exactly the sort of person people like me dream of buying a second-hand car from. There was nothing to indicate the Lincoln had ever poked its shiny chrome beyond the shelter of its garage between late autumn and early spring in its entire existence. In fact, throughout the car, there was very little indication of the almost 40 years since it had rolled off the assembly line in Wixom, Michigan.


On the leisurely drive back to Sydney I became acquainted with the Lincoln’s left-hand drive (not as difficult or confronting as initially expected) and the rapid response of the 460 cubic-inch (around 7.5 litre) engine.

It didn’t take me long to come to terms with the idea that I should keep the Lincoln and sell the Cadillac. Still, it did take a while to finally list it on eBay, expecting a fairly low selling price considering its condition. But, once listed, the magic manifested. The opening bid landed almost immediately and, ultimately, 14 bidders duelled like wine-soaked Musketeers; it eventually realised just a little over what I’d paid for it some 20 years before (and, incidentally, more than I paid for the Lincoln). Try that with a late-model Toyota.

It’s little wonder, then, that I seek out car museums whenever I’m in the United States. Give me the opportunity to tour the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, or the America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, and I’m in like a shot.


I have no more understanding of the intricacies of the internal combustion engine than I would the opening chapter of Quantum Physics For Dummies, so the technicalities matter little (that’s where a good mechanic is essential); it’s the excess, the unashamed kitsch, that gets me far more than any technical appreciation.

And it’s not just Americans who still treasure the more outrageous examples of their automotive heritage. I have taken tours of Paris in classic Cadillacs and seen a fleet of 1950s and 1960s American cars on a club run through rural Finland.

Australians also have a similar fascination which is how I came to discover Lost In The 50s, a private collection at an industrial area in Newcastle, New South Wales.


Open just one day a month, it’s the culmination of more than 30 years of collecting American cars and pop culture memorabilia of the 1950s and 60s by businessman Glen Jennings and his family. Lost In The 50s is devoted to the Atomic Age (a sub-strata of the so-called Golden Age of US automobile design, pegged between 1948 and 1973).

It was a time when the post-war economic boom fuelled the rapid rise in US consumer culture and influenced car companies to produce ever more ostentatious designs. Immensely powerful engines, vast surfaces of brightly-hued steel panelling offset by bulky chrome flourishes and all the mod-cons consumers never knew they needed but soon came to expect (and then some – under-dash record players, anyone?).

All packaged in enormous designs that recalled missiles, rocket ships and the gleaming futurism of 1950s Hollywood science-fiction movies. The aim wasn’t so much to get from Point A to Point B but to do it in the most style and comfort.


The space race, honed razor sharp by the Cold War, dominated the skies while Detroit car manufacturers mimicked their own ever-skyward quest for dominance. In feverishly competing to make their products as attractive as possible to American consumers, there also occurred an inevitable competition between brands. And the late 1950s to mid-1960s saw the rise of jaw-droppingly audacious automotive design, as shamelessly brightly-coloured as metallic peacocks, the likes of which had never been seen before.

There was a staggering range of choice to entice consumers. The major automobile companies – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – along with a handful of smaller independents, including AMC and Studebaker, fought to differentiate their products. And each of these also had an array of brands.

Ford had, amongst others, such brands as the Lincoln, Mercury, Fairlane, Galaxie, and Mustang (best not mention the Edsel), while GM boasted the Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. Chrysler’s included the Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Imperial and New Yorker.


1966 George Barris-designed Batmobile.



Many of these are represented in the Lost In The 50s collection. It ranges across family sedans, pick-up trucks, hot rods and a couple of notable movie cars. The most instantly recognisable is the 1966 Batmobile, from the Adam West television series. Adapted from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept vehicle by legendary US custom car creator, George Barris, an  original and three replicas were created for filming.


1966 George Barris-designed Batmobile.


All are now in private ownership. Barris’ original, designated the #1 – which remained in his personal collection – was auctioned for the first time in 2015, fetching $US4.6 million. However, there’s a thriving industry producing driveable replicas, fibreglass bodies often mounted on Lincoln Town Cars chassis. I’ve lost count of the number I’ve seen at motor museums around the world and the one at Lost In The 50s is a prime example.


1950 Buick Roadmaster Fastback Coupe


My pick from this smaller section of the museum is the pearl grey 1950 Buick Roadmaster Fastback Coupe. The front grille, with a rictus of chromed malevolence, looks like something out of a Stephen King novel (small wonder as a 1953 Buick Roadmaster was the supernatural lynchpin of King’s From A Buick 8).

But it’s the central hall of the museum that holds the most glittering of prizes and it’s here that the truly wonderful over-the-top 50s and 60s cars are in evidence. Here’s my personal favourites:


1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe


1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe in two-tone green with a continental kit. The Pontiac was one of General Motor’s earliest brands, beginning in 1926, and soon became one of the favourites of American consumers. The Bonneville emerged initially in 1957 as the luxury convertible edition of the Pontiac Star Chief. The following year, the Bonneville became a stand-alone model.


1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe


The 1958 was available as a two-door hardtop or convertible. The base price was $US3,481 (against an average income of $US5,100 per annum) for a V-8 370 cubic inch, 255hp engine with a Carter four-barrel carburettor. Options went all the way up to a 330hp with triple Rochester twin-barrel carburettors.



1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe


1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe



1958 Oldsmobile Model 98



1958 Oldsmobile Model 98 4 door sedan in cherry red. Until 2004, when the company was shuttered, the Oldsmobile was America’s oldest operating car company, dating back to 1897 when Ransom E. Olds started manufacturing in Lansing, Michigan. General Motors purchased the company in 1908.

By the late 1950s, the Oldsmobile was powered by an 8-cylinder Rocket V-8 engine (it first appeared in the 1949 models) and was the first post-war overhead-valve V-8 engine. The Oldsmobile was one of the fastest American cars of its time, capable of 0-60mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit more than 12 seconds and an absolute top speed of 97mph (156 km/h). In 1949 and 50, 88s won more than half the NASCAR Grand National Races. General Motors had the OHV V-8 market pretty much to itself for several years.

The 1958 Oldsmobile had an option of a J-2 Golden Rocket with three two-barrel carburettors. Revolutionary as the Rocket 88 engine was to General Motors and the automotive industry in general, it also played an indirect role in the development of rock’n’roll.


1958 Oldsmobile Model 98


A paean to speed and power (and ipso facto sex), “Rocket 88” was a song written by Jackie Brenston in 1951 at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, MS. Brenston was saxophonist with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm band. The song was recorded by the Kings at the recently-opened Memphis Recording Service studios in early March 1951 but released as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston sang vocals while the sax breaks were by 17-year-old Raymond Hill.

In the petri dish of American culture that was slowly but surely fermenting gospel, rhythm and blues, and country music during that decade, black and white influences travelling parallel tracks, many music historians identify Rocket 88 as the first rock’n’roll song. It’s passionately argued for and against but within that Memphis studio was recorded one of the first, if not the penultimate, song in the development of modern music by people who would also play their own important roles.

In 1956, a precocious 16-year-old by the name of Anna Mae Bullock, first sang with the Kings of Rhythm and soon became a regular member of the band. She started dating Raymond Hill and they eventually had a baby; when the relationship floundered, she began dating Ike Turner. In 1960, she adopted the stage name of Tina Turner when Ike formed the Ike And Tina Turner Revue.


1958 Oldsmobile Model 98


But the most enduring of rock’n’roll’s fickle flourishes of fate involved the Memphis Recording Studio. It was opened in 1950 by Sam Phillips who, two years later, inaugurated his own label, Sun Records, there. For the first few years, Phillips concentrated on emerging  black musicians such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf although he was intrigued by the possibilities inherent in finding a white singer who could convincingly handle black music.

In July 1954, a nineteen-year-old blonde blue-eyed Memphis local, Elvis Presley, recorded a number of tracks, of which “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, became the first of five releases on the Sun label. The rest, as they say, is history.


1958 Oldsmobile Model 98


1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe


1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe two-door in ice blue. The Imperial was Chrysler’s luxury brand from 1955 until the mid-70s and it was to Chrysler what Cadillac was to General Motors or Lincoln to Ford. As beautiful as this car is externally, some of its more notable refinements are inside.

Although dash-mounted push button transmissions were available in a handful of American cars, only Chrysler maintained it for any great length of time. The two-speed PowerFlite transmission was available in all Chryslers from 1954 to 1961, with the three-speed TorqueFlite appearing in 1956. Push buttons disappeared at the end of the 1964 model year.


1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe


The oblong steering wheel and seeming lack of steering column is another stylish Space Age design feature. The tyre-shaped hump on the trunk is known as the FliteSweep Deck Lid and was an option on 1957-61 models. In 1961, it cost $US55.45 extra.

At 227.1 inches (5.76 metres) long, it was the longest non-limousine car on the market.


1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe



1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser


1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser gold two-tone with continental kit. This is one car that polarised the market back in the day and continues to bedevil collectors today. Is it amazing design innovation or just amazingly kitsch?

The flagship of Ford’s Mercury division, the Turnpike Cruisers (which included a convertible option) were only available for the 1957-58 model years and didn’t exactly set the market afire; only 17,000 were sold in 1957, for example.


1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser


This is despite some entertaining innovations including the Breezeway power rear window, the Seat-O-Matic automatic adjusting seat, and a push-button transmission known as the Multi-Drive Keyboard Control, which lent the vehicle severe sci-fi street cred. A 383 cubic inch 330hp Marauder V-8 was standard under the hood, with a 430 cubic inch optional upgrade available. Zero to 60mph in well under ten seconds.

The Continental Kit, which extends the rear bumper and mounts the spare tyre externally, was perhaps the ultimate in flash. Despite all the bells and whistles, the Turnpike Cruiser was short-lived, with 6,407 produced in 1958. It didn’t help that the US was in the midst of a recession at this time and, when consumers had fuel economy at the top of their shopping lists, a shiny aircraft carrier on wheels seemed an unnecessary indulgence.


1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser


Its rarity these days, however, along with a renewed appreciation makes it highly prized.

The electric retractable rear window, a somewhat dubious innovation, was maintain by Ford for some time, possibly hoping the marketplace would eventually respond. Mercury revived the Breezeway in 1963-66 in its Monterey, Montclair and Park Lane models; within the Lost In The 50s collection is a beautiful black 1960 Lincoln Continental Sedan with a Breezeway back window.


1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser



It’s easy to spend the entire day at Lost In The 50s. Members and friends of the Jennings family act as docents, answering questions and generally acting as proud hosts of an extraordinary collection. Car clubs often set up in the forecourt along with food trucks. Check out their website for upcoming opening dates. Purchasing tickets well in advance is recommended.







Say Hello To My Little Friend: The Joy Of A Classic Car

Think of great movies and there’s often an equally great car or three associated with them. There’s Eleanor, the 1967 Shelby Mustang from Gone In 60 Seconds (the remake as opposed to the 1973 Mustang Mach 1 from the original); the 1981 DeLorean from Back To The Future; the 1977 AMC Pacer from Wayne’s World; the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; the 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine; the 1966 Thunderbird from Thelma and Louise; the 1949 Buick Roadmaster Convertible from Rain Man; and the 1968 Mini Cooper S from The Italian Job (the original rather than the supremely why-bother  remake). Even something as pedestrian as a 1979 Porsche 928 (in real life, the Porsche you have when you really want a Volvo) added a little extra something to Risky Business.

As the owner of a 1963 Cadillac, I have one notable association with Hollywood and that’s Tony Montana’s tiger-print upholstered convertible from the chain-saw-and-shower-curtain epic, Scarface. Although not one of my favourite Brian DePalma films (deferring instead to Phantom Of The Paradise and even the cinematic train wreck that is Bonfire Of The Vanities), Scarface would be so much less satisfying a homage to Titus Andronicus without Tony’s preferred choice of wheels.

Classic car owners can be a bewildering breed. What makes them eschew modern cars with their cup holders and ABS and extruded plastic aerodynamics is a matter best left for psychologists and their ilk. But there’s an immense pleasure in driving something different and rare, something out of the ordinary.

I can trace my car back to its first owner, Frederic Apcar, producer of expensive and elaborate Las Vegas extravaganzas at The Dunes casino. According to the original papers I hold, he took possession of the Cadillac, painted in Silver Mink with optional extras of bucket seats and red leather upholstery, in May 1963.

It came to Australia in 1965 and was converted to right-hand drive by Bill Buckle Motors in Brookvale, Sydney. From there, it passed through three owners before I finally took possession. I hadn’t been shopping for a Cadillac; my previous car was a 1968 Ford Galaxie and I had my heart set on a 1959 Thunderbird but it proved an elusive prize. When I found the Cadillac, an everyday driver from an owner who had two other Cadillacs including an amazing 1957 Eldorado Brougham, I knew I’d found my car.

My Cadillac is 5.7 metres long and weighs around two tonnes. It has power steering, electric windows, a back seat as big as a three-seater sofa, four ashtrays plus lighters, and a trunk larger than most granny flats.

It has never disappointed, despite the occasional and understandable difficulties associated with age and relative rarity. Parts are reasonably easy to locate and not too expensive. A trustworthy mechanic, however, is a necessity, one who understands classic cars and has a feel for their foibles.

A classic mid-century American car is a whale on wheels, a ponderous giant, powerful and strong. The sheet steel body panels broach no argument. I was once side-swiped by a taxi, which suffered severe panel damage. My Cadillac emerged with a length of crushed chrome trim along the front guard and a small section of scraped paint.

With the muted but throaty rumble of the eight-cylinder engine, I’m aware I’m not driving anything as common as a car. It’s a panoply of automotive history and demands respect in the way it’s handled.

It’s regarded with a charming reverence on the road, even from boy racers who recognise a fellow car enthusiast. Other drivers extend astounding courtesy, allowing you to merge easily (most likely because they’d rather have me in front of them than behind), fellow classic car drivers flash their lights and wave with the alacrity of members of an exclusive club.

On the expressway, the Cadillac comes into its own, burbling along quite contentedly at 120 kilometres per hour with the distinct impression there’s plenty more available if the need arises. But, as Peter Parker understood, with great power comes great responsibility. Despite the 390 cubic inch engine (equivalent to about 6.4 litres), speed is not an option. The 1963 Cadillac has drum brakes so while stopping in ideal conditions is not a problem, in the wet or on steep hills (or both) it can prove a challenge.

The one other notable problem when driving a classic car is the choice of music. In my case, I don’t bother matching the vintage; 1963 wasn’t a great year in the charts, a time of middle-of-the-road schlock (and not in a good way) largely moribund between the winter of rock’n’roll and the rejuvenating spring of the British Invasion.

On the open road, I’ll alternate between the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mink DeVille and AC/DC, Alice Cooper and Cream with a little Gram Parsons and Joe Walsh thrown in for colour. If I want to nail the decade during city driving, I’ll go for soul or rhythm and blues and such artists as Little Eva, Mary Wells, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin and Al Green.

The best accessory for driving is an iPod wired into the car’s sound system. Make it a 160GB and you’ll have a choice of 25,000 songs. That way, you’ll be prepared for any mood that takes you. Mick Ronson, Mott The Hoople and Edgar Winter one minute, the Partridge Family, Maureen McGovern and Tina Charles the next.

Yet, in the back of my mind, there’ll always be one question: what would Tony Montana prefer?

Words © David Latta

A Classic Link To Old-Time Las Vegas: The Dunes, Frederic Apcar and the Casino de Paris

A couple of years ago, I penned an article for Travel + Leisure magazine on one of my favourite subjects, old-time Las Vegas. It revolved around how my interest had developed after acquiring my prized 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and discovering the original owner’s name amongst a mountain of paperwork that came with the car.

The article remains one of my favourites, more so because of the opening line: “It started, as these things so often do, with a cardboard box full of crap.” The editor kept that line in, unmolested by decorum, when many others would have tossed it aside.

The Cadillac, a Detroit steel monster in gleaming Silver Mink paint, measures almost 5.7 metres long, weighs in at just over two tonnes, and has bucket seats and an interior of the most indulgent red leather. It was delivered new to its Las Vegas address in May 1963 and the name listed in the owner’s manual was Frederic Apcar.

For some reason, it took me a while to Google the owner’s name but, when I did, a surprise awaited. Apcar was a legend in Las Vegas, a producer of tits-and-ass showgirl extravaganzas at the famed Dunes Hotel and Casino; in 2006, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Nevada Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame.

The Dunes opened in 1955 on a 35 hectare site at the southern end of the Strip, diagonally across the road from the Flamingo. With 200 rooms and a 28-metre pool, the largest in the country, the hotel was dominated by a 10-metre-tall fibreglass statue of a Middle Eastern Sultan. The Dunes’ initial investors included East Coast Mob money and was later expanded with funds from the Teamsters Union Credit Fund run by Jimmy Hoffa.

In its early years, The Dunes staggered from one misfortune to another but, by the early 60s, was on the rise. General Manager, Major Arteburn Riddle, knowing the value of entertainment in luring gamblers through the doors, hired Apcar to devise an only-in-Vegas drawcard.

Born in Paris, Apcar was a chorus boy in the famed Folies Bergere at the age of 16. By the time he came to Vegas, he was 46 years old and a respected dancer and choreographer. He drew on what he knew – beautiful women, glamorous costumes, naughty-but-nice dance numbers and variety acts. His first production at The Dunes, Viva Le Girls! opened in the Parisian Room Lounge in 1961. With a budget of $US165,000, it became one of the longest-running shows in Vegas.

His ambition, however, didn’t stop there. He negotiated with the owner and producer of the Casino de Paris to license the first official show outside France. It was already synonymous with glamour; Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker had both performed with the Casino de Paris and, in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent would design costumes for the show.

In December 1963, just a few months after Apcar took delivery of my silver Cadillac, the Casino de Paris show opened in a new custom-built theatre at The Dunes. It was an immediate success; by the mid-60s, the production cost $US75,000 a week to run and had a cast of 100 dancers and performers who cycled through 518 costumes, 250 hats and 500 wigs.

Apcar remained producer and director of the Casino de Paris well into the 80s but, as the years progressed, The Dunes had trouble competing with its upstart neighbours. That it occupied such a prime position on the Las Vegas Strip only hastened its demise. Steve Wynn bought the property in 1992 for $US75 million and closed The Dunes the following year. He imploded the high-rise 60s accommodation tower in spectacular style in October that year and began construction of the $US1.6 billion Bellagio.

Apcar lived to witness the changing fortunes of The Dunes and Las Vegas and died in 2008, aged 93.

Words  © David Latta. Photos from Casino de Paris programs from the 1960s from the author’s own collection. Additional information from the excellent www.classiclasvegas.com website.