By on April 15, 2012

Chrysler’s pavilion, with the mammoth engine is in the foreground. The giant US Royal tire in the background now sits just outside Detroit.

Mention the 1964 New York World’s Fair to a car enthusiast and they’re likely to associate it with the 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang, which was introduced April 17, 1964 on the fair’s opening day. As former Ford president Lee Iacocca told Mustang Monthly in a 2004 interview, “Where else could you introduce a car at such a world-class event?”. In 1964 and 1965, the New York World’s Fair was about as big as events got. Perhaps the only thing bigger then was the Beatles, and even the Fab Four managed to take in the fair a bit, landing via helicopter on the roof of the fair’s administration building on their way to their historic concert at Shea Stadium next door to the fair in Flushing Meadows.

Also big in 1964 were the Detroit based American automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It’s possible that at no other time in postwar history were those companies as dominant in their industry. They had pretty much vanquished all of the independents. Studebaker was shutting down production in South Bend, trying to soldier on with their Canadian plant. Everyone else, with the exception of the remains of Nash and Hudson, in the form of American Motors, was out of business. Even American Motors had peaked with the Rambler in the early 1960s. Nobody had yet heard of Toyota, Honda made motorbikes, and the only import of concern was Volkswagen, a car too small for most Americans’ tastes. Chrysler had had a misstep in ’62 when they downsized their cars, but were back on the upswing. Never was the “bigness” of the Big 3 bigger.

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The 1964 World’s Fair was a veritable who’s who of corporate America. Just about every major company had a pavilion and they spent millions on the buildings, the entertainment and the attractions. IBM hired designer Charles Eames and architect Eero Saarinen to design their pavilion and Eames and his wife Ray put together the multimedia presentation. GM, Ford & Chrysler were not going to be left out. Besides, they had already set standards at the 1939 edition of the Fair, for example, GM’s legendary Futurama exhibit. So the Detroit automakers pulled out all the stops for their 1964 pavilions.

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General Motors reprised the Futurama theme with Futurama II, housed in the fair’s largest building, said by some to resemble a car with tail fins, a bit anachronistic by 1964. Futurama had highways in the sky. Futurama II took show visitors to the moon, timely in light of the American space effort.

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Not to be outdone, Ford hired Walt Disney to help with their pavilion. The result was the Magic Skyway, where you rode in one of 135 Ford convertibles (including one of the first dozen or so Mustangs that came off of the line), watching humankind progress from the dawn of time to the threshold of tomorrow. Walt even provided his familiar and reassuring voice for the ride’s narration.

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Perhaps to compensate for being the smallest of the Big 3, Chrysler’s pavilion featured automotive gargantuans. Chrysler’s Autofare, “the fair-within-a-fair”, included the world’s biggest car, a mammoth animated engine, a giant robot made of car parts, and a ten story rocket (like all of the automakers, Chrysler was a vendor for NASA). You could also take a ride in a Chrysler Turbine Car on a small track. Jay Leno tells a story how he went to the fair with his parents, driving down from Massachusetts, just so he could see the Turbine Car (one of which he now owns, one of the few in private hands) but the line, as most lines were at the Fair, was very long and his father said, “We’re not waitin’ in line all day just to ride in a goddamn cah.”

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Does it really need to be said that each of the automakers’ pavilions were filled with their latest production cars as well? Chrysler also provided vehicles for the Hell Drivers auto thrill show at the fair. Other corporate names familiar to car buffs were in the Transportation section of the fair. The giant Uniroyal tire that greets visitors to Detroit on I-94 was moved there from the fairgrounds where it had been a Ferris wheel, though then it was a US Royal tire, the product of US Rubber. Vistors to Socony Mobil’s pavilion could drive across America in a 1964 vintage electromechanical simulation of the Mobil Economy Run. Avis had a guided antique car ride. One of the best remembered pavilions Sinclair Oil’s Dinoland because of their life sized fiberglass recreations of dinosaurs that went on national tour after the World’s Fair ended.

Sinclair Dinoland viewed from the US Royal giant tire Ferris wheel

I don’t think we’ll ever see the like of such exhibits from the domestic automakers ever again. As mentioned, the Big 3 were at the peak of their strength. The 1960s was a time of extravagance, guns and butter. In a Mad Men era, nobody would have questioned such an expense. After the bankruptcies and bailouts, enormous pavilions and Hollywood productions would immediately be seized on by critics of those companies.

The Fair is long gone, but you can still enjoy it, and not even have to stand in line (or on line if you’re a New Yawker). NYWF64.com has just about everything you might want to know about the ’64 World’s Fair, including extensive sections on the Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler exhibits, with reproductions of the program brochures and photos of the displays. YouTube has promotional films of the rides as well as home movies. The comments from the young’ns about the poor “video” quality back then are almost precious, but then they are YouTube comments.

Note: A tip o’ the fedora to David Gelernter (Wiki, Yale, and WSJ), author of the superb 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, whose title I borrowed for the headline.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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22 Comments on “The Automotive World of the Fair, 1964...”


  • avatar

    Huge nostalgia with this article, I wanted to go to New York World’s Fair in the worst way as a kid. Popular Science magazine and a few other mags had made that event seem almost beyond my imagination. The accompanying videos reminded me why the NY fair had so much curb appeal to me at the time. Thanks Ronnie, that futuristic fair piece was quite a blast from the past.

    • 0 avatar

      I was 10, my dad was from Brooklyn, we’d go visit relatives at the drop of a hat (thank God and Pres. Eisenhower for I-80) so there was no doubt that we’d go to the ’64 World’s Fair. My mom’s been dabbling in the stock market since the early ’60s so my folks contacted their brokers and got VIP passes to a lot of the pavilions. I remember the DuPont show, and the IBM exhibit, the inside of the Chrysler engine and some of the other displays. My mom’s a hoarder and not too long ago I found the vinyl recording of the soundtrack to the Travelers Insurance pavilions, an ascent of man thing. The lines if you didn’t have VIP tix were insane.

      Jim, retro future stuff fascinates me. Looking back at forward looking things.

      • 0 avatar
        Luper

        Great article. My dad worked at the GM pavilion there in the Oldsmobile exhibit. A family photo has him posing next to a black Vista Cruiser wearing the signature red blazer. I guess he looked pretty good because a drop dead gorgeous blonde took notice of him and within a year or so they were married. I came along a few years later. Oh, and I recently came across “The Triumph of Man” record pressed on red vinyl for Travelers Insurance in a stack of my mom’s old records. Just way cool.

      • 0 avatar
        Luper

        Great article. My dad worked at the GM pavilion there in the Oldsmobile exhibit. A family photo has him posing next to a black Vista Cruiser wearing the signature red blazer. I guess he looked pretty good because a drop dead gorgeous blonde took notice of him and within a year or so they were married. I came along a few years later. Oh, and I recently came across “The Triumph of Man” record pressed on red vinyl for Travelers Insurance in a stack of my mom’s old records. Just way cool. Now if I could only get my dad’s old Acoustic Research solid wood turntable to work…

      • 0 avatar

        Luper:
        I have a working turntable, but it’s easier to just use YouTube. The comment editor is being weird about posting the URL, so just go to YT and do a search.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    The Ford pavilion, and the fair in general, served as an incredible laboratory and test market for Walt Disney. So much of the fair eventually got incorporated into the vision that Disney was beginning to develop for Walt Disney World in Florida. The now iconic “It’s a Small World” ride also first appeared at the NY World’s Fair.

    If only Disney still designed rides incorporating real cars. Every vehicle on the Skyway was a production car. There were reversible modifications to enable them to follow the track and to broadcast the audio through the cars’ radios. After the fair, the cars were sold as used cars to Ford employees. I don’t think anyone has tracked all of them, but we do know that a few of the Mustangs have survived:

    http://www.mustangmonthly.com/featuredvehicles/mump_0910_1964_worlds_fair_production_mustangs/viewall.html

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, Walt and his engineers’ fingerprints were all over the Fair. The Illinois exhibit featured an animatronic Abe Lincoln. It’s a small world was the Pepsi exhibit.

      Researching this post has inspired me to start going through my dad’s photographs and home movies.

  • avatar

    You lived every kid’s dream at the time. Incidentally, I totally get your attitude about retro future stuff because the possibilities seemed endless as a kid in the 60s with the actual space race right in our living rooms on TV.

  • avatar
    twotone

    Great article! I was 11 years old growing up in CT at the time. We took a family road trip down to NYC to see the World’s Fair in 1964. I still have vivid memories of the Big 3 automakers and IBM pavilions. Driving by the Unisphere these days still brings back memories.

  • avatar
    tced2

    I attended the 1964 World’s Fair as a high school student. (Train ride from Illinois to Washington DC and then New York).

    I remember waiting in long lines to ride the GM Futurama and Ford exhibits. I have a few pictures (film of course) of the inside of each exhibit. I don’t remember going into the Chrysler exhibit, but I certainly remember the giant engine and have pictures of it.

    The GE exhibit was a round building which contained several “scenes”. The audience seats were moved around the building to each scene. I saw that display later at Walt Disney World slightly updated.

    The other big exhibition was of the Michelangelo “Pieta” sculpture (from the Vatican) – I waited for hours to get on a moving sidewalk to view it.

  • avatar
    Wally Vance

    I went there as a part of a pharmacy school senior trip. We visited pharmaceutical manufacturers on our trips. Anyway, it rained all day on the day we had for the fair so the lines were not very long.

  • avatar
    PaulVincent

    As great as the fair itself was, the thing I best remember about our trip to the New York World’s Fair was getting a $.25 haircut from a non union barber.

  • avatar
    cstoc

    Those dinosaurs in the Ford Magic Skyway are still on display at Disneyland as The Primeval World (that allosaurus is *still* munching on that plant). I knew it came from the Fair, but I never knew it was Ford’s pavilion. I wish I could have gone to that Fair, but NY was a long way from Texas.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    My dad, 38 at the time, was in NY on business, and stopped by at the fair; somewhere in my mom’s attic there are a couple of rolls of super-8, one with shots from the uniroyal tier (my dad always liked to mention to us, upon passing it on I-94, that he had once rode upon it at the fair…)

    I really wanted to go to the fair too, but being only a year old, I had some trouble articulating my desires and was thus left at home with my mom and sisters…

    Btw, maybe half a year ago I came across some site on the web that indicated that there had also been an underground exhibit of a nuke-proof house, or some such… By and by it was forgotten, until when somebody (perhaps urban explorers) went looking for it the found a homeless guy had moved in and had been occupying it for sometime… Some of the original fixtures were still in place…

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      In the time the big tire has been resident in Allen Park, it’s tread and sidewall profile have gone from being bias-ply to being radial in nature, and the sidewall has been relabeled from U.S.Rubber, to Uniroyal ( others will have to say whether it has changed again in the last 5-10 years.)

      • 0 avatar

        I suspect the next change will be to give it a bigger wheel and a lower aspect ratio. Looking at old photos, when it was a Ferris wheel and when it first came to Detroit, it was something like a 70 series tire. The last time they updated it, they gave it a bigger wheel, but it’s still about the proportion of a 15″ rim on a full size 60 series tire. Another change is adding their website URL to the sidewall. For a while it had a giant nail embedded into the tread, and text promoting it’s “nail gard” capability. When Uniroyal removed it, a local businessman bought it at auction and takes it to charity events.

        big-nail.com/about/the-story-of-the-big-nail/

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Some interesting urban exploration links to what remains:

    http://undercitywebsite.blogspot.com/2009/06/nyc-world-fair-observation-towers.html

    http://www.nywf64.com/undrghome01.shtml

  • avatar
    bunkie

    My mom and dad ran the restaurant at the Swedish pavilion (my dad ran catering for SAS). I actually got to go to the fair site before it opened. My dad had a vehicle pass and both my parents had exhibitor passes. I hid in the back of our ’58 Beetle (there was a space behind the rear seat).

    I spent many days at the fair. And, without a doubt, the best exhibit was GM’s Futurama II. I have always loved visions of the future and this was fabulous. I remember riding in some other car than a Mustang (that was a disappointment).

    No recounting of the fair is complete without mention of Belgian waffles. If you’ve been to the fair, you know…

    I still have an opening day pass from the fair.

  • avatar
    stuart

    I read somewhere that the Modern Architecture of the 50s and 60s reflected the optimism of those times. The Future is Almost Here! Modern automatic appliances will free the Housewife of drudgery; automation at work will drastically curtail the time Husband spends at work. Atomic power will provide limitless energy at trivial cost. It’s going to be Fabulous!

    Then we got involved in Vietnam, and the 70s happened. Carter said we had to turn down our thermostats, and OPEC made us wait in line for gasoline. The Big 3 went into decline; TTAC calls it “The Malaise Era.” Things haven’t improved much since. (The ubiquity of computers and the WWW are the most positive developments in decades.)

    I’m very fond of the style and that exuberant optimism of the early 60s, and I love revisiting those idealistic (albeit repressive) times. Thanks for bringing this up!

    stuart

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Was a tyke when we drove down from New Haven to the World’s Fair in ’65. I remember riding in the Amphibicar; last year when we went to Disneyworld it was great to see the whole world of the future ride set up there.

    You’re right, the domestics will never match that level of arm flexing again….they couldn’t even do it 20 years later in their own backyard….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AutoWorld

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Would be interesting (and probably depressing) to compile a list all of the American companies that sponsored the 1964 World’s Fair and have ceased to exist since…

  • avatar
    HOT-ROD

    1964 Worlds Fair experience and why I will never buy a Chrysler product

    In 1964, my father, two brothers, my grandmother and I went to the New York World’s Fair. We were wearing sports jackets with ties, and my twin brother and I were not quite 14, but stood 5 feet 10 inches tall. We saw the new cars including the new Mustang.

    Jay Leno was there also he was 13 years old:

    Jay Leno now owns a 1963 Chrysler Turbine and great video of turbine development

    I stumbled on the 1963 Chrysler turbine exhibit. No one else was looking at the car and the engine was not running. I think a demo had just finished. The salesman demonstrator was standing by the car and I asked if I could sit in it. He said no. As I walked away, he asked a young women if she would like to sit in the car. I turned around and watched her get in the car, and then vowed (at 13 years old) that I would never buy a Chrysler product.

    Just like the punk in “A CLOCK WORK ORANGE” who had behavior modification treatment for fighting that would make him puke at the sight of any form of violence, I too feel like puking after looking at nice Chrysler cars and mistakenly think about buying one. I have worked on them, driven them, but will never buy one.

    The 1964 Worlds fair was almost 50 years ago and I remember the turbine like it was yesterday and never forget how the salesman alienated me from Chrysler products.

    From the worlds fair link:
    Vistors to Socony Mobil’s pavilion could drive across America in a 1964 vintage electromechanical simulation of the Mobil Economy Run.

    Later in the day, I entered the Mobil fuel exhibit and took the driving test for the economy run against adult drivers. I sat in the driver simulator near the instructor. He told all contestants if you follow his instructions exactly you will win. I won the race with an average fuel economy of 21 MPG even though I had never driven a powered machine of any kind. I won because I excelled at immediate and accurate command execution.
    As I remember my enjoyment at the 1964 Worlds Fair I always have one final thought:

    PHUCK CHRYSLER and all the products, no matter how good they may be.

    I personally only own high performance GM products


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