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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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