The Automotive World of the Fair, 1964
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.
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.
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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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...
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