Yesterday I received the magazine/ program that Bob Ashton produces for the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals, which takes place about three weeks after I’m writing this. In it he wrote an interesting story about 1968, “the year that rocked the world,” to put in historical context the show’s Class of 1968 50th Anniversary Invitational display.
Automotively speaking, 1968 was monumental. In a lot of ways it was General Motors’ year. The revamp of the midsize A-Body models sewed seeds of muscle car greatness for Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick for years to come. If you were a sports-car lover, the 1968 Corvette seemed to jump years into the future with its slinky new shark-inspired body.
Chrysler also thoroughly revised its midsize B-Body models, and in a way one-upped its GM rivals with the introduction of a low-cost, low-content, youthoriented car named after a cartoon bird. It may have seemed goofy at first, but the success of the Road Runner got everyone’s attention in Detroit.
Ford was still basking in the glow of the Mustang, but external forces had the biggest impact on the original Ponycar that year. One came from our own publishing company (or where we all began, anyway), when a story by Hot Rod magazine’s Eric Dahlquist about Bob Tasca’s KR-8 super Mustang inspired
(or should we say “pushed”?) FoMoCo to building the 428 Cobra Jet.
The other major influence also came out of California. It would be hard to calculate the promotional value of a certain Highland Green Mustang that chased a certain black Charger around the streets of San Francisco in a movie we are still talking about, and is still selling cars for Ford, 50 years later.
“The year that rocked the world”
Even financially struggling American Motors came to the party. AMC finally introduced its unique-looking entry into the ponycar market, the Javelin, and followed it up with the even more radical AMX.
It’s fascinating to me that all this automotive exuberance came in a year that was arguably the most tumultuous in a decade of huge social and political change and upheaval. Most are familiar with the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June. But those events are just part of a frenzied year.
Our involvement in Vietnam was polarizing the country, and 1968 was a rollercoaster that started with the Tet Offensive in January but saw President Lyndon Johnson call an end to bombing North Vietnam in October because of progress made at the Paris Peace Talks.
Johnson announced he would not seek reelection in 1968, believing he could not run the troubled country and campaign for president at the same time. That opened the door to other Democratic contenders, including the ill-fated Kennedy and, ultimately, Hubert Humphrey, whose candidacy was announced at a (literally) riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Humphrey was beat that November by Richard Nixon, who went on to have some tough times of his own.
Riots and protests weren’t limited to the Chicago convention. They broke out in the wake of MLK’s killing and at college campuses across the country, with civil rights and Vietnam their flashpoints. Two of the year’s most memorable news photos reflected the times: Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a bound Viet Cong officer with his revolver; and the images of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a Black Power salute while on the podium at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Not all of 1968 was grim.
This same year gave us Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and 60 Minutes. The Beatles released the album The Beatles (aka the White Album), and Led Zeppelin formed. Science fiction movies ran the gamut from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Planet of the Apes. Mattel introduced the first Hot Wheels cars. And in a preview of what would be the biggest story of 1969, Apollo astronauts circled the Moon for the first time, in preparation for our eventual landing six months later.
How does one square the technological and cultural accomplishments that took place during a year that tore at the very fabric of our society? How can something as silly and fun as the Road Runner (car or cartoon) exist alongside assassinations and violent protests? I’m no philosopher, just a car magazine hack. But I think you can look at 1968, and maybe the entire decade, as a crucible. Not a physical one, a metaphoric one: “A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new,” as my online dictionary described it. You could see these works of art, mechanical and cultural, as inspired by—or as a reaction to—the pressures of our severe societal unrest.
That’s my take, anyway. If you’ve thought about this too, let me know.
n My pick for the most significant new car of 1968? The Road Runner. Big fun in a stripped-down, affordable package, aimed squarely at the youth market—even those too young to drive, judging by these kids’ faces.