Future Imperfect: When Tomorrow Finally Arrived

One day when I was in high school, I walked out of a corner grocery and saw a Chrysler Turbine parked in front of the store. It was a car of the future (along with many others). The Turbine's power windows were down, its chrome sharply bright and its bronze paint glinting with metal flake highlights.

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With my brother and father, I had seen "concept cars" of the 1950s at the Los Angeles Auto Show gleaming behind spectator railing, out of reach. One year, Ford moved the Auto Show display of its Levacar Mach 1 to the sidewalk outside the May Company in Lakewood Center. The Levacar circled slowly on a short tether around its track, lifted a few inches by air forced through ducts under the Levacar's body.

The little red and white fiberglass Ford pod seemed a diminished tomorrow, since the wheel-less Levacar was supposed to travel at the speed of sound.

But rolled up in front of the grocery that weekend afternoon was an actual, drivable future. Someone lucky had been given use of one of Chrysler's 50 test cars powered by a gas turbine engine (only 60 moving parts!) that burned any combustible liquid (even salad oil!). The Turbine could accelerate from zero to 60 mph in less than 12 seconds. Tomorrow was that close. You could even touch tomorrow.

And cars were already being driven there. Houses -- at Disneyland, at least -- were being built there with electric toothbrushes, microwave ovens, and room-size TV screens. My high school was educating me to live in tomorrow and with the future's more disturbing possibilities. (I was now learning to speak Russian from a Czech refugee.)

I was certain what tomorrow would be. It would be sleek, edged in chrome, protectively enclosing, and traveling at supersonic speed. And tomorrow would be armed for confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies.

Michael Ward's painting of a beater GM Firebird II (from 1956)* sums up what that tomorrow turned out to be -- neither utopia nor Blade Runner, not the "New Frontier" or "the Moral Majority," but ordinariness dressed up with titanium tail fins.

Ward's Firebird II never got the chance to grow old. Chrysler's turbine engines never powered a Detroit production car. But the experience did provide engineering solutions for a different vehicle assembly line, the one that built the M1 Abrams main battle tank: gas turbine powered, designed in the 1970s, and intended to confront Soviet armor in a European land war.

That future never happened, either.

*"In the Future We Still Must Shop," Acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, © 2012 Michael Ward

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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