Sunday 21 June 2015

Tom Wolfe's "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby"

Tom Wolfe had a serious case of writer's block.  And he had a deadline to keep.  Finally, he decided to simply type up his notes and send them to the editor of Esquire who would give the assignment to another writer.  Tom sat down at his typewriter and, several coffee cups later, he typed his last word. He delivered his 49 pages of notes to Esquire.  The editor simply stroked out "Dear Byron" and published the essay as is.  The result was "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby".

In the 1960's, the car culture was alive and well in California.  Whereas in previous decades, the automobile had been a vehicle to get its occupants from Point A to Point B, by the middle of the decade, it had become much more than that.  It was a symbol of success, of which there was much in Los Angeles.  It also fulfilled the need for speed:  drag racing was all the rage.

Wolfe travelled to Los Angeles -- to the city of the "scorched boulevards", boutiques, bowling alleys, skating rinks and taco drive-ins -- to experience the culture.  What he found was a culture that, rather than worshipping giant heads as the Easter Islanders did, they worshipped cars.  Los Angeles youth would meet at something new called the Teen Fair.  They would arrive in their custom cars at what resembled amusement parks.  A hully gully band blasted music, all electrified, from a high platform. Young women, wearing tight slacks and bouffant hairdoes, danced the bird, the hully gully and the shampoo.

What stood out about these teenagers was their uniformity, as Wolfe explained:

"[If] you watched anything at this fair very long, you kept noticing the same thing.  These kids are absolutely maniacal about form.  They are practically maniacal about it.  For example, the dancers: none of them ever smiled.  They stared at each other's legs and feet, concentrating to do them exactly right.  And all the bouffant kids all had form, wild form, but form with rigid standards, one gathers. Even the boys.  Their dress was prosaic -- Levi's, Slim Jims, sport shirts, T shirts, polo shirts, but the form was consistent -- a stovepipe silhouette.  And they all had the same hairstyle...They were all wonderful slaves to form." (

Booths lined the perimeter of the grounds of the Teen Fair, hocking items like shoes, guitars, and of course, cars.  Wolfe talked to reps from the Ford Motor Company.  Ford was attempting to corner the market on this new "teenage lifestyle".  As Wolfe maintained:  "If Ford can get them hooked on Fords now, after the kids are married they'll buy new Fords."

These weren't just any Fords, though.  They were part of the Ford Custom Car Caravan.  Customizing was the new trend in California.  An autobody man took the original body of a car and chopped and channeled it.  He jacked up the back end.  He streamlined it.  He added lots of chrome.  And he likely repainted it.  Gone were the days of Henry Ford who said that you could order your Ford in any colour, as long as it was black.

That is where the custom car designers came in.  Wolfe talked to the owner of Kustom City.  He showed the writer around his shop.  At Kustom City, the owner didn't create cars, he created "objets d'arts".  He mixed "krazy kolors" which represented the rebelliousness of the new teen culture:  orange, purple, yellow and violet.   His cars made a statement.  And he didn't just make cars for teens.  His famous customers included Jayne Mansfield, Elvis Presley and Liberace.  In 1957, the custom car owner started hearing from the Detroit auto companies.  They wanted to know what teenagers were going for.  However, he admitted they were limited:  they had to "design a car for the farmer in Kansas and the hotdog in Hollywood".

Cars are no longer the status symbols they once were.  We have said goodbye to the streamlined cars, to the muscle cars, to the custom cars, to the gas guzzlers.  Cars have become, once again, vehicles to get us from Point A to Point B.

No comments:

Post a Comment