The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

By: Peter Wittwer
Tom Wolfe’s essay, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” focuses on car customization during the 1960’s. Car customization was a growing movement, specifically in L.A. where kids had their cars customized with different body works, colors, and engines as a way to express their rebellious nature. This counterculture known as the hot rod movement grew so rapidly that it had a strong impact on the Detroit auto manufacturers and how they targeted the teenage consumer market.

Wolfe profiles the notorious car customizers, Baris and Roth, to discover the influence customized cars had on the hot rod movement as well as the auto industry. Teens during the 1960’s were extremely interested in drag racing as well as cars with streamlined designs and rebellious car colors (ex. yellow and purple). These new customized hot rods became extremely popular due to auto shows and drive ins where teens could show off their fixed up cars. Teens were also commanding a lot of respect in the car market. According to Wolfe teens had more spending money, thus they had more purchasing power. This led auto industries such as Ford, to host “Teen Fairs,” where car companies showed off their customized cars and targeted teen consumers through celebrity appearances and a party like atmosphere of funky music and swimming pools. The Detroit auto companies would recruit popular car customizers such as Baris and Roth to visit their factories and tell them what the teens were interested in. The auto companies were strongly influenced by the use of different flamboyant color samples created by the car customizers. The popularity of the hot rod led companies to come out with new models, these cars had powerful engines and streamlined body designs. Examples of hot ride like cars introduced in the 60’s include the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird.

Although the auto companies and customizers shared some common ground there was definitely a strong difference between the customized cars of Baris and Roth and the cars of the Detroit auto manufacturers. Baris and Roth produced cutting edge, “sexy” designs. They treated their cars like pieces of art, which made car customization much more of an art form than a business. On the other hand the Detroit car companies had to make automobiles that appealed to the young hot rodder in L.A. as well as the farmer in Kansas. Thus, there was still a level of conservatism and practicality the large car manufacturers had to put into their designs.

The Detroit auto companies were influenced heavily by the hot rod movement as well as the ideas of car customizers. The flamboyant paints and heavily streamlined body work played a large role in the cars introduced by the Detroit car manufacturers during the 1960’s. While the car customizers refused to play a role in the “enterprise” and treated car customization like a form of art rather than a business.

Discussion Questions:

Do teens still have such an interest in cars today? Is this interest anything compared to the hot rodders of the 1960’s?

Why did teens manifest their rebelliousness against adult authority in cars? What did the automobile symbolize for teenagers during the 1960’s?

4 comments to The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

  • heardd16

    I think this is a very good summary and analysis of the Wolfe’s essay. The Kustom Kulture of this time period is very interesting to read about, but I like how you remembered to mention other realms of society that still needed practical and conservative automobiles. I think other potential discussion questions could include the economic implications of independent customizers, such as Baris and Roth, on the established Detroit firms. What are the implications of producers who choose to approach their work from an artistic standpoint rather than a profitability standpoint?

  • Michael Barry

    I think it is interesting to look at how the counter-culture of car customization was paralleled by stock car racing, discussed in chapter 8. Both chapters show how cars were a very closely involved in American culture. People seemed so interested in them because of the freedom and independence that they symbolized. Aside from the most obvious reason of allowing people to drive themselves wherever they wanted to go, customization served as a form of self expression, and stock car racing represented freedom from the control of society. This is shown in the name of chapter 8, The Last American Hero, focussing on Junior Johnson who was seen as a hero for his success as a racer, but also for his rebellion against prohibition laws that many viewed as oppressive and misguided. The need for, and love of, the feeling of freedom present in customization and racing are what made these people appear “counter-culture”, because of their longing to escape from all of the structure of society. However, auto manufacturers an dealers were able to benefit from these car cultures, counter-culture or not. I think that by getting involved with racers and customizers, instead of trying to become disassociated, manufacturers helped reinforce the idea of freedom that came with cars, and this helped make them such an important part of American culture.

  • Peter Wittwer

    I definitely agree racing played a huge role in the counter culture that was created. Even the Demolition Derby, which Wolfe talks about in an earlier chapter becomes a huge source for rebellion against the social norms of society. The demolition derby represents gladiators, or men in there most primal state. People express themselves through cars because it’s the ultimate source of freedom to literally drive away from your life and become your own person. People can’t be touched in there cars and it’s a way for people, specifically young teens to free themselves from the control of their parents and express themselves in their own way, whether it be through racing, demolition derby, or even customization.

  • Car companies from the earliest days made aggressive use of customization to try to differentiate their products and allow better margins. The challenge for “the factory” is to do so in a cost-effective manner, and now to prevent customization that might undo safety / emissions controls. That’s a different question from whether watching such youth trends can help companies choose colors and styling cues that improve sales even of mainline products. Designers argue “yes” but of course that’s what they do so their claim needs empirical backing!

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