The Sixties at Fifty: 1961

by James Kraus

1961 Porsche poster celebrating competition victories of the prior season

By 1961 the last vestiges of the fifties were ebbing and the currents of the sixties starting to more strongly assert themselves. The second year of the decade witnessed the first manned space flight, construction of the Berlin Wall and the first season of The Avengers.

It was a banner year for British sports car enthusiasts. Jaguar unleashed its dramatic new feline, the ‘E’ Type, dubbing it The Most Advanced Sports Car in the World.

After revising and updating the classic XK Series for over a decade, they started with a clean sheet of drawing paper and a freshly sharpened pencil to create one of the seminal automobiles of the 1960s.

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Jaguar ‘E’ Type Coupé in Opalescent Silver Blue with optional white sidewall tyres and chrome wire wheels

Retaining only a triple-carburettor 3.8 litre version of the already classic XK engine, they placed it into a new low, sleek and sexy semi-monocoque structure sitting on a new all-independent suspension system. The end result fascinated and delighted enthusiasts and garnered it a place in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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Triumph TR4

Enthusiasts who aspired to an ‘E’ Type but whose wallets were a bit too thin could seek solace behind the wheel of the newest Triumph. The Giovanni Michelotti designed TR4 was a considerable advance on the TR3 in the comfort department with not only rollup windows in place of the previous side curtains, but adjustable fresh-air ventilation outlets; a sports car first, set into a futuristic Spa White instrument panel fascia.

Park Hill Flats, Sheffield, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, 1961

The Park Hill Flats housing estate complex in Sheffield opened for occupancy. The exposed reinforced concrete structure with coloured accents echoed earlier designs by Le Corbusier. In Los Angeles, the futuristic airport Theme Building opened to greet visitors in true Space Age fashion.

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Los Angeles International Airport Theme Building, Pereire and Luckman, 1961

The Digital Age officially began in February when Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments filed the first patent application for an integrated circuit.

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Amphicar 770

One certainly had no occasion to check the calendar when a vehicle was introduced that was both a car and a boat: it had to be the 1960s! Creating a civilian amphibious car was a long-time dream of its creator, Hans Trippel, who designed amphibious vehicles for the Wehrmacht during World War II. His vision finally became reality in the form of the new Amphicar 770.

If the driver got the urge for a moonlight cruise on the lake with his inamorata, it was just a matter of double-latching the doors and engaging the propellers to morph from driver to captain of the ship.

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IBM Selectric Typewriter

IBM introduced their Selectric Typewriter. Designed by Eliot Noyes, the stylish Selectric revolutionized typing with its stationary carriage and easy to change, moveable typeball. The quickly removable ball allowed for readily changeable fonts. The new Selectric remained basically unchanged for a decade.

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Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute

Breitling unveiled the new Navitimer Cosmonaute chronograph. The 24-hour Cosmonaute movement and dial were built on request of American astronaut Scott Carpenter. Slightly revised and with an added calendar function, it remains in production to this day.

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Volkswagen 1500 Karmann Ghia T34 Coupé

The VW 1500 range was the first all-new passenger car line to to join the Beetle in the Volkswagen family. It was entirely new, yet not wildly different, being built on the standard VW wheelbase and resting on a new but similar chassis. Its new 1.5 litre engine actually debuted in smaller 1.2 litre form in the Beetle in the autumn of 1960 along with the new all-synchromesh tunnel-case transaxle.

For the 1500 models, the new air-cooled powerplant was built in a horizontal configuration, with a two-stage cooling fan attached to the nose of the crankshaft. The resulting low profile allowed the standard 1500 to have luggage space at both ends and made possible production of the Variant estate model.

Thunderball, first edition, Ian Fleming, 1961

Thunderball, Ian Fleming, first edition, 1961

Thunderball, Ian Fleming’s eighth full-length James Bond novel was released. It later spawned not one, but two Bond Films; Thunderball, and two decades later; Never Say Never Again.

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Renault 4

Renault introduced the world’s first front-wheel drive family hatchback. The new 4 was a clean break from the earlier 4CV. The Renault Ventoux engine was carried over, but very little else. The engine was moved from the rear up to the front, residing entirely behind the front axle in the Citroën manner allowing for good weight distribution and responsive handling.

The suspension was independent all around using torsion bars. The rear bars stretched the width of the car, one behind the other, resulting in a slightly longer wheelbase on the right-hand side. The storage capacity and flexibility of its folding rear seats allowed it to compete effectively with the utilitarian Citroën 2CV, while offering a higher degree of civility.

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Simca 1000

Simca debuted their first foray into rear-engined design. The basic architecture of the new 1000 was based on the Renault 4CV and Dauphine, placing the fuel tank as well as the power train at the rear, sacrificing more balanced weight distribution for a gain in luggage accommodation. The new Type 315 engine incorporated five main bearings and a cross-flow cylinder head.

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The Guns of Navarone, J. Lee Thompson, 1961

In cinema, moviegoers were treated to The Guns of Navarone, A Raisin in the Sun, A Woman is a Woman and The Hustler.

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The Hustler, Robert Rossen, 1961

ITV premiered the classic spy-fi series The Avengers.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens became a international pop hit. Based on a South African song from the 1920s, it had been covered previously, but The Tokens version scaled the top of the sales charts. The song has been recorded by at least fifteen other artists since and was adopted for Disney’s Lion King.

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Lancia Flavia Berlina

Wonderfully idiosyncratic and technically sophisticated like all proper Lancias, the all-new Flavia featured a water-cooled four-cylinder horizontally-opposed aluminium engine, front-wheel drive and four-wheel Dunlop disc brakes. It was Lancia’s first utilization of the increasingly popular front-wheel drive configuration.

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Fiat 1300

While the design of the Chevrolet Corvair was largely underappreciated in the U.S., European designers took to it immediately, incorporating the Corvair Line into many iconic European designs of the sixties. The Corvair Line refers to an unbroken character line that completely encircles the vehicle. The Fiat 1300/1500 is a prime example. Fiat stylist Mario Boano adopted the line and incorporated door handles integrated into the bodyside moulding to produce an unusually clean, crisp and modern side profile.

A very attractive 1:5 scale model of a coupé version was built at the Fiat Styling Centre, but sadly never approved for production.

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Blue Venus, Yves Klein, 1961

French artist Yves Klein patented his International Klein Blue (IKB) consisting of blue pigment suspended in polyvinyl acetate.

I Can See the Whole Room, Roy Lichtenstein, 1961

Pop began ascending the art pyramid. Although beginning in the 1950s, Pop Art quickly grew in popularity in the early 60s and is the movement most closely associated with the decade.

1961’s Bordeaux harvest was hailed as the Vintage of the Century. Still drinking magnificently on its fiftieth anniversary, the ’61 Chateau Latour has been called the Greatest Wine Ever Made.

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Volvo P 1800

Volvo’s first and only volume-production sports car used 122S Amazon running gear. It shortly became a TV star being the favoured transport of Simon Templar in The Saint.

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Yuri Gagarin

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Man had been sending satellites into space for four years, but Yuri was the first human being to actually rocket into outer space and come back to earth.

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Chevrolet Chevy II

In order to better compete with Ford’s Falcon, General Motors introduced the Chevy II. The rear suspension featured new monoleaf rear springs made of single leaves of tapered-thickeness metal, eliminating harshness from the interleaf friction generated in conventional multi-leaf springs.

Other automotive developments included the debut of the first John Cooper-modified Minis, the MG Midget version of the Austin-Healey Sprite, the Citroën Ami 6 and the Fiat 2300 Coupé.

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Volvo 122 Amazon with new lamp cluster incorporating white sidelight and amber turn indicator

New cars in Europe began transitioning to amber-coloured front and rear turn indicators. Italy however, mandated its own frontal configuration: white turn indicators at the front, with amber repeating indicators at the front corners flashing to the side.

Ferrari won the Formula One Constructer’s Championship, and Phil Hill became World Champion after leading contender Wolfgang von Trips was killed in a crash at Monza that also claimed the lives of eighteen spectators. Ferrari also won the World Championship for Sportscars for the second year in a row. The European Rally Championship was won by Hans Joachim Walter in a Porsche 356 and the Hillclimb Championship by Heini Walter in a Porsche RS 61.

Air travel in the U.S. and Canada was grounded for twelve hours while NORAD conducted Operation Sky Shield II, a simulation of defence against an airborne bombing attack. Seven of eight British Avro Vulcan strategic bombers (playing the attacking role) were able to enter US airspace and ‘hit’ their targets undetected.

Trans World Airlines 707

Finally, TWA became the first air carrier to show regularly scheduled in-flight movies in the first class cabins of their Boeing 707 StarStream jetliners.

The 50th Anniversary of the 1960s:

1960   1961   1962   1963   1964   1965   1966   1967   1968   1969

3 thoughts on “The Sixties at Fifty: 1961

  1. I loved the old white fascia in the TR4. Michelotti was playing around a bit with white back than (possibly influenced by Dieter Rams) as can be seen in the white rubber trim on the Triumph Heralds of the time.

  2. 1961 was also the year when Pinin Farina showcased the Cadillac Jacqueline at the Salon de l’Auto in Paris, the last to be held under the turn-of-the century glass domes of the Grand Palais. This was the second hommage concept car of the Italian designer to its American client, after the 1959 Starlight. One of the most remarkable features of the sleek Starlight was its huge plexiglass rooftop, gracefully arched towards long, low tailfins. The car’s lines have stayed in collective memory under the guise of the elegant, albeit shorter Peugeot 404 Cabriolet, which was also introduced at the 1961 Paris Motor Show (it was, however, never used by Inspector Columbo as a replacement for its ageing, battered 403). The Jacqueline is probably better known than the Starlight and has an interesting history: Like the Starlight, the Jacqueline concept went on to inspire another Peugeot: the small, popular 204. But that was not until 1965.

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