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The Playboy Bunny, the Jaguar and the 1961 Gotham gala

Playboy centrefold Marilyn Hanold and the new Jaguar E-Type at the 1961 New York International Auto Show.


The New York International Automobile Show opened on Good Friday, providing Big Apple residents a firsthand look at the industry's latest mechanical marvels, something it's been doing since 1900 when the motor vehicle began to gain momentum and radically change the way of life in North America and the world at large.

This year, the show's automotive rainbow will highlight green-tinged sippers of fossil fuel and electrical flux at its start point, arch over the usual multi-hued but often bland mixture in the middle and at the pot of gold end highlight high style, horsepower and priced gas guzzlers. But it offers nothing to match the single sensational car responsible for enticing throngs of New Yorkers half a century ago.

The 1961 New York International Automobile Show also felt a need to address automotive political correctness with its president Charles Snitow claiming in the program it ushered in - "the new era of the common-sense car that combines the best in engineering, the finest styling and is the most practical in day-to-day operation." Although, perhaps thinking that a little too dour, he hastened to add the show also included, "a spectacular panorama of experimentals and futuristics."

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But, and you can bet Mr. Snitow wasn't at all upset by this, when the doors closed nine days later it seems many of the 330,000 who turned up had mainly been interested in glimpsing a little glamour.

And this was in large part provided by the curvaceous forms of Jaguar's new E-Type sports car in opalescent bronze and Playboy centrefold Marilyn Hanold in shimmering evening gown, long white gloves and a floor-length silk scarf. Almost 50,000 elbowed each other on the Jaguar stand for a view of both on opening day, as the E-Type made its North American debut.

What had largely been a domestic dominated show for its previous half century and held in Madison Square Garden had changed its focus to import brands in the mid-1950s adding "International" to its name and moving to New York Coliseum. The 1961 program provides a fascinating look into how increasingly "worldly" New York residents related to the cars they drove or aspired to.

The vehicles on display - priced from $1,295 for an 850 Mini to $27,617 for a Rolls-Royce Phantom V - included models from American makers and the better-known British and European brands. Import car sales in the U.S. in 1960 were about half a million, with Brit marques responsible for 30 per cent and five out of six sports cars. British makes were also the dominant imports at the show with more than 20 nameplates represented.

But the show's international flavour also attracted makes less familiar to North Americans, including Toyota (the star of the show was the new Tiara), Nissan (its Datsun Bluebird sold for $1,616), Skoda, Simca, Facel Vega, Amphicar, DKW, DAF, Sabra, Arnholt-Bristol, AC, Lancia, Borgward, Panhard and OSCA.

There was even an electric car, the Henney Kilowatt, whose builder's claims sound surprisingly familiar to those being made today. "Operation is light-switch simple. It draws dependability from failure-free electricity. The uncomplicated electric motor is inexhaustible; owners compute cost of its operation in pennies."

The show program advertisements touted the "Spunky" $1,795 Austin Healey Sprite and its big brother, the $3,051 "Sizzler" 3000 and the "10 feet long … room for 4 six footers" Mini. And from Luigi Chinetti motors the world champion Ferrari.

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Others mooted the merits of Volkswagen's Beetle and window van, Renault's Caravelle, the American King Midget, Hillmans, Singers, Sunbeams, Humbers, Bimmers and Benzes. Rolls-Royce's ad asked - "Should every corporation buy itself a Rolls-Royce?" - and helpfully provided the understated answer: "There's a lot to be said for it."

There were also ads for Blaupunk radios, Vormado auto air conditioners and from companies peddling bits 1960s Brit car owners lusted after; Abarth exhausts, Koni shocks, Dunlop, Pirelli and Michelin tires, Castrol oil, Solex carbs, Smiths instruments, Mintex brake linings, Girling brakes, KLG plugs, Halda rally gear, Borg & Beck clutches, Lucas electrics - wellm few actually wanted these, but often had to buy them anyway.

And there was a full page ad for then-new Sports Car Graphic magazine, the first car magazine I ever bought.

Articles dealt at length with the emerging "common sense car" that appealed to the intellect, and design, which the author felt would evolve into car companies building just three types of cars, compact, medium-sized and luxury. Another story dealt with the styling process and a lengthy piece answered the headline question "Who Cares About Driver Safety."

Among the contributors was CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite who pecked out a piece on his Underwood about rallying. He described it as "pure sport - driving for the fun of it" and noted "more non-sports-car people are entering rallies with American cars, and they are having a whale of a lot of fun doing it."

O.E. Schoeffler, fashion director of Esquire Magazine, chimed in on automotive wear for rallying, racing or "merely tooling about the countryside."

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Recommended were "car coats" in "a giant block plaid of vivid blue and green" and shorter raincoats that let you "down shift through showers with élan."

Concours d'elegance entrants were urged to consider a "knicker suit - unless you want your car to merit all the attention."

Back in 1961

Are You Lonesome Tonight? by Elvis Presley peaks at number one early in the year.

The Mr. Ed and Dick Van Dyke TV shows are launched.

Canadian hockey star Gordie Howe becomes the first to play 1,000 NHL games. Born in 1928, Howe signed his first pro contract in 1945 and retired from the Hartford Whalers in 1980.

American Phil Hill - who won his first race in an MG TC in 1948 and joined the Ferrari team in 1956 - becomes the first American to win the Formula One World Driving Championship. He died, aged 81, in 2008.

The year's census reveals there are 18,238,247 Canadians.

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