Written By: Eliza Berman

The cars of the 1950s were different. They were designed for looks as much as for aerodynamics. They were so about so much more than their utility, a way to get from point A to point B, They were vehicles of adventure and style, the things that popular musicians wrote songs about. And the arrival of the new model year created the kind of excitement that today we reserve today for announcements of the latest phones.  ‘

LIFE’s Walter Sanders went to a New York car show previewing the new models for 1957—historically recognized a great year for cars—and captured the glitz and glamour of that particular moment in history, which tells plenty about the place that the car held in the imagination of America in that age.

The National Automobile Show, held at the now-demolished New York Coliseum, featured an older kind of pageantry. Automakers drew attention with models posing as hood ornaments and “a thirty-minute musical revue” called “”America on the Move,” repeated six times daily. A new vehicle model was rarely seen unaccompanied by a live human model, clad in a regal dress as she pointed out its features.

LIFE’s story in its Dec. 17, 1956 issue (which featured a baptism on its cover) was headlined “Car Makers Sound a Mighty Toot for 1957.” 

“The color motif of turquoise, gold and red-orange mirrored the jaunty mood of the automobile industry,” LIFE magazine declared in its report, which said that the show presented 66 trucks and buses and 124 passenger cars. The show was a big enough of a cultural moment that Richard Nixon, then vice president of the United States, showed up and gave a speech.

Were those old cars better? It’s a matter of debate, especially when you consider that throughout the fifties those gas guzzlers averaged about nine miles per gallon and lacked all the high-tech safety features that have been the focus of the auto industry’s recent creations.

Still, it’s hard to look at these pictures and not get charmed by the excitement of that moment.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

National Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum featuring 1957 lines.

1956 New York Auto Show

Walter Sanders The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

More Like This

history

Sherlock Holmes: The Influence of the World’s Most Famous Detective

history

LIFE’s 100 People Who Changed the World

history

The 100 Most Important Photos Ever

history

Times Square: The Ultimate Gathering Place

history

Stephen Sondheim: A Broadway Master’s `West Side’ Roots

history

The “Ordinary” Witches of LIFE Magazine