By Phil Patton, Published on April 11th, 2014
From its humble origins as a Queens garbage dump — inspiration for the valley of ashes in “The Great Gatsby” — Flushing Meadows Corona Park emerged as the site of two world’s fairs, in 1939-40 and 1964-65.
The first fair laid out a glorious vision for the automobile: General Motors’ Futurama exhibition, designed by Norman Bel Geddes, depicted the multilane highways of the future. The second fair arrived with that vision mostly realized — and the automobile near the pinnacle of its power and prestige.
Fifty years ago, Lee A. Iacocca unveiled the Mustang even before the fair’s opening day, with a press conference on April 13, 1964. But there were many other auto-centered displays throughout the fair’s run. Chrysler showed cars with turbine engines; General Motors offered concept cars shaped like jet planes.
But in retrospect, the second fair can be seen as the last un-self-conscious public celebration of automotive culture before concerns about safety and fuel economy changed it forever. Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” would be published the month after the fair closed; waiting in the wings were the OPEC fuel crises and the mass invasion of economical, reliable cars and trucks from Japan.
As in 1939, the transportation area where the auto pavilions were situated was across the Grand Central Parkway, south of the main part of the fair and reached by pedestrian overpasses.
While American Motors was not represented, Detroit’s Big Three competed in their presentations. Ford claimed its pavilion was the largest at the fair: “A journey of imagination across time and space” that extended “nearly three football fields!” But the facade of G.M.’s pavilion towered high above it.
G.M. showed a colony on the moon. It included vehicles, of course, called lunar crawlers. But Chrysler had real moon rockets.
At the Ford pavilion, some of the new Mustang convertibles, along with models like Falcons and Galaxies — were pressed into service on the moving belt of the Magic Skyway ride, designed by Walt Disney. Visitors sat in the cars as they rolled past displays of mechanically animated dinosaurs, mammoths and a Neanderthal man.
General Motors decided to repeat its successful strategy from 1939 with the Futurama II display. It included dioramas suggesting how the world would continue to be developed. In the year that the Beatles arrived and Bob Dylan went mainstream, G.M. showcased a particularly myopic vision of the future.
Its pavilion showed gigantic machines for conquering the oceans, the deserts and the Arctic. What was then jungle — rain forest, in today’s parlance — would be conquered by an atomic-powered 300-foot-long machine that would cut trees with lasers, spread herbicide and extrude behind it a four-lane freeway at a rate of a mile an hour.
G.M. did show more practical technology, such as a fuel cell and a turbine engine. And in addition to its dream cars, G.M. displayed future products of its other divisions, including five dream kitchens.
Chrysler, however, may have offered the most popular display of the domestic automakers. Among the attractions on five islands, linked by bridges in a six-acre artificial lake, were a puppet show and an airborne ride over a simulated assembly line on Production Island. There was a building-size automobile model that children could scramble through.
Chrysler even offered a space-age jet car: one of the 50 operational Turbine Cars that the company produced. The body, however, was less futuristic: It resembled a 1964 Ford Thunderbird.
The designs, directed by the corporate advertising manager, Richard E. Forbes, and the modernist designer George Nelson — known for his marshmallow sofa and clocks — were not only fun, but they impressed the critics.
Vincent Scully, the Yale professor and architecture critic, singled out the Chrysler exhibition as the best-spirited of the bunch. He especially liked the star display, a 100-foot-long model of an engine with animated parts; the crankshaft was personified as a 50-foot dragon.
The creators of the fair displays had reached the spirit of Pop Art, which was just arriving in Manhattan galleries, by a different artistic route.
Another example of Pop Art sensibility was U.S. Royal’s tire-shaped Ferris wheel, an 80-foot-tall pop concept worthy of Claes Oldenburg. The giant tire was eventually moved to Michigan and rebranded for Uniroyal; it still greets motorists alongside Interstate 94 near the Detroit airport, as if it had rolled there from the World’s Fair site, down the Grand Central Parkway, over the George Washington Bridge and out to the Midwest.
Avis, the rental car company, offered a carnival-style ride of antique car replicas. Sinclair, the oil company whose symbol was a dinosaur, presented life-size versions.
For those with more basic automotive sensibilities, the transportation zone also included a figure-eight-shaped track for the Hell Drivers stunt team and its Auto-trol show. Several times daily, the drivers leaped off ramps, ran on two wheels at 50 m.p.h., and played bumper tag in rugged Dodges.
The fair’s theme was “Peace Through Understanding,” but attendance was suppressed by rising crime rates and by racial violence in parts of the city during the summer of 1964, according to Joseph Tirella’s new book on the fair, “Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America” (Lyons Press, 2014).
“The fair marked the last time progress was seen as an unmitigated benefit,” Mr. Tirella said in an interview. “It was the last cry of a widespread belief in technology — in a car, a computer or a toaster oven could save us.”
Just as the technological optimism of the 1939-40 fair was undercut by the arrival of World War II, the cheerful corporate enthusiasm of the 1964-65 version was countered by events outside the park. Civil unrest broke out in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant after police shot a young black man.
But in August 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King visited the fair with his family. He rode Ford’s Magic Skyway with his children Yolanda and Martin III. Earlier, in the spring, he had declined a suggestion from other civil rights leaders for a protest at the fair, a planned “stall in” to disrupt area traffic.
Racial tensions remained high. Mr. Tirella’s book reports that one of the songs in Chrysler’s pavilion became the focus of a brief controversy when someone noticed that the tune “Dem Bolts” was a rendition of the black-face minstrel song, “Dem Bones.”
The fair seemed to aim for political neutrality. Jacqueline Kennedy and her daughter, Caroline, attended — one of the family’s first ventures into public after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, whose younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, came through on his campaign for the Senate. Richard M. Nixon, a former vice president at the time, received a warm welcome from the crowds.
Among the elements that physically survive is the Unisphere, the globelike sculpture that served as the thematic symbol of the fair — and occupied the spot held in 1939 by the earlier fair’s Trylon and Perisphere theme structures.
Part of the Chrysler display was incorporated into the New York Hall of Science; the rocket boosters have also been refurbished and kept on display.
A group of admirers hope to save the New York State Pavilion, designed by Philip Johnson. The site, now closed, will be open as a special event for the fair anniversary from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 22. (In the 1997 film “Men in Black,” the battered towers of the New York State pavilion provided a UFO sight gag.)
The recently renovated Queens Museum, situated in the park, will also offer a show tied to the fair anniversary: “13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair” opens on April 27.
One enduring legacy of the fair — especially for those who drive in New York City — is the Panorama of the City of New York, a room-size scale model of the city at the Queens Museum, in a building dating to the 1939 fair.
An article last Sunday about automotive exhibitions at the 1964 New York World’s Fair misstated Richard Nixon’s middle initial. It was M., not F.
An article on April 13 about automakers’ exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair misstated the location of rocket boosters on display. The NASA rockets were in a part of the fair called U.S. Space Park, not in a display by Chrysler. (The automaker did build rockets for space exploration, and its exhibition included a fanciful model of one.)