The year was 1954, and the photographer John G. Zimmerman was freelancing in Detroit, where the booming automobile industry was transforming the city. The Big Three car companies—Chrysler, Ford, General Motors—dominated the world’s motorways. In one of his first assignments for Life magazine, Zimmerman photographed Ernie Breech, Ford’s new C.E.O., together with his employer, Henry Ford II—“Hank the Deuce”—sitting in the newly introduced Thunderbird.

This wasn’t Zimmerman’s first job. Straight out of high school he enlisted as a navy photographer, and by 1950 he was a staff photographer at Time, where he began with a bang. On November 1 of that year, he was quick to the scene when Puerto Rican nationalists stormed Blair House in an attempted assassination of President Truman; Zimmerman’s images ran in both Time and Life. With sensitivity and muscle, he covered a wide array of subjects.

But he brought a particular poetry to the automobile. Between 1956 and 1963, while working at Sports Illustrated, Zimmerman angled in on fantastical taillights, wraparound windshields, and spaceship-inspired fins. He shot the Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser and its flip-up roof hatch, the Ford Mystere, and the Packard Predictor. His cover of Phil Hill sitting on a red-hot Formula One Ferrari is now iconic.

What set Zimmerman apart from the rest wasn’t just his eye but his cutting-edge strategies. He’d place cameras in basketball hoops and hockey nets to get the impact shot. He pioneered motor-driven cameras, slit cameras, and double-shutter designs, which gave his shots velocity.

Zimmerman’s car photographs, compiled in Auto America: Car Culture, 1950s–1970s, a forthcoming coffee-table book with an introduction by Terry McDonell, are emblematic of a huge change in American popular culture, as automobiles went from being unattainable luxuries to household essentials. In the years since the 50s, shiny cars and an open road have become the four-wheel foundation of American life. —Elena Clavarino

Auto America will be available beginning October 18. A corresponding exhibition is on show at the Center for Photographic Art, in Carmel, California, through September 4

Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL