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OFF TO THE RACES

Classic American Sports cars of the '50s are here again.

American GIs returning from Europe after World War 11 exclaimed, "Why can't we build sports cars in the U.S. with that flashy design that we saw in Europe!" The "Greatest Generation" demanded another victorious answer.

The U.S. Postal Service looks back a half-century to issue five classic cars which still have great appeal today.

This column reported the issue at the beginning of the year, when the U.S. Postal Service announced its 2005 schedule. The "sporty" cars being illustrated are a 1952 Nash Healey, a 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, a 1953 Studebaker Starliner, a 1954 Kaiser Darrin, and a 1955 Ford Thunderbird.

In 1952, Nash Healey was an elegant little sports car and the product of the creative genius of three countries in its development. The Nash six-cylinder engine created in the United States; the Donald Healey-engineered chassis developed in England; and Pinin Farina's sports-car body design from Italy. Only 150 Nash Healeys were made in 1952, and it came in first in its class and third overall in the 1952 LeMans sports car race in France.

Widely considered "the first American sports car," the 1953 Studebaker Starliner was developed to appeal to younger drivers. It was low-slung, long and wide, and light on the chrome, with a sophisticated look that the Museum of Modern Art in New York proclaimed it "a work of art," and featured it as the lone American representative in an auto exhibition that year.

At the GM Motorama in New York City in January 1953, the new fiberglass-bodied, two-seat Chevrolet Corvette was unveiled, and quickly captured the public's imagination while setting the bar for competition. Only 300 models were produced that year, all hand-built and white, with red interior and black convertible top, a marked departure from other GM designs. Its sporty appearance promised speed and high performance for drivers.

Sand and gravel entrepreneur Henry J. Kaiser teamed with master designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin (formerly of Packard fame) in 1954 to develop the fiberglass beauty, the Kaiser Darrin. A two-seater featuring retractable doors that slid forward into the front fenders; a unique pointed, compact grille; long sloping lines, and a three-position Landau top - a total of 435 were made that year before poor sales led Kaiser to return to the sand and gravel business.

The 1955 Ford Thunderbird, "a sports car with luxury," was designed to compete with the Corvette, as it featured a steel body, interchangeable hard and soft tops, an overhead valve V-8 engine and roll-up windows, and its road performances were virtually identical to the Corvette's. More than 16,000 models were produced that year, and the styling remained the same until 1958, when Ford revamped Thunderbird's sports car status and added a back seat, which actually quadrupled sales.

The '50s Sporty Cars stamps were illustrated for the Postal Service by Art Fitzpatrick of Carlsbad, Calif. The designer and art director is Carl Herrman of the same city.

First day covers for the set of five will be available this summer. Current U.S. stamps and stationery, as well as a free catalog, are available by toll-free phone order at 1-800 STAMPS-24. In addition, a selection of stamps and other philatelic items are available at www.postalartgallery.com