Greg Zyla: Where have all the tail fins gone?
Several readers have commented recently on tail fin design, so we’re taking a closer look this week into this interesting aspect of automotive design. As we move quickly through 2011, automobile design is void of what once was a big design item - the tail fin. Today's cars are high tech aerodynamic wonders and a far cry from the memorable cars of 1955 through 1960. Back then big fenders, lots of chrome and some of the biggest tail fins in auto history made up the bulk of a car’s design. As for mechanicals, engines may have changed with more horsepower and different layouts, but the suspension mechanicals and driveline positioning were pretty much unchanged year to year.
Inspiration for the tail fin began in 1941, when General Motors’ chief designer Harley Earl caught a glimpse of several W.W.II Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters at an American Air Force base. Due to restrictions on civilian automotive production during the war years, Earl’s “aircraft-inspired” car design had to wait until 1948, when a Cadillac rolled off the assembly line with small, ducktail-like rear fins.
Although minute in comparison to what was to come, the '48 through '56 Cadillacs all utilized the same Harley Earl stylish appendage and evolved into a statement of elegance along the way. What followed, however, was unlike any period in auto design history as Earl found his fin blueprint slowly being copied by competing designers.
By 1956, a blatant and at times grotesque "fin frenzy" commenced. Fin crazy Chrysler Corporation upped the ante in the mid to late 1950s by fitting its Dodge, Chrysler, DeSoto and Plymouth lines with fins that overpowered every car in sight. The consumer, tired of "bathtub" styles and in a post-war buying mood, responded by gobbling them up and fueling the fin era. Although several of the lines, most notably the '57 Dodge and '58 Chrysler 300D, were inspiring, the culmination of bad taste came when the 1960 Plymouth Fury rolled off the line.
Other manufacturers participated in "fin wars," including Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac. Ford receives credit for the best smaller fins, especially on the '57 to ’63 models, while Lincoln and Mercury tried “fin fashion” with less success.
In the end, however, Cadillac's '59 model had some of the biggest fins of all, and was singled out by the postal service in both 1995 and 2008 with official U.S. Postal Service stamps. I’m sure Mr. Earl, who passed away in 1969, would have been proud.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for GateHouse News Service and welcomes reader questions on anything collector cars or auto nostalgia at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 218840 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.