Iconic Tail Fins


1948 Cadillac

American car owners were awash in exaggerated space age style for over ten years around the decade of the 1950s.  Cars were manufactured with bullet shapes and scoops at the front swooping to sometimes dangerous stylized fins at the rear.  European and Asian car makers followed suit in a more subdued manner, but nothing to compare with the excesses dreamed up in the design studios of American auto manufacturers.   As is the case with all things stylish, the like or dislike of tail fins is subjective, not objective.

Oddly enough, tail fins began and ended with one of the most conservative of car makes in the world.  Then head of design for General Motors, Harley Earl, was inspired by the twin-tailed P-38 Lightning aircraft for the first deliberate attempt at automotive tail fins.  His creation can be seen at the rear-end of the 1948 Cadillac.  The car maker was the last to phase them out in the 1990s. There was another attempt to reintroduce them in 2010, but Cadillac stylists now prefer to call them “blades”, not fins.

Dodge Polara

Dodge Polara

Among the manufacturers, Ford and American Motors had the most subtle fins.  For really over the top sheet metal unsensibility, you couldn’t top Chrysler and GM.  Fascination with the jet and space age was fully embraced by the two firms. Chrysler’s Virgil Exner along with GM’s Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell were in a not so secret race to out-do one another.


Plymouth Belvedere

While most designers at the two firms embraced the term “tailfins”, for awhile, Plymouth made the outrageous claim that theirs weren’t fins but stabilizers.  The admen said that “Plymouth rear stabilizers placed the center of pressure to the rear to reduce by 20-percent the need for steering correction in a crosswind.”  As anyone who has ever driven through strong crosswinds knows, expanses of vertical sheet metal are a liability and not an asset. I wonder how many cars were blown into ditches off of icy roads as a result.

As the 1950s progressed, Chrysler and GM styled their cars with larger and more outrageous tail fins.  The public finally reacted negatively with the production of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado.  Most people agreed that Cadillac had gone way overboard, at last. As I mentioned above, it appears that the fin fetish hasn’t gone away at the Cadillac division, yet.

Car fanciers have their favorite car fins.  Many people prefer the spaceship inspired tails of Chrysler Imperials and the Dodge Polara.  Some folks go for the more subtle lines of Ford products.  And some like the stylings from General Motors.




1959 Pontiac

I’ll take a few lines and express my own subjective opinion on the subject.  The fins I personally dislike are the horizontal fins of 1960 Chevrolets and Edsels, they look like the designers were trying too hard to be creative. Depending on the model of 1959 Pontiac, I either hate or enjoy their tailfin.  I think they look horrendous on the standard four door Bonneville but quite alright on the convertible.  The fin extensions below the bumper line remind me of plow blades. The car, as a whole, looks like a snazzier Chevrolet.

Chrysler is a mixed bag for me.  Dodges and Chryslers from the late 1950s seem to be more futuristic and most of the Plymouths look like clunky also rans. There are exceptions for the sporty models, of course.


1959 Buick Electra 225


1959 Buick Electra 225

The only car fins I really like are those of the 1959 Buick.  They’re not only the most simple elegant fins, they’re the most outwardly blatant about being fins.  Not only was the “V” array of fins apparent at the rear, but GM saw fit to put blatant fins at the front of the car.  The stylists liked the “V” so much, that they even had a “V” logo placed into the center of the front grillwork. The styling actually works quite well.  The drawback is that such sharp edges are more dangerous to pedestrians and bicyclists than more rounded shapes.

Some of the most imaginative fins came from the Chrysler studios.  Dodge’s tail lights were sculpted into semi-circle chrome bezels inset into the fins.  Many of those still look attractive and artistic. Exner used his skills best on those lights that appeared to float independently off the fins.

As a whole, American manufacturers realized the fad was fading fast.  The 1960 models featured more subdued, conservative fins.  The edges were rounded and more boring.  The 1960 Buick was a sad compromise in styling and the rest of the 1960 cars looked warmed over.  Detroit was getting ready for a complete makeover to less tacky chrome, smoother, more rounded lines and smaller or no fins. Except for Lincolns’ and Cadillacs’ vestigal fins, the detail had finally gone away after 1965.


The Blue Jay of Happiness notes the most dangerous, pointy style award goes to the 1959 Cadillacs.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in cultural highlights, Transportation, Vintage Collectables and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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