TCS Daily

When America Became Finland

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - February 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Listen, my children, and you shall hear, of the time when cars had fins on their rear.

The first tailfins I ever saw on a car were on a yellow 1948 Cadillac convertible parked at the polo field in Rector, Pa. You would have had to be immersed in the style of the other cars of the time to understand how different this little coda of chrome, sheet metal and red taillight glass looked. Those modest, beautifully curved fins were the beginning of a distinctive signature for Cadillacs -- giving Caddys instant recognition both coming and going -- that would last for 16 years. And they would eventually engender a host of imitators that in the next decade would make swooping tailfins the trademark of the American car.

But, first things first. The inspiration for the first Cadillac "fishtails" (as chief GM stylist Harley Earl called them) was a World War II fighter plane, the twin-tailed P-38 "Lightning." Earl was so smitten by the look of the plane that he wangled a viewing of a P-38 for his design staff. GM, like all American makers, was not building cars during the war, but they were hard at work on post-war designs.

They went to a hangar at a military airfield near Detroit to see the plane. "We had to stand thirty feet away from it because it was still in security," Earl recalled later. "But even at that distance we could soak up the lines of its twin booms and twin tails."

Earl did a lot of hand wringing over the fishtails right up to the time the dies for the 1948 Cadillac had to be produced. The '48 Caddy and the further refined '49 were two of the most beautiful Cadillacs ever produced. Franklin Q. Hershey headed the design group under Earl that brought the cars to fruition. They had a stately quality that tipped its hat to the past, but with their tailfins, bold grilles and muscular yet graceful compound curves on hood and fenders they looked to the future.

The fins were an immediate sensation. Hot rodders and customizers began grafting Caddy fins onto Fords, Mercurys and Oldsmobiles. Through the early '50s with each new model Cadillac the fins became bolder and more pronounced.

The first hint at imitation by another carmaker came from the most un-Cadillac of cars, the lowly little Kaiser economy car, the Henry J, introduced in 1951. The car, priced at $1333, was so austere that it had neither a glove box nor a trunk lid (you threw your suitcases behind the back seat). But it had tiny Cadillac-like tailfins. The New York Fashion Academy named the little "J" the 1951 "Fashion Car of the Year"!

Then, in 1952 came the "Revolutionary New Aero-Willys," built by the maker of the legendary Jeep. This economical, relatively lightweight 6-cylinder car, designed by Phil Wright, was decidedly utilitarian in appearance. But the straight line of the rear fenders rose in an oh-so-gentle curve to produce a six-inch long fin-like protuberance that extended to the taillight.

A similar, but subtler metallic homage to Cadillac appeared on the rear fenders of the superb 1952 Nash-Healy sports car designed by Italy's famed Pinin Farina. Then came the 1953 Pontiacs, freshly redesigned and featuring "kicked up" rear fenders -- modest, elongated fins that would be a distinguishing mark on Pontiacs through 1956.

In 1955, Cadillac introduced a new Eldorado convertible with pronounced "shark" fins, dramatically different than the taillight-topped fins on the rest of the Cadillac line. Chrysler Corporation's new "Forward Look" cars, designed by Virgil Exner, came out that same year with chrome fins, bolted onto the ends of the rear fenders of some models, particularly the Dodge. The dam was about to burst.

In 1956, the United States became just a little fin crazy. The whole Chrysler line featured swooping sheet metal fins. And the rest of Detroit was paying attention.

In 1957 America became Finland. Chrysler's fins swept to new heights. Ford sprouted fins and actually outsold Chevy, which had adopted Caddy-like shark fins. The '57 Chevys may have been outsold by Ford, but in the long run they trumped Ford completely. Fords of that year, with their long, modest fins and strange eyebrow headlights are much rarer today than the Chevys, which continue to grow in popularity and in price.

Cadillac itself brought the shark fins to an elegant new level on its spectacular Eldorado for 1957. The rest of the line showed a new "flat top" rear fin. Lincoln got in the game with huge canted fins that looked like an afterthought. Packards -- actually tarted up Studebakers bearing the Packard name -- had fins and even the Studebaker Hawks went for the soaring protuberances.

By the end of the '50s, fins had reached rather grotesque proportions -- witness the "whale tail" Cadillacs of 1959 and '60, and the really wild, almost horizontal fins that soared out from a center point at the rear trunk line of the '59 Chevrolet. Various safety pecksniffs condemned tailfins as dangerous weapons that could spear pedestrians. Urban legends began to swirl around the fins to the effect that if you reached a high enough speed the fins on some cars (like the '59 Chevy) would lift your rear end off the road.

By the 1960s, the romance with fins was dying fast. Some of the final iterations on Chrysler products in 1960 and '61 were truly weird -- the 1961 Dodge, for instance, with its "ingrown" taillights, or the 1961 Plymouth Fury.

A reaction set in, resulting in some of the cleanest, most beautifully understated cars, like the fabulous 1961 Lincoln Continental and the wonderful 1963 Buick Riviera.

By 1963, only Cadillac and the Chrysler Imperial still sported serious fins. The Imperial lost them in '64, but Caddy kept them for that last model year. Its 1965 restyle used the long, straight, clean lines that everyone was more or less copying from the great Lincolns of the era. By 1966, finned cars were looking so yesterday as they began crowding used car lots in disconsolate chrome herds.

Younger people who go to antique car shows now are often bowled over when they see a fully chrome trimmed example of '50s finmania like, say, a 1958 Buick Limited. They get "What the hell?" looks on their faces as they stare at themselves in the yards of gleaming chrome. And yet, hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when fins literally filled the highways and driveways and parking lots of the nation. Never before or since has there been such a strange, sensational, departure in automotive styling.


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