1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible
1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

Tailfins were the rage in American car styling of the 1950s, but in spite of this, General Motors’ most popular car, the Chevrolet, didn’t adopt them until 1959.

Fins got their start in the 1940s when they appeared on the scene as little more than raised taillights on the 1948 Cadillac. They came into being because General Motors chief stylist Harley Earl became enamoured with the twin, vertical, tail-boom stabilizers of the P‑38 Lockheed Lightning fighters. He felt the rear of a car as well as the front should make a styling statement, and the ’48 Cadillac’s taillights were the real beginning of that theme.

Although fins met with some initial resistance, the public soon embraced them and they became a Cadillac hallmark. And since GM then set the styling trend, virtually all manufacturers, even conservative Mercedes-Benz, would eventually adopt some sort of fin treatment.

Fins reached their zenith in the late 1950s after gradually rising through the decade. In 1957, Chrysler introduced huge, soaring tailfins, the final radical departure from the conservative tack it had taken with its new post‑Second World War 1949 models. These fins temporarily wrestled styling leadership away from GM. Cadillac, not to be outfinned, would respond with even higher, pointed fins in 1959.

Chevrolet, perhaps in deference to its somewhat conservative middle class clientele, was still reluctant to enter the fin wars. It added small points to the rear fender on its ’57 models, and then in 1958 introduced an all-new rounded and tastefully attractive but finless design. Sales suffered in a short, sharp economic recession year but the ’58’s “fold over” rear fenders did provide a hint at what was to come the following year.

Nineteen‑fifty‑nine was the year General Motors decided to show the world what fins were really all about. Cadillac arrived with high, lethal looking daggers, Buick its delta wings, Pontiac its twin‑blade appendages and Oldsmobile its rather nondescript lumps on top of the rear fenders.

But among the wildest of all fins that year, right behind the Cadillac’s in excess, were those on the Chevrolet. Variously described as “batwings” or “gullwings,” the horizontal fins of the ’59 Chevy truly spread like the wings of a great bird. They started just aft of the B‑pillar, and grew wider and more pronounced until they culminated in a distinctly whale‑like expanse that extended out over “cat’s eye” tail lamps. These blades were accentuated by deeply sculpted rear quarter panels.

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