Motoring Memories: The Rise and Fall of Tailfins motoring memories
1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Bill Vance

With a little imagination, one could roughly equate the rise and fall of automobile tailfins with the fate of the North American automobile industry, particularly its ostentation, after the Second World War.

It started modestly enough. Following the war, Harley Earl, GM’s colourful styling chief, decided that Cadillac needed a more distinctive rear end appearance as a styling signature.

In an era when society was enthralled with rockets and jets, Earl was the right man in the right place. This styling theme blended perfectly with the six-foot-four chief stylist’s personal flair and flamboyance.

Earl had been so captivated by the look of the twin-boom tail stabilizers of the P-38 Lockheed Lightning fighter airplane that he decided to carry the idea over into GM’s car styling. And when his P-38-inspired raised taillights appeared on the 1948 Cadillac, it was immediately obvious that he had perfectly captured the public mood of that optimistic postwar period. Cadillac’s fins were an instant success.

Fins could be made to have a stabilizing effect on cars in crosswinds, as demonstrated by the pioneering work of Professor W.I.E. Kamm and others at the Stuttgart Research Institute in Germany. But Earl wasn’t an engineer, and he wasn’t thinking about aerodynamic stability. His fins were conceived strictly as a styling statement.

The fins had, as Earl wanted, expanded auto styling to the rear of the car, previously a bland and unadorned area. The tailfin, as it was immediately dubbed, became a Cadillac trademark.

Tailfins proliferated, but remained reasonably restrained. Then, in 1957, the Chrysler Corporation fired a styling shot across Cadillac’s bow by introducing tailfins that were bigger and higher than anything on GM’s finest. While Chrysler claimed that its 1957 fins reduced steering correction by as much as 20 per cent, the real impetus, à la Cadillac, was styling, not vehicle stability.

Lincoln was also trying to take a chunk out of Cadillac’s luxury market, and it too brought out huge, canted fins for 1957; they made the Cadillac fins look puny.

The tailfin war was on, and Cadillac, the inventor of the fin as styling cue, was not about to be outdone. Under the aegis of Cadillac stylist Bill Mitchell, the designers set to work to recover the fin crown. The 1959 Cadillac was the result, and it clearly re-established the marque as the King of Fins.

Motoring Memories: The Rise and Fall of Tailfins motoring memories
1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible. Click image to enlarge

Never before had fins soared so high or made such a garish styling statement. The term “wretched excess” was coined to describe American cars of that era, and the 1959 Cadillac was among the most wretchedly excessive of them all.

Not only was the car excessive in its styling, but also in its size. It stretched almost 5,791 mm (228 in.) in overall length, and rode on a 3,302 mm (130 in.) wheelbase.

The car’s almost 2,268 kg (5,000 lb.) of “road-hugging weight” was propelled by a 6.4-litre (390 cu. in.) V8 engine rated at 325 horsepower.

To return to the rise and fall analogy, just as fins were at the pinnacle of their development, the domestic auto industry was at the zenith of its postwar strength. With virtually no competition, and in the world’s most prosperous society, the American industry was the king of all it surveyed.

The postwar period, with its pent-up demand for cars, had even attracted newcomers such as Tucker, Playboy, Davis and Kaiser-Frazer, who would attempt to join Detroit’s exclusive club. Of these, only Kaiser-Frazer would establish itself successfully, and even it, with the return of a buyer’s market, would leave the North American car market in 1955.

True, there were some of those pesky European cars such as Volkswagens, Renaults and Austins being sold here, but domestic cars dominated the North American market, which was the world’s largest.

Nineteen-sixty could be called a watershed year for the domestic industry. Recognizing that there was a growing interest in small, more economical cars, the Big Three brought out their compacts to compete with the imports.

The Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Chrysler Valiant did temporarily reduce the imports’ penetration, but they would ultimately recover. Other than a slight suggestion on the Valiant, there wasn’t a fin to be seen on the new compacts.

And just as 1960 was the year that imported cars were acknowledged as a threat, it was also the year in which Cadillac fins started to recede. The double, bullet-shaped taillights of 1959 were removed and replaced by slender lenses integrated into fins that were now smaller, lower and slimmer.

Cadillac fins would continue to shrink through the 1960s, and import sales, after a lull, would continue to rise. Other manufacturers followed suit and gradually abandoned fins.

The 1959 Cadillac fin stands as an instantly recognizable monument to the styling excesses of the American auto industry during the 1950s. Somewhat ironically, it has also helped make the 1959 Caddy a sought-after collectible.