Were tailfins, those uniquely North American symbols of the carefree 1950s, more about style or status? If you were driving a Cadillac during that era, particularly a 1959-vintage Eldorado, Fleetwood, Series 62 or Coupe/Sedan de Ville, the answer is both.
By the late 1950s, just about every car on the road, including the lowly Rambler, bat-winged Buick and everyday Ford, Chevy and Plymouth paid homage to the Jet Age with a set of peaked protrusions of various shapes and sizes grafted to the rear fenders. Chrysler Corporation stylists, directed by design guru Virgil Exner, were particularly enamored with tailfins, and their fleet was festooned with some of the most outrageous appendages around. In 1957, Chrysler’s advertising agency referred to its client’s cars as displaying “The Forward Look,” boldly suggesting that tailfins actually made them more stable on the road.
By the same token, a Cadillac wouldn’t have been a Cadillac without its tailfins. All other cars were mere poseurs and pretenders attempting to cash in on Caddy’s cachet.
The person responsible for the tailfin craze was Harley Earl, longstanding design chief at General Motors. Earl seemed just as passionate about airplanes as he was about automobiles and felt a particular kinship with the Lockheed P38 Lightning, a Second World War fighter aircraft that featured twin-boom fuselages. The stylist’s rendering of the 1948 Cadillac displayed modest, but clearly identifiable P38-inspired fins. Earl’s airplane influences would also show up in his work on the 1953 Corvette, a car that showed off not only a set of tailfins, but a wrap-around windshield also inspired by the P38’s bubble-top center canopy.
Throughout the 1950s, tailfins were slowly but surely adopted by every domestic, plus a few foreign manufacturers that were clearly copying – and adding to – this feature.
And why not? The public seemed to love fins (not that they had much choice), and mimicking Cadillac, that stalwart symbol of opulence and the brand most sought after by movie stars and pop singers, offered implied riches and social standing to anyone perched behind the wheel. It didn’t matter that your typical Ford, Dodge or Chevy owner was probably in hock up their eyeballs for the privilege of driving some modest coupe or sedan. For these folks, fins were a part of the new-car sizzle that announced to the world that they were in tune with the times.
On the eve of Harley Earl’s retirement in the fall of 1958, Cadillac unleashed its boldest lineup yet. The 1959 version was big by every measure. The car was 20-feet long, six-feet wide and weighed 4,670-5,060 pounds, depending on the model.
Among its many touches was a rear grille between two fake jet exhaust pods (another Harley Earl aircraft design statement) that featured a similar egg-carton look as in front.
The ’59 Cadillac’s crowning touch was its pair of massive 42-inch tall tailfins complete with afterburner-style dual tail light tips.
Powering the ’59 was an motor as big as the car itself. A 390-cubic-inch OHV V8 resided inside an engine bay that could eas ily have swallowed a few more just like it.
In base trim, there was 325 horsepower under foot, but the fancier Eldorado’s powerplant possessed a total of 345 horsepower.
A three-speed Hydra-Matic (automatic transmission completed the powertrain.
Pushing the pedal to the metal would get you from rest to 60 mph in about 10 seconds, and yield a top velocity of 112 mph, reasonable enough considering the Cadillacs portly condition. But at eight mpg the term “average fuel economy” was nei ther average nor very economical as it ap plied to the perpetually parched Cadillac.
Aside from a generous amount of stan dard equipment, Cadillac buyers could order some interesting options that were generally not available on lesser vehicles Among them was a freon-gas suspension system as well as something called an Autronic Eye that automatically dimmed the headlights with the approach of any oncoming vehicles.
Prices for a new ’59 Cadillac began at close to $5,000, and rose to within strik ing distance of $7,500 for the high-end Eldorado Biarritz convertible. By compari son, a Chevrolet Impala convertible sold for around $3,000. But at the absolute pinnacle of Cadillac’s many rungs was the Eldorado Brougham. This four-door hardtop featured a body styled by Pinin Farina, the world fa mous Italian studio that also looked after assembling the finished products before shipping them back to the United States A mere 99 buyers doled out a staggering (by 1950s standards) $13,075 for the plea sure of owning one of these hand-crafted beauties.
By the end of the 1959 model year, close to 139,000 Cadillacs had been purchased and nearly that number of similar-looking 1960 units found new homes the following year.
Cadillac’s famous fins remained in vogue albeit in an ever-shrinking form, from 1961 until the 1964 model year. By then, the copy cats had virtually abandoned this once mandatory feature, leaving GM’s flagship division as their sole proprietor. In 1965, 17 years following Harley Earl’s first set of fins Cadillac’s pat ented icon for the ages had been consigned to history once and for all.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at : www wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers and Web sites across North America.