There is no doubt that fins define American car design of the 1950s.
The well told story about how they originated with the 1948 Cadillac, inspired by the Lockheed P38 fighter plane, overshadows their real impact on car styling. When GM’s Chairman, Alfred Sloan, first saw the styling proposals for the 1948 Cadillac, he supposedly commented to Cadillac’s general manager, Jack Gordon:
“Now, Jack, you have a Cadillac in the rear as well as the front.” What Sloan meant was that up until 1948, Cadillacs had been easily identifiable from the front, by their huge chrome encrusted grilles.
But the rear end was a different matter.
Generally, most cars of the 1940s looked quite similar at the rear too.
They had simple rounded boots and rear fenders, adorned with smallish tail lights.
Cadillacs were no different, even though they cost twice as much as a humble Chevrolet.
Rear fender fins meant Cadillacs stood out from the pack even more.
Those who paid big money to own a 1948 model were visually rewarded for their outlay.
And so, the shape of the rear end of a car became as important as the front.
Other car brands followed Cadillac’s lead, but in a more cautious manner.
Nothing outlandish, mind you.
Even in 1954, fins were modest protuberances — even on Cadillacs.
That year’s Fords did not even have fins.
Rather, they had a tubular rear fender design that ended in circular tail lights with the indicator in the centre.
Sort of like a jet engine exhaust.
But it all changed in 1956.
That’s when Chrysler’ s design boss, Virgil Exner, added big bold fins to that year’s models.
The fin race began in earnest!
And it was not confined to the USA.
Exner upped the ante in 1957 with the longest, tallest fins the world had ever seen.
By 1959, the great fin competition reached an apex.
And that’s an intended pun.
Cadillac’s twin towers of sheet metal were proclaimed the winner.
Chevrolet’s radical interpretation was a close second.
As the great motoring writer Tom McCahill wrote of the Chevy in Mechanix Illustrated:
“My first reaction when I saw this rear flight deck, which curves downward from either side in a slow V, was what a spot to land a Piper Cub.”