Over the decades, car designers have pulled inspiration from many different sources. One of the most obvious is that of jets and aerospace design. From the 1950’s to the early ’60’s there was one trait that was exceptionally popular and chic: the tail fin.
First used by General Motors designer, Frank Hershey, the muse was the WWII P-38 Lightning, a unique twin engine fighter plane. This plane was a radical design in its own right, having twin booms creating an empty "box" of space between them. Hershey looked at the stern of this plane and modeled the rear of the 1948 Cadillac to look roughly the same in shape. His boss, Harley Earl ordered him to remove the seemingly impractical and clumsy fin-esque addition but both the President and Chairman of General Motors supported Hershey, saying the additional curve of the fin created a more pleasing line. In 1948 Cadillac, with this new style, would sell 49,374 models in just eight monthsbeginning a worldwide trend.
Between 1950 and 1957, the fin rose in popularity. More and more automobile makers saw the visual appeal and adapted their own renditions to their models. It not only became a signature for the Cadillac, but became an American car staple. With the public becoming more attentive to the possibility of space travel, the cars continued to take on a more jet, plane or rocket type of feel. This included the sheet metal of the car as well as the tail lights and ‘bubbletop’ windshields that were meant to let the driver view close to 360 degrees of their surroundings.
The most extreme "finular" model was the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado whose exaggerated fins gave the impression the car was ready for takeoff at a moment’s notice. The look was completed with bullet type tail lights that were sharp and fashionable.
Thirty six different models swam along the road, resulting in hundreds of coupes, sedans and other makes touting the pointed rear posterior. Thousands were sold all over the world. Starting in the 1960s, the fins began receding back into the rear sections but subtly remained a part of many car designs until the late 1990’s. To the naked eye no bump is detected, but the aerodynamic concept is still in play.
This was a feature that some claimed to help with steering. Others claimed it created a significant difference in wind drag. Bottom line, fins were simply a styling concept meant to project a futuristic image in the trendy bravura of air travel. This was a time that the look of your car really mattered. These vehicles were not just a means of transportation, but a cultural statement. That statement sang in celebration of flight while creating waves on the road.