Conventional wisdom credits Harley Earl with the invention of tailfins. While he was a clay modeling pioneer and the father of the first design department inside any car company—GM’s Art & Colour section—Earl was more a reluctant enabler than the driving force behind the automobile’s most memorable styling feature.
Fins began in the 1920s when Austrian engineer Paul Jaray began aggressively promoting aerodynamic features for cars. The Czech firm Tatra bought what he was selling and installed a single, center-mounted vertical stabilizer on the rear of its production models starting in 1931.
A decade later, Earl took his staff on a field trip to Selfridge Field, an air base near Detroit, to enjoy a peek at the secret Lockheed P-38 fighter that would play a major role in World War II. Earl acolyte Franklin Quick Hershey was especially moved by what he saw. According to William Knoedelseder in his book FINS, upon viewing the twin boom P-38, Hershey imagined sea creatures and “fins slicing through the water’s surface as a shark moved on its prey, flashing silver-blue in the sun when a sailfish rose out of the ocean in full flight, waving a languid goodbye just before disappearing into the deep.” These wondrous creations of nature were “beautiful, sleek, shiny, and streamlined. The embodiment of power, speed, maneuverability, and stability.”
Hershey joined GM in 1932 at the tender age of 25 to head the Pontiac studio. His 1941 sighting of the P-38 remained in the back of his mind until he was discharged from the Navy in 1944. Upon his return to GM, Hershey was assigned to lead Cadillac design until Bill Mitchell completed his military duty when the war ended in 1945.
GM designers were serious in their pursuit of provocative styling to woo war-weary customers. To diminish the visual bulk of Cadillac’s pre-war designs, Earl insisted that both the front and rear fenders be separated from the main body to mimic the muscularity of a crouching animal. (Earl, a talker and hand waver, never placed pen to paper.) To finish the 1948 Cadillac’s long flowing side sweeps, Hershey topped rear fenders with fillips containing taillamps. Inevitably, they were nicknamed tailfins.
Earl later told a newspaper reporter, “When I saw the P-38 rudders sticking up, it gave me an idea for use after the war. But when we introduced fins, we almost started a war within the corporation.”
In fact, Earl, along with other GM heads, had mixed emotions about the fins and he instructed Hershey to pare them off the clay models. But when GM president Charles Wilson, Cadillac chief engineer Ed Cole, general manager John Gordon, and design chief Bill Mitchell all voiced support, Earl reluctantly joined the yea team. When they finally reached the street, fins were deemed a stroke of genius and accessory shops all over the country invented ways to add Cadillac’s tail blips to Chevies and Oldsmobiles.
In 1955, with the jet age soaring, Cadillac seized the moment with new razor-edged rear stabilizers for the Eldorado Special Convertible. By 1957, the lean fin motif had spread from Cadillac’s base models up to its hand-crafted Eldorado Brougham.
And what about Mr. Hershey? Even though Earl considered him first in line as his successor, Hershey left GM under adverse circumstances in 1946 to join Studebaker. Moving to Ford in 1952, the ’55 Thunderbird that Hershey designed was a major hit and exactly the stimulus GM needed to nurture its slow-selling Corvette.
By 1956, Packard was on its deathbed and Lincoln was struggling. Cadillac was blindsided by the Forward Look cars designed by Chrysler’s Virgil Exner for the 1957 model year. Stumbling across them behind a fence at a factory lot not far from GM’s Tech Center, designer Chuck Jordan explained, “Wow! That was really a shock. The new Plymouth I saw looked so clean and lean with that thin roof, all that glass, those nice proportions, and the fins: just the opposite of what we were working on at GM at the time.”
Exner and Hershey had two things in common: both had served stints at Pontiac in the 1930s and both had been Harley Earl’s pet protégés.
After Jordan hustled back to GM’s design center to report his findings, colleagues by the carload abandoned drawing boards to visit the chain-link mecca. Earl was not among them because he was touring European auto shows in search of The Next Big Thing. In his absence, Bill Mitchell didn’t hesitate swinging into action. The fat, chrome-laden designs Earl had approved for 1959 were slid aside and the creative team seized the moment to sculpt the most outrageous fins to grace any automobile from any GM division.
Cadillac fins soared almost to roof height and were decorated with V-shaped trailing edges adorned with a pair of chrome-ringed, rocket-shaped tail lamps. While Earl initially abhorred the radical new direction, he later conceded that Exner may have stumbled onto something. A few months after the wild ’59s rolled into showrooms, Earl passed the design boss’s baton to Mitchell and took his well-deserved retirement.
The common response from dealers when the curtain was lifted unveiling the new Cadillacs was a gasp of air followed by a unanimous, “Holy shit!” Even though ’59 sales easily topped the 1958 model year, Cadillac general manager Jim Roche politely requested that ’60 models be classed up a bit.
The man responsible for making amends, Dave Holls, lowered the fins’ altitude while raising the fenders that supported them. Rocket lamps were replaced by elegant red lenses built into the trailing edges of the fins. The lower lamps glowed forward and back to illuminate polished pans built into leaner rear bumpers. Reminiscing, Holls noted that the ’60 fin design was his personal favorite.
The low-volume 1960 Eldorado Brougham previewed the next generation of fin design: two fins per side with a low-mounted flare called a skeg complimenting lean upper blades. The new look spread across mainstream 1961 and ’62 Cadillacs but was gone by ’63. Now the top surfaces ran in one long, tasteful sweep to taillamps elegantly built into their trailing edges.
Fins were subtly lowered again in 1964. While vestigial evidence of them remained in 1965 through the end of the decade, Cadillac began making its design statement by other means.
Enthusiasts who admire tailfins will have an opportunity to enjoy them at this year’s Concours of America. Held July 26–28 at the Inn at St. John in Plymouth, Michigan, the event will feature a special ring dedicated to finned Cadillacs.