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U.s. Car Design: The Tail Fins Saga

U.s. Car Design: The Tail Fins Saga

As America entered the Space Era, cars rears began to resemble rockets and were decorated with an abundant and so exclusive decoration imitated the world over.

During the fifties in the U.S.A., automobile design knew a radical change. This also meant the difficult years of the crisis and World War II were over and a new prosperous era of technical progress and social development opened. The cars of the time thus naturally were created to express this optimism.  As America entered the Space Era, cars rears began to resemble rockets with an abundant chromium decoration.

In the eyes of the Europeans, these cars appeared heavy, too majestic and avid in gasoline. In reality, they really had extraordinary technical qualities and shapes much more elaborated than those built on the Old Continent. And we are not talking about the unique equipment, colors and magnificent engines they offered. As for the general architecture, the innovations brought on U.S. models were declined in many versions which then inspired many European car manufacturers.

Cadillac Eldorado 1959.

Image source: http://s3.amazonaws.com/readers/2010/07/29/eldorado59_1.jpg

Everything timidly began in 1948 with the Cadillac De Ville. Rear tail fins are a particularity that was born in the U.S.A. and which spread throughout the world. They were introduced by Harley Earl, a General Motors design chief. They constituted a real trend, lasting more than 10 years. The phenomenon entailed this decoration on all American cars in 1954 and exploded with even more audacious and provocative forms  the following years and started to attenuate in the ’60s. The famous car designer Virgil Exner used them extensively. In order to legitimate them, Chrysler declared they were “stabilizers” and that “they reduced by 20% the needs for steering in a cross wind”. This function is merely decorative and tail finsuseless at high speed. But who was not impressed by these beauties with prestigious names pointing their tail fins in the sky in a contrast with the boot that had become so long, wide and flat? As a general rule, tail fins harmoniously matched with the general styling of the body. Sometimes it seemed they were added and not an integral part of the car shape. This was another charm. At the end of the ’50s, this emulation created by the severe competition between the great names of U.S. automotive industry lead to the exacerbation of the phenomenon now very far from its original motivations. A mere design exercise had now to meet marketing requirements. And as all new fashion trend whose goal is commercial, the tail fins passion lasted only a few years. Cadillac, a pioneer in this revolution, continued to produce and use them for many years, with much more discreet shapes and dimensions.   

Plymouth Belvedere 1957.


Chevrolet Bel Air 1957.

Image source: http://s3.amazonaws.com/readers/2010/07/29/decaturchevy8may06side_1.jpg

Chrysler 300F, 1960.

Image source: http://s3.amazonaws.com/readers/2010/07/29/chrysler300f_1.jpg

Cadillac 1962.

Image source: http://s3.amazonaws.com/readers/2010/07/29/1962cadillacseries62convertible_1.jpg

Dodge Coronet 1950.

Image source: http://s3.amazonaws.com/readers/2010/07/29/dodgecoronetfin_1.jpg

Cadillac Eldorado Third generation 1959-1967.

Image source: http://s3.amazonaws.com/readers/2010/07/29/cadillacatcarshow_1.jpg

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17 Responses and Counting...

  1. Andrea Shannon

    July 29, 2010

    We Americans are always striving to be different! :) I never particularly cared for the tail fin – is it a car or a fish??? lol!

  2. Bel Dob

    July 29, 2010

    I personally don’t find cars with fins to be anything special. Thank goodness I was born well after that era :-) However, I do still see men of all ages ‘drool’ if a vintage car with fins goes by. :-)
    Great article.

  3. carissimi

    July 29, 2010


  4. SharifaMcFarlane

    July 29, 2010

    That pink Cadillac looks like candy.
    I enjoyed this article Francois ;-)

  5. starpisces

    July 29, 2010

    wow, so unique cars! I find the cars so “long”..and I think the parking lot here too small for these cars, haha.
    Nice share, friend.

  6. 1hopefulman

    July 29, 2010

    Wow, beautiful cars! Thanks for bringing back memories.

  7. giftarist

    July 29, 2010


  8. Christine Ramsay

    July 29, 2010

    I remember seeing cars like this over here in Britain too. I rather liked them. A very interesting article.


  9. Sourav

    July 29, 2010

    Nice one!

  10. Sharif

    July 29, 2010

    Classic and sleek. I always adore those tail fin designs.Highly interesting post.

  11. Francois Hagnere

    July 29, 2010

    Many thanks for your kind comments and interest.
    @ Sharif, I love them too my friend. Take care.

  12. Michael Johnson

    July 29, 2010

    I must say I prefer European cars, but Detroit styling made a vital contribution to 1950s design. Great discussion of the Space Age influences and the work of Harley Earl.

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    July 29, 2010

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  15. Flagyl

    July 29, 2010

    You gave tremendous positive points there. I did a search on the topic and found most peoples will agree with your blog.

  16. neopisiva

    July 29, 2010

    I like how did the old cars look like, much more than I like the newer models. This is not an exception, either.

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