Fabulous Fins! A Look at the History of Tail Fin Styling

- in Cars

When designing the new 1959 Cadillac body, the stylists relied on the tried-and-true method of “if some is good, more is better, too much is just enough” design school with the huge rear sheet metal appendages that sprang out of the quarter panels[/caption]

Sales figures proved the buying public liked tail fins on Chrysler-built vehicles, as the automaker’s market share in 1957 rose from 15.9 percent to 19.5 percent, and with that came profits going from $6 million to $103 million.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy looks glamorous standing next to the specially prepared presidential limousine, but some in the rest of the world, especially those with hostile attitudes towards the U.S., felt those big tail fins symbolized the arrogance of the era

The philosophy of excess was paying off for Exner. All good things must come to an end, they say, and it did happen within a few short years around the Chrysler division dealerships. The talk that tail fins actually did something functional on an automobile went silent after Chrysler discontinued their use in the early 1960s.

Stylists had to come up with as many deviations of the tail fin as possible as each new model year came up. Here’s the canted “Delta-wing” design with sloped rear deck from the 1959 Buick, which was proclaimed as “the right design for this day and age.”[/caption]

Perhaps the biggest reason fins went away is that automakers were changing body styling rapidly, some every year. When each new design is promoted as being the latest fashion, it’s hard to keep changing fin designs and making them larger and larger, or more unusual, without eventually making it ridiculous every fall. The most dramatic example commonly brought up is the 1959 Cadillac, where the huge surreal monsters set a record as they measured 42.4 inches from top of fin to the ground. GM designer Bill Mitchell, the man who succeeded Harley Earl as head of styling, once said that a car “should be exciting, and tail fins appeared to add excitement.”

The tail fin styling for the 1960 Cadillac was somewhat subdued from the year prior, but they remained a major theme on the prestigious marque. Taillights were inserted into the trailing edges of the fin with a jewel-like appearance. Shown here is the ritzy Eldorado Biarritz convertible.

Towering, outlandish jumbo-sized fins, some positioned at bizarre angles, were a part of what made American cars of the period full of uniqueness and character. When styles and tastes change, Detroit has to adapt and keep pace. There was a point where they had to stop, or at least start to downplay the size of the tail fin. Eventually, fads like the tail fin are going to see their way out the door.

In time, the use of the tail fin design on cars was considered old fashioned and no longer in style. Cadillac had seriously toned them down as shown here on this 1963 Series 62 Coupe and remained on all models the following model year, then a new body style came in 1965 with bladed peaks on the rear quarter panels, no more fins.

The last year of the flashy 1950s saw nearly the entire American auto industry (save for Checker) involved in an orgy of all things to do with the aircraft-inspired tail fins. Not all were over-the-top, enormous and soaring in size, the others were smaller but always noticeable. Within a few model years, tail fins no longer were deemed “futuristic” and the road dragon, as viewed from the rear, was a thing of the past. The tail fin era was finally over.

When the 1965 models appeared from Cadillac, the company issued this image showing the original 1948 tail fin and examples through the next 15 model years of how they were given a more tailored treatment to suit public tastes. The center photo shows the 1965 taillight treatment and how they got away from actual fins.

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