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The history of automotive tailfins

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One of the most curious and interesting styling cues ever to be used on a car is the tailfin. Today we look at the history of this popular automotive phenomenon.

There were hints of tailfin activity early on, but the impetus of the fins that we’ve come to know and love is generally credited to legendary automotive designer Harley Earl and the 1948 Cadillac. These weren’t big sharp daggers at this point, but rather little taillight bumps at the back edge of the quarter panel. This was a revolutionary idea, because the rear of most cars was just rounded off like the trunklid. This extended the lines of the car, and opened the door for all kinds of new designs.

As an aircraft buff, Earl said he was inspired by the dual tailfins of the P-38 Lightning airplane when designing the ’48 Cadillac. That makes sense, because back then, everyone seemed to be fascinated with air and space travel. Some of the most outlandish designs of the day cited some kind of airplane or rocket as inspiration. People wanted “the future” parked in their driveways.

Of course, Cadillac continued to refine and extend the fin. By 1957, the bumps gave way for the sharp, angled fins most people think of today. And in 1959, they grew to a record-setting size.

Cadillac wasn’t the only manufacturer that got in on the fin craze, though. As early as 1953, Chevy was extending their quarter panels, and by 1957, they designed the most iconic set of fins ever produced. On a Bel Air, they even covered the side of the fins with a huge stainless steel sheet surrounded by chrome moldings, and capped the top with long, chrome trim.

Ford also jumped on the Tailfin Express, going from a round light that extended the quarter panel to a more traditional fin design in 1955. By 1957, the fins became long and pointed similar to the competition. In fact, Ford embraced the fin phenomenon so fully that even their two-seat sports car, the Thunderbird, shared the same fins as their full-sized counterparts.

But by the height of tailfin popularity, no one did it better than designer Virgil Exner and his Chrysler Corporation offerings. They called this styling “the forward look,” and it certainly was futuristic. Late ‘50s Dodge, Chrysler, DeSoto, and Plymouth models were typically tinny, chintzy, and prone to rust. But their sweeping lines, low roofs, and perfectly executed tailfins were second to none.

But as many radical ideas, tailfins eventually became a passing fad, and as early as 1960-’61 tailfins were starting to shrink, and often disappear. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, most of them were gone, save for a few holdouts like Cadillac, and even those were mere shadows of their former glory. One of the last examples from Chevy was the 1970-'72 Monte Carlo, and those were only fins if you used your imagination.

A new car today with tailfins seems like a ridiculous idea, and certainly, you would never expect them to build another ’59 Plymouth. But at least Cadillac gives a slight nod to the past with sort of a fin theme on the CTS taillight design. It's there on the coupe, sedan, and even the wagon, and it's a nice little retro cue.

Check out the video for tons of original tailfin images mostly spotted around Kansas City. And for more articles like this from this author, check out www.hovermotorco.com.

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