I recently attended my first Tail Fin show. I don't know if this is one of the rites of passage that, in Detroit, anyway, signify when a boy truly becomes a man. In fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't, since I am middle-aged.
But I did feel just a bit more masculine after coming in such close contact to all of those flying, aggressive-looking tail fins (some of which look like they could have been used as weapons), especially since they were all attached to enormo, manly-looking vintage cars from the 1950s and '60s.
Tail Fins on a Cadillac(Photo by Automotive Hall of Fame)
The show was held at the Automotive Hall of Fame, in Dearborn, Michigan, right next door to the famous Henry Ford Museum. The Hall began holding an annual car show in 2006, with a different theme each year, and the theme of this year's extravaganza was "Fabulous Fins":
Thirty vintage rides with eye-catching fins were on display, including a 1956 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, '57 Chevrolet Bel Air, '60 Desoto Fireflite, '60 Chrysler Imperial Crown Convertible, '58 Ford Thunderbird, '58 Packard Hawk, '58 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special, '57 Ford Fairlane 500 Convertible and a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz.
And I'm here to tell you, some of these fins were so high and long and "wing-like" that that it appeared they could help launch the cars into the clouds. And that seems as good a place as any to start with my below list -- let's call it "Six Interesting Things About Tail Fins That You Might Not Know."
1) Inspired by the Jet Age
Getting back to the notion that these tail fins, in many cases, looked like they could help the vehicles go airborne:
"The first tail fins, and the ones that followed for several years, were a response to America's post-war fascination with the jet age," said Jeff Leestma, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame. "At that point, air travel had evolved from using propellers to jet engines, and everyone was fascinated with this new jet age. And the stylists at the car companies, particularly at General Motors and Chrysler, really embraced that sensibility in terms of their designs."
2) The Trend, a Timeline
Although most folks think of the tail fin trend as lasting roughly 10 years, from '55 to '65, the first subtle signs of tail fins actually began in the late '40s -- "like maybe a trim piece on a taillamp, and a fin that was maybe a few inches high and half a foot long," Leestma said. "But the trend was in full stride by the mid-'50s, it peaked in '59, then began to wane in the early '60s -- and, by '65, with a few exceptions, they were basically gone."
3) The Arms Race
The tail-fin trend was clearly fueled by one-upmanship, as General Motors and Chrysler locked themselves into an "arms race" of sorts to see who could bring the biggest, most dashing, most attention-getting tail fins to market. "The heads of the design teams -- Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell at GM, and Virgil Exner at Chrysler -- clearly tried to out-do each other, year after year, to see who could wow the public with the next, biggest, sharpest tail fin," Leestma pointed out.
Not that Ford was lacking in tail fins -- remember the original '56 T-Bird, after all. And some of the T-birds from '61-'62 also employed design elements that took their cues from jet aircraft.
"But, generally, the big tail fins wasn't a direction Ford wanted to focus on, not like GM and Chrysler," Leestma reported. But, other carmakers of the era also participated. One vehicle on display at Fabulous Fins, the aforementioned Packard Hawk, had a pretty good-sized set of fins on it, proportionally speaking, when you consider the smaller size of the vehicle.
4) Signature Fins
The Tail Fin Arms Race was notable in that GM and Chrysler each pursued different design strategies that set them apart from each other. For example, many of Chrysler's fins employed some "optical illusion" designs that set them apart. "Personally, some of my favorites were on the Chrysler Imperials of the era," Leestma, opined, mostly due, he said, to the semi-circle chrome pieces that appeared to be cutting right through the fins.
Tail Fins(Photo by Automotive Hall of Fame)
"They almost looked like the rings of Saturn," Leestma quipped. "That was just one of the visual tricks Virgil Exner was using at the time. And on some of the Chryslers of the era, the taillamp would appear to be floating independently of the fin. It was very striking. The DeSoto fins had some really unique styling cues as well."
5) And the winner is...
But despite those unique Cryco design elements, if you're judging by size and flamboyance, the Ultimate Fins of the era belonged to the '59 Cadillac. "That's as large as the fins ever got, on that '59 Caddy," Leestma affirmed. "And they used a lot of chrome and taillamp pieces that also visually reflected the jet age. If it weren't for the wheels, you really would think the car was getting ready to fly away."
Indeed, the winner of the People's Choice Award at the Fabulous Fins show was the head-turning '59 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz, which was impossible to miss even if you were six blocks away -- and not only because it boasted a screaming-red paint job. "That fin was so large, so pointy, almost extreme-looking, that, to this day, it's a fan favorite," Leestma shared. Another car owner at the show remarked, tongue in cheek, that "those fins looks like they could impale someone."
Drawing more attention to the Biarritiz was the fact that it was a convertible, and the top was down, "and it looked like it was a quarter-mile long," Leestma joked.
6) A trend fades...
After that '59 winged wonder, designers knew they had taken the tail-fin trend as far as they could, at least in terms of size, height, "wingspan," etc. Earle had retired
in the late '50s, and by 1960 " Bill Mitchell's philosophy was "to go with a cleaner look, with less chrome than we'd seen in the '50s. He and others started to simplify car design at that point," Leestma noted.
Plus, tail fins were never a cheap proposition from a manufacturing standpoint, even from the beginning. "The process was very labor-intensive," Leestma pointed out. "They required a lot of hand-welding -- so the larger the fin, the more labor-intensive they were to produce.
Beyond that, designers came to the conclusion that the public had had enough of the ever-expanding tail fin, and carmakers began looking to new designs. So, as mentioned earlier, the trend waned, and there was nary a fin to be seen after '65.
"But, Leestma effused, "it sure was a fun era while it lasted."