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The tale of Cadillac’s game-changing tailfins

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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2019/04/23/cadillacs-game-changing-tailfins

I think the 1950’s Alfa Romeo B.A.T. cars should be considered. They were contemporary.

There was a mistaken idea at the time that the fins would add stability to the driving experience. At least with the 1959 Cadillac, that couldn’t have been more wrong.
In a drive of a 59 from the Left Coast to northern Minnesota in 2010, any side wind at all would cause the rear to move as thought it were a lever arm against the rest of the car. They acted more like sails. Even with Hankook radials designed for later limousines, the driving experience was more like tacking a sailboat back and forth than anything else. It was a real handful at highway speeds across the Great Plains in any measurable crosswind.
Of course, the 59 was not designed for long-distance high speed travel, since it predated the Interstate system. It was more used for intra-urban driving, where that never became much of an issue.
In our trip, we stayed as much as possible on 2-lane roads and moderate highway speeds. It was still a handful, but a unique and worthwhile driving experience.

Fisher Body must have had problems stamping out the more elaborate tail fins. With very sharp creases, the rejection rate must have been high.

Don Sherman, I enjoyed your article on the Cadillac Fin Era. Well done!20181003_130410

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The 1959 Caddy fins are becoming cooler with each passing year. The Biarritz convertible has experienced significant price appreciation in recent years. Contrary to an earlier post, these cars were designed specifically for high speed interstate use. All of GM’S near luxury brands cruised effortlessly at seventy mph and beyond.

Personally, I don’t think Cadillac got fins in correct proportion until 1961, well past the time when consumers were done with them. As the article correctly points out, the overblown 59 Cadillac fins were a knee-jerk reaction to Chrysler’s sleek and well-proportioned 57 fins. Chrysler themselves jumped the shark with the outsized 58 Plymouth fins (eg. “Christine”) which really looked more like 59 Cad fins than anything else at Chrysler to that point. Everybody remembers the 59 Cad, but to me the best looking fin cars were those 57/58 Chryslers and DeSotos (particularly the 57 300C and 58 300D).

The big finned era was always my favorite. I absolutely love the big finned Mopars of 57-61.

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Thanks for the mental image of the Cadillac design team peering through the chain link fence at the new 57 Plymouth “forward look” design. Especially cool considering the fact that Plymouth was Mopars low-price car. Great article. … GV

When I was a youngster, of course the '59’s fins were amazing to me. But now as I get older, I really enjoy the styling of the 60-64 Cadillacs so much more.

I owned a 59 coupe de ville in the seventies, daily driver. Pulled a horse trailer, drove it on LA freeways, and later, with 59 Caddie #2, drove Colorado mountain roads and freeways, drove it across country 4 times, and yes, with flat country and winds too. Never a problem with steady on the road, even at 90. For me, this car was made for long distance highway travel. It was a beautiful highway car, but the size made you pay attention when on winding narrow mountain roads. I put in a new steering box and the lightness of that early power steering made all the difference in the world. I liked to say that my 59 “sailed” down the road more like the solidness of a new car.

Couldn’t help but notice that on the promotional photo of the 59 the paint on the front fender doesn’t match the rest of the car.

Living in a typical suburb of San Francisco in the 50’s most everyone owned Fords and Chevy’s. there was a sprinkling of Oldsmobile, Rambler and even a DKW. In the fall of 1958 we were treated to a new next door neighbor who drove a white 1957 Caddy Coupe De Ville. Holy crap! The neighborhood just shot up in ranking two fold. Not one month after moving in, new neighbor Bob comes home with a brand new red 59 Caddy convertible. (Was this guy in the witness protection program?) Turns out Bob was a beer salesman for Lucky Lager Beer and this was his company car, more or less. He said he chipped in the difference so he wouldn’t have to drive a Ford Galaxie sedan. The first thing he did was change the factory tires. Royal Tires (eventually Uniroyal) made these really beautiful narrow white walls with sculptured sidewalls that resembled a turbine fan. Absolutely stunning! Even in 5th grade I knew they were something special. The first time I rode in this car was in the back seat and I distinctly remember how high over my head the fins were. The coolest part? Bob had two sons one about my age. We became fast friends and Bob would let us play endlessly in the car. Sitting behind the wheel of this red giant was a real treat. We used to play a game with other kids in the hood asking them to find the gas filler hidden behind the rotating panel above the bumper. All the red versions I see these days have a red and white interior. Bob’s car had an all red interior and the smell of the leather was intoxicating when compared to the ranch branded vinyl in our 1955 Ford two door station wagon. Bob sold that car in 1966 for $2000 just after I enlisted in the Navy. I miss that car but I was hooked and I drive older Cadillacs to this day.