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Wilson's Auto Restoration Blog

History of Classic Car Design in the Tailfin Design Era

Design styles on cars have always captured our attention. The way that light reflects off clean lines running down the side of a body panel can really excite us and there is probably no design element that excites our eyes more than the tailfin.

The head of GM design, Harley J. Earl,  is known by many as the guy that started what is famously known as the “Tailfin Era” while others consider Franklin Quick Hershey, who designed the 48’ Cadillac, as the guy who initiated it.

When the 1948 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe showed up, people couldn’t forget what they had seen. The small fins that stretched to the rear and housed the taillights shook car design to its core. Hershey was said to be inspired by the WWII aircraft P-38 Lightning which he saw at the Selfridge Air Base.

Virgil Max Exner, an infamous designer for Chrysler, took tailfin design to a whole new level. Under Chrysler’s “forward look design” program he made the tailfin the basis of their design process.  Exner lowered the roofline and made the cars sleeker, smoother, and more aggressive.  The tailfins were not just design aspects.  He also knew they provided aerodynamic benefits as well and proved it by using wind tunnel testing at the University of Michigan.

Virgil worked on the famous Chrysler 300 letter series in 1957 which had the same tailfin design cues and put Chrysler at the front of the pack leaving Ford and GM to play catchup with their designs.

Tailfin designs peaked in the 1950s, the car companies went overboard with tailfins and they were seen on almost every car possible. There are cars that became iconic because of the fins they had on the back.  Here are four of our top picks.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz

The Eldorado Biarritz had some of the most exaggerated fins ever to be put on a vehicle.  They didn’t stop there with the design either.  Harley Earl’s tailfin design on this Cadillac had two taillights in each fin which was meant to represent a jet’s afterburners.  Good luck getting your hands on one of these.  Only 1,320 Eldorado Biarritz models were produced in 1959, and experts believe only about 300 or so are still in existence.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air

There aren’t many classic cars from the ‘50s more iconic than the ‘57 Bel Air.  T V-shaped trim on the ‘57 tail fins was filled with a ribbed aluminium insert exclusive to the Bel Air’s upgraded trim level.  That year, GM executives wanted to redesign the entire car, production delays put a stop to that and thank goodness!  They did however give the car a wider grille which made the front end appear to be wider than previous years.  To replicate that wide look in the rear, GM gave the ’57 its infamous tailfin design.  You can’t have a list of cool tailfins and not include the Bel Air.

1959 Chevrolet Impala

The 50s were coming to a close, but tailfin design was still a big part of vehicle styling.  The 1959 Impala stands testament to that!  The horizontal “gull wing” or “bat-wing” fins were radically different than what car manufacturers had been producing. Noted as one of Chevrolet’s most historic vehicles, the Impala has been an American legend for decades.

1959 Ford Thunderbird

The second-generation T-Birds were redesigned to accommodate 4 passengers instead of two making it a longer vehicle.  Ford also dramatically extended the rear deck which mage the perfect platform to create some long fins that ran from the doors to the taillights.  It was a more subtle tailfin than you saw on the competitors’ models and at the end of the tailfin era, that was what America was looking for and the second-gen T-Bird was a big success for Ford.  The tailfin design from the 1959 T-bird has its uncanny hint in the 2019 BMW i8 tail surfacing too. Who knew tailfins would return after 60 years? 

The end of the tailfin era didn’t happen overnight, nor was it due to any one single car manufacturer.  In 1960 almost all cars had significantly reduced the size of their tailfin design or removed them all together.  Some say that it was due to Harley Earl and Virgil Exner retiring.  All we know is we hope they make a big comeback someday.

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