The tailfin era of automobile styling encompassed the 1950s and 1960s, peaking between 1957 and 1960. It was a style that spread worldwide, as car designers picked up styling trends from the US automobile industry, where it was regarded as the “golden age” of American auto design.
General Motors design chief Harley Earl is generally credited for the automobile tailfin, introducing small fins on the 1948 Cadillac.
Harley credited the look of World War II fighter aircraft for his inspiration, particularly the twin-tailed P-38 Lightning. As jet-powered aircraft, rockets, and space flight entered into public recognition, the automotive tailfin assemblies (including tail lights) were designed to resemble more and more the tailfin and engine sections of contemporary jet fighters and space rockets.
The tailfin at its apex on the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado
Plymouth claimed that the tailfins were not fins, but “stabilizers” to place the “center of pressure” as far to the rear as possible and thus “reduce by 20% the needs for steering correction in a cross wind”.
Another view of the 1959 Cadillac tailfin
Automobile engineer Paul Jaray added a center fin to his prototype designs in the 1920s for aerodynamic stability. Influenced by his patents some car producers made streamlined prototypes with one center positioned tailfin. For example, the Audi F5 Stromliner prototype, KDF prototype, Tatra T77 production car or Fiat Padovan prototype.
Some sub-models of the 1937 Cadillac Fleetwood, which predates the P-38, also contained hints of tailfins via projecting tail-light “paddles”, although it is unclear if this influenced later fin designs. The 1941 Cadillac Series 63 4-Door Sedan also had a form of jutting tail-lights, although milder than the 1937 Fleetwood. Even though the 1948 model was the first conscious effort at fins, the earlier partial occurrences may have made the concept more acceptable to consumers and designers. (World War II produced a gap of Cadillac model production between the early 40s and late 40s as factories turned to military goods production, interrupting the development of the fin concept.)
Tailfins were Peilstege (sight lines) in Mercedes-Benz terminology, seen here on a 190D sedan
The Cadillac 1948 fin styling proved popular, and its use spread to other models in the General Motors family of brands. Soon it was adopted by other manufacturers, with top Chrysler stylist Virgil Exner in particular taking the tailfin look on board. As confidence grew in the styling trend, the fins grew larger and bolder.
1959 Dodge Coronet
The most extreme tailfins appeared in the late 1950s, reaching their apex on the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. Soaring, sharply pointed, and bearing twin round taillights, they engendered a backlash against the look. Tailfins descended throughout the early ’60s, even adopting a downward slope on the 1965 Cadillacs. Mostly they disappeared, although in instances a sharp-edged quarter panel meeting a downward sloping trunk created the look if not illusion of fins. Vestigial tailfins, however, remained on American cars into the 1990s, at least as far as the 1993 Cadillac Sixty Special.
Mercedes-Benz introduced a modest tailfin on its 1959 W111 series of sedans, which gained the nickname “Fintails”. In company terminology they were Peilstege (sight lines) for aid in backing up. In 1997, Lancia introduced the Lancia Kappa Coupé with similar rear “sight line” augmentation.
Cadillac tailfins started to turn downward already by 1965, here seen vestigially a quarter century later on a 1990s Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance
In 2010, the Cadillac SRX styling incorporated the trademark vertical taillights sculpted into tiny tailfins projecting from the rear. This was also done with the Cadillac XTS, which launched in 2012.
Tailfins have been criticized as a safety concern, even as a parked vehicle. In Kahn v. Chrysler (1963), a 7-year-old child on a bicycle collided with a fin and sustained a head injury. A case of the same era, Hatch v. Ford (1958), is also prominent in the study of personal injury from parked vehicles. In both of these cases, children were injured by sharp protrusions on parked cars.
Examples of tailfin styling:
Buick LeSabre, 1959–1963
Cadillac Deville, 1959-1964
Cadillac Eldorado, 1948–1964
Chaika GAZ-13, 1959–1981
Chevrolet Bel Air, 1955–1960
Chevrolet Impala, 1958–1960
Chrysler New Yorker, 1956–1961
Chrysler Windsor, 1956–1960
DeSoto Fireflite, 1956–1960
Dodge Lancer, 1955–1959
Edsel (all models), 1958–1960
Fiat 2100, 1959–1961
Ford Consul, 1951–1962
Ford Fairlane, 1957–1963
Ford Galaxie, 1959–1961
Ford Thunderbird, 1957–1963
Ford Zephyr, 1951–1966
Holden FB & EK, 1960-1962
Lincoln Capri, 1955–1957
Lincoln Continental, 1957–1960
Mercury Comet, 1960–1964
Mercury Meteor, 1961–1963
Mercury Monterey, 1957–1964
Morris Major (Series II & Elite,) 1959–1964
Morris Oxford Farina
Moskvitch 402 – Moskvitch 407, 1956–1965
Moskvitch 408 – Moskvitch 412, 1964–1976
Peugeot 404, 1960–1975
Plymouth Fury, 1956–1960
Škoda Octavia, 1959-1971
Studebaker-Packard Hawk series, 1957–1961
Studebaker President, 1957–1958
Studebaker Commander, 1958
A finned British Vauxhall Cresta PA
Vauxhall Cresta PA, 1957–1962
Volga GAZ-21, 1956–1970