Zeitgeist Criticism | The Tailfin: How a design feature on the rear end of cars exemplified a decade.

The 1950’s could be considered an idyllic era. It was a time of progress, pride and consumerism. America had just defeated the Axes of Evil and the country was feeling invincible. The black eye that Japan had left us with at Pearl Harbor in 1941 was returned 10-fold in Hiroshima August 6, 1945 with the atomic bomb. Americans felt that they had stood up to the schoolyard bully and delivered a knockout punch. The United States was a different country after the war. New technology had been introduced and a sense of individualistic freedom was growing. This was expressed in automobile design and its increasing popularity among consumers. The design of the tailfin is arguably the perfect example to illuminate the flourishing economy and social climate of the decade. It represented speed, freedom and being on the winning team, America.

The tailfin first appeared on the 1948 Cadillac, developed by Harley Earl.1 Earlier; Earl was hired on to General Motors to oversee new styling for their car lines. He was quickly appointed director of the newly created Auto and Color Section of GM. This was the first time the company was investing in the design of their cars as opposed to letting the engineers control it, who usually had little talent for aesthetics. With Earl’s keen sense of consumer motivation and an eye for design he experimented with the traditional car model. This experimentation was apparent in the tailfin. 2 It was Earl’s direct exposure to the twin-tail P-38 Lightning fighter plane that influenced him.

The P-38 was the first of its kind featuring twin engines, twin fuselages and vertical stabilizers. Previous aircraft were restricted to a 500 lb. ammunition load and had less than 1,000 HP to their single engine, where as the P-38 almost doubled both amounts. 3 If America was going to compete with the growing forces overseas designers such as Kelly Johnson of Lockheed were going to have to develop new ways of reaching the enemy faster and with more firepower. 4 Pilots were able to catch their opponents off guard because of the P-38’s 700 NM combat radius. The aircraft otherwise called the ”fork-tailed devil” by the Germans was a catalyst in defeating the Axis’s air power in 1943 and 1944. 5 Earl recognized this planes impact because of what it stood for: power, success, and the future. If he was going to design post-war cars they were going to represent American innovation and strength. Earl took the unique twin-boom concept of the P-38 and designed exaggerated winged tips and rocket-like tail lamps on the rear end of cars mimicking jet engines. These ornamental appendages gave the car a sense of flight. The fact that the tailfin represented a machine critical in the defeat of German forces made consumers avid fans.

After coming out of the war victorious America was experiencing a unique economic boom while other countries such as Germany and the Soviet Union’s economy were in shambles. The US’s gross national product rose from $300 thousand million in 1950 to more than $500 thousand million in 1960. There was also a growth in the number of births resulting in the “baby boom” 6 The rate the population grew in the 1950’s was unprecedented, skyrocketing from 2.8 million births in 1946 to 4.3 million births in 1957. 7 There was an increase in youth attending college due to the raised standard of living and creation of the GI Bill of Rights. The unemployment and inflation rate remained low.8 The middle class was expanding and more people were purchasing family-oriented items such as refrigerators, TV’s and cars. It was the first time when families of multiple income brackets could afford such items. This ability for people to purchase automobiles translated in to sales for car manufacturers. Americans responded to the sleek lines, futuristic angles and accented chrome on the tailfin. Soon the highways were dominated by this new style.9 The auto industry was also able to quickly convert factories from making military tanks and bombers to cars.10 Suburbanization fueled the popularity even more. People were leaving the cities and moving west and the car provided transportation over longer distances. The 1944 Federal Aid-Highway Act opened up the American west. It ensured access to the expanding suburbs with 41,000 miles of interstate highway.11 Suddenly Americans could drive faster and live further away from where they worked. The development of highways was an excellent compliment to the power and speed cars were being designed with. The ’57 Chevy not only featured the popular tailfin but also came with a V8 engine. This engine had more power than previous car models and allowed drivers to reach higher speeds.12 Car designers also used the tailfins aerodynamics as a selling point. After testing on small plastic models designers knew that the teardrop shape of cars was the least wind resistant but in crosswinds it was less stable. They used the tailfin to counter block these winds and stabilize the car resulting in less steering correction needed from the driver. While some did not believe the tailfin had any effect on the aerodynamics, Virgil Max Exner stated that tests showed stability improved by 20 percent at highway speeds.13

All of these economic developments and political achievements acted as a perfect storm to fuel the demand for the tailfin. No other technology of the time influenced American culture more than the car; it was a continuation of the owner’s identity.14 The car represented social status and individualism. All of sudden drivers were accessorizing their vehicles with items such as steering wheel spinners and fender skirts. Car maintenance and customization was becoming a hobby because of the increased amount of leisure-time and disposable income.15 Americans were also doing their patriotic duty, contributing to the American way-of-life by purchasing a car. After experiencing a depression and consumer constraint Americans were eager to do their civic duty to by contributing to the capitalist machine. 16 Despite America’s international powerhouse mentality we were still in a state of paranoia. In 1949 the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb and the threat of communism spreading was enough for US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to declare “massive retaliation” on any attempt from the USSR to attack. 17 This conflict developed into a deep-seeded hatred towards communism and anyone or thing that represented it. Purchasing American-made cars was the equivalent to proudly displaying a flag in your front yard. The popularity of the sleek lines and oversized body was noticed by car industries in other countries and instead of trying to compete they went the opposite direction. Volkswagen, a brand earlier endorsed by Hitler developed smaller more practical cars and followed them up with advertising campaigns encouraging buyers to “live below their means” even if they did not have to. 18 At the time, consumers were not interested; they expressed their patriotism by buying American.

The tailfins popularity seeped into the design of other products and architecture. Women’s sunglasses featured winged tips. Coffee shops, drive-ins and casinos also echoed the tailfins polished look.19 The swooped lines were repeated throughout the Googie, otherwise known as Doo Wop, architectural style. 20 Although, by the 1960’s the protruding feature quickly receded from the backend of cars.

America’s ego was quickly deflated when the Soviets orbited the first space satellite, Sputnik, in October of 1957.21 All of a sudden the rocket-like tail lamps became just that, tail lamps. America was late to the space-race and when we did show up in December it was with a small satellite traveling atop a Naval rocket that exploded five feet above the launch pad.22 This was a sobering moment for Americans who, previously, did not consider the USSR scientifically capable. Also, since the tailfins inception car manufacturers were continuously trying to one-up each other. This culminated in the ’59 Cadillac’s enormous tailfins measuring 42.4 inches from the topmost part to the ground. 23 It seemed the excitement and innovation had run its course. The futuristic style of the tailfin was quickly becoming last years model.

There is no doubt that the tailfin represented a prosperous time. It exemplified the jet-age; a time of military success, economic growth and self-expression. America came out of WWII victorious and felt it had made its mark as a world peacekeeper. The same confidence and strength carried over into the cars people were purchasing. The tailfin meant tangible freedom. It was an expression of pride and the success of the time. Though, the tailfin eventually faded out it is still one of the most recognizable symbols of a decade when the country was expanding west and confidence was abundant.

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