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Our Top 10 Favorite Tailfins

Our Top 10 Favorite Tailfins

Oct 3rd 2021

Let’s talk tailfins. There are some iconic features of automobiles in the 1950s - expansive windshields, pastel colors, and endless chrome details - that made this decade of car design unlike any before or since. But few details stand out as much as the tailfin.

After a small start the decade prior, tailfins grew larger and larger throughout the 1950s until buyers had few other options but to purchase a car with fins. These eye-catching tailfins, and the increasingly decorative tail lights that adorned them, made long, low cars of the decade seem sleeker and more aerodynamic. Tailfins reached their most impressive size in 1959, and then they very quickly disappeared from automotive design.

Tailfins never disappeared from collectors’ minds, however, and these vintage 1950s cars live on as a source of nostalgia for car owners and viewers alike. Whether you find them cool or gaudy, here are our favorite fins of the 1950s.

The Story Behind the Tailfin

The rapid rise and fall of the tailfin was a product of the time and new ideas in auto manufacturing. America was transitioning from a world war where air power had featured heavily to a space race. Consumers were obsessed with flight, space, UFOs, and the technology of the future.

Drawing from the designs of airplanes and the Space Age aesthetic that was dominating American design, automakers added tailfins, tail lights that resembled rocket engines, and the sparking chrome people expected would adorn spaceships.

The expressive designs of the 1950s were also a result of the new idea of planned obsolescence, pioneered by Alfred P. Sloan and Harley Earl of GM. Slowly changing styles and easy to fix cars meant that a family could use the same vehicle for years, but this was not good for sales. By introducing and then updating bold styles like tailfins, cars became a status item, and staying on trend meant keeping up with the latest fashions.

By the 1960s, tailfins were going out of style. Part of this was the planned obsolescence that Earl and Sloan had worked for. The stretched bodies of 1950s cars were also on their way out as well, replaced with sportier styles meant for power, speed, and, eventually, better fuel economy. Lawsuits in the 1960s claiming that pedestrians were injured when walking into the extravagant tailfins of parked cars did not help either. Tailfins disappeared model by model until hold-out Cadillac dropped them in 1966, ending the design era.

Best Tailfin Cars of the 1950s

For our list, we have chosen only cars that were put into production. Concept cars like the 1956 Chrysler Dart and the 1954 Ford La Tosca had some impressive fins, but were made without the limitations of design standards and consumer appeal, making them less representative of the era.

Instead, we have selected cars that had respectable sales at the time, and have lived on in the minds of vintage car enthusiasts as some of the most attractive or most innovative fins:

  • 1948 Cadillac Series 61

Often credited with the beginning of the tailfin craze, this 1948 Cadillac had two small fins extending from the back fenders. They curved up slightly with tail lights at the top. The design imitated the look of the P-38 fighter plane which was a secret at the time, but GM designer Harley Earl had arranged for his design team to view the plane. Although they were small, the tailfins on this design soon led to more flamboyant designs.

  • 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk

Studebaker was not one to shy away from aeronautic-inspired designs, and had debuted the “bullet nose” in 1950. In 1956, Raymond Loewy’s design firm, the same one that had created the bullet nose, designed the Golden Hawk. Tailfins were added to fit the contemporary market, but like all Studebakers, the front end was entirely different from any other model with a square grille and sloping hood.

Unfortunately, this could not save Studebaker as the company’s initial post-war success was waning and an unsuccessful merger with Packard in 1954 heralded the downfall of Studebaker in the next decade.

  • 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air

The Chevy Bel Air was a 1950s classic car all on its own after its introduction in the 1950 model year. Chevy first incorporated fins with the 1955 Bel Air which grew to become the instantly recognizable 1957 Bel Air. While these fins were rather subtle by standards of the time, the white fan plates, sharp fins, and low headlights made this car the one that comes to mind for many when they think of tailfins.

  • 1957 Dodge Sweptside Truck

We often associate tailfins with cars, but Dodge made the decision to put them on a pickup truck in 1957. The vintage Sweptside truck had small fins at the back of the truck bed over dual tail lights. Pickup truck drivers hated the design and fewer than 1000 were produced that year. Today, a love of 50s nostalgia, tailfins, and vintage pickup trucks makes these rare vehicles extremely valuable among antique truck collectors.

  • 1958 Packard

In Packard’s own bid to stand out after their merger with Studebaker, designers were struggling to keep up with trends while spending as little money as possible. The solution was to graft an additional set of tailfins onto the existing 1956 Packard Clipper design, giving 1958 Packards two stacked tailfins. While double the tailfins qualifies the 1958 Packard for our list of favorite tailfins, consumers did not appreciate the haphazard look and this was the last year for Packard.

  • 1958 Ford Thunderbird

The 1958 T-Bird bucked the trend of making fins larger and cars longer. There were still tailfins as there had been on the first generation of Thunderbirds, but they decreased in size. Ford also added a backseat without much extension on the length of the Thunderbird, turning the T-Bird from a roaster to the ideal family car for those who wanted something more subdued.

In the midst of other 1950s designs, critics and consumers loved the 1958 T-Bird. It won the Motor Trend Car of the Year and was one of the best selling vehicles in 1958.

  • 1959 Edsel

Even tailfins could not save the Edsel. After debuting 4 sedan models the year earlier with wide tailfins to unfavorable reviews, Edsel toned down the design in 1959 with the Edsel Ranger and Edsel Corsair. The wide tailfins topped a set of three lights on either side. The fins look cool now, but buyers still were not impressed and, after one more disastrous year, the biggest flop in automotive history was discontinued.

  • 1959 Chevrolet Impala

In a market where almost every car had tailfins, Chevy chose to stand out by making the fins on their Impala horizontal instead of vertical. The Impala had debuted only the year before. Now Chevy gave it a dramatic redesign. The fins on this classic Impala curve outward over cat-eye shaped tail lights. Customers found the unique design radical, but it sold well and ended up being one of the most memorable rear end car designs of the decade.

Chevy produced around 473,000 1959 Impalas, but the styling is so iconic that collectors will often pay a premium to get one for their garage.

  • 1959 Buick Electra

Buick introduced the Electra with its 1959 lineup. In the height of the tailfin craze, this car rightfully has plenty of fins. Diagonal “Delta fins” adorn the back and sweep forward to create horizontal tailfins on the front hood. Combined with the low, stretched body, this car looks as aerodynamic as the planes it was based on.

  • 1959 Cadillac Eldorado

No list of top tailfin cars would be complete without the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. The enormous, sharp tailfins with their integrated dual rocket ship tail lamps are the ultimate fin design of the 1950s. Appearing just at the end of the decade, this Cadillac was 50s design at its most extreme. This Cadillac goes down in history as having the most impressive tailfins. (And if you are remembering the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado as the pink Cadillac, that is actually nostalgia speaking. Cadillac had stopped offering pink after 1956.)

Find Parts for Vintage Cars from the 1950s at Vintage Auto Garage

Body work is everything on a 1950s car with tailfins, but to truly enjoy your classic automobile, it also needs to run well. We make that possible at Vintage Auto Garage by providing all the car parts you need for vintage Ford, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Chrysler, Dodge, Buick, and more.

Whether you need LED light bulbs and electrical wiring to keep the tail lights in your car’s fins shining or need  starters, ignition coils, fuel injection systems, or other parts, start your search at Vintage Auto Garage. Our array of products and knowledgeable team can help you get everything you need to maintain a beautiful and well-running 1950s car.

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