Tailfins on jet airplanes, badminton shuttlecocks, and fish are here to stay but as a mid-modern styling embellishment for cars fins only stuck around for a little over a decade. First as pointy little nubs and then as big fins peaking in 1959 with Cadillac producing the most iconic pair of tailfins ever. The advent of 1960 and the start of ‘60s-decade tailfins began to recede on ‘60s models and by 1961 only a few examples remained… Excepting Cadillac a longtime advocate of the tailfin.
The weekend before last STREET RODDER was in Saint Paul, Minnesota at MSRA’s Back to the 50s Weekend and what better place to find tailfins than amongst the 11,500 plus cars cruising the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Tim Bernsau and I were on the hunt searching for a Painless Performance Top 100 candidate when it struck us (I tripped and got shish kabobbed on a ’59 Cadillac fin) Back to the 50s Weekend had a high percentage of cars with factory original fins and homemade tailfin implants and fin extenders, so the subject might make a good story.
It’d be hard to argue against awarding the ’59 Cadillac as the all-time winner of the fin wars, but Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler Corporation cars all had their take on what a tailfin should look like and deserve honorable mentions. And the Big Three weren’t the only manufacturers Studebaker, American Motors plus a handful of automobile manufacturers around the world were infected.
The evolution of fins on cars is easy to spot. We’ll start with Ford’s new for 1952 taillight design that grew from a round sans tailfin effort into a larger round taillight with the suggestion of a fin for 1955-56 Ford cars and T-Birds. Fins never really grew all that big on FoMoCo cars nubs for the most part with a feeble attempt at a portraying ’59-60 Chevy horizontal fin in 1960. By 1962 Ford was out of the fin game. The 1957-year model was the most radical year for Chevrolet with a vertical fin that started at the base of a low mounted taillight and peaked a little above the trunk. And so, it went 1958 was a melted transition into horizontal fins on 1959-60 Chevrolets and by 1961, gone. Take a look through the accompanying photo gallery below and you’ll recognize a few amateur customizers augmented their ‘50s cars with tailfin implants.