Conceived in a farmhouse and inspired by a World War Two fighter plane, Cadillac’s famous tailfins are still virtually synonymous with the brand. This week, we look at the 1948-1949 Cadillac and the birth of the tailfin.
In a roundabout way, the story of Cadillac’s fins began with a 1937 U.S. Army Air Corps specification for a long-range, twin-engine interceptor intended to combat a new generation of heavy bombers. Lockheed’s proposal, conceived by chief designer Hall Hibbard and brilliant, mercurial MIT graduate Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, had an unorthodox twin-boom layout, with a very large 52-foot (15.85-meter) wingspan. With a pair of turbocharged 12-cylinder Allison engines, it weighed more than 7 tons, with a large internal fuel capacity and heavy armament. In June 1937, it acquired the official designation P-38 — P for “Pursuit,” indicating a fighter or interceptor aircraft. It later received the popular name “Lightning.”
Although the first XP-38 prototype was lost in an accident in early 1939, its performance was promising and in April 1939, the USAAC ordered 13 YP-38 development aircraft. Operational testing was assigned to the 1st Pursuit Group, based at Selfridge Field, Michigan. (As a side note, the prefix X indicates an experimental prototype, while a Y prefix indicates a development prototype. Inspired by the military nomenclature, Harley Earl named his custom-bodied personal car the Y-Job. GM Styling later used the “XP” code to identify automotive design studies; for example, the car that became the Chevrolet Vega was designated XP-887.)
A STYLISTIC INSPIRATION
The P-38 was extremely advanced for the late thirties and the development program was secret until very close to the U.S. entry into the war. Nonetheless, by early 1941, word of the radical-looking new fighter had reached GM styling chief Harley Earl. That spring, Earl called in a few favors and wrangled permission to take several of his senior designers — including Bill Mitchell, Art Ross, and Frank Hershey — to see the early-production P-38 at Selfridge Field.
Earl’s men were deeply impressed with the sleek, twin-tailed aircraft. Conventional single-engine, single-tail fighters were not of great interest to most automotive designers since such aircraft had few elements that could be applied to cars, but the P-38 was a different story. According to Bill Mitchell, the designers were particularly struck by the way the lines of the tail booms carried through from nose to tail, but the Lightning offered a host of intriguing details, from the air intakes on the flanks of each boom to the stubby, rounded vertical fins.
Each of Earl’s designers began toying with concepts inspired by their viewing of the P-38, but their work was shortly interrupted by America’s entry into the war. While the P-38 went on to an impressive service record in Africa and the Pacific, Frank Hershey and Bill Mitchell joined the Navy, while Art Ross went to work designing military hardware.
In the fall of 1944, Frank Hershey received a medical discharge and returned to General Motors. Bill Mitchell, who had been in charge of the Cadillac studio before the war, was still in the service, so Harley Earl made Hershey the interim chief of Cadillac design. In that capacity, Hershey developed a series of concepts inspired by the P-38, some (but not all) of which incorporated tailfins. These designs evolved into the aerodynamic C.O., or “Interceptor,” which was eventually built as a full-size, running prototype. It was too radical for Harley Earl’s tastes and it went nowhere.
In May 1945, Earl transferred Hershey to GM’s Special Car Design and Export studio. Hershey remained fascinated with tailfins, however, which also appeared on studies he did for GM’s British subsidiary, Vauxhall. Those early fins were very modest, stubby extensions of the rear fender tips — a far cry from the grandiose shapes they were later to become.
THE FARM TEAM
Frank Hershey’s involvement with Cadillac’s postwar production cars might have been very limited had it not been for a prolonged UAW strike that began just before Thanksgiving 1945. The strike led to a lockout that lasted until the following March, bringing most development work to a grinding halt. However, Hershey and his family had recently purchased a 60-acre farm, Winkler Mill, about 15 miles (25 km) outside of Detroit, and during the lockout, he invited the Cadillac design team to work at his farm while they prepared the 1948 Cadillac line.
Working at Hershey’s farm gave the design team, then headed by Bill Mitchell, considerably more latitude than they might otherwise have had in their normal studios. Harley Earl dropped in periodically to see how the designs were coming along, but the stylists were otherwise left to their own devices. Naturally, Hershey himself played an active role, convincing stylist Ned Nickles to adapt his P-38-inspired fins into the rear fender line — a bold decision, given that Harley Earl had not been terribly thrilled with the fins on Hershey’s earlier concepts.
Indeed, the fins came perilously close to costing Hershey his job. When Earl and Cadillac general manager Nicholas Dreystadt saw the fins on a full-size clay model of the ’48 Cadillac, Earl ordered Hershey to remove them. Hershey, then focused on the front end, did not immediately comply. When Earl returned two days later and saw that the fins were still present, Earl threatened to fire Hershey if he didn’t remove them immediately.
Fortunately for Hershey, GM’s most senior executives, company president Charlie Wilson and chairman Alfred P. Sloan, decided they liked the tailfins, which Sloan felt would be an effective stylistic trademark for Cadillac. Two days later, Earl asked Hershey if he had removed the fins yet. When Hershey cautiously said no, Earl breathed a sigh of relief and told him to leave them on. From then on, Earl became an enthusiastic supporter.
Despite Sloan and Earl’s enthusiasm, Cadillac management was afraid that the fins would alienate Cadillac’s conservative clientele. Ed Cole, recently appointed as the division’s chief engineer, liked the fins, but new general manager Jack Gordon, who replaced Nicholas Dreystadt in June 1946, was wary. Mitchell later recalled Gordon walking into the studio and staring at the fins of the full-size clay model for many long moments before declaring that the fins were just too high.
Gordon told Mitchell to shorten the fin by 0.75 inches (19 mm), to which Mitchell reluctantly agreed. However, as soon as Gordon left, Mitchell resorted to a bit of sleight of hand. Instead of shortening the fins, he made one fin taller so that it would look like the other, unchanged fin had been shortened. Gordon returned the following day and promptly declared that he’d been right about the fins looking better shorter. He eventually discovered that he had been tricked, but the fins went into production without further tampering.
THE 1948 AND 1949 CADILLACS
Despite Gordon and Dreystadt’s fears, Cadillac’s customers were not dissuaded by the fins. Admittedly, demand for all new cars was still fierce in 1948 — many dealers made buyers sign agreements not to resell their cars for at least six months, to discourage the thriving gray market. Cadillac sales for the 1948 model year were only 50,638 (not including long-wheebase commercial chassis), but those modest numbers reflected the production delays caused by the UAW strike; the ’48 cars didn’t go on sale until March 1948, about four months later than normal.
The basic styling of the 1948 cars carried over into 1949 with only a modest facelift, including a simplified, bolder-looking grille and a new dashboard design. There were greater changes under the skin: Thanks to Cadillac’s new overhead-valve (OHV) V8 engine, the ’49s were nearly 300 pounds (131 kg) lighter than the ’48s, giving them brisk performance and surprisingly good fuel economy. The ’48s hadn’t been slow, but the ’49s had the power to match their racy looks.
Cadillac scored an additional stylistic coup late in the model year, with the introduction of a new hardtop body style: the Coupe de Ville. The hardtop body, shared with the new Buick Roadmaster Riviera and Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Holiday, was developed by Ned Nickles, who had become head of Buick styling in 1947. The hardtop omitted the B-pillars of the regular two-door club coupe, making it look like a convertible with the top up. Thanks to its late introduction, the Coupe de Ville accounted for only 2,151 sales in 1949, but the hardtop body style would become enormously popular in the 1950s.
With great style, strong performance, enviable build quality, and ample prestige, Cadillac sales soared to 92,554 for 1949, by far its best year to that time. That wasn’t quite enough to edge out Packard, but in 1950, Cadillac outsold its old foe by more than two to one, claiming the crown as America’s leading luxury car.
POSTSCRIPT: FROM TAILFINS TO T-BIRDS
By then, Frank Hershey’s GM career was over. Hershey later explained that he was fired after Earl learned through another designer that Hershey had been doing freelance work for non-automotive outside clients. Although Earl himself owned an independent design studio, the Harley Earl Corporation (HEC), he did not tolerate moonlighting by his staff.
Hershey claimed Earl later invited him to run HEC, but Hershey declined. He went on the Packard and in 1952, joined Ford Motor Company as director of styling and chief stylist for the Ford division. His leading accomplishment at Ford was the original, two-seater Thunderbird. Hershey resigned in 1956, not long after being passed over for the vice presidency of styling in favor of George Walker. He went on to Kaiser Aluminum and a variety of non-automotive design work. He died in 1997.
The P-38 Lightning was produced throughout World War Two, becoming one of the most strategically important American fighters. Although experienced German pilots did not consider it among the most threatening Allied fighters, both the top-scoring U.S. aces of the war flew the P-38. After the war, most surviving Lightnings were scrapped, although a few lingered in service in Italy, Honduras, and Cuba. Surviving P-38s were very popular air racers for a number of years, many pilots having purchased them as military surplus for as little as $1,200. Only a handful remains today and the only one still flyable is a P-38F called “Glacier Girl,” which spent almost 50 years frozen in an ice floe.
Cadillac’s tailfins, however, survived long after the P-38 had been forgotten. As Charlie Wilson and Alfred P. Sloan had hoped, they quickly became a Cadillac trademark, and they sparked an international craze. By 1960, nearly every manufacturer in the world had toyed with fins at least briefly. Even conservative Mercedes-Benz adopted them for its 1959 Heckflosse (“Fintail”) sedans. Cadillac’s own fins reached their apogee in 1959, but their vestiges lingered well into the 1980s.
Mitchell later said fins were an essential part of Cadillac’s visual identity. That’s debatable, of course, and Cadillac certainly took the theme well over the top in the late fifties. Still, looking at the lackluster designs that Cadillac has fielded in the past 15 years leaves us wondering if Mitchell had a point. Say what you will about Cadillac’s current “Art and Science” design language — the author is not a fan — but nobody is likely to put it on a postage stamp. By comparison, the 1949 Cadillac, dated though it may be, remains a strikingly attractive car by most any standards. We don’t generally approve of retro styling, but perhaps Cadillac is missing a bet.
In 2013, we published a version of this article in Autoweek magazine. However, Autoweek had no connection with the original article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); David R. Crippen and William L. Mitchell, “The Reminiscences of William L. Mitchell,” August 1984, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Mitchell/mitchellinterview.htm, accessed 7 February 2009; Jan Chciuk-Celt’s 1948 Cadillac design page, (28 February 2002, home.teleport. com/~flyheart/ hershey.htm, accessed 8 February 2009; Franklin Q. Hershey and J.M. Fenster, “Glory Days! My 35 Years as an Automobile Designer,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 27 No. 1 (1987), pp. 14-31; Nick Georgano and Nicky Wright, Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (New York: SMITHMARK Publishers, 1995); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Michael Lamm, “Two Very Important Cars! 1948 & 1949 Cadillac Fastbacks,” Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972), pp. 10-17, 56; Arch Brown, “1948 Cadillac 61: The First Shall Be Last,” Special Interest Autos#171 (May-June 1999), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Cadillacs, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: 2000), pp. 52-59; Rob Leichester Wagner, Cadillac: A Century of Excellence (New York: MetroBooks, 2002); and John Barach’s 1948 Cadillac page, Motor Era, www.motorera. com/ cadillac/cad1940/CAD48S.HTM, accessed 7 February 2009.
Information on the P-38 Lightning came from David Donald’s article “Lockheed P-38 Lightning: ‘Fork-tailed Devil’ from International Air Power Review Vol. 14 (2004), pp. 124-155; Joe Baugher’s P-38 page (19 June 1999, http://home.att. net/~jbaugher1/ p38.html, accessed 7 March 2009; and Greg Goebel, “The Lockheed P-38 Lightning,” v1.2.1, AirVectors, 1 July 2007, www.airvectors. net/avp38.html, accessed 7 March 2009. Baugher’s page was particularly helpful in sorting out when Earl’s group probably saw the P-38, a point that is obscure in many accounts of that story.