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The birth of fins: Harley Earl, Frank Hershey, and the most iconic car feature of the Fifties

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Hemmings archive photo.

[Editor’s Note: William Knoedelseder’s latest book, FINS: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit, will no doubt make it onto many of our readers’ reading lists. Nevertheless, with the cooperation of HarperCollins Publishers, we’ve put together a little excerpt from the book, specifically from the chapter that dives into the styling feature for which the book was titled.]

Senior designer Frank Hershey had been working on the rear fender design idea that had first come to him before the war, when Harley Earl led the field trip to Selfridge air base to see the P-38 fighter. Looking at the plane’s twin tail rudders that day, Hershey immediately thought of fins on sea creatures—slicing through the water’s surface as a shark moved in on its prey, flashing silver-blue in the sun when a sailfish rose out of the ocean in full flight, waving a languid goodbye just before a whale disappeared into the deep—heart-stopping images long embedded in his imagination. It struck him that fins were wondrous creations of nature—beautiful, sleek, and shiny, streamlined and symmetrical, the embodiment of power, speed, maneuverability, and stability, everything that a modern automobile should be. And yet no one had designed them into the body of a car, until now.

In the basement of Hershey’s farmhouse, two designers, three modelers, and a sculptor began turning Hershey’s sketches into three dimensions on a quarter-size clay model. “We would lay out ideas on the board, and Harley would come out and we’d make changes,” Hershey said. “He came out all the time.” When the GM plant employees strike ended in March 1946—with the union agreeing to an 18.5-percent pay increase—the work was transferred to the Styling studios, where Harley, Hershey, and Bill Mitchell agreed that Cadillac, the company’s traditional style leader, should get the first fins treatment.

As Detroit’s car-making machinery roared back to life after World War II, the captains of steel, oil, rubber, and glass were licking their chops. “Never in all the history of Christendom had there been such a rich market awaiting businessmen,” said author Ed Cray.

And never had a company been in a more enviable position than General Motors. As the top industrial contributor to the war effort, the company was now the preeminent member of America’s budding military-industrial complex, with significant manufacturing assets in Great Britain and Germany, whose economies were about to receive $12 billion in U.S. aid through the Marshall Plan. In the automotive arena, GM had no serious competitor anywhere in the world. Its traditional archrival, Ford, had limped from the war a shell of its former self. Having failed to turn a profit for fourteen years, the once supreme carmaker was losing $10 million a month and hemorrhaging experienced executives, including Edsel Ford’s longtime confidant and styling collaborator Bob Gregorie, whose abrupt resignation left the new twenty-six-year-old CEO, Henry II, without a design chief as he struggled to breathe life back into the nearly moribund company. According to Ford family biographer Richard Bak, morale at Ford “was lower than the keels of the lake carriers hauling iron ore to the Rouge.”

The atmosphere at GM was euphoric by comparison, particularly in the Cadillac division, which saw sales more than double between 1946 and 1947, with orders for 96,000 more cars than the factory was able to produce. “Cadillac fever is of epic proportions,” declared automotive writer Eugene Jaderquist, who reported that in Los Angeles the chic Sunset Boulevard nightclub Ciro’s had reserved its main parking lot for Cadillacs only, and dealerships were experiencing a new phenomenon called “the pool” in which a handful of people chipped in to buy a single Cadillac.

Photo by Jeff Koch.

All of which helped create a higher-than-usual level of curiosity at GM’s Detroit headquarters about what the Cadillac styling team was doing behind their locked studio doors. The few executives who were given a peek came away with mixed opinions. President Charles Wilson liked Hershey’s fins, but Cadillac general manager Nicholas Dreystadt, predictably, did not. Dreystadt, however, soon was promoted to general manager of GM’s largest division, Chevrolet, and the man who replaced him, John Gordon, was younger and more open-minded. When Bill Mitchell invited Gordon into the studio to see a full-scale clay model, Gordon brought along Cadillac’s chief engineer, Ed Cole, who liked the fins. But Gordon wasn’t sure. He supposedly sat on an overturned wastebasket and stared at them in silence for ten minutes. Finally, he shook his head and said, “Too tall,” suggesting they cut three-quarters of an inch off the top. According to writer Michael Lamm, Cole stayed behind after Gordon left and agreed with Mitchell that the fins were just right. So Mitchell instructed his clay modeler “to make the far fin an inch or so taller than the one nearer the viewer. Next day, when Gordon returned, he said, ‘See, didn’t I tell you it looks better lower like that?’”

Harley was ambivalent. He had encouraged the tail fins concept from the beginning. He appreciated the creative spark that caused a young designer to look at a warplane and see nature and then translate it into the rear fender on a car. He also knew that tail fins were a big idea, which worried him a little. What if they were too much of a stylistic leap for motorists to make? He was concerned, too, about his in-house audience, members of the executive committee and board of directors whose opinions would be solicited and taken into account before the car was finally approved for production.

With Harley’s idiosyncratic guidance, a consensus clay model gradually emerged. The front end featured a subtle redesign of the so-called egg-crate grille that had come to identify a Cadillac in the 1940s—wide, horizontal, with crisscrossed chrome slats that created an architectural aspect, “like a Wilshire Boulevard building,” according to designer Strother MacMinn, or, as Bob Gregorie saw it, “the public library in Washington, with pillars.” Harley wanted the new front end to retain that strong Cadillac identity and at the same time be “more Tiffany,” he instructed, more “jewel-like,” and either “radically elegant” or “elegantly radical.” Apparently, the design team knew how to express that in metal.

Photo by Richard Lentinello.

The model’s back end was the pièce de résistance. The trend in postwar car design was toward an “envelope”-style body, which eliminated the traditional “applied” (nonintegrated) fenders of the late 1930s in favor of a full-width body that encapsulated and partially concealed the wheels. To better integrate Hershey’s fins, however, the design team retained a modified version of applied fenders, which “made the back of the car look muscular,” according to Michael Lamm, “like the rear haunch of a crouching animal getting ready to leap.”

The ultimate corporate approval of the ’48 fins may have come when a group of GM executives gathered to watch two prototypes being put through their paces at the Milford Proving Grounds. As the story goes, Alfred Sloan called Cadillac general manager John Gordon to his side, squeezed his arm, and said, “Now, Jack, you have a Cadillac in the rear as well as the front.”

William Knoedelseder’s FINS: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit, is available directly through HarperCollins or on Amazon.