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The Ultimate Car of 1954: Big Fins and More

Published: April 16, 2018

CoverThis article and other features about the golden era of American cars can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, American Cars: 1940s, ’50s & ’60s.

In an article that appeared in the August 7, 1954, Saturday Evening Post, GM’s head of design, Harley J. Earl, explained that when it came to car design, the longer and lower the better. The “more is more” aesthetic also applied to the tail fins that graced many mid-century luxury automobiles.  While many of Earl’s 1954 observations may have fallen out of style, one is still accurate: “Americans like a good-sized automobile.”

—Originally published August 7, 1954—

There are 650 of us in what is known as the Styling Section of General Motors. I happen to be the founder of the section and the responsible head, but we all contribute to the future appearance of GM automobiles, and it hasn’t been too long ago that we settled what your 1957 car will look like.

Car

Cadillac Motor Division General Motors, August 21, 1954

 

My primary purpose for 28 years has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile. Why? Because my sense of proportion tells me that oblongs are more attractive than squares, just as a ranch house is more attractive than a square, three-story, flat-roofed house or a greyhound is more graceful than an English bulldog.

So, in 1926, I took up the challenge of streamlining our automobiles, and while the design pendulum has had some back-and-forth swings, the main direction ever since has been toward the lower and longer car. The 1928 LaSalle was 3 feet shorter and the 1928 Cadillac 61 was 2 feet shorter than the 1954 Cadillac 60 Special. The height of today’s car is 10 inches less than the old LaSalle and 14 inches less than the 1928 Cadillac. In both cases we gained about 10 inches in width and, of course, a substantial amount in both the front overhang — from wheel to bumper — and the rear overhang.

The question of chrome brightwork always comes up in automobile discussions. I am not particularly committed to chrome; in fact, I think it would be interesting if the brass industry would provide some warm-colored brass that wouldn’t have to be polished. Maybe it will someday. But when chrome arrived as a decorative trim, it was imperative that I find out how people really felt about it. Consequently I had to turn 10 of my top staff into temporary private eyes dispatched to key cities to pose as reporters asking hundreds of questions about customer response to or rejection of chrome trim. The conclusions were in favor of chrome.

Certain evolutions in design have always struck me as inevitable. Long ago I was convinced that the elongation of both front and back fenders would eventually merge them to produce a single flowing sideline from front to back. And even in 1928 I felt strongly that windshields would slant farther and farther, and I hoped that someday we would be able to move the corner pillars out of the way to provide really sweeping vision. That day has arrived, and our 1954 cars carry the panoramic windshield that wraps around the corners to pillars that have been offset from the straight vertical.

I wonder sometimes if there isn’t a trace of the old Santa Monica race track in every car I’ve ever designed. This might be a good time to confess, too, that I have been deeply affected by airplanes. I was so excited by the P-38 Lockheed Lightning when I first saw it that I contrived a viewing for my staff.

That viewing, after the war ended, blossomed out in the Cadillac fishtail fenders which subsequently spread through our cars and over much of the industry as well. The so-called fishtail descendant of the P-38 on the Cadillac started slowly because it was a fairly sharp departure. But it caught on widely after that because ultimately Cadillac owners realized that it gave them a visible prestige marking for an expensive car.

A further point about the fishtail was that it helped give some graceful bulk to the automobile, and I have felt for a long time that Americans like a good-sized automobile as long as it is nicely proportioned and has a dynamic, go-ahead look. Conversely, I have never seen any evidence that needle-front or thin models were to the American taste. I think the history of front grilles bears me out. Aside from being a logical help to the engineers in placing the radiator at an efficient location, the front grille has always given American cars a comfortably blunt, leonine front look. This is good, as long as the car as a whole is poised right. There was a time when automobiles tilted down in front as if they intended to dig for woodchucks. Subsequently they went tail-heavy and appeared to be sitting up and begging. Now I think we have them in exactly the right attitude of level alertness, like an airplane at take-off.

That’s the way it goes in designing. Most of our thousands of hours of work every year are small refinements and revisions to improve the comfort, utility, and appearance of our automobiles. But we also need explosive bursts of spanking-new themes, and somehow we get them. I have enjoyed every minute of both kinds of this labor for 28 years, and the fact that there is no end to it. I was observing the Chevrolet Nomad station wagon in the 1954 Motorama, and it was clear that my long-time effort to lower American automobiles had indeed succeeded. I was looking right across the top of the Nomad’s roof. To an average man, the Nomad’s roof was now visible as a part of the car’s conformation. So, for perhaps the first time in automobile history, we had to give this unbroken roof expanse a decorative treatment. We grooved it. I hope designing is always like that.

—“I Dream Automobiles,” August 7, 1954

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  • I LOVED reading the entire ’54 feature here online. What an incredible ‘get’ for the Post; a huge story on Harley Earl and his tales to tell going back to 1926! All the various aspects of the car and the differences even minor tweaking in design had on style, performance and most importantly—–sales.

    The Bel-Air Nomad wagon (’55-’57) was a dream car come to life. A sexy 2 door with that distinctive slanted B-pillar and top-of-the-line luxury, it was more expensive than the Corvette and was essentially a ‘halo’ car for Chevrolet. The public loved its fancy looks, but the 2 door limitation, high price and low sales had it returning in 1958 as a much more conventional 4 door wagon. It did retain the 7 Nomad “bars” on the liftgate though.

    In this feature we learn the ’57s were already waiting in the wings. In later 1956 before the ’57s went on sale, some of the GM guys got a sneak ‘spy’ look at Chrysler’s ’57s and were in shock at Virgil Exner’s sleek new models with the big fins.

    It was too late to do anything about the ’58s, but Harley Earl said there was time, not much, but enough to re-do the ’59s which were slated to (originally) be face-lifted ’58s. In early-mid ’57, only 6 months, the wildest of the wild—starting from scratch, were virtually complete, except for minor details. Long 7 day work weeks for months.

    It was said that when the designer extraordinaire got his first look at the completed ’59s he was speechless for a couple of minutes then proclaimed he loved them; especially the Chevy, Buick and Cadillac (naturally) which were the wildest of the five. Postwar optimism, jet and space age inspiration all coming together in that never-to-return era.

    I don’t think he’d be too happy with the automotive landscape today at all. No. The SUV, mini-van, truck, 4 door sedan and crossover wouldn’t be his thing—at all. No way. He’d be horrified at the restricted body style availability and the generic looks of ‘cars’ from year to year. He was the right man at the right time in the right business with the right company back then, without question. The heyday of the American automobile!