The Secret of Making Beautiful Cars In The 1950s

Harley Earl — the Father of the Fishtail, the Corvette’s creator — explains why the cars of the 1950s look better than ever.

Tail fin on a car
Photo by Christer Johansson (Wikimedia Commons)

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Originally published August 7, 1954

I consider myself an ordinary garden-variety American, and I think I can show enough common faults and foibles to prove it. Along with most people, I remember faces and forget names. Sometimes I overestimate the authority of two pairs, and the fellow with three-of-a-kind lets me have it in the customary eye. When I hit a golf ball I am sorry to say that it does not always stay on the fairway, and I have seen mallards fly off in excellent health after I have fired both barrels right at them. My son tells me that the way I am trying to spoil my grandson is typical of all grandfathers. I don’t like to write letters, I like baseball and I love automobiles.

But I split with my fellow citizens on one point. Most Americans are at least a little excited over the appearance of new-model automobiles each year. This is where I must leave you. I cannot get aboard because, considering the share of all cars my company produces, the odds are almost even that your new car is one I designed myself and put out of my life at least twenty-seven months ago. Because of my job, I have to live two or three years apart from a great American interest. I can’t talk to the neighbors about their new cars with anything like their fresh enthusiasm, and while this gives my work a somewhat lonesome touch, I will not say it is tragic.

On the contrary, I like it that way. I have my own new cars too. They are exciting beauties to me, even though they may be mere scratches on a paper pad or full-scale projections on one of our car-size blackboards.

Let me say quickly that when I refer to myself I am merely using a shortcut to talk about my team. There are 650 of us, and collectively we are 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. [Note: this was written in August of 1954.]

It is obviously important to the company that three years from now the public shall accept and like what we are doing today. We can’t afford big mistakes and we don’t even like little ones. Consequently we have to know more about you than you do about us. We do. For one thing, we know that you car buyers today are willing to accept more rapid forward jumps in style than you were twenty years ago. This suits me, because I believe we are entering an era of major design improvement. The further we move away from the old concept of the automobile as a motorized buggy, the greater the emancipation of design. Today we are ready to treat the American car not as an outgrowth of a wagon but as a vehicle with its own character, purpose and individuality.

The public’s greater tolerance has already been expressed in color —have you recently looked down from a tall building onto a large parking lot? It is a mosaic of color, bright and light. People are also making up their minds that all American cars are good, so why shop for anything more than attractive, pleasant lines and an established worth in the trade in market? I can’t quite go along with all that, considering my preference for GM cars and since one color on the road today strikes me as something that belongs on the underside of a railroad bridge.

However, I can be grateful for the increasing leeway of design that car buyers have given us, and at the same time appreciate that they ride herd on us constantly. May I point out, though, that you are not the only disciplinarians? The engineers quite properly will not let us interfere with the efficiency and soundness of their power plants. If we wanted to try our hands on a three-wheeled car, I am sure the engineers wouldn’t encourage us. They think three-wheel cars are inherently dangerous. They won’t give us a rear engine, either, until problems like weight distribution are solved, and only then if there is a compelling advantage to the owner.

The division heads, management, and sales, also have a policy voice on what we offer. It is up to the Styling Section to persuade them of the beauty, utility and probable acceptance of what we present. On top of that, we must bear in mind passenger safety, and finally come up with something that is within cost limits. In fact, if we can save a dollar a car we have made a big contribution.

Highway regulatory bodies keep us fenced in. If we wanted a single headlight on a car, the states would prohibit it, since many of them control the number, brightness, position and height of head-lights. They exercise similar control over tail and stop lights. As far as I know, we might make cars longer, but other forces step in here. Parking problems have already dictated maximum reasonable lengths, and I believe all the longer cars will pull back a few inches in the next few years. Just plain artistry also is limiting. We once made a Cadillac that was so big it looked wrong, and we dropped it. Another time, I ordered a design made up before going on a trip, and it was ready when I got back. I took one look at it and instantly had the fenders moved twenty-two inches and the whole body lowered three inches. It, too, was a wrong one.

I am not complaining about limitations. We have plenty of room left, and it seems to me we have come a long way already. I am reminded of the distance by two things. The first one startles me. It is the act that, by August of this year, General Motors had produced 31,000,000 automobiles for whose design I have been responsible. The second reminder is in my office. It is scale model of the first sedan I ever designed for the company, a 1927 LaSalle V-8. I have a great affection for the old crock, but I must admit it is slab-sided, top-heavy and stiff-shouldered. At the same time there is something on it that explains very simply what I have been trying to do and hope I have done in the last twenty-eight years.

On the line we now call the beltline, running around the body just below the windows, there is a decorative strip something like half a figure 8 fastened to the body. This strip was placed there to eat up the overpowering vertical expanse of that tall car. It was an effort to make the car look longer and lower.

Harley Earl takes a LaSabre around the General Motors fast track. As GM’s chief stylist, Earl has been responsible for the design of 31,000,000 cars.

My primary purpose for twenty-eight years has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always at least in appearance. 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. Happily, the car-buying public and I consistently agree on this.

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. It might be interesting to measure the changes that have occurred.

The 1928 LaSalle was three feet shorter, and the 1928 Cadillac 61 was two feet shorter, than the 1951 Cadillac 60 Special. The height of today’s car is ten inches less than the old LaSalle and fourteen inches less than the 1928 Cadillac. In both cases we have gained about ten 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. Now, I am not particularly committed to chrome; in fact, I think it would be interesting if the brass industry would provide us with some warm-colored brass that wouldn’t have to be polished. Maybe it will someday. But when chrome arrived as a decorative trim for the industry, it was imperative that I find out how people really felt about it. Consequently I had to turn ten of my top staff into temporary private eyes. They were dispatched to key cities to pose as newspaper reporters among used-car lots and new-car salesrooms, where the car buyer seriously registers his reactions by selecting cars. They asked hundreds of questions about customer response to or rejection of chrome trim. The conclusions were in favor of chrome, more so on used-car lots, slightly less in new-car salesrooms. This difference may be accounted for in the fact that used-car buyer average slightly under thirty years of age, whereas new-car buyers average three and one half years older.

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. I was equally sure this front-to-back bodyline would lie rounded vertically so that the beltline would present a continuous highlight, a very important visual factor. On our handmade initial models we test the presence of this highlight by playing strong lights on the body from every direction. 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 comers to pillars that have been offset from the straight vertical.

Usually, in making gains in appearance, we get better engineering results too. In order to lower the automobile as we have over the years, it was necessary to take the back seat off the axle where it once perched and to cradle the car body between the four wheels, I believe everyone will agree that as a result we have a safer, more comfortable automobile.

A very minor switch on that incident occurred with the 1953 Cadillac but the only damage was to me, since a friend of mine is now convinced that I haven’t the slightest idea of what I’m going. This Cadillac owner asked me why we had put dummy holes at the forward part of the back fender line. I explained to him that they were not dummy holes, that they were vent holes we had placed there to flow air over the brakes in case excessive use caused enough brake heat to create a little brake fade, or loss of grabbing power.

“They’re not dummy holes?” he said. “All right. Let’s see you put your finger through any one of them.”

I tried it and discovered he was just as right as I was embarrassed. Information on the change had been sent to me, but I had been away and hadn’t yet seen it. what had happened was that the production people had improved the brake so much that they ventilation holes became unnecessary, and they had logically decided not to cut a lot of useless holes in the steel stampings, but simply to pain the spots black.

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 members of my staff.

We had to stand thirty feet away from it because it was still in security, but even at that distance we could soak up the lines of its twin booms and twin tails.

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 an extra receipt for the money in the form a visible prestige marking for an expensive car.

Six-foot-four Harley Earl and designer Art Ross with two 1954 experimental models, the Pontiac Strato-Streak and the Oldsmobile F-88.

A further point about the fisthtail was this 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 on this. 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 tiled 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.

[“I Dream Automobiles”, August 7, 1954]

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  1. For us, we thank you Mister Earl,
    Giving us some time in the sun.
    We gave many a boy and girl
    The feel that riding was all fun.
    Inspired by flying fighter planes,
    The sense of soar we did instill
    In some of the roadster domains,
    Making the drive more of a thrill.
    We hit the peak in ’59
    Upon the El Dorado Cad,
    Jutting so outragiously fine
    Above the pavement launching pad.

    We tailfins gave a car such flair
    As we went flying through the air.


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