Journal: Is The Mainstream What Killed Tailfins?

Is The Mainstream What Killed Tailfins?

Michael Banovsky By Michael Banovsky
July 14, 2016

“Fins are stupid,” I used to say, gazing down the long-but-fat flanks of a ’50s Chrysler Imperial or Cadillac, or Chevrolet, without really knowing what I didn’t like. Something, though, was off—and it wasn’t until I went through history that I realized why. The tailfin’s roots are far removed from  Detroit, and instead come from where many good car features did: airplanes.

When aerodynamic research was in its early stages, the engineers, designers, and test pilots brave enough to put theories to the test soon realized that having a teardrop-shaped vehicle was fantastic until your speed reached a certain point, usually above 60 mph. The Hungarian-Jewish Paul Jaray engineer began with airplanes, before moving to the Zeppelin.

As slow-moving airships illustrate, streamlining is one thing, stability is another.

Tailfins were added to give that stability, and some of the most extremely streamlined vehicles wore them. Jaray counted Tatra among his clients, a firm eager to stamp its mark on the automotive world. He and Tatra’s Hans Ledwinka jumped headlong into integrating functional fins in designs, with shocking results. As Isaac Wingold mentioned in a story about streamlined vehicles and the Tatra T77a specifically, “Renowned for its speed and comfort at speed, on its debut in 1934 it impressed the motoring press with how effortlessly it was able to reach the milestone of 90 mph (145 km/h)”.

By the time they popped up on U.S. vehicles as cutting edge, “Jet Age” styling elements—courtesy of General Motors’ Harley Earl—they were more than 30 years out-of-date. In my opinion, the biggest crime is when you take the function out of a form. I’m sure rock-solid Interstate handling was enjoyed, but there’s a reason Mother Nature hasn’t given the manatee a dorsal fin.

Perhaps ironically, fins lived nearly the longest of all on Communist cars from Moskvitch and ZIL, but aesthetically to ape what U.S. designers were crafting and not to pay tribute to then-Communist  Hungary, where Jaray was from or  then-Communist Czechoslovakia, home of Tatra.

There are outliers to the rule of fins being co-opted for styling, though usually only on racing-derived vehicles like the Jaguar D-Type, though they’re few and far between. Modern racing cars have brought the tailfin back, and from Formula 1 to LMP1 to the endurance racers on the Nürburgring, they serve a functional purpose nearly 100 years after the first was fitted to a car.

Which tailfin-equipped classic is your favorite?

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The over twenty years’ success of Detroit tail fins as well as many examples from foreign manufacturers would seem to refute your premise that they were outdated gimmicks.

GM certainly explored their functional merits. So did Alfa Romeo (famously) with their BAT cars. I love it when form follows function, too, but there will always be a place for styling exhuberance.

Tail fins may not be your thing but they were distinctly American, really unrelated to Tatra’s efforts, and they perfectly capture the optimism, energy and prestige of postwar America. Long may they wave.