Many of Harley Earl's detractors, later on in history, tried to dethrone the sheer magnitude and success of his innovative tail fin designs that swept through a nation of car buyers during the 1950s. Fins were an ebullient expression of devil may careness, the hoisting of a flag to honor America and a hope of better days ahead. They were splendidly outrageous, impractical and most people loved having them rest on the back ends of their cars. (Now they are being embraced in the world of high fashion, see below.) It's likely if you did a poll today you'd find out most consumers still feel this way! Why, because unlike any other innovative idea used over the last 60 years of auto making to sell millions of cars, this one concept was a sexy and adventurous business strategy that really has no equal.

Auto Designer Earl Created Look of GM's Glory Days, Tailfins, Chrome and All

 

Here, because it was impossible to pick just one, are four of the collection’s most inspired, flame-flying rides.

Clyde Hensley, ex-product design expert at GM's Media Archives, puts the tailfin revolution into proper perspective saying, "The iconic tailfin trend Harley Earl set into motion mushroomed into dramatically increasing car sales for all Detroit's auto makers in the 1950s and became a merchandizing bonanza to market other products, too. It's a safe bet today, that if you own a classic car designed in Detroit from this era, with big beautiful tailfins, this one aspect will bring added value to your car if it ever goes up for auction. The greatest number of volume produced motoramic masterpieces were built when all Detroit's auto makers celebrated art-with-intent under Earl's styling leadership. This particular heritage was when a large majority of all cars, worldwide, sported some variation of vertical tailfins. Simply put, tailfins define the 1950s era. Creating explosive sales records, tailfins can easily be likened to more modern trends like the SUV and Minivan craze. All were great for car manufacturer's bottom line."

Clyde Hensley continues saying, "Tailfins are at the top of Detroit's greatest icons ever and Miuccia Prada and other top execs at Prada worldwide headquarters in Italy did their homework researching the breadth and sales impact Harley Earl's tailfin revolution had while first hatching on GM's fabulous five brands; Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile and then sweeping the entire auto world. All of Europe's car makers dove in and the giant trend even snuck into Russia's car world, too [See further down]. Earl even put fins on the back of his ultra-modern Aerotrain design! What Earl once did for autos, Prada is doing in fashion -- heavily investing in the 'visual prestige of the TAILFIN' as the central character of Prada's entire 2012 Spring/Summer Collection. Anyone who understands the AMERICAN 1950s at all well, can see Prada chose a winner torn straight out of Earl's auto design playbook/archives. Powerhouse designer Miuccia Prada took a calculated gamble that is paying off and the line must be commercially successful since fashionistas in America and abroad think the line is HOT and the designs are showing up everywhere. It's a great vision. Raising your empire's fortunes in the same way General Motors (proven to be the most successful corporation of the 20th Century) rolled the dice and risked the farm on Earl's artistic tailfin designs. In retrospect, it's interesting how tailfins took the American auto industry to its highest point ever. Maybe Miuccia can do the same thing in the fashion world? Seeing tailfins on products once again is stimulating for the reason they also seem to do something that art can only do, raise people's minds."  

The NYTimes Style Magazine didn't go deep enough in their first crique,  "That Miuccia Prada applied taillights resembling those of a classic Cadillac Coupe de Ville to the backs of her heels is a dead giveaway — the designer was thinking about the American 1950s." 

Tail Fins Anatomy - 1948

Exactly 21 years after introducing the LaSalle brand for Cadillac, Harley Earl launched the auto industry's first tailfin on the 1948 Cadillac. By the time he finished LE SABRE a few years later in Motordom fins were just beginning what would become a meteoric rise in our society and culture. Harley Earl, one of America's greatest auto world Dreamer-In-Chiefs, shown below, with the original golden LeSabre clay model. Like all the significant full-sized sculpted models Harley Earl and his GM design team created, once their purpose was served, they were destroyed. Parting with this timeless one-of-a-kind full size masterpiece must have been a little rough even on Earl. 

Finally, the word is getting out on how one of Mr. Earl's leading design rivals during the mid-twentieth century, Raymond Loewy, felt about tail fins. "Loewy hated tail fins because he didn't think of them first! Controversy always seemed to surround designs by Harley Earl," said one senior designer who worked at GM Styling Section during the 1950s heydays of this industry. Another reason why so many other car designers over the last few decades tended to sway towards Loewy's way of thinking has a great deal to do with hubris rather than whether or not tail fins being on cars in the past, or future, makes good design sense from a business standpoint. Throw into the mix how the far-reaching California Institute of Technology supplied a report finding that certain tail fins actually improved road handling conditions at high speeds. Realistically, no professional car designers in or outside an auto maker's design department today have enough clout to launch such a large nationwide trend (such as tail fins). Finding out more on how Harley Earl created the phenomenon of cars-with-fins and how he had the foresight to push one of his greatest designs forward and then have it go on to last over a decade (1948-63) inside the auto zeitgeist was a real coup in the world of big business. Creating more awareness on Earl founding the tail fin just helps everyone today better understand how good design sells. 

Business Week magazine, article below, did a wonderful job reporting the story at this important car's mid-century introduction. As one can better understand now, the Le Sabre was just another one from a long line up of this grand master's "quiet revolutions." 

Harley Earl is pictured below in 1958 with a trio of his finned FIREBIRDS; I - 1954; II - 1956; III - 1958. These spectacular super cars had become a major pop culture hit and also featured a number of firsts, including the first-ever onboard computer. Building on top this winning heritage, execs within the Pontiac division of General Motors launched a sporty new nameplate in the mid-1960s: FIREBIRD. At this time in auto history Motordom's execs embraced Earl's dynamic modernism. After all, they knew that this fashionable design-movement was directly responsible for selling millions of American cars and naturally stoked the flames of social economic progress, too. 

       

Now that Harley Earl's signed artwork have surfaced and are circulating outside of America's auto capital, his auto design legacy can be properly broken down, analyzed and shared. After all, what Earl was to the modern auto business is very similar to what Frank Lloyd Wright is to the world of American architecture. 

At the top of the Automotive World stood Cadillac, it was the leader from every conceivable standpoint. How and why it ever happened in the "modern age," ...that's Harley Earl's story. Before Earl came to General Motors, Cadillac "was not" the luxury car leader in America, Packard was on top. 

From Great Achievements...To Inspiring Tradition!