Pretty much every history of automotive tailfins establishes the Harley Earl-led field trip of GM designers in 1940 to see the then-secret P-38, then jumps right on ahead to 1948, when the newly restyled Cadillac debuted, tailfins and all. Franklin Q. Hershey often gets a nod, and that’s about all most people care to dig into it.
Were they to dig a little further, though, they might discover a more meandering development path for the tailfin, one that nearly placed the feature onto Vauxhall’s postwar cars instead of Cadillac’s.
The story of the tailfin—at least, as it appeared on postwar production American automobiles and not on the odd custom car or land-speed racer—does indeed begin with that field trip to Selfridge Field near Detroit, where Earl pulled some strings to get his studio chiefs a good look at the twin-boom Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a plane designed specifically as an interceptor. And indeed, as Michael Lamm and Dave Holls noted in A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design, the P-38 proved plenty inspiring.
Pretty much every history of automotive tailfins establishes the Harley Earl-led field trip of GM designers in 1940 to see the then-secret P-38, then jumps right on ahead to 1948, when the newly restyled Cadillac debuted, tailfins and all.
The designers got all excited about the P-38, especially since they could see its twin tails as extensions of a car’s rear fenders. They went back to their studios and started doing sketches of cars with tailfins. The P-38 also prompted other aircraft motifs: Plexiglas canopies, various types of air intakes, grille spinners and bumper bullets.
Among those who Earl invited: Bill Mitchell; Ned Nickles; and Hershey, who returned from a stint in Europe the year before to head the Cadillac advanced studio. Hershey reportedly became fascinated with the tailfin idea before moving on to other projects and, eventually, going back overseas to serve in the Navy during the war.As William Knoedelseder wrote in FINS: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit, Hershey saw nature and poetry in those fins.