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Fantastic Fins

By the late 1950s American car design had reached a new level of exuberance. The tailfins, two-tone paint schemes, whitewall tires, and wraparound screens that typified most US models had inspired many European car-makers, with the likes of sober Humber and sensible Simca producing cars that looked a bit like scaled-down Chevys and Chryslers. American cars received yearly styling makeovers so that owners of 1957 and ’58 models would look covetously at the new luxury features and bigger tailfins of their 1959 replacements and trade in their old cars, a process helped by aggressive TV advertising and traveling circus-style sales roadshows.

Buick Roadmaster, 1957


Engine5,965 cc, V8
Top speed112 mph (180 km/h)

The Roadmaster was one of Buick’s most luxurious models, wearing its bonnet mascot with pride. Buick called it the “proud choice of the man who carries success with ease.” Standard features included speed-limiter buzzer, electric windows, and a foot-operated button for changing radio stations.

Fin detail

By 1957 the Roadmaster had joined the ranks of American cars bearing tailfins, though compared to some rivals these were quite restrained. By making copycat models, however, Buick sacrificed its reputation for building high-quality conservative cars, and sales fell by almost one-quarter in 1957.

Height of fashion

Like many cars of the era, the Roadmaster featured a wraparound windscreen, endowing it with a modern, space-age appearance. Adding to the impression of speed, power, and excess, the oversized chrome bumper had jet engine-like protrusions, though these were purely decorative.

Style and substance

The wraparound rear windscreen was on the small side for such a large car, and gave limited rear visibility when reversing. In contrast, the boot was cavernous, ideal for carrying home the latest consumer products of the day.

Chevrolet Bel Air, 1953


Engine3,859 cc, straight-six
Top speed87 mph (140 km/h)

One-quarter of a million Chevrolet Bel Air sedans were sold in 1953, helped by competitive pricing and attractive styling. The iconic ’57 models had new dashboards, windscreens, and headlight air ducts, giving them distinctive “eyebrows.” Options included dash-mounted overhead traffic light reflectors.

Chrysler New Yorker, 1957


Engine6,424 cc, V8
Top speed116 mph (186 km/h)

The New Yorker, the sales of which revived Chrysler’s flagging fortunes, was Motor Trend magazine’s 1957 Car of the Year. It boasted a svelte torsion-bar front suspension, TorqueFlite automatic transmission, and sharp coachwork, thanks to the “forward look” styling of designer Virgil M. Exner.

Cadillac Series 62 Convertible Coupe, 1958


Engine5,981 cc, V8
Top speed116 mph (186 km/h)

All-new styling with ever-more elaborate detailing brought Cadillac up to the minute in 1957, and the fins grew even bigger and more shark-like in 1958. The engine had grown too; it now boasted a thunderous 310 bhp in standard form.

Plymouth Fury, 1959


Engine5,205 cc, V8
Top speed105 mph (169 km/h)

Designed by Virgil Exner, the Fury coupe was one of Plymouth’s most stylish and rapid models to date. In unofficial speed trials following its launch, it reached 150 mph (241 km/h) and achieved 0-60 mph (96 km/h) in 7.7 seconds.


It is a quote. The Classic Car Book – The Definitive Visual History 2016

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