1959 Cadillac : America’s peak of fins & flash

1959 Cadillac Brochure Cover

The century plant lives a quiet life as a modest, ground-hugging succulent for a decade. Then suddenly it sends up a shoot that reaches over twenty-feet high until bursting into a spectacular bloom.

Carmakers dominated American industry during the roaring mid-twentieth century. Their cozy oligopoly supplied car-crazy Americans with ever more baroque styling during an era when uniformed attendants filled your tank with cheap gas and cleaned your windows while you sat waiting in your finned space coupe. Then in 1959, carmakers sent up a spectacular shoot of the longest, lowest cars with the tallest fins the world had ever seen.  

General Motors’ outrageous 1959 Cadillacs were powered by 390 cubic inch displacement, 325 horsepower V-8 engines. Standard equipment included power brakes, power steering, automatic transmission, back-up lamps, windshield wipers, two-speed wipers, wheel discs, outside rearview mirror, vanity mirror and oil filter. A special, limited production Eldorado coupe topped the model range. Combined sales of all variants added up to over 140,000 copies cruising the country’s freeways.

Mid-century consumers found self-expression in their cars like never before, a perfect situation for carmakers promoting planned obsolescence. Annual styling changes brought embarrassment to consumers who drove cars more than a couple years old. Originally, engineers had dominated car development, by the 1950s they were forced to do the bidding of stylists pushing obsolescence harder than ever.

1959 Cadillac Advertisement

It was art that turned us on. Chrome bedecked, V-8 powered, tail-finned sculptures in steel rolling on flashy white sidewall tires were a wonder of the world when owning a car was still an unimaginable dream to most of the planet's inhabitants. Other countries’ drivers might trundle along in little Porky Pig sedans powered by sewing machine motors, but not us.

When Detroit sent up its own spectacular shoot in 1959, a dazzling new Cadillac reigned supreme as its flowering top. With its higher-than-ever tail fins, rocket pod taillights, glitzy grilles both front and rear, and nine-model range, it represented the peak of an era that was soon to sputter out.

Soon after Detroit’s cars reached their most outlandish styles, historical changes began to pile up, forcing automotive evolution. Middle Eastern countries restricted oil supplies. The federal government imposed safety and emission regulations. Tiny imported cars exploded in popularity. The bean counters running American auto companies struggled to evolve from a cozy oligopoly in order to effectively battle hungry foreign competitors.

After serving for 30 years as General Motors’ design chief, Harley Earl retired in 1958. His successor soon introduced a cleaner look for the company’s cars. Recognizing the new era’s sober realties, Detroit's Big Three introduced their first compact cars for 1960. Fins shrunk to vestigial stubs and then disappeared entirely. Clean, crisply sculptured flanks replaced excessive chrome trim.

But for one brief, fleeting moment in time, an over-the-top, chrome-bejeweled two-ton road rocket rolled down American highways with its giant, chrome-trimmed fins glinting in the sun. As the ultimate product of the American car industry at its peak dominance, the spectacular 1959 Cadillac lived up to its claim, The standard of the world.

Written by Jim Cherry