Just after World War II, a wave of optimism swept the country that won the war, gathering momentum towards the greatest explosion of consumerism ever, heated up by inventions like television, transistor radios, and stereo sound systems. It glowed like a brave new world.
American car companies saw explosive growth as jet age car design progressed until finned space coupes glittering with chrome were speeding down America’s new interstate highway system. It was a baroque flowering that burst like a super nova into 1959. In this super-heated consumerist environment, cars designs got wilder and wilder until America’s 1959 cars represented a peak of design for design’s sake.
Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner laid down the gauntlet with his radical new Forward Look 1957 Plymouths, Dodges, Chryslers and DeSotos. Exner's, low-slung, bubble-topped space coupes boasted the longest, tallest fins yet. Their smash success brought a major profit increase for Chrysler, perennial last place finisher of the Big Three.
In the summer of 1956, GM stylists got a sneak preview of Exner's upcoming 1957s, and staged a mutiny. Huddling with company executives, they overruled their boss Harley Earl (who was away on a European vacation) to force a complete redesign of the company’s 1958 bodies, originally intended to last three years. After nearly 30 years as the greatest automotive design chief the industry had seen, Earl was over-ruled by his staff. His 1958 designs are beloved by collectors now, but didn’t sell in a recession year (few cars did). They were criticized for their bloated, overly chrome-encrusted designs. After pouting in his office a few days after returning to face a mutiny, Earl got behind the new direction, guiding GM’s stylists to produce a stunning portfolio of jet-age new designs for 1959. The company's lithe and lively new styles borrowed from Exner, but dazzled car shoppers with their own outrageous looks.
Ford design chief George Walker took a more conservative approach. Nonetheless, his crisply styled, if boxy, 1959 Ford proved a winner. The new Fairlane 500 Galaxie was the first popular-priced car to feature Thunderbird’s iconic formal roofline. Copying the T-Bird's trademark "C" pillar gave Ford’s humble sedans a luxury look that Americans aspired to. The Galaxie’s squared-off roofline was eventually adopted by nearly every U.S. automaker.
As the sixties came into their own cleaner, more European style emerged. Fins soon disappeared, as quickly as they’d sprouted, with most gone entirely by the 1962 model year.
Today, America’s outrageous 1959s are among the most valued of collector cars, often fetching six figures at auction, especially deluxe convertibles and sporty two-door hardtops.
Written by Jim Cherry