Classic cars: Late to the party, Chevy goes wild in ’59

Aware of its somewhat conservative middle class customers, Chevrolet was initially reluctant to enter the flip war

Although tail fins became an American car style in the 1950s, General Motors’ most popular car, the Chevrolet, did not adopt the original fin until 1959.

The fins date back to the late 1940s when they appeared as little more than the raised taillights on the 1948 Cadillac. They came about because General Motors chief stylist Harley Earl wanted the back of the car as well as the front to make a style statement and the 1948 Cadillac taillights were the start of that. that theme.

Earl had been hooked on the twin vertical boom-tail stabilizers on a Lockheed Lightening P-39 fighter he had seen flying from Selfridge Air Base north of Detroit. They became his inspiration for the Cadillac fin.

After some initial resistance the public embraced tailfins and they became the hallmark of Cadillac. Since General Motors then set the styling trend almost all manufacturers adopted it. Even conservative Mercedes-Benz, will eventually adopt a simple fin treatment.

The fins improved during this decade, reaching their peak in the late 1950s. Chrysler Corp. introduced a large, soaring tail fin on its 1957 model, a final departure from the conservative tactics adopted with the new post-World War Two 1949 model. The fins for a time grappled with GM’s style leadership. Cadillac quickly restored it.

Chevrolet, aware of its somewhat conservative mid-range customers, was a little more reluctant to enter the flip wars. It added a small point to the rear fender of the 1957 model and in 1958 introduced a new design which was round and attractive but without fins. Sales suffered in a brief and sharp economic recession, but the 1958 “folding” rear fender provided a hint of what the next year would be like.

Nineteen fifty-nine was the year General Motors decided to show the world what flippers really were. Cadillac arrives with deadly looking daggers, Buck gets delta wings and Pontiac has double-edged appendages. Only the Oldsmobile with the slightly glaring bulge on the rear fender looks out of place.

When the Chevrolet finally broke, it did so in an unconventional way. Among the wildest fins of 1959, right behind the Cadillac, was the one on the Chevy. Variously described as “bat wings” or “gull wings”, the horizontal fins actually spread out like the wings of a bird.

They start just behind the center pillar, and grow wider until they reach their peak in a whale-like expanse that extends above the “cat’s eye” taillights. These blades are accentuated by a deeply sculpted rear panel.

Unfounded rumors soon began to circulate that these fins would cause the rear of the Chevy to lighten at high speeds and destabilize the car. Chevrolet vehemently denied these rumours.

These were the years where popularly priced standard cars grew bigger. Chevrolet’s overall improvement from 1957 to 1959 was 101.4 mm (4 inches) in wheelbase and 279 mm (11 inches) in overall length. Width reaches both practical and legal, limiting at 2,024 mm (79.7 in). The window area was greatly increased by using a flatter roof and slimmer pillars.

The ’59 Chevrolet came in three series: the entry-level Biscayne, the mid-range Bel Air and the high-end Impala which had debuted as a Bel Air option on the ’58 model and split as a separate series in ’59.

There are also Brookwood, Parkwood and Nomad station wagons. Chevrolet has a variety of body types including the handsome four-door “Sport Sedan” without pillars.

There are three engine options: reliable 3.8. liter (235 cu in) overhead valve inline six, and the 4.6 liter (283 cu in) and 5.7 liter (348 cu in) V-8 in a variety of tone and horsepower conditions.

With three- and four-speed transmissions (these are available with high-performance engines), plus overdrive, two-speed automatic, and other options, the scope for creating a custom-built Chevrolet is virtually limitless.

The 1958 “Level Air” air suspension was still on offer, though it proved to be a hassle. Some were ordered by alert shoppers and were immediately discontinued.

There are also delivery sedan versions and the newly introduced El Camino pickup sedan, Chevrolet’s response to the 1957 Ford Ranchero.

In keeping with GM’s body-sharing policy which dictates that different company nameplates share their body architecture, ’59 Chevy’s basic inner sheetmetal is common for the smaller Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick.

Chevrolet entered the 1960s with a more conservative look that reflected the moderate tastes of society. The ’60 Chevy’s fins were lowered and bent flat, and the “cat’s eye” taillights were replaced with round ones. The ’59 “nostrils” above the grille also disappeared.

Chevrolet may have been wise to ditch the fins for that long as they proved to be nothing more than a styling gimmick that would soon disappear. Chevrolet discontinued it altogether for 1961 and the fins disappeared completely as the decade went on.

bvance1@cogeco.ca

Leave a Comment