It was not just tailfins.
From the moment he stood upright for the first time, man harboured the desire to fly. It would take thousands of years before that dream would become a reality and, even then, with the likes of Freddie Laker, ValuJet, Ryanair, Easyjet and such still a few decades away, one reserved only for the very well-heeled. And then there was, of course, the exploration of space, an endeavour to be entrusted only to a select group of national heroes, but nevertheless food for the pride, ambitions and dreams of entire nations.
In post-war America(1), not everybody could afford to board an airplane, but a rapidly expanding section of the population was able to buy a car. Then perhaps more than nowadays, the car meant freedom and opening up new horizons. It was also a means to express one’s dreams and ambitions, even if those ambitions reached further than anywhere four wheels could take you. If you were as yet unable to fly to Europe on one of those fancy new jets, that did not mean it could not happen one fine day. Until then, why not at least appear as if you were making good progress towards that goal?
The styling and marketing departments of the U.S. car industry were, of course, all too aware of this phenomenon, and for roughly the decade that spanned the fifties incorporated several styling elements — some subtle, some not — into their designs in order to capitalise on the ambitions of their customers. A short visual tour of some of those aeronautically inspired products of the era follows.
By far the most widely known among these is, of course, the tailfin(2), which originated from a viewing by Harley Earl and a few of his subordinates of the still secret Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined fighter. But another aspect of that distinctive twin-boom airplane served as an inspiration as well: Oldsmobile translated the appearance of the P-38’s engines with their oval inlets under the propeller into headlights with similarly shaped air inlets beneath them for its 1949-1952 models. This was not a styling cue born from ambition and futuristic dreams but rather a tribute to the might of the victorious American wartime industry.
Buick’s famous ventiports (also known as portholes, but that was the designation Buick itself used) first seen in 1949 were an idea by Buick chief designer Ned Nickles belong in the same category. He had them put on his personal car a few years before, but in that particular case coupled to orange lightbulbs inside each ventiport that were connected to the distributor- the effect being that of flames shooting from the side exhausts of a World War Two fighter plane. The ventiports have appeared in many different guises over the years, but never with lights inside.
Although often referred to as the ‘Loewy Coupé’, that is giving the French industrial designer cum car stylist too much credit as the designer mainly responsible for the beautiful 1953 Studebaker Starlight Coupe is Bob Bourke. This is not to say Loewy’s role was insignificant: he did oversee the project and sold the design to Studebaker management. For the gently curved beltline with its down thrusting headlights as well as the canted taillights, Bourke had found inspiration in another revered American design classic: the Lockheed Constellation airliner(3).
Credited to designer Robert Veryzer, the dual parking light pods under each pair of headlights on the 1958 Chevrolet were copied from the Boeing B-52 heavy bomber’s twin jet engine intakes; if we include concept cars in this overview then the 1956 Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser displayed a very similar arrangement two years earlier.
Hood ornaments, still very much in vogue in the 1950s(4) were an easy and obvious way to add a bit of aeronautic sparkle to the car and suggest speed. This trend had already started before the Second World War, although those early designs gravitated more towards a Buck Rogers-like style, as witnessed by the 1936 Hupmobile (top left) and 1938 Hudson (top right) items. After the war, the style became more abstract with generally clean and smooth surfaces — just like on an actual airplane — with, in many cases, a certain sameness in appearance as a result.
If an airplane reference was not enough, Mercury and Pontiac offered the medium-price class customer rockets on the flanks of their cars in 1958(5). Especially with the right colour combinations applied in the two-tone finishes, these were hard to miss.
A year later, Oldsmobile (the marque that even named its engines ‘Rocket’) joined the missile club, but with a different take: on top of each front wing a chromed rocket-like ornament was mounted. When the car had a two-tone paint job (and the majority did) the roof and bootlid were painted a contrasting colour as well as the upper part of the flanks, where the contrasting colour started at the end of each ornament and ran all the way back to the fins and tail lights, gradually widening as it travelled backwards. The effect, especially when the secondary colour was white, was that of the smoke contrail left behind by a rocket after launch.
With the red glow they emitted at night, tail lights were a natural element for stylists to create a visual reference to the jet age; many American car makers exploited this and perhaps the most powerful example was the 1959 Cadillac, the large twin taillights framed by substantial chromed ‘jet exhausts’ alluding to the afterburners of a fighter jet on takeoff.
When the sixties arrived, aeronautical stylistic pointers quickly disappeared from the American cars. What could have been the reason for this? A possibility is that the image of rocket changed in the public perception; at first they represented adventure and the exploration of space, but by 1960 they spoke more of impending nuclear war bringing doom and destruction(6). Furthermore, traveling by airplane had become accessible to a much larger portion of the population — at least in the USA — which turned the dream into reality, thus eliminating the need to express the desire to fly through the design of your car.
(1) Before WW2 a few cars also displayed aeronautical styling influence, for example the dashboard of the Cord 810/812.
(2) Since it is assumed the DTW readership already has knowledge of the origins of the tailfin, this styling element is not covered in more depth herein.
(3) Collectible Automobile, Vol.16 #5.
(4) And with little or no safety concerns for pedestrian impact protection.
(5) The 1957 Mercury sported a shorter and less obvious variant of the rocket.
(6) Oldsmobile however would continue to use the ‘rocket’ name for its engines until well into the 1970s.
28 thoughts on “Four Wheeled Jet Set”
I can think of couple of reasons for the disappearance of aerospace-inspired cars at the end of the 1950s. First, the look was getting old, and it was time for something different. Second, the short-lived (but frightening at the time) recession of 1958, which led to the sudden interest in compact cars in North America. 1955 model-year sales were nearly 8 million, falling to about 4.3 million in 1958 – something needed to change, and fast.
It is also highly likely that the style had reached its apogee. There was no way forward with fins and pointy bits other than to go beyond the ludicrous level of over-styling Cadillacs and others had reached. The economic and cultural mood had changed too and here we can see product design (and automotive design) reflecting a long-wave of rising ebullience and general satisfaction with rising material standards and relief that was was over. The on-coming cold war brought a new seriousness. Fighter jets were at risk of being used again. So the relatively more simple styles of the early 60s reflected that but you could say US car styling returned to excess by the early 70s – think of those block-long Continentals and Sevilles; the Cougar has huge by 1973. They had everything the late 50s car had but the pointy adornments.
Good morning Bruno. Nothing to do with matters automotive, but wasn’t the Lockheed Constellation a beautiful and highly distinctive aircraft:
My late father, who was a radio and radar engineer working at Dublin Airport, had a particular fondness for it and described it as resembling a porpoise.
Modern jet airliners are all so similar in appearance, I suppose because they have reached an optimal point in their aerodynamics, that they are barely distinguishable from each other.
Daniel: You are probably aware that Aer Lingus operated a number of ‘Connies on the transatlantic route starting in 1958 under the Aerlínte Éireann livery, which then became Irish International Airlines, if memory serves. The Constellations (they flew standard and Super Connies) were changed for Boeing 707s later in the ‘Sixties.
Marvellous aircraft, so incredibly graceful. I believe a number of them still fly today.
Hi Eóin. Yes, indeed. My father began working at Dublin Airport in the early 1950s and loved the Constellations. Transatlantic air travel before the jet age really was for the rarefied few, hence seemed very exotic indeed. Here’s an image of an Aerlínte Connie:
If the Connie was the epitome of aeronautical beauty, then another in the Aer Lingus fleet I recall from the 1960’s was quite the opposite: the Carvair was a hybrid freight and passenger aircraft with a huge opening front door. It looked like a very dumpy 747 Jumbo:
The Aer Lingus Constellations and the Carvairs were before my time. I dimly recall seeing Vickers Viscounts at Cork airport before the national carrier upgraded to the BAC One-Eleven and 737. Cork couldn’t handle anything larger than a 720 back then, and that was a rare bird indeed. I do recall seeing a De Havilland Comet 4 on training flights at Shannon, which was a much better airport for a young aviation enthusiast in the ’70s. The Comet was another incredibly graceful aircraft.
That Carvair has the look of an inflated Douglas DC something or other about it.
Here’s a Comet arriving at Cork. I always wonder, had it not been beset by tragedy would it have affected the course of aircraft design, if not industrial design in general?
That’s a great photo gooddog. Now that I think about it, I do recall seeing Comets on approach to Cork (we lived under the flightpath). They were operated by Dan Air, who ran charter flights. I believe they were one of the last airlines to fly the Comet 4. I recall reading that the later Vickers VC10 could operate on quite short runways, which was a design specification for use on ‘Empire’ routes with short or unpaved runways. Perhaps the Comet was designed to a similar specification.
Hi gooddog. Another ‘so near, yet…’ tragedy for Great Britain. But for those square windows and the stress cracks they caused in the fuselage, the Comet could have been as successful as the Boeing 707. By the time the problem was uncovered and fixed, Boeing had established a lead that was unassailable.
Daniel: I have a tremendous affinity for the Comet, but is it heresy to suggest that the 707 was simply a better product?
Good morning Eóin. Not at all, the 707 was certainly the better aircraft, but remember that the Comet went into service more than six years before the 707 (May 1952 with BOAC vs October 1958 with Pan Am) so would have enjoyed considerable ‘first mover’ advantage had it not been grounded following the crashes in 1954.
By the time the problems were resolved and the Comet 4 was (re)launched in 1958, it was competing with the brand-new Boeing, which was a larger and more efficient aircraft (and easier to maintain thanks to its engines being mounted under the wings in separate nacelles rather than being integrated into the structure of the wings).
It’s interesting to see where some of the design references came from, Bruno – I hadn’t made the connection between car and plane with some of them.
It’s ironic that SAAB, an actual producer of planes, didn’t go in for this sort of thing (beyond its badge), instead using its knowledge of aerodynamics to shape its cars.
Using design to suggest ferocity and speed in vehicles is a long-standing tradition – we’ve been incorporating carvings of horses’ heads and serpents in to the bows of ships for millennia.
This might be a good place to introduce (or remind) readers of design semantics. The 1950s designers used a form-language borrowed directly from somewhere else so if a plane had wings they put wings on the car. Saab looked deeper into aviation and used the method of arriving at forms rather than the product-specific results of those forms from another product class. That was a rather cleverer way to go. Broadly, semantic-based design works if the form language is from within the class. Putting aeroplane shapes on cars is not so good. And indeed, one wonders about architects putting features from marine architecture (mobile, steel, maritime) on buildings e.g. round windows and featureless expanses of flat, white.
The maritime theme worked rather well on E1027, I reckon.
I don´t see much maritime in E1027. I do get really mad when I think of Le Corbusier painting the walls with his useless murals.
As a youngster in the 50s, I was always intrigued by efforts in America to build a flying car ( or a street-legal aeroplane ).
There is a saying in French that goes: “Par définition la mode est ce qui se démode” (by definition fashion is what goes out of fashion). In that respect in the 50’s America was going overboard in all corners: remember the women’s spectacles looking like butterflies and the bouffant hairdo.
I think there might be another reason for the demise of the jet age style in the car industry. In the 50’s, America, after her overwhelming victory in WWII and with her fabulous years of prosperity, was at the peak of her hubris. She dominated the world in all respects. There was no competitor whatsoever. Then the Soviets detonated atomic bombs, put Sputnik in orbit, and a dog, and a man, while American rockets would explode on the launch pad. Since Sputnik had been launched by the Semyorka rocket which had been developed as an intecontinal balistic missile the message was received 5/5 in America: “We the Soviets can put an A bomb on Washington at any time.” It may be yet another explanation why the fighter jet and rocket style became suddenly not as prestigious as it used to be.
Your tought was my taught when the author wondered why the ‘rocket fashion’ desapeared só suddenly 🤔
Product semantics, history, culture, geopolitics and understeer. Car design has it all.
I like the clever view that some strategic Americans took about Sputnik: The Soviets established the principle that satellites could overfly territory that planes could not.
It may all be in the physics, but that doesn’t mean it was agreed beforehand.
My father had a 70s Oldsmobile with the 350 Rocket engine. I described as Shakespearean: Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. He didn’t particularly like that.
Velour interior; boot that could hold a lot of ping pong balls but nothing bigger; 16 mpg (imperial). Those were the days.
Here are some different theories that were not raised yet.
Many of us will remember the fashion icon of the 1960s as a change from what went before… the word “buxom” or “rubenesque” are what doesn’t come to mind when we think about Twiggy in a miniskirt, need I elaborate? But was that trend a result of something or the genesis of design trends in general?
Car Design was Cyclical:
Rounded/angular, curved/linear, soft/edgy. Car design oscillated between two extremes from 1925 to 1935, or 1955 to 1965, or 1975 to 1985, or 1985 to 1995. Whatever “New Edge” was, it was hardly unexpected after the 1990s oval binge.
Aerodynamic Reality: We went from understanding aerodynamic as “streamlined”, as airplanes and rockets must be, to a more nuanced Cd + a clear trend toward shapes that avoided lift and induced downforce as our understanding increased. Along the way it became apparent that a wedge with a Kamm tail was more desirable for a car than a needle nosed cigar (still good for airplanes and rockets, although the cyclical nature of design trends I just mentioned have blurred this overall direction.
The Actual Space Program Brought Real Technological Advances vs. the imaginary world of Buck Rogers: In space no one can hear you scream, also aerodynamics don’t matter. 2001 a Space Odessey, and the Lunar Excursion Module, and the Moon Rover, and Space 1999 etc. gave us a new aesthetic that was nothing like the V2 rocket. Confronting futurism once we escaped the atmosphere for real brought forth entirely new design ideas encompassing a broader scope of functionality which translated to industrial design. The actual reality made the Buck Rogers notions of the future which descended from Jules Verne suddenly seem naive if not outright wrong.
Metallurgy and Pressed Steel: We moved quickly into an era where tighter radii were possible, lead loading became shunned, construction moved from handcrafting to robotization. The forms of industrial design began to reflect what was technically feasible, and economic.
Industrial Design lags Architecture: Some commenters here have noted how antiquated some 1950s and 1960s prototypes look compared with the Modern buildings they were photographed in front of. The lag might be twenty or thirty or forty years. We’ve seen post-modern (retro) cars like the New Mini, New Beetle, 2001 Thunderbird, all of Ford’s PAG Jaguars, Chrysler PT Cruiser) since the late ’90s, lagging well behind that trend in architecture. If this theory holds, then there will be a time for cars influenced* by the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. Bring them on!
* I haven’t been this moved by a concept car since the BMW Gina. Anyone else?
The Inception concept passed us by at DTW, to some extent. It deserves a closer look.
That concept car is disturbing.
An appropriate reaction, anticipating a stimulating discussion.
No mention or photos of a postwar car produced in the tens of thousands, with a single-prop style front end, and chrome blades on either side of the prop’s center nosecone. One of the body styles included a 4-piece wrap around “cockpit” rear window. I’m of course referring to the 1950 & 1951 Studebaker, and the Starlight Coupe.
I bought my first Starlight Coupe in 1969 while still in high school, it was a dark blue 1950 Commander with overdrive and hill holder. Cost me $100 and I drove it home. Since then I’ve owned a 1951 Commander Starlight with the new V8 and automatic, and a couple of 1950 & 51 Champion Regal Deluxe Starlights. [Plus a couple of regular Champion 2 and 4 door sedans.]
Another wonderful topic and thread. A couple of points regarding the aircraft references:
– One reason the Constellation was so special to look at – and expensive to build – is that it used different shape bulkheads, making the shape very different to the uniform tube section of contemporary planes. No wonder it looks so graceful (the new Citroen Ami probably sits at the other end – identical doors and front/tail parts!).
– I am pretty sure that the structural issues with the original Comet were not actually because of the squared-off widows, but rather structural weaknesses around other parts of the body – an antenna cut-out in one case, and a bolt-hole in another. That said, I have flown on Soviet jetliners and these were striking in that the windows were perfectly circular like sip portholes, with visible metal rings framing them. A very different view out than on Western jets. While on the subject, a Tupolev I flew had doors that opened inwards – again unusual compared with Western design. The idea being that the higher pressure inside the plane maintains the seal between the door and the fuselage. A simple solution – but one that possibly uses more interior (revenue) space, I suppose.