May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Brilliant colors, dashing form, and lots of chrome: that, as any American car manufacturer knew in the late 1950s, was what the public wanted, and in an age when more was better and most was best, it stood to reason that the grandest (and largest) of automobiles must also be the flashiest. The roads were open, the interstate network was growing, the suburbs were expanding, and in that lavish and somewhat naive world, a Cadillac was the reward of success.
The 1958 convertible on the opposite page, in fact, says it all. Sculpted by General Motors’ tremendously influential designer Harley Earl, it embodied his fascination with the wartime twin-boom Lockheed P-38. The fins at the rear, the wraparound windshield, the instrument panel—all was supposed to make the driver feel like a pilot. Indeed, the fin itself was the special mark of the Cadillac, the design element that at first differentiated it from all other General Motors cars, but then it turned out to be so popular that slowly it made its way throughout GM and the whole automotive industry.
Looks meant a great deal, but the rest also mattered. The V-8 engine represented a new standard of automotive achievement. This compact, lightweight (seven hundred pounds dry), and silent six-liter engine developed 325 gross horsepower and could push the car effortlessly to speeds of one hundred miles per hour. That was combined with the exceptionally smooth and efficient automatic Hydra-Matic transmission, while air conditioning—still a thrilling novelty—was available on sedans and coupes, and the convertible boasted an automatically raised and lowered top.
All the chrome, the new dual headlights, and the technical innovations did not come cheap. The Cadillac Eldorado Brougham hardtop sedan listed at thirteen thousand dollars (about fifty-two thousand 1988 dollars, a huge sum for an American 1958 car), more than double the price of the standard model, but that was all right. Here was achievement, visible spending on a large scale, and the buyers wanted everyone to know it, so the fin prospered. From an odd-looking little bump over the fender in the mid-fifties, fins grew and grew until in 1958 they were as conspicuous as those to be seen on the new jet planes. Outlined in chrome, sprouting from chrome-wrapped brake and backup lights, the fins adorning Cadillacs looked, by 1959, as if they had developed a life of their own. Immensely high, and made to look even larger by the sloping line of the trunk, they erupted in the middle with a pair of pointed tail-lights that emphasized their already spectacular thrust. At a time when technological progress was still thought to be progress itself, the Cadillac was less a car than an early-model rocket ship made for the American highway.
These immensely comfortable, powerful cars were not inexpensive to run, however. They consumed a great deal of gas and oil, but in an era when natural resources seemed inexhaustible and were, in fact, cheap, it hardly seemed to matter, especially since the automobile, and all that went with it, was deeply felt as a symbol of prosperity. Year by year more cars were produced, more miles of superhighway were built, more drive-in conveniences were invented. Diners remind us of the thirties, but the fifties were the time of the carhop, meals on trays, drive-in movies, drive-in banks. As thousands of housing developments sprouted across the country, all far away from shops and public transportation, cars became more necessary than ever. But they were also much more than that: they were instant and visible glamour—and no one could mistake or ignore a Cadillac’s fins.
Then, too, their difference was especially prized in an age of uniformity. When all those hundreds of thousands of new ranch houses looked the same, when all businessmen wore their hair short and their suits gray, the mass-produced automobile was, paradoxically, an expression of individuality. Bright, shiny colors, lots and lots of chrome, endless options—all these inventions of the designers in Detroit became a way for customers to affirm themselves, and the manufacturers knew it. “You can design a car,” Harley Earl said, “so that every time you get in it, it’s a relief—you have a little vacation for a while.”
What came to matter most was the eagerly awaited yearly styling change, because candy-colored bodywork and lots of chrome sold cars. In the years ahead, less and less attention would be paid to technological innovations and, finally, to the quality of manufacture itself. But none of this seemed to matter as long as this year’s fin sold the car, as long as last year’s fin looked shamefully out of fashion.
Automobiles—and the Cadillac—of course, are still status symbols, but in the late fifties these vast, gently swaying dreamboats were more than that: they were the visible sign that this was the American century. Like other such signs, their meaning has changed in retrospect. What was seen as a mark of dominion now reads as a poignant appeal to our vanity. But for all that, the 1958 Cadillac retains its place in a permanent corner of the American psyche.