Cadillac's hallmark tailfin design is the crowning glory on this 1948 Cadillac Series 61 coupe fastback.

1948 Cadillac

Cadillac for 1948 ignited a styling cue that would come to symbolize post-war American automotive exuberance and, by extension, the post-war optimism and confidence of America itself. Call 1948 "The Year of the Tailfin."

Before World War II, designers Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Franklin Q. Hershey, and Art Ross had glimpsed the then-secret Lockheed P-38 "Lightning" pursuit fighter aircraft.

During the war, a skeleton crew of GM designers played with ideas for postwar styling inspired by some of this airplane's design elements: pontoon front fenders, pointed nose, cockpitlike curved windshields -- and tailfins.

This influence would also be seen at other GM divisions. Olds, for example, adopted the P-38's engine air-scoop motif for the headlamp bezels on its 1949 "Futuramic" models. But the fin had the most lasting impact. As Mitchell later said: "From a design standpoint, the fins gave definition to the rear of the car for the first time. They made the back end as interesting as the front, and established a longstanding Cadillac-styling hallmark."

Tailfins were the crowning touch for Cadillac's masterful 1948 design, which was executed by a small team working under Hershey at his farm in suburban Detroit. The traditional Cadillac grille became more aggressive via larger eggcrates, complemented by a more-shapely hood. Roof and fenderlines were curvaceously beautiful from every angle.

Inside was a new dashboard dominated by a huge "drum" housing gauges and controls. This lasted only a year, however, as it was complex and costly to produce. The '49s used a simpler instrument board that echoed the grille shape, a theme that would persist for the next eight years.

Models, body styles, and wheelbases stood pat for '48, though Series 75s wouldn't get their own redesign until model-year 1950 (low production precluded early amortization of their prewar dies).

After years of research and development, Cadillac introduced two dramatic changes in 1949. We'll discuss these next.

For more infomation on Cadillac, see:

  • Cadillac: Learn the history of America's premier luxury car, from 1930s classics to today's newest Cadillac models.
  • Consumer Guide New Car Reviews and Prices: Road test results, photos, specifications, and prices for 2007 Cadillacs and hundreds of other new cars, trucks, minivans, and SUVs.
  • 1930-1939 Cadillac: Cadillac asserts its luxury leadership with magnificent V-16 and V-12 models that were among the greatest cars of an era of great cars.
  • 1950-1959 Cadillac: Cadillac symbolizes the optimism of a swaggering America with soaring tailfins and Elvis-era glamour.