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How the Cadillac got its Fins

In his pocket sized book "How the Cadillac Got Its Fins", Jack Mingo tells a number of great stories about product innovations. In this article, we’ve adapted his title story to describe the growth of style over substance in the auto industry in the 1950s.

The 1950's

The 1930’s had seen a nation struggle through the Depression. The 1940’s saw the world at war. The 1950’s were now a time for letting loose. The economy was booming, driven by wartime efficiencies and a flood of new consumer goods like televisions, refrigerators, dishwashers, hi-fi and houses in the suburbs.

The car industry had also prospered and in the early 1950’s it seemed that almost every family that could afford a new car had bought one. For the executives of the car companies business had grown substantially.

However, sales figures in the mid 1950’s had begun to flatten and then decline. Since so many people had bought new cars and they hadn’t had time to wear out, why would they need to buy another car?

Dynamic Obsolescence

The chief General Motors car designer Harley Earl had the answer. He called it "dynamic obsolescence" and it was intended to stimulate the demand for motor cars. More specifically, it was intended to create a reason for consumers to buy a new car every year.

As General Motors president Charles Kettering suggested, "The simplest way to assure sales is to keep changing the product – the market for new things is indefinitely elastic. One of the fundamental purposes of advertising, styling and research is to foster a healthy dissatisfaction."

In other words, people would buy a new car each year, not because the old one didn’t work, but because the old one was unfashionable or ‘out of style’. In partnership with the burgeoning world of Madison Avenue and the advertising industry, this idea was a dream come true.

Opportunity Cost

The idea of ‘opportunity cost’ says that if you spend your resources on one item, it costs you opportunities elsewhere.

Given the new focus of motor car design on cosmetic appearances, something had to give. Mingo suggests the "only real engineering advance in the 1950’s, the high-compression engine, was developed because it gave cars enough extra power to allow designers to pile on even more accessories, more weight and lots of extra metal at both ends."

Simply put, the designers transferred their resources from engineering-led enhancements to styling and the appearance of the car.

'Look Fast Whilst Going Slow'

Harley Earl was a key player is this shift in thinking. Not surprisingly, he was recruited to General Motors from Hollywood. He had been customizing cars for movie stars and was known for making cars ‘look fast whilst going slow’. His strategy included: replacing the boxy forms with sleek curves and angles; and making the cars longer and lower.


Earl also had an interest in airplanes and often hung around airfields.

In 1948, he incorporated a small, rounded fin into the design of a Cadillac, borrowed from the design of an experimental war plane.

The reaction was mixed. Earl was not perturbed, he reasoned that with "enough time and advertising, consumers would not only get used to them, but actually begin seeing them as a mark of status and luxury."

Gradually, the fins got bigger.

In the early 1950’s jet airplanes began to capture the public’s imagination. Earl was ready to take the Cadillac one step further. Having seen a photograph of a Douglas F-4D Skyray (which held the world speed record briefly in 1953), Earl instructed his designers to make the new Cadillacs "angular like jets and rockets, …no longer rounded like locomotives and ships".

The fins continued to grow in size each year, they spread to other GM models and as Earl predicted, they did become a symbol of status and luxury. Other car companies joined the race to have the highest and widest fins on the rear-end of their cars.

Harley Earl was clear about his design intentions, he would do whatever it took to sell more cars.

The Cost

By 1959, the fins had peaked and in the early 1960’s they disappeared from cars.

Whilst they had served the car companies in the short term to sell more cars they had cost the consumer considerably.

The average family car was now a foot and half (45cm) longer and half a ton heavier. Gas mileage had shrunk from 20 miles per gallon to only 12. Safety, comfort, pollution, efficiency and price were all effected in the push to sell more cars.


Adapted from: Jack Mingo, "How the Cadillac Got Its Fins", Harper Business, New York, 1994, Pages 21-25.

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