Although visitors would be hard-pressed to find shark fins in our museum's displays, there is one kind of fin (or, at least, part of a fin) that they can find in our new business history exhibition—this taillight assembly for a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz.
This association was no accident. Franklin Quick Hershey, the lead designer on the team behind the fins, was inspired to add them after visiting an airfield during World War II and spotting a P-38 Lightning fighter plane. General Motors's chief designer, Harley Earl, initially balked at the fins and demanded that Hershey remove them, only relenting when other parts of the company came to Hershey's support. Fortunately for Cadillac, the tail fins proved amazingly popular. In the decade that followed, tail fins became a signature feature of the company's lineup. Not wanting to be left out, other auto manufacturers added tail fins to their own cars, and soon the fin became a visual motif anyone could spot cruising the nation's roadways.
Design obsolescence was hardly a new strategy for automakers. Cadillac's parent company, General Motors (GM), had used a similar technique decades before to jumpstart consumer demand and vault past the nation's then dominant automaker, the Ford Motor Company. Ford had risen to prominence in the automobile market by providing consumers the reliable, low-cost Model T, and at the start of the 1920s Ford's Model T outsold all of GM's models combined. GM's fortunes changed when, under the direction of Alfred P. Sloan, the company fully embraced the concept of annual style changes. By redefining every year's fleet with new colors, shapes, and amenities (and occasionally a few technological improvements), the upstart automaker was able to convince customers to trade in their staid Model Ts for a new GM. By 1927 GM's Chevrolet had overtaken the Model T, and design obsolescence had proven itself as a viable strategy for economic success.
Not all Americans welcomed the practice of design obsolescence—a fact that was not lost on Cadillac's rivals. In the late 1950s one of those companies—Volkswagen—differentiated itself from American competitors by highlighting how little its cars' designs changed. One of the company's advertisements from 1959 assured customers that, although the Volkswagen Beetle "changes continually throughout each year . . . none of these changes you merely see. We do not believe in planned obsolescence. We don't change a car for the sake of change . . . . VW owners keep their cars year after year, secure in the knowledge that their used VW is worth almost as much as a new one." Volkswagen's promise seems to have appealed to American consumers; by 1970, Americans had bought over four million of the company's cars.
Ultimately, Cadillac's tail fins were undone by the same forces that brought them into existence. As consumers' tastes changed, the once proud fins receded back into the bodies of Cadillac's sedans. Today, tail fins live on as a symbol of a distinctive era in American life and a reminder of the central place of design in business history.
Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition. He has also blogged about the history of one of our favorite board games.