Picture the 1957 models sold by the Big Three automakers. What do they all have in common? If you said “fins” you have concisely summarized the contents of William Knoedelseder’s latest book. The 1957 Cadillac’s shark-like fins could be lethal if the car was rear-ended; the tailfins of a DeSoto stood about as tall as the vehicle’s roofline; and the fins of the 1957 Ford made it identifiable from 50 yards away. The ‘57 Chevy convertible has been used as part of the mise en scène in films for decades to establish that the screenplay takes place in the 50s.
“Fins” provides a thorough biography of Harley Earl, the college dropout, who practically created the profession of automobile styling. He introduced color and design into the previously all black, rigid look of automobiles in 1920s Detroit. Originally, motorcars consisted of an engine mounted to a frame on wheels. The basic chassis was then sent to a coach engineer who added the body. Earl had a far different vision of automobiles and conjured up compelling designs, featuring slanted windshields, fancy wheels and two-tone paint schemes.
After learning design skills in his father’s Michigan carriage shop, the young entrepreneur crossed the Great Plains to Hollywood where he built sleek automobile bodies for the movie studios. By 1926, when news of his astounding success in the movie business reached the Motor City, General Motors hired him to design cars that would compete with the ever-present Model T Fords. His design leadership eventually built GM into becoming the most inventive, lucrative and powerful post-World War II company in the world.
The General Motors engineers heckled Harley at first, calling him “Hollywood Harley” and naming his styling department the “beauty parlor.” But their attempts to dissuade this visionary from conjuring up unique car designs year after year failed.
Harley’s 6’5” stature, “hair-trigger temper” and strong will helped to silence his detractors. When Harley’s sleek, moderately priced LaSalle became a big hit and huge moneymaker, the jeering workers backed off and gave him the respect he deserved. The success of his gleaming chrome dream machines powered General Motors past The Ford Motor Company making GM Number One in the auto industry for the next 50 years.
“Fins” elegantly chronicles the birth and rise of the American auto industry and assesses the influence of the automobile on the United States’ economy and culture. It traces the evolution of transportation from the horse and buggy days to the 1950s when the cars that sported Harley’s fins were depicted as “ebullient expressions of devil-may-care-ness, the hoisting of the flag to honor the end of the war and hope of better days to come— outrageous, impractical and splendid.”
Knoedelseder knows the history of cars. His book is informative as well as entertaining and especially timely as we transition to a new auto era of driverless vehicles.