Fin-tastic Fun and Excess

CA Auto Museum revs up for a new exhibit showing off flashy fins of Atomic Age cars
CA Auto Museum

Think of the late 1950s, think about cars, think about excess, about fun—and you're thinking about fins.

Now you can revel in them in all their glory while contemplating their deeper meaning, at 'Flash & Flair' at the California Automobile Museum.

The exhibit at the Sacramento museum runs February 14 through June 7, and is subtitled 'The Atomic '50s and '60s.' Besides cars there will be TV commercials featuring cars with big fins and an interactive art project, designed by local artist Chelsea Lane, that will allow visitors to create images of their own finny cars using magnetized drawings of car parts.

"We knew we wanted to do an exhibit with fins, but it's such a broad topic we knew we had to have a focus," says the museum's curator, Carly Starr. "So we decided to focus on the most iconic fins from that era, and not just on fins but the whole style of the time, the colors that were characteristic, the chief types of chrome."

CA Auto Museum
1961 Cadillac convertible. Photo: CA Auto Museum.
CA Auto Museum
1959 Chevy convertible. Photo: Guillermo Velez.
CA Auto Museum
1957 Chrysler Imperial. Photo: Henry Hopkins.

"The first fins were in 1948 and they came directly from aviation," Starr says, noting that later fins took inspiration from rockets. But inspiration came as well from the general zeitgeist.

"People were just so caught up in postwar expansion. Sputnik was happening. Everybody wanted to beat the Russians in aviation, with rockets going into space. The cars were influenced by that," she says.

"The hood ornaments were very often shaped like airplanes or jets," Starr says. "Oldsmobile had an ornament of the Western Hemisphere on the car. And cars were so big. There was so much space. Highways were being built. Cars could be as big as they wanted to be. The bigger the better."

Ron Vogel, of Davis, a volunteer at the museum, writes on the museum's website: "Cadillac under General Motors seems to get the credit for the earliest fin in its 1948 model. Originally, they were referred to as 'fishtails,' and remained in the same basic configuration for some models through 1956. Cadillac also had what was considered to be the tallest fin in 1959 at 40 inches tall!"

Asked about her favorite car that will be exhibited, Starr hesitates—she hasn't seen them all, for one. Then she suggests, "the beautiful Edsel convertible. It had an extreme front-end style. But it would be hard to pick a favorite. I don't know if beautiful is the right word for it."

"By the mid-1960s you saw no fins," she says, noting of the cars with the largest fins, "It's hard to imagine driving with these fins. They create so many blind spots. And they would be so hard to park."

The exhibit features only 13 cars, each a beauty, and each from a Sacramento Valley or Bay Area collector. Why so few?

"Because the cars are so big!" Starr says. Each will be displayed in a roomy fashion to offer multiple views. For more, click here.