Did Sputnik Kill The Tailfin?
"With seams on our nylons and fins on our cars, we dreamed of the future and looked to the stars."
So went a line in a poem composed on the occasion of the first Sputnikfest celebration.
So whatever happened to tailfins on cars? Several sources speculate that tailfins on cars where a casualty of Russia's Sputnik program. While the "nifty fifties" were "a decade of confidence about economic abundance, American power, and the potential of science and technology" they were followed by the turbulent sixties "a period of rising political and social tensions, when it became clear that both American power overseas and the ability of science to solve problems had definite limits." (quoted from "Lesson 25: The Impact of the Cold War on Washington, the 1962 World's Fair")
An article from Hemmings Daily titled "Sputnik and the Death of the Tailfin" describes car design of the 1950's this way: "towering tailfins and rocket-engine inspired taillamps; futuristic design was all the rage and chrome was everywhere." Our cars expressed our feelings about the future. Space was a place man was sure to be exploring - soon. And the men doing the exploring would be Americans.
Then came "Red Monday" and the "beep-beep-beep" heard around the world - literally ... around the world. The Hemmings article describes this as a "sobering" event for America. "Space was no longer a whimsical thing of people’s imaginations. Space was real and we were losing."
The extravagance of finned car design, which found its apex in the 1959 GM Firebird III (a car that never did make it to market as a production vehicle) gave way to more conservative and "sober" car design.
Hemmings says it is no coincidence that "pretty much every single new 1960 model year car featured either significantly smaller tailfins or none at all."
Make plans to visit Manitowoc, Wisconsin this year on September 6 for Sputnikfest. Nothing "sobering" at all about this "extravagant" event. At Sputnikfest space is still a "whimsical thing." Indulge your imagination. Celebrate the past. Dream of the future and look to the stars. And this year - create a cardboard Sputnik spaceship car for the First Annual Cardboard Spaceship Downhill Derby. Don't forget to put tailfins on it!