Car Show Classics: A Celebration of GM’s ’59 Models–Bats and Deltas, but No 88s

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After nearly 60 years with no definitive aesthetic consensus on GM’s ’59 models, it might be time to accept them at face value.  They were wild but derivative, somewhat tasteless but awe-inspiring, products of their time but timeless (especially the Cadillac).  About as soon as they arrived, public tastes shifted from Chrysler’s “Forward Look” heights to the European elegance of the ’61 Continental.  It’s tough to judge the ’59s fairly, but it doesn’t hurt to take a cataloging binary stroll.

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Perhaps surprisingly, the Buick, with its delta wing shaped fins, was the cornerstone of the 1959 GM lineup. According to Lamm and Holls’ A Century of Automotive Style, the front doors of all ’59s were based on the Buick’s, perhaps due to some latent Harlow Curtice Buick-loving influence.  Even when he was the president of General Motors, he drove Buicks (his 1957 Super is sometimes on display at the Buick Gallery at the Sloan Museum in Flint).  Of course, Buick’s sales suffered miserably starting in 1957, when one could argue that Harley Earl lost his muse to some extent.

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The 1959 models, however, weren’t really representative of Harley Earl’s design ideology, as his underlings ran point on their genesis.  And although it represented a new direction for the corporation, it may be a suspension of disbelief to call this Electra four-door hardtop “clean,” with its tilted quad headlamps, ample chrome, and fascinating wraparound rear window.  Heck, it even has fins in the front.  It is, however, easy to see where Harley Earl’s mutinous rogues admittedly got their influence.

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Long, low, and finned, the ’57 Chrysler products like this DeSoto were freely cribbed for GM’s more angular ’59s. Virgil Exner was very proud of swooping in to steal the styling crown from GM, even if it was only for a couple of years.  Everyone’s heard the story of how Chrysler just “happened” to leave their yet to be introduced ’57 models in a fenced in parking lot on Mound Road, in plain sight of anybody.  Well, anybody happened to include most of GM’s design team over the course of the day.  Harley Earl was overseas at the time, and the troops rebelled against the swell, starting with a clean sheet of paper, and basically aping the Forward Look in a GM kind of way.

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Exner, of course, was not the Warren Tech Center’s only inspiration.  Harley Earl, like many stylists, freely stole cues from airplanes, lifting the ’48 Cadillac’s fins from the fantastic P-38 Lightning.  As 1959 was in the midst of the “jet age,” however, the fins on this LeSabre two-door sedan were based on modern jets.

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This Convair F-106 “Delta Dart” tells you all you need to know about Buick’s inspiration for its fins: many high speed supersonic aircraft used the delta wing for aeronautic reasons that are clearer to aerodynamicists than they are to me.  Lockheed’s ludicrously awesome “Blackbird” used them, so they obviously worked well at ludicrously high speeds.

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The Buick’s delta wings harmonized with a parallel piece of stainless trim that climbed (like an airplane?) onto the front fenders, where it flared out to create another fin.  The look is dramatic, even on this uncommon station wagon. The Buick was obviously aircraft (and Exner) inspired, yet somehow less garish than the ’58 models, which are perhaps even more polarizing than the ’59s.

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It certainly doesn’t take a stylist to see that the ’58 was centered in the early 1950s rotundity that Exner’s Chryslers had made passe.  The ’58 was all chrome and curves where the ’59 looked like it was ready to take some reconnaissance photographs.  To put it mildly, there are very few on the fence regarding either model.

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Instead of looking to the future, the ’58 looked to the past for inspiration, having more in common with my ’53 Special than it did the ’59 models.  And as much as I love my ’53 (and words cannot express it), it certainly wouldn’t have sold well as a 1959 model.  As Buick’s fortunes waned and Ford crowded Chevy’s now classic ’57 models on the sales charts, Earl seemed to retrogress to an earlier, more successful time, but most argued that the ’58 models weren’t the answer.  Similarly, many would argue that the ’59 swung the pendulum in the other direction too far, too quickly.

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General Motors’ styling revolution was obviously not a Buick-only event.  In fact, at the bottom of Alfred Sloan’s hierarchy was my favorite ’59 by far, the basic two-door Biscayne, whose batwing tailfins and cats’ eye taillamps are often blamed for a too-close sales race with 1959’s conservative Fords.  Just as the clean ’57 Ford sold with uncharacteristic zeal compared to a third-year restyle on the Tri-Five Chevy, the ’59 was a seemingly sane alternative to a Chevy that made earlier models look pretty tame.

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In fact, the Ford was so restrained that it maintained just a whisper of a tailfin, a decision that Ford would reverse for the more Chevy-like 1960 models, models that were a decided failure in the marketplace.  The financial fallout from the ’60 Fords resulted in a return to form with the conservative ’61 models.  Of course, by this time, Chevy had also dialed back the crazy.  This Country Squire is probably the prototypical American station wagon; it’s certainly a cleaner design, if not quite as exciting as the Chevy.

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As much as I’d like a ’59 Country Squire, Ford’s basic Customs don’t excite me like Biscaynes do.  Fins notwithstanding, I find this to be the cleanest of the ’59 GM offerings, with a roof that seems more proportioned to the body than a similar hardtop Impala’s.  This car, with blackwall tires and a 348, might be one of my favorite cars of the 1950s; I once had a dream that I owned one, and that usually does not bode well for my wallet.

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Just up the ladder from the Chevrolet, but with a look all its own, was the full-size Pontiac line, topped by this Bonneville hardtop.  Compared to the first Biscayne picture above, the wide-track stance of the Bonneville is obvious, and one could say this car sparked Pontiac’s 1960s popularity.  Its split grille and ironing board hood motif became styling staples for decades, much like the earlier “Silver Streaks” had been.  I wrote up a Catalina in some detail here.

Its significance transcends GM’s styling upheaval, as it wrought the “Wide Track” advertising campaign that Pontiac used for, well, ever.

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None of these GM divisions or their competitors, however, created an all-time icon: only Cadillac did.  Its towering fins have been subjects of songs, essays, postage stamps, and cheesy coffee table picture books.  They’re the cliched symbol of American excess, for good or for bad.

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Garish?  Definitely, but there may not have ever been a limousine that looked badder (in a good way) pulling up to a movie premiere, the United Nations, or a wedding than the ’59 Cadillac Series 75.  It’s almost shocking in its over-the-topness.  Few images distill the hubris of Cold War America like a ’59 Cadillac.  In a wild orgy of design oneupmanship, the Cadillac almost assured that 1959 was an end of an era.  In one year, GM had caught and surpassed Exner, and then seemed to wonder why they tried.  It’s like getting what you wanted and then realizing that it wasn’t what you wanted at all.

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Two years later, the teutonic, Scandinavianally clean ’61 Continental would set the mark for American classiness. It had no fins, little chrome, and it oozed modernity.  It was perhaps the first car that screamed, no, elegantly uttered, “I’m from the 1960s.”  But that was all two years from 1959.

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In 1960, all GMs were just a bit more restrained, and never again would GM create something quite as outlandish as the ’59 Cadillac, and never again would their entire lineup take such a stylistic chance.  Instead, the engineering department took its turn playing fast and loose with the rules through such mediums as the Corvair, the rope-drive Tempest, and the aluminum V8, and that got them nowhere insofar as sales or lasting engineering building blocks were concerned.  In fact, the ’59 designs and the rampant technical innovation that immediately followed could be seen as GM’s last great achievements, the end of an era of risk-taking.  And while the 1959s were not quite the sales coup that GM may have hoped for, we’re still talking about them and taking pictures of them today, and that’s something.

Author’s note: You may have noticed that there are no Oldsmobiles in this retrospective.  They’re hiding somewhere in my picture database, I’m sure, but they are not easily found.  Feel free to add your own.